Back to the Bahamas

Seven years later Woodes Rogers was faced with the aftermath of another hurricane when he returned to the Bahamas to take up his role as Governor for the second time. He had left England at the end of May 1729 and arrived in Nassau on 25 August after a stormy crossing of the Atlantic. At first sight the appearance of the harbour and the town was a considerable improvement on the scene which had greeted his squadron of warships and merchantmen back in 1718. This time there was no sign of any pirate ships or burnt-out and plundered hulks. Dominating the waterfront were the ramparts and bastions of Fort Nassau, which, when seen from a distance, appeared to be in good order. Many of the houses had lost their roofs or been badly damaged by the hurricane which had swept across the island three weeks before but rising up behind them was the steeply pitched roof and bell tower of the new church.

On going ashore Rogers soon discovered that conditions on the island were not much better than they had been when he had left the place in 1721. So many people had gone down with ‘an ague and fever’ that the Assembly had not been able to sit for several weeks.1 The island’s defences were in a parlous state. The wooden gun carriages of the fifteen guns in Fort Nassau were so rotten that three of them collapsed when a salute was fired to mark Rogers’ arrival. The carriages of the twenty-four guns brought out from the Tower of London by Phenney had disintegrated, leaving the gun barrels lying uselessly on the ground. The timber guard room and officers’ rooms built by Rogers had been demolished by the recent hurricane, while the magazine, prison and cook room built under the ramparts were so badly decayed that they were unusable, ‘so that it is thought best to fill up under the ramparts and make them solid for a support to the outer wall’.2 The Independent Company, which comprised the garrison and was the island’s only defence force, numbered no more than 110 men including the officers. This might have been sufficient to repel a pirate raid if the guns had been serviceable, but would have had little chance against a serious invasion mounted by France or Spain.

A recent survey of the trade of the islands carried out by George Phenney at the request of London suggested that the island was nearly self-sufficient in food and produce. Local turtles and fruit were bartered for provisions with traders in South Carolina. The natural produce of New Providence was listed as: large sugar canes; the finest cotton in the world; mahogany, cedar and pine suitable for ship building; lignum vitae, brown ebony and various dye woods; a variety of fruits, ‘the pineapples here being the best kind in America’; and hats made by the local women from palm leaves, small quantities of which were exported.3 The reality behind Phenney’s optimistic report was that the Bahamas were languishing far behind Britain’s other West Indian colonies. Only 800 acres of land were under cultivation on New Providence. New settlers had failed to materialise in significant numbers and the population remained tiny. A census carried out in 1731 revealed that the total population of New Providence, Harbour Island and Eleuthera was 1,388. Of the 1,042 people living on New Providence there were 409 black slaves, and the white population consisted of 190 males, 135 females and 308 children.4 This compared with Barbados, which had a population of around 61,000 (16,000 whites and 45,000 blacks) and Jamaica with 62,000 (7,000 whites and 55,000 blacks).5 Both these islands had thriving sugar-cane plantations, with Jamaica exporting 10,249 tons of sugar to Britain in 1725.6 It is no wonder that the Board of Trade took little interest in the reports received from the Bahamas.

Rogers had brought out to Nassau his 22-year-old son William, and also two men he hoped would assist him in governing the islands. John Colebrooke, who was to be appointed Speaker of the new Assembly, was a former merchant with considerable experience of wheeler-dealing in Europe. He was variously described as being ‘of pleasant conversation and good sense’ and ‘a cunning man and perfect master in the art of stock-jobbing’.7 He was accompanied by John White, a long-time associate of his who was shortly to become the islands’ Treasurer and Chief Justice. These two would form an alliance which would seriously undermine Rogers’ authority and make his life a misery.

The day following his arrival Rogers convened a Council meeting at which George Phenney was present. The superseded governor handed over the great seal of the islands and Rogers produced the communion silver and furnishings for the church which he had brought over with him. These were a gift from the King and included a silver chalice, paten, small flagons and an alms dish; a large bible and two prayer books; and a cushion and altar frontal of crimson damask with silk fringes. A month later, on 29 September, the first Assembly was held. It consisted of twenty-four members and included representatives from Eleuthera and Harbour Island. During the next few months various Acts were passed to improve the appearance of Nassau and help the economy of the islands. The public highways were to be cleared and a straight street was to be constructed from east to west in Nassau ‘with a space left in the middle of the town for a square’. Measures were agreed to prevent the stealing of fruit and to stop the destruction of trees whose timber could be used for shipbuilding; the planting of cotton was to be encouraged; cattle were to be restrained from damaging crops and plantations; and an Act was passed ‘for the encouragement of foreigners and strangers settling in these islands’.8

George Phenney, who was keen to divorce his troublesome wife, tried to persuade Rogers to detain her in Nassau while he escaped to England but this came to nothing when she discovered her husband’s plan. After several difficult months the two of them left the island in November and returned to London, where, as Rogers anticipated, they conspired against him. Two years later Phenney moved to Virginia to take up the position of Surveyor General of Customs for the southern part of the American colonies.9

