Great Debts and Bills

The hanging of Calico Jack and Charles Vane in Jamaica was another victory for the authorities in the war against the pirates but it was no consolation for Woodes Rogers. He had already requested leave of absence in order to go home ‘to settle the affairs of this neglected colony’.1 On 26 November 1720 he authorised his Council to send a letter to Secretary Craggs in London. It is a letter which reveals Rogers to be so worn down by his responsibilities and his financial concerns that his health has been affected. Craggs was informed that the Governor’s bills were being refused everywhere; that he had sacrificed his utmost fortune to maintain the garrison, and ‘the trouble which our hardships has given Governor Rogers has occasioned in him a great decay of health, which has induced him to go for South Carolina with hopes to recover himself’.2 After appointing William Fairfax as Deputy Governor to take charge of the government of the Bahamas in his absence, Rogers embarked on a ship for South Carolina and arrived in Charleston on 6 December.

At this stage in its development Charleston (still called Charles Town in honour of King Charles II) was a relatively small settlement at the junction of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. It had been established by English settlers as recently as 1670 and in its early years was under constant threat of attack by the French and Spanish as well as by marauding tribes of Native Americans. The fortifications surrounding the town looked more impressive than they were and its chief defence was its position. Situated on a peninsula between two rivers, it was surrounded by water on three sides; and the entrance to the spacious harbour was notoriously difficult to navigate because it was protected by an extensive harbour bar and shifting shoals. By the time of Blackbeard’s raid in 1718 Charleston had become a thriving port, with a rapidly growing export trade in rice, indigo, timber and hides. It would be some years before the town developed the streets of elegant Georgian buildings for which it is well known today, but as Rogers sailed into the harbour he would have been impressed by the number and variety of ships lying at anchor. Among them was HMS Flamborough. Rogers had tried to prevent her commander, Captain John Hildesley, from leaving Nassau in the aftermath of the abortive Spanish invasion but had failed to do so. Hildesley had received an urgent request from South Carolina to take his warship there. He had left Nassau on 1 May 1720 and arrived at Charleston two weeks later.

If he was hoping for a rest from the troubles of the Bahamas, Rogers was disappointed. In the interval between the departure of Governor Robert Johnson and the arrival of the next Governor there was considerable unrest in the town. Captain Hildesley attempted to take charge but he was an abrasive character and only made things worse. He quarrelled with Colonel Rhett, the man who had fought and captured Stede Bonnet. He openly criticised the way the place was being run, and he caused a riot on the waterfront when he ordered his lieutenant to seize the chief mate of the merchant ship Samuel and had him flogged with ‘24 severe lashes on his bare back’. All this and more was reported to Secretary Craggs, who was also told that ‘Governor Rogers of Providence was here for about six weeks and fought a duel with Capt. Hildesley upon some disputes they had at Providence, they were both slightly wounded.’3 A search through the letters of naval captains to the Admiralty has revealed a letter from Hildesley which explains the origins of this duel. Since he is reporting events to his superior officers in London, it is not surprising to find that Hildesley blames Rogers for the disputes that arose between them.

The root of the problem was that Rogers needed warships for the defence of New Providence and believed he had the authority to dictate terms to naval captains. In the words of Hildesley, ‘all men of war which should happen to come into this port were subject to his orders … he did not value the Lords of the Admiralty for his commission was signed by the King’.4 When the Spanish invasion fleet had arrived off Nassau, Hildesley had insisted that all the vessels in the harbour should come under his command, and when he discovered that no watch was being kept on the guardship Delicia he had sent his first lieutenant across to take possession of the ship. This had so annoyed Rogers that he had put Hildesley and his lieutenant under arrest on the Delicia and threatened to imprison the naval captain in the fort. Later, when Hildesley punished a member of the Delicia’s crew for attempting to throw his first lieutenant overboard, Rogers ‘pointed the Fort guns at His Majesty’s ship and encouraged the mob to rise which ye next day assaulted my lieutenant ashore’.5 Rogers was also angry when Hildesley refused to take his warship with two sloops and 300 men to attack Moors Castle, the great fortress which protected the entrance to the harbour of Havana. The disputes led Rogers to challenge Hildesley to a duel with sword and pistol and to appoint a time and place to meet. Hildesley had arrived punctually to meet the challenge but Rogers, ‘wisely considering what would of consequence follow’, had sent his Attorney-General in his place, and the duel had been postponed for another time and another place.

