At 4 p.m. on 25 July 1718 the lookouts on HMS Rose sighted the eastern end of the island of New Providence. Captain Whitney had been ordered by Commodore Chamberlain to go ahead of the squadron and lead the way from the outer island of Eleuthera, past Harbour Island and the off-lying reefs, to Nassau. The 20-gun warship made good progress in a strong breeze and by 6 p.m. she was approaching the harbour entrance. The pilot guided her through the channel until she was able to drop anchor in three to four fathoms. Ahead was a long, narrow stretch of water with Hog Island on one side and the derelict waterfront of Nassau on the other side, the only prominent landmark being the crumbling walls and bastions of the fort. Thirty or forty merchant vessels of various nationalities were at anchor in the channel or were lying half-submerged in the shallows, their scorched black timbers indicating that they had been set on fire before sinking.1 Several of the vessels at anchor were stripped of their fittings and some were missing masts, bowsprits and rigging. There were a few visiting trading ships and brigs but most in evidence were the pirate sloops – powerful-looking vessels in good order and well armed with carriage guns and swivel guns.
The largest vessel in the anchorage was a French-built merchantman of 22 or 24 guns which was flying the St George’s flag of England at her maintopmast head. To the surprise of Captain Whitney and his crew she fired three shots at the Rose. Whitney lowered a boat and sent his first lieutenant across to know the reason for this hostile action. The lieutenant discovered that the captain of the ship was the pirate Charles Vane. Most of his crew appeared to be drunk and when Vane was asked why he had opened fire ‘his answer was, he would use his utmost endeavour to burn us, and all the vessels in the harbour that night’.2
At around 7 p.m. the Shark, the Buck and the transport ship Willing Mind negotiated the harbour entrance and anchored near the Rose. The larger ships Delicia and HMS Milford remained outside until they could get a pilot to guide them in. That evening Charles Vane made his preparations. He shifted his men and valuables into two shallow-draft vessels and loaded the guns of his French prize with double shot and partridge shot. At midnight he set the ship on fire and towed her towards the new arrivals. All wooden ships were extremely vulnerable to attack by fireships. Naval ships with their magazines loaded with barrels of gunpowder were particularly vulnerable, but what made the situation at Nassau even more dangerous was the narrowness of the channel and the shallows on either side. Fortunately the British sailors were alert. As the flaming ship bore down on them, they hacked through their anchor cables, set their topsails and managed to escape out of the harbour without running aground.
The next morning the ships made their way back into the harbour, all except the Milford and Delicia. A local pilot had come aboard the Milford at 6 a.m. but he mistook the height of the tide and as they approached the entrance both ships ran aground on the harbour bar, where they remained for the next two hours. By the time they got into the harbour Vane had set sail with all his men in a schooner and a sloop of 10 guns. With their shallow draft they were able to escape out of the confined channel at the eastern end of the harbour. By the time the sloop Buck and another sloop had been despatched to track him down, Vane was on his way. ‘When he perceived our sloops, he took down his St George’s flag, and hoisted a black flag, which is their signal to intimate that they will neither give or take quarter.’3 The sloops followed Vane out to sea but they had to abandon the chase, ‘finding he out-sailed them two foot to their one’.
During the afternoon the Milford and the Delicia were anchored in the deeper part of the channel not far from the fort. Officers were sent ashore to meet the local inhabitants and assess the situation. The captain of the Shark sent a boat with some men to locate and recover the anchor, which they had cut loose during the night.
The next day, Sunday 27 July, was cloudy with rain early in the morning and a fresh breeze tugging at the flags and rattling the rigging of the anchored ships. At 10 a.m. Captain Woodes Rogers, now His Excellency Woodes Rogers, Esquire, Governor, Captain-General and Vice-Admiral of the Bahama Islands, prepared to go ashore. Accompanied by Commodore Chamberlain and the men he had brought with him to assist him in governing the islands, he was rowed across the harbour in the longboat of the Delicia. As the boat passed each of the warships he was greeted with an eleven-gun salute. By the time he stepped ashore a large crowd had gathered at the water’s edge to greet him. The descriptions of his reception vary. Rogers himself simply wrote, ‘I landed and took possession of the Fort, where I read out his Majesty’s Commission in the presence of my officers, soldiers and about three hundred of the people here, who received me under arms and readily surrendered shewing then many tokens of joy for the re-introduction of government.’ Captain Pomeroy in a letter to the Admiralty confirmed that the Governor was received ‘with a great deal of seeming joy by those that stile themselves marooners’ and reckoned there were no fewer than 400 to 500 people on the island. The most picturesque description of the scene comes from an additional chapter which Captain Johnson added to his General History of the Pyrates. According to his version, Rogers was greeted by Thomas Walker, the chief justice, and by Thomas Taylor, the president of the council, and by the pirate captains Hornigold, Davis, Carter, Burgess, Courant and Clark. The pirates ‘drew up their crews in two lines reaching from the water-side to the Fort, the Governor and other officers marching between them; in the meantime, they being under arms, made a running fire over his head’.4
