The death of Woodes Rogers may have passed almost unnoticed in London, but his name would live on long after the names of the civil servants in Whitehall and the other colonial governors of his day had been forgotten. This was partly due to his voyage round the world and his capture of the Manila galleon. His expedition in the Duke and Dutchess may not have been as successful as it has sometimes been portrayed but it gave Rogers a buccaneering image and linked him with Drake, Cavendish, Anson and other plunderers of Spanish ships in the Pacific. His other claim to fame was the restoration of law and order in the Bahamas – an achievement which for many years was reflected in the islands’ motto: Expulsit pirates, restituta commercia (Pirates expelled, commerce restored).1 But it was his rescue of Alexander Selkirk, and his description of how Selkirk survived his solitary years on Juan Fernández, which ensured that Rogers achieved a measure of immortality out of all proportion to his own exploits.

This was due to the publication on 23 April 1719 of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s masterpiece.2 The book proved instantly popular among all classes of the reading public in London and beyond. The initial edition of 1,000 copies was followed by a second edition on 9 May and a third edition on 6 June. A fourth edition came out shortly before the publication in August 1719 of Defoe’s rapidly compiled sequel, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Within a year the book had been published in French, Dutch and German. Generally regarded by literary critics as the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe is a study of survival, written with such conviction and attention to detail that it is hard to believe it is a work of fiction. It has a universal appeal and has been admired for different reasons by people as various as Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf. As Coleridge famously pointed out, Crusoe is a representative of humanity in general, ‘the person for whom every reader could substitute himself’,3 and a more recent commentator has observed that Crusoe, in common with a few other characters such as Don Quixote, Hamlet and Faust, has ‘passed into the collective understanding of western humanity’.4

To what extent was Rogers’ account of Selkirk’s adventures responsible for Defoe’s memorable creation? In his book of 1712 A Cruising Voyage Round the World Rogers provided what has come to be accepted as the definitive account of Selkirk’s experiences on Juan Fernández, and it is worth noting that a second edition was published in 1718, the year before Defoe’s novel was published. There was also Edward Cooke’s account in A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World, which covers much of the same ground as Rogers’ book. And there was the article in The Englishman by Richard Steele which added some additional information gleaned from his interview with Selkirk. Within a few months after the return of the Bristol ships with the captured Manila galleon, we can assume that Selkirk’s story was well known in London. Defoe, with his keen interest in voyages and travel, and the South Seas in particular, would certainly have taken a close interest in the story. The American academic Arthur Secord (who persuasively argued the case that another castaway was the model for Crusoe) was in no doubt that ‘when Londoners talked of desert island adventures they naturally thought of Selkirk. Not only was his case the most recent one, but it had also been given much wider publicity than any of the others, through the interest aroused by his return.’ And he concluded that ‘Selkirk undoubtedly furnished Defoe with the central theme of the story’.5

It is not surprising, therefore, that for a long time it was taken for granted that Selkirk’s marooning not only provided the original idea for Robinson Crusoe but that Selkirk was the model and prototype for Crusoe. The similarities were obvious: they both hunted goats on foot when the powder for their guns ran out; they both wore clothes made from goat-skins; they both built two huts from tree branches and assigned separate purposes for each one; they both ingeniously adapted the tools and equipment they had at their disposal. After an early period of despair Selkirk recovered and kept up his spirits by singing psalms and reciting from the Bible and in doing so made himself a better person – as did Crusoe. They both attempted to impose order on their existence by marking trees to note the passing days. Selkirk hid in a tree to prevent his discovery by Spaniards who landed on the island and might have enslaved him, and Crusoe did the same. And although the location of Crusoe’s island was thousands of miles from Juan Fernández, the landscape and topography of his island were very similar to descriptions which Defoe would have read of Juan Fernández.

The similarities are offset by a number of differences in the stories of Selkirk and Crusoe. These have led to what Glyn Williams has described as ‘the thickets of scholarship that surround the issue of the sources used by Defoe’.6 The discussion has been most intense among Defoe scholars but doubts were expressed as early as the 1820s by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote, ‘The assistance which De Foe derived from Selkirk’s history seems of a very meagre kind. It is not certain that he was obliged to the real hermit of Juan Fernandez even for the original hint …’7 Scott does acknowledge that Defoe probably borrowed from Rogers’ account the abundance of goats, the clothing made from their skins and the circumstance of the two huts. John Robert Moore, who was for many years considered the leading expert on Defoe, echoed this view when he wrote, ‘It has often been supposed that Crusoe was almost identical with Alexander Selkirk, but the influence of the Selkirk story on Robinson Crusoe has been greatly exaggerated.’8