Hildesley also criticised Rogers for ruling the island in a despotic manner. He observed that the island’s Council was ‘obliged to say, write and sign as he directs for his Government is absolute as will appear to all the world when his conduct is called into question’.6 In October of the previous year Captain Whitney, commander of HMS Rose, had called in at New Providence to take in water and he had subsequently informed the Admiralty, ‘I found the Governor complaining for want of help … I observed a general dissatisfaction at the Governor, and believe it had ended to the disadvantage of the Proprietors of the Islands.’7 It may be that Rogers’ despotic and sometimes bullying behaviour was due to the pressures he was under, the isolation of his position and the breakdown in his health, but there does seem to be a pattern to his behaviour when under stress. The observations made by Dr Thomas Dover concerning Rogers’ violent outbursts during the latter stages of the circumnavigation, as well as his treatment of Hildesley and his assault on Captain Wingate Gale, suggest that he was a man with a short fuse and a hot temper.

Writing to Secretary Craggs from Charleston on 20 December, Rogers was able to report that he was now feeling much better, thanks to the sea air during his voyage and the cold weather he experienced on his arrival. He made no mention of his dispute with Captain Hildesley but did express his concern about two matters he had learnt about during his stay at Charleston. The first was his discovery that a new copartnership had been set up for improving the Bahama Islands. He was surprised that he had not been informed of this. The second was more worrying. Some months previously Rogers had sent Lieutenant Robert Beauchamp to England to let people know about the state of the island and its defences. At this critical time in his life Rogers needed friends in London but he now learnt that Beauchamp had been speaking out against him. ‘I hear he has acted to my disadvantage, I pray God forgive him … if what I hear is true he is a most ungrateful man.’8 Beauchamp had come out to the Bahamas with Rogers in 1718 and one of the Governor’s first acts had been to appoint him First Lieutenant of the Independent Company and Secretary General of all the islands.

Rogers did not improve his situation by writing a second letter to Craggs from Charleston in which he announced that it was his intention to return to New Providence and, having put his affairs in order, set out for London at the beginning of April, whether or not he was granted leave to do so. The Lords of Trade and Plantations had ignored Rogers’ numerous requests for assistance but they were not going to ignore the fact that he was intending to leave his post as Governor. It was unfortunate for Rogers that he now lost his principal contact in London. On 16 February 1721 James Craggs died of smallpox. He was succeeded as Secretary for the South by Lord Carteret, an energetic and ambitious young man of thirty. John Carteret had inherited a barony at the age of five, been educated at Westminster School and Oxford and taken his seat in the House of Lords in 1711. He had been one of the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas and served briefly as ambassador to Sweden. He would ensure that the post of Governor of the Bahamas did not remain vacant for long.

Rogers was back in Nassau by the end of January 1721 and in February he sent his third report to the Lords of Trade and Plantations. He reminded them of the problems he had faced on his arrival and his distress at being abandoned by the naval ships. He listed some of the measures taken to safeguard the islands from the Spanish, the costs he had incurred in feeding and clothing the men in the garrison and those of fitting out and manning several vessels to suppress the pirates. ‘By doing all this I have contracted great debts and the bills I drew to defray several of these expenses which ought to have been immediately paid, have been protested …’9 Thanks to his efforts the islands were now secure but it had been at the expense of his health. He was now determined to return to England, by way of Carolina, and would leave the government of the Bahamas in the hands of Mr Fairfax.