The one positive aspect of Rogers’ second term as Governor was the disappearance of the pirates. When he had first arrived at Nassau in August 1718 the number of pirates operating in the Caribbean and along the eastern shores of North America was between 1,500 and 2,000. This increased to between 1,800 and 2,400 in the years 1719 to 1722 but successful operations against some of the pirate companies had spread them further afield and, as we have seen, several pirate companies, such as those led by Bartholomew Roberts, had shifted their operations to the coast of West Africa. But from 1723 onwards there was a dramatic decline in pirate numbers. By 1724 there were no more than 500 or so pirates prowling around the coasts of the North Atlantic and by 1726 the total had dwindled to less than 200.10 The decline was due to the capture, trial and execution of pirate crews, and the deaths, usually violent, of their most prominent leaders. The historian Peter Earle has noted that, of the 55 pirate captains of the period whose fates are known, 26 were hanged, 6 were killed in action, 4 were drowned in shipwrecks, 4 were shot by their own men, one shot himself, one was set adrift in an open boat, and one retired to a life of poverty in Madagascar. Only 12 of those who surrendered were fortunate enough to live on after the end of their piratical careers.11

The response of the authorities to the pirate companies that were captured had been and continued to be as harsh as it was towards highwaymen, burglars or petty thieves. Marcus Rediker has estimated that no fewer than 400 and as many as 600 pirates were hanged in the years between 1716 and 1726.12 Mass hangings were not unusual. We have already noted the fifty-two men of Roberts’ company who were hanged at Cape Coast Castle. Of the fifty-eight pirates led by Matthew Luke who were captured by HMS Launceston in 1722, no fewer than 41 were hanged at Jamaica. Twenty-six of the thirty-six pirates captured by HMS Greyhound in 1723 were hanged. Eighteen of the nineteen men led by Lyne were hanged in 1726, and eleven of the sixteen men of Lowther’s crew were hanged at St Kitts in 1724. Hangings were always treated as public spectacles and provided grisly entertainment for the large crowds which gathered on the waterfront to hear the last words of the condemned men and watch them die. To further dissuade sailors from taking up piracy the bodies of well-known pirate leaders were hanged on gibbets at the entrance to harbours, in the same way that Calico Jack’s body had been put on display in Jamaica after his execution at Gallows Point. Five pirates taken by HMS Winchelsea in 1723 were hanged at the high-water mark at St John’s in Antigua, and afterwards the body of Finn, their leader, was hung in chains on Rat Island. After they had been hanged at Boston in 1724 the bodies of pirate quartermaster John Rose Archer and William White ‘were conveyed in boats down to an island where White was buried, and the quartermaster was hung up in irons to be a spectacle, and so a warning to others’.13 A naval or merchant seaman in the 1720s was likely to see the decaying bodies of pirates prominently displayed along the banks of the River Thames in London, at Leith Sands outside Edinburgh, at Newport, Rhode Island, in Boston harbour, at Charleston, South Carolina, at St Kitts, at Port Royal and at several other West Indian harbours.

The colonial governors were in no doubt that the trials and executions of pirates were a deterrent and would lead to a decline in pirate attacks. The executions carried out by Rogers certainly marked the end of Nassau as a pirate headquarters. After the hanging of Calico Jack and his crew, Governor Lawes of Jamaica reported that the ‘trial of the pirates executed here which has had good effect these seas having been more free of late from such villains than for some time before’.14 After the hanging of Matthew Luke and his pirates he wrote, ‘I make no question but the example that has been made of these rogues will deter others in these parts.’15 And writing to Lord Carteret to inform him of the capture of pirates off New York by HMS Greyhound in 1723, Governor Burnet concluded, ‘This blow, with what they received from Captain Ogle will I hope clear the seas of these accomplished villains.’16

Although the warships of the British Navy played a prominent role in hunting down the pirates, it had taken some time for the Admiralty to respond to the pirate threat. It will be recalled that the pirates hanged by Rogers had been brought in by the former pirate Ben Hornigold. Calico Jack and his crew had been captured by Jonathan Barnet, a merchant sea captain. Stede Bonnet and his crew were taken by private vessels commanded by Colonel Rhett, and Charles Vane had been handed over to the Jamaican authorities by Captain Holford, a retired buccaneer. Not till May 1718 did the Admiralty specifically order the nine warships based at Jamaica, Barbados, the Leeward Islands, Virginia, New York and New England, ‘To correspond and act in concert against the pirates’.17 Even then some naval captains showed a marked reluctance to get involved. We have already seen how Rogers was deserted by the naval ships which had accompanied him to the Bahamas in spite of his strenuous demands that they stay while the islands were still under threat from pirates. And there is evidence to show that some naval captains preferred to use their ships for trading rather than to look for pirates among the dangerous shoals and coral reefs of the Caribbean.18 However, when the Royal Navy did go into action against the pirates it certainly achieved results, the most notable examples being the hunting down of Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts and HMS Greyhound’s actions off New York.