It has to be said that some of the differences between Selkirk’s story and Crusoe’s story are considerable. Selkirk was marooned after an argument with his captain but Crusoe was shipwrecked in a storm and cast on to the beach. Selkirk was a castaway on Juan Fernández for four years and four months, while Crusoe was on his island for twenty-eight years. Selkirk had an extremely limited supply of tools and equipment at his disposal but Crusoe was able to make numerous journeys out to his wrecked ship and recovered ships biscuit, Dutch cheeses, rice, rum, rigging, sails, an arsenal of weapons with powder and shot, the carpenter’s chest, ‘three bags full of nails and spikes, a great screw-jack, a dozen or so hatchets, and above all, that most useful thing called a grindstone’. Crusoe is constantly trying to improve his situation by growing corn, by attempting to make baskets and pots, and by carrying out improvements to the safety and appearance of his dwelling, but Selkirk remains in his crude huts and is content to rely on goats, fish, turtles and the turnips and cabbage trees already available on the island. Crusoe hopes to escape from his island by making a canoe, but Selkirk feels he has no alternative but to await rescue by the ship of a friendly nation. Selkirk had no human companions during his time on the island, but Crusoe was joined by Man Friday, who plays an important part in the last part of the book. Perhaps the most significant difference is the geographical setting of the two islands. Juan Fernández (Isla Róbinson Crusoe) is of course in the Pacific and is some 400 miles away from the mainland of South America. Crusoe’s island is on the Atlantic coast of Venezuela, near the mouth of the River Orinoco, and is close enough to the mainland to receive visits from native ‘savages’ who have rowed across in canoes.

If the differences seem to cast doubts on Selkirk being a credible model for Crusoe, where did Defoe get his idea and his information? The first and most obvious source was the work of William Dampier. Defoe was certainly familiar with A New Voyage Round the World because in his book The Compleat English Gentleman he pointed out the advantages of travel and advised young men to ‘go round the Globe with Dampier and Rogers’.9 Dampier’s description of the marooning and subsequent rescue of Will the Miskito Indian was one of several accounts of castaways available to Defoe and was a possible source for Man Friday. On three occasions Dampier described how native peoples made large canoes or piraguas by hollowing out the trunks of trees. He noted how sailors would collect parrots and keep them as pets, and he described several islands off the north coast of Venezuela which were stocked with goats and turtles. Taken as a whole Dampier’s writings provided an encyclopaedic store of information about life at sea, navigational methods, shipwrecks, tropical islands, savage Indians and exotic fauna and flora.

A number of scholars have suggested that the most likely alternative source for Robinson Crusoe is the life of Henry Pitman, which has the merit of being set in a location not too far from the mouth of the Orinoco. Pitman was a surgeon who, like Defoe himself, took part in Monmouth’s Rebellion against King James II. He was arrested after the Battle of Sedgemoor, and was tried for treason before ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffreys. He was sentenced to transportation and was despatched to Barbados to work as a convict slave on the plantations. In May 1687 he escaped from Barbados in a small open boat with seven companions. Their destination was the Dutch island of Curaçao but after a nightmare journey they landed on the island of Salt Tortuga, which was being used as a base by a group of pirates. During the course of his enforced stay on the island Pitman lived on turtle meat and turtle eggs; he attempted to make a stewing pot out of fine sand and egg yolks bound together with goat hair; and he acquired a Man Friday figure – an Indian he had ransomed from the pirates: ‘I went abroad with my Indian a-fishing, at which he was so dextrous that with his bow and arrow he would shoot a small fish at a great distance.’ Eventually Pitman was rescued from his island existence and in 1689 he published an account of his adventures entitled A Relation of the Great Sufferings and Strange Adventures of Henry Pitman, Surgeon to the Late Duke of Monmouth.

In the research for his book Seeking Robinson Crusoe the writer and explorer Tim Severin travelled to many of the places where likely models for Crusoe had spent months or years. His travels took him to Juan Fernández, to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, to the Isthmus of Panama and to various islands off the River Orinoco, including Salt Tortuga, where Pitman had been marooned. Ironically it was in the British Library, after he had returned from his intrepid journeys, that Severin discovered the closest link between Pitman and Defoe. For some years Pitman had been a lodger at the premises of his publisher John Taylor ‘at the Sign of the Ship in St Paul’s Churchyard, London’. And it was his publisher’s son, William Taylor, who published Robinson Crusoe round the corner ‘at the Ship in Paternoster Row’. Pitman and Defoe were similar in age, could well have met and, even if they did not, Severin suggests that William Taylor would surely have shown Defoe a copy of Pitman’s book, which had been produced by the family firm.