There are very few references to the appearance of Nassau at this time. Before the Spanish raids there appears to have been a small but thriving community with some farms and plantations, but we have seen that on at least three occasions the Spanish landed on New Providence, burnt down and demolished the houses and plundered the inhabitants so that they fled to the surrounding woods for shelter. The arrival of the pirates and logwood cutters must have led to the construction of some buildings on the waterfront for shipwrights and carpenters and for shops and taverns, but it seems likely that it was little more than a shanty town. We know that the fort was in ruins and that soon after Rogers’ arrival one of the bastions facing the sea fell down, ‘having only a crazy cracked wall in its foundation’. There were certainly a few houses in reasonable condition, including one which would become the Governor’s house, but there was no accommodation for the soldiers, so sails had to be brought ashore from the ships and makeshift shelters constructed within the walls of the fort. The roads and pathways were overgrown with bushes and undergrowth. What would have struck the newcomers more than the derelict condition of the town was the foul stench which came from a vast pile of cow hides. This was blamed on the pirates ‘having sometime before the Governor’s arrival, having brought in great quantities of raw hides which putrefied and infected the air so much that it killed all ye cattle that were on the island, and afterwards infected the inhabitants so that many of the people carried from England died of the same contagion’.5
At this time it was still believed that many diseases were spread by poisonous vapours or miasmas in the air. It was not known that mosquitoes were responsible for spreading malaria and yellow fever or that cholera was a waterborne disease which was transmitted to humans through eating food or drinking water contaminated with the cholera bacteria. The rotting and foul-smelling cow hides were unlikely to have been directly responsible for the sickness which overwhelmed the community but were indicative of dangerously unhygienic conditions which could have led to cholera, the most likely killer in this case. A later report on Rogers noted ‘that he was in danger of intestine commotions, and weakened by contagious diseases soon after his landing, that destroyed above half the best people he brought with him’.6 The logbook of HMS Milford records the death of the surgeon, the master and two crew members within a week of their arrival at Nassau.7 Rogers’ first report to London lists the names of eighty-six soldiers, sailors and passengers who had died after his arrival. It would be the first and most devastating blow to his plans for the reconstruction of the community.
Rogers’ first task was to appoint a Council and officers to help him rule the islands. After making enquiries about the characters of those inhabitants who were not pirates, he held an Assembly on 1 August. Twelve men were appointed to the Council. Six of these were drawn from the people he had brought with him. These included Robert Beauchamp, who was made Secretary General and First Lieutenant of the Independent Company of Soldiers; and Christopher Gale, who was made Chief Justice because he had proved ‘an honest and genteel character’ during his thirteen years as Chief Justice in North Carolina. Six of the councillors were local inhabitants. The next task was to offer the royal pardon to the pirates. Two hundred of these came forward and took the oath of allegiance to King George.
On 5 August a formal council was held at the Governor’s house and a number of practical measures were drawn up and agreed. The first of these was to repair the fort, to mount as many guns as possible and to clear the brushwood and shrubs within gunshot of the fort. Among the other resolutions passed at this and subsequent assemblies were the following: each inhabitant was to be responsible for clearing the ground of the lot they possessed; where there were vacant lots a person could apply to the Secretary’s Office, enter his or her name in a book, and could then ‘build a habitable house according to the present manner of building in this island’; a palisade was to be constructed around the fort and every male aged between eighteen and sixty was to bring along to the fort ten sticks of straight wood nine foot in length for this purpose; every man who understood stone-laying was to assist in the building works; and all male Negroes were to report to the fort at six o’clock every morning for ten days to assist in the speedy repair of the structure.8
A list drawn up on 31 October indicated the items that were urgently needed and not available on the island. At the head of the list were guns: eight twenty-four-pounders and eight eighteen-pounders; 150 small arms with bayonets and 100 pistols. Tools were next on the list: sixty pickaxes, sixty iron spades and ‘a large smiths bellows, anvil and all manner of tools to furnish a shop’.9 And finally a number of workmen were needed: six house carpenters, eight bricklayers and masons with tools, three blacksmiths and twenty able-bodied labourers.
In spite of the sickness decimating the new arrivals, some good work was carried out in the first month or so. Urgent repairs were carried out on the fort, and a smaller fort of eight guns was erected to guard the eastern entrance of the harbour. The inhabitants were formed into three companies of militia and were organised to keep a regular watch at night. Rogers noted, ‘The people did for fourteen days work vigorously, seldom less than two hundred men a day.’10 And on hearing news that Charles Vane had been seen in the vicinity of Green Turtle Key, about 120 miles north of New Providence, with some captured vessels, Rogers commissioned the reformed pirates Captain Hornigold and Captain Cockram to become pirate hunters. They set off in a sloop to track down Vane and report on his movements.