On 19 April Lord Carteret wrote to the Council of Trade and Plantations enclosing a petition to the King from the copartners in which they set out their costs and requested further powers and a charter. Carteret explained that further powers were absolutely necessary ‘especially in regard Governor Rogers has signified his intention to leave Providence in April, which may be attended with very fatal consequences, by leaving the islands exposed to the Spaniards or Pyrates’.10 There must have been some urgent consultations in the corridors of power in London because on 12 June Carteret informed their lordships that the King had appointed George Phenney to be Governor of the Bahamas in place of Rogers.

We can only speculate on the reasons behind the decision to terminate Rogers’ appointment. The members of the Council of Trade and Plantations may have lost patience with his failure to increase the trade and prosperity of the islands. His pessimistic reports, his ill health and his absences from his post would not have helped his cause, and nor would the adverse reports on his behaviour from Captain Whitney, Captain Hildesley and Lieutenant Beauchamp. Rogers himself believed that it was his copartners who were responsible for ousting him from the governorship. Several years later he maintained that he arrived back in England in the middle of the year 1721, ‘in a very low state of health, almost worn out, when to his great surprise he found another Governor appointed in his stead, at the instance of his CoPartners’.11

Rogers had been away for three years and he returned to London in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble – the fevered speculation in the shares of the South Sea Company which had been followed by the crash in the company’s shares.12 This had ruined thousands of men and women from all walks of life. The South Sea Company had been set up in 1711 with the twin aims of trading with Spain’s South American colonies and providing a mechanism to finance Britain’s national debt. In 1719 the company had proposed to take on more of the national debt and there had been considerable bribery at court and in Parliament to secure the necessary political backing for this. The fact that King George I, as well as prominent courtiers and politicians, had shares in the company gave the venture an air of respectability. Rumours of the huge profits to be made from the trade with the New World circulated and provoked a speculating frenzy. The price of the company’s stock rose from £130 a share in January 1720 to £1,000 in August. At this point the increasing doubts about the future prospects of the company caused people to start selling. As the value of the stocks began to fall, selling continued at such a pace that, by the end of the year, the share price had dropped to £100.

The repercussions of the crash were widespread. The King lost £56,000 and his physician lost £80,000. Banks and goldsmiths went out of business and hundreds of people became bankrupt. Suicides in London were 40 per cent higher than usual.13 An investigation into the recent operations of the South Sea Company by a House of Commons Committee led to the downfall and disgrace of a number of politicians. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Aislabie, was found guilty of ‘the most notorious, dangerous and infamous corruption’.14 He was expelled from Parliament and sent to the Tower of London. Lord Stanhope, Secretary of State, died after bursting a blood vessel while defending his actions during a debate in the House of Lords. The Postmaster General, James Craggs the Elder, was found to have received £30,000 of stocks which he had not paid for. His son James Craggs the Younger was also implicated – which might explain why Rogers had received no replies to his recent letters. Secretary Craggs died on the very day he was due to give evidence. His death so affected his father that he died a month later, apparently of apoplexy, although it was rumoured that it was suicide.

A few people did benefit from the South Sea Bubble. Among those more cautious investors who sold out before the share prices plummeted were the Duchess of Marlborough and the bookseller and philanthropist Thomas Guy. The Duchess was able to finance the completion of John Vanbrugh’s magnificent Blenheim Palace, which had been commissioned by the nation to honour the military victories of her husband. Thomas Guy, who was already a wealthy man and a governor of St Thomas’s Hospital, used his windfall to found Guy’s Hospital. The man who profited most from the repercussions of the South Sea Bubble was the Whig politician Robert Walpole. Although he had bought shares in the company he had got rid of them at an early stage and so was never under suspicion of corrupt practices. His measures to mitigate the effects of the crash were accepted by Parliament in December 1720 and in April of the following year he became First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In fact, if not in name, he became prime minister and for the next twenty-one years he was the dominant figure in English politics.