Another possible model for Crusoe was Robert Knox, a sailor who was shipwrecked on the coast of Ceylon and published an account of his experiences in 1681 entitled Historical Relation of Ceylon. Although Ceylon is far from the Orinoco, and Knox was not alone on the populous island, Arthur Secord has drawn attention to remarkable similarities in the lives of Knox and Crusoe. In the first place their dates correspond closely. Defoe has Crusoe shipwrecked on 30 September 1659, and Knox was shipwrecked in November 1659. Both Knox and Crusoe had gone to sea against the wishes of their respective fathers. On his return to England after twenty-eight years away, Crusoe finds ‘all his family extinct’ except two sisters and the children of one of his brothers. Knox returns after nineteen years of captivity and finds that his only living relatives are his brother and sister and her children. The island experiences of the two castaways have several points in common: Knox, like Crusoe, built two or three huts and he surrounded one with a hedge to hide it from hostile intruders. Both Knox and Crusoe had bibles and spent much time in prayer and uplifting religious meditation. They both had lamps, Knox using coconut oil for his and Crusoe making use of goat’s tallow. Knox, like Crusoe, created pits covered with vegetation as traps for goats, and he made pens to keep the captured goats in the vicinity of his dwelling. Secord reaches the conclusion that ‘If we think of Selkirk as having suggested the idea of writing a story of desert island life, and of Knox as having provided him with a concrete embodiment of that idea, we shall not go far astray.’10

This is not the place to list all the castaways who have been proposed as models for Crusoe, but there is one other who has a strong claim to be included and that is Robert Drury. He was the son of one of Defoe’s neighbours in Stoke Newington, at that time a village just north of London. He was shipwrecked on the southern coast of Madagascar in 1703. His companions were killed by hostile natives but Drury survived and spent nearly fourteen years on the island as a captive. He returned to England in 1717. His experiences were not published until 1729 but if Defoe was the author of Madagascar; or Robert Drury’s Journal, as has sometimes been suggested, then he would have got the story at first hand from Drury himself.

The debate over the sources for Robinson Crusoe will no doubt continue but, as many commentators have pointed out, it is not the sources that matter so much as the force of Defoe’s imagination. In the words of Pat Rogers, ‘Background can never explain a great book; for the genesis of creative literature is, in the last analysis, internal rather than external …’11 For many of the details in his first novel Defoe was able to draw on his own past experiences and interests. Like Crusoe (and like Dampier) he had a rambling nature and was ‘inured to a wandering life’. He was an inveterate traveller all his life and although his travels were limited to the British Isles and the continent, his reading of books of voyages was extensive. He knew about ships and shipbuilding, and his two brothers-in-law, who were shipwrights, would have been able to supply him with further information if he needed it. His ownership of a tile factory near Tilbury enabled him to give an authentic account of the difficulties involved in the making of clay pots and tobacco pipes. His observations of the effects of the Great Storm of 1703 (which he had published) furnished him with material for Crusoe’s various shipwrecks. He may even have taken the name of his hero from a classmate at Morton’s Academy who was called Timothy Cruso or Crusoe.

Whether he drew on his own background or on the lives of castaways like Henry Pitman, it seems that it was economic necessity which prompted the 59-year-old Defoe to embark on a book which purported to be the true story of a shipwrecked sailor. He was constantly in financial difficulties and needed the money to support his large family. He would have been well aware that stories of voyages and adventures overseas were among the best-selling books of his day. Selkirk may or may not have provided the model for Crusoe himself but it is generally acknowledged that it was his story which provided the initial spark which got Defoe going on the first and most successful of all his novels.