It was perhaps inevitable that the initial enthusiasm which greeted the arrival of Rogers’ expedition would not last. By the end of October Rogers was reporting that 100 of the pirates who had accepted the royal pardon had taken up piracy again. He reckoned they were ‘weary of living under restraint and are either gone to several parts of North America, or engaged themselves on services at sea’.11 The local inhabitants soon returned to their old ways, preferring an idle life to serious labouring. And in spite of Rogers’ entreaties and his warnings about possible attack from the Spanish, the commanders of the naval ships which had acted as his escort abandoned the settlement to its fate. The Milford and the Shark left Nassau on 16 August and headed for New York. The Roseleft four weeks later also bound for New York. Rogers and his people were left with the armed merchantman Delicia to defend the harbour and act as a guardship.
Charles Vane continued to pose a threat. Following his hasty departure from Nassau he had roved around the Bahamas. He had captured two sloops and a brigantine and then headed for South Carolina. According to the Boston News-Letter he had taken eight vessels off the Carolina coast while in command of a brigantine of 12 guns and ninety men.12 He was accompanied by Charles Yeats, who was in a large sloop of 8 guns with a crew of twenty men, but Yeats had then deserted him and sent a message to the Governor of South Carolina that he and his crew wished to surrender and take advantage of the King’s Pardon, ‘which being granted, they all came up and received certificates’.13
On 30 August the large merchant ship Neptune and three other vessels set sail from Carolina bound for London. What happened next was recorded in a long and complicated deposition which John King, the commander of the Neptune, swore before Rogers several months later.14 Four hours out from the American coast the merchant vessels were intercepted by Vane’s brigantine, which came alongside Captain King’s Neptune ‘with a black flag flying, and after having fired several guns, demanded him to strike’.15 Vane put prize crews on board each of the merchantmen and led them to Green Turtle Key. There the pirates careened the brigantine and proceeded to plunder their prizes. The arrival of a sloop with bad news from New Providence prompted the pirates to maroon and attempt to destroy the Neptune by cutting away her masts and rigging and then firing a gun down into her hold.
Meanwhile Hornigold and Cockram had located Vane but had decided that he was too powerful for them to risk an attack. They kept him under observation and when he sailed away they put in an appearance. They told King that they would go back to New Providence and return with more sloops so that they could recover his cargo. Eventually King and his ship and most of his cargo were rescued and brought into Nassau. It was around this time that Vane sent word to Rogers that he intended to visit him and burn his guardship in revenge for the Governor having sent two sloops after him.
This was his final act of defiance. In November his refusal to attack a French warship led his crew to vote him out of his command. John Rackam, his quartermaster, replaced him as commander of the brigantine and sailed away, leaving Vane in a sloop with the remnants of his crew. In the winter or early spring of 1719 Vane ran into a storm and was shipwrecked on a deserted island off the Bay of Honduras. He was later captured, and was hanged in Jamaica.16
Rogers had heard nothing from Hornigold for three weeks. ‘I was afraid he was either taken by Vane or [had] begun his old practice of pirating again which was the general opinion here in his absence.’17 He was therefore delighted when Hornigold returned, bringing with him the sloop which had been trading with Vane at Green Turtle Key. A few weeks later Rogers despatched Hornigold and Cockram on another pirate-hunting expedition and this time they intercepted a pirate sloop off the coast of Exuma, which lay to the south of Nassau. A brief fight took place in which three of the pirates were killed but the remaining ten men were brought back to Nassau and delivered up to the Governor. On 24 December 1718 Rogers despatched the first of his letters to James Craggs the Younger, who was Secretary of State for the South and his main contact in London. In his letter he expressed his full confidence in the behaviour of the two reformed pirate captains. In particular, ‘I am glad of this new proof Capt Hornigold had given the world to wipe off the infamous name he has hitherto been known by, though in the very acts of piracy he committed most people speak well of his generosity.’18
The pirates captured by Hornigold presented Rogers with some problems. The first was to find a suitable place to confine the prisoners because there was no jail on the island and a shortage of soldiers to guard them. This problem was addressed by imprisoning them on board the guardship Delicia out in the harbour. A more serious problem was that Rogers did not believe he had the legal powers to order a trial for piracy. There was also a danger that ‘should any fear be shewn on our part, it might animate several now here, to invite the pirates without to attempt a rescue of these in custody’. Given the number of former pirates around, as well as those who had rejected the royal pardon and were on ships in the vicinity, there was every likelihood that they might combine together to mount a rescue attempt. Rogers was also aware that if he diverted too many soldiers or sailors to act as guards the all-important work on the fortifications would be jeopardised.
A private meeting of Rogers’ senior officers and legal advisers on 28 November 1718 noted that the Government of Carolina had recently executed twenty-two pirates, and decided that Rogers’ instructions and directions as Governor, Captain-General and Vice-Admiral did give him the authority to order a trial. The meeting reached the conclusion that ‘We are entirely of opinion his Majesty will approve of the necessity for the Governor’s judicial proceeding with these pirates, by a trial in the best manner we can according to law; and do verily believe the speediest execution for those who shall be found guilty, will conduce most to the welfare of this Government.’19 The stage was set for an event of high drama which would have repercussions across the Caribbean.