News of the turmoil in London had reached Rogers while he was in Charleston, and in his letter of 21 December 1720 to James Craggs he had mentioned ‘my great concern hearing the vast confusion ye fall of stocks has made …’.15 On his return to London he would have found that his own financial problems were put into perspective by the troubles of so many others. Professional people, tradesmen and shopkeepers had lost their houses, businesses and livelihoods. Aristocrats and landed gentry had lost estates which had been in their family for generations. Sir Gilbert Heathcote, former Lord Mayor of London, wrote that he ‘was sorry to see great estates acquired by miscreants, who, twelve months ago, were not fit to be valets to the gentlemen they have ruined’.16

Very little is known about Rogers’ life during the first few years following his return to England. It is certain that he spent some time in a debtor’s prison because one document makes it clear that he was compelled to declare himself bankrupt (for the second time), ‘there being no other method to free him from a prison’.17 A search of the surviving records of Marshalsea Prison, Fleet Prison and King’s Bench and Queen’s Bench Prisons has failed to reveal which one he was in and for how long he was confined.18 Hogarth’s pictures and other sources suggest that life in a debtor’s prison at this period was harder than it was in Dickens’ day, especially if the prisoner had no means of bribing the jailers. However, Daniel Defoe, who was frequently in financial trouble and twice filed for bankruptcy, had survived imprisonment on three occasions without any apparent ill effects. In 1692 he had been imprisoned in Fleet Prison and he had spent several weeks in the more notorious Newgate in 1702 and 1706. For Rogers the conditions could not have been any worse than his more gruelling experiences during his voyage round the world.

The notice of his bankruptcy was posted in the London Gazette of 30 January 1724 and described him as ‘Woods Rogers, of London, Merchant’. This freed him from prison, cancelled his debts and marked the first step in the recovery of his reputation. His cause was much helped at this stage by the publication of Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates. This was first published in London on 14 May that same year. A second edition was published a few months later because ‘the first impression having been received with so much success by the public, occasioned a very earnest demand for a second’. A third edition appeared in 1725 and a fourth and much enlarged edition followed in 1726. The extent of Rogers’ possible contribution to the book will be considered in a later chapter but the numerous passages devoted to his role in the dispersal of the pirates at Nassau placed him in a most favourable light and also reminded the authorities of his previous exploits in the Pacific. His bluff manner and lack of diplomatic skills may have put him at a disadvantage among the politicians, diplomats and civil servants in London but his resilience in the face of setbacks and his persistence in arguing his case began to yield results.

A crucial step forward was a long letter sent to the King on his behalf by eight senior army officers based at Horse Guards in Whitehall. Dated 15 July 1726 and headed ‘The case of Captain Woodes Rogers, late Governor of the Bahama Islands’, this summarised the difficulties he had faced and overcome to clear the pirates out of Nassau and stave off a Spanish invasion. It explained that he had been given no powers to raise money locally as other colonial governors were able to do, and so had had no option but to cover many of the costs himself. The letter noted that he had sunk more than £3,000 of his own money in maintaining the defences of the colony and was now double that sum in debt. He had no way of extricating himself from this situation ‘till at last with the consent of his creditors he received what his CoPartners were pleased to allow him for his share, what was but fifteen hundred pounds, and a bond of five hundred more’. He was obliged to deliver this up to his creditors, ‘who, being fully convinced of the unexampled hardships he endured, left him four hundred pounds out of his money for what he expended to support himself after he came from his Government’.19 The letter concluded by recommending that he be allowed half pay as Captain of Foot from the time he was superseded as Governor. At the end of the letter it was noted that Rogers had received his arrears of pay as Captain of Foot. He was still without a job but at least his debts had been written off and he had some form of income. Later in the year his advice was sought by the Government on the likely route and timing of a Spanish treasure convoy which was due to return to Europe from Panama – further proof of the revival of his fortunes.20