By 1726 all the leading pirate captains described in Captain Johnson’s General History of the Pyrates and almost all those whose names featured in the newspapers or colonial office reports of the period had been executed, killed or had retired. This did not mean the end of piracy in the Caribbean. There were still occasional attacks on merchant vessels (usually by rogue elements of the Spanish coastguard) but pirates were no longer a serious threat to the trade of the region.

The only mention of pirates in the Council meetings and Assembly meetings called by Rogers during his second term as Governor appeared in ‘a Humble Address to the Kings most excellent Majesty’ which was drawn up by the Assembly on 30 October 1729. This thanked the King for appointing Woodes Rogers as Governor and pointed out that ‘the experience we formerly had of his justice, conduct and valour not only in the defence but in rescuing this island from pirates the worst of enemies, leaves us in no doubt, but that under his present administration these islands will soon be in as flourishing a condition as any of your Majesty’s colonies in America’.19 However, Rogers faced an uphill task to achieve the results he was hoping for. He was particularly concerned about the islands’ defences and on 26 November 1730, fifteen months after his arrival, he addressed the Assembly and warned the members that the fortifications were still in a very bad condition and the Bahamas were vulnerable to attack. There might be peace in Europe but he was concerned about a possible rupture with the Spanish or the French.

All Rogers’ efforts to improve the fortifications of the islands were hampered by the sinister alliance of John Colebrooke and John White. Colebrooke was in a powerful position as Speaker of the Assembly, while White, ‘being a great talker in the Council most of which were old inhabitants and illiterate, they two always being together consulted their measures with the Assembly so as to be continually pushing forward their own views, by which means they soon began to lord it over the people in a very haughty and imperious manner and to oppose the Governor in everything they could’.20

By the end of 1730 Rogers decided he must put an end to their machinations and on 1 December he suspended the meetings of the Assembly. This prompted Colebrooke to launch a personal attack on Rogers. He threatened to ask the King to replace their tyrannical and arbitrary governor with an honest governor, and he seized all the Assembly’s books and papers and refused to hand them over. A few weeks later Rogers wrote to the Council of Trade and Plantations to inform them that the state of his health obliged him to travel to South Carolina ‘for a change of air, from whence I hope to return in three weeks or a month’.21 By the beginning of April he was in Charleston and was soon sufficiently recovered to be planning a visit to Cat Island, which was considered to be more fertile than the other islands and might prove a suitable location for more plantations. He was back in Nassau by early May, accompanied by a lawyer who was made Attorney-General and who assisted him in bringing Colebrooke before a Grand Jury. Colebrooke had continued to stir up trouble but at a sessions held towards the end of May he was tried and found guilty of vexatious litigation and disturbing the public peace. He was fined £750 and ordered to be ‘confined during his Majesty’s pleasure’.

On 14 October 1731 Rogers wrote to London for the last time. He enclosed details of the trial of Colebrooke and the relevant proceedings of the Council and Assembly. He said that he was sending his son to England to explain the urgent need to repair the fortifications to prevent the islands becoming an easy prey to their powerful neighbours. The Council of Trade and Plantations received no further communications from the Bahamas for the next nine months. On 20 July 1732 a brief statement was sent to the Duke of Newcastle which began:

Whereas it pleased Almighty God to take unto himself the soul of Woodes Rogers Esqr. our late Governr. on the fiveteenth day of this Instant.

We the President and the rest of his Majestys Council for these Bahama Islands being on this Occasion Assembled in Council have thought fit to Acquaint yr. Lordship therewith, which with all Possible Submission we now do …22

No records have survived to indicate the cause and circumstances of Woodes Rogers’ death. All we know is that he died at the age of fifty-three. Did he succumb to one of the tropical diseases which caused the death of so many in the West Indies? Were his son and daughter present at his deathbed and his funeral in Nassau? Was he buried beside the church built by his predecessor or within the walls of the fort which he had restored and had struggled to maintain in good order? There was no mention of his death in the London newspapers but the September issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine contained the following information: ‘Came Advice of the Death of Woods Rogers, Esq; Governour of the Bahama Islands July 16. He, and Capt. Cook lately drowned, made a cruizing Voyage to the South Seas and round the Globe in the Duke and Dutchess, in the Wars of Q. Anne.’23

It is strange but not inappropriate that the death of Captain Edward Cooke, who, like Rogers, had published an account of their circumnavigation, should be recorded in the same issue of the same magazine. Where and exactly when Cooke was drowned is not known. Rogers had made his will on 26 May 1729, shortly before setting off for the Bahamas, and it was proved in London on 24 November 1732. The probate act described him as ‘late of the parish of St Margaret, Westminster, but dying at the Bahama Islands, a widower’.24 He left his estate to his son William and his daughter Sarah. His son became a member of the Council of the Bahamas the following year and then went out to the Guinea Coast as a merchant for the Royal Africa Company. He died in 1735 at Whydah, a victim of one of the tropical diseases which had killed Alexander Selkirk in the same region fourteen years earlier.

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