Two more years passed during which we must assume he continued to lobby his friends and supporters. In February 1728 he sent a carefully worded petition to King George II, who had succeeded to the throne a few months previously. He stressed the importance of the Bahamas for the commerce of Britain and humbly prayed that His Majesty would be ‘graciously pleased to restore him to his former station of Governor, and Captain of an Independent Company of these Islands’.21 To coincide with this letter a testimonial on his behalf was sent to the leader of the ruling Whig party, Sir Robert Walpole.22 This bore the signatures of twenty-nine influential names, including Sir Hans Sloane, several prominent London and Bristol merchants and three men who knew at first hand the problems which Rogers had faced during his time in the Caribbean. They were Alexander Spotswood, Benjamin Bennet and Samuel Shute, the former colonial governors of Virginia, Bermuda and Massachusetts. Further support came from Sir Charles Wager, the distinguished and much respected admiral who was MP for Portsmouth. He had made his name while in command of the British fleet in the West Indies and had been one of the copartners behind the venture which had sent Rogers to the Bahamas in 1718. On 10 August he wrote a testimonial for Rogers to pass on to the Duke of Newcastle, who was at Hampton Court in attendance on the King.23

The campaign to reinstate Rogers as Governor of the Bahamas was greatly assisted by the fact that George Phenney, the man who had replaced him in 1721, had been having a difficult time in Nassau. He had begun with the best of intentions. He had supervised the building of a small church – in March 1723 he had sent back to London a drawing of ‘the Church as now building’.24 His Council had passed measures to encourage churchgoing and discourage ‘rash oaths, cursings, execrations, drunkenness, uncleanness or other scandalous actions’. Every soldier was to be properly equipped and officers must train and exercise their men regularly. Phenney had improved the island’s defences by bringing out from England twenty-four eighteen-pounder guns and mounting them in a line to the west of Fort Nassau; he had completed the building of a wooden palisade around the fort; and he had rebuilt two of the fort’s corner bastions. These improvements can be seen on a plan of the fort which he despatched to the Board of Trade in December 1723.25 Unfortunately he failed to maintain the defences and, at the end of his term as Governor, the lieutenant and gunner of the garrison compiled a damning report on the state of the guns, the fort and the various buildings within the walls.26 Like Rogers before him, Phenney found most of the local people to be unproductive, and reluctant to assist him in governing the island; he complained that he was sometimes unable to get enough members of his Council together to form a quorum. His governance was also fatally hampered by his wife, who abused her position by taking charge of much of the trade of the island and setting her own exorbitant prices. She was accused of frequently browbeating juries ‘and insulted even the justice on the bench’. Her high-handed behaviour was reported back to England and did much to undermine Phenney’s position.

On 4 December 1728 the King formally approved a recommendation by the Council of Trade and Plantations that Rogers be appointed Captain General and Governor in Chief of the Bahama Islands. This time he was given the authority to call General Assemblies and was granted an annual income of £400. To mark the final restoration of his fortunes Rogers commissioned a family portrait by the 31-year-old William Hogarth. The artist had already established a reputation with engravings which wickedly satirised contemporary themes and events such as the South Sea Bubble, but he had yet to make his name as a painter. Very few oil paintings can be attributed to him before 1728, so his picture for Rogers is among the first of the conversation pieces which he embarked on around this time.27 The painting is so small and the face of Rogers so obscured by his wig that it is of little use as a likeness, but the picture does reveal his motto which is inscribed on the walls of Fort Nassau behind his seated figure. ‘Dum spiro, spero’ (‘While I breathe, I hope’) is entirely appropriate for a man of such determination. The globe beside Rogers, the pair of dividers in his hand and the distant ship represent his circumnavigation in command of the Duke and Dutchess. Opposite the newly appointed Governor are his son William, who is displaying a map of New Providence, and his daughter Sarah, who has a book in her hand (perhaps intended to be A Cruising Voyage Round the World). Beside her is the family’s spaniel and behind her is a maidservant holding a dish of fruit. Rogers’ wife is conspicuous by her absence.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!