Apart from his association with Robinson Crusoe through his rescue of Selkirk, Woodes Rogers has one other claim to fame and that is his role in another book which was a best-seller in its day and has since become a classic in its field. Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates has been frequently quoted in this book, as it has been in all books concerned with the Golden Age of Piracy. Indeed it could be argued that Johnson created the idea of a Golden Age by his detailed and vivid account of the lives of those western pirates who were operating from around 1700 (Captain Kidd was hanged at Execution Dock in London in 1701) to about 1726, when William Fly and two of his crew were hanged on the banks of the Charles River at Boston. In the two volumes of his history Johnson described the lives of some thirty pirate leaders, including Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, Charles Vane, Sam Bellamy, Calico Jack Rackam and the female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny. While the identity of Captain Johnson remains a mystery, there is no doubt about the authenticity of most of the material in his book because it echoes contemporary reports from colonial governors, the depositions of sea captains and sailors captured by pirates and the surviving transcripts of pirate trials. Johnson certainly made use of these sources as well as reports in the newspapers of his day. In the preface to his book he assured his readers that ‘those facts which he himself was not an eye-witness of, he had from the authentic relations of the persons concerned in taking the pirates, as well as from the mouths of the pirates themselves, after they were taken …’.12

Johnson devoted a considerable amount of space to Woodes Rogers in his book. He described the circumstances of his appointment as Governor of the Bahamas and covered his arrival at Nassau in great detail. He described the measures Rogers took to put down the pirates and included the full transcript of the pirate trial at Nassau presided over by Rogers. All these facts would have been available to Johnson without too much difficulty but he also included other facts which suggest that Rogers may well have supplied him with the information himself.

The first edition of volume one of Johnson’s history was published in May 1724. It included an introduction to the rise of piracy in the West Indies and contained biographies of seventeen pirate leaders and their crews. In July 1728 a second volume was published which contained the biographies of fifteen more pirate leaders and it was to this second volume that Johnson added an appendix giving additional information about Rogers and events which took place during his first period as Governor of the Bahamas. It will be recalled that Rogers returned to London from his first term as Governor in the summer of 1721. As far as we know he remained in London for the next eight years until he was reinstated as Governor and sailed for the Bahamas in May 1729. During that period he spent some time in a debtors’ prison (where he would have been allowed visitors) but for the rest of the time his primary aim was to clear his debts and gather support for his reinstatement as Governor. Although Johnson makes no reference to consulting Rogers, it would be surprising if he did not contact such a key player in the campaign against the pirates.

There are two passages in particular in the General History of the Pyrates which suggest that Johnson may have got his information direct from Rogers. The first concerns Rogers’ voyage to Madagascar in 1714. We know that Rogers had applied to the East India Company to sail the merchant ship Delicia from London to Madagascar, where he proposed to buy slaves whom he would sell in the East Indies. In his chapter on Captain Avery and his exploits in the Indian Ocean, Johnson described Rogers’ visit to Madagascar in considerable detail. He noted the miserable state of the pirate colony on the island and the pathetic appearance of the pirates and their children. The pirates were persuaded to sell some of their Negro slaves in exchange for clothes, knives, saws, gunpowder and musket balls. During the course of the negotiations Rogers realised that the pirates were planning to overcome his crew and seize his ship. He took the necessary precautions to prevent this and sailed on to the East Indies. Johnson tells us that one of the Madagascar pirates ‘had formerly been a waterman upon the Thames, where having committed a murder he fled to the West Indies’. The rest of the pirates had all been foremast men or ordinary seamen, ‘nor was there a man amongst them who could either read or write’.13

The other passage which contains the sort of first-hand detail which might have been supplied by Rogers concerns the piracies of Charles Vane. In the first volume of his history Johnson had described Vane’s attempt to disrupt Rogers’ landing at Nassau in 1718. In the appendix to his second volume Johnson wrote that ‘we have since had some particulars sent us, which relate to pyracies, both before and after that date’.14 He then supplied a much more detailed account of Vane’s exploits around the time of Rogers’ arrival as Governor. In particular he reproduced a letter which Vane had written to Rogers on 24 July 1718, the day before Rogers’ ships entered the harbour. The letter was addressed ‘To his Excellency the Governor of New Providence’ and it began: ‘Your Excellency may please to understand that we are willing to accept his Majesty’s most gracious Pardon on the following Terms, viz. That you will suffer us to dispose of all our Goods now in our Possession …’ Vane informed Rogers that he would accept the pardon if his terms were agreed upon, otherwise ‘we are obliged to stand on our Defence’. The letter was signed by ‘Charles Vane and Company’ and included the postscript, ‘We wait a speedy answer.’15

During the previous weeks Vane and his men had captured and brought into Nassau no fewer than seven ships and sloops, many of them laden with rich cargoes, so his terms would have been totally unacceptable. As we know, Vane subsequently sent a fireship against one of Rogers’ ships and fled the harbour. According to Johnson, he then sent word to Rogers that ‘he would make him a visit, and burn his guardship, for sending two sloops to chase him instead of answering his letter’.16

The amount of detail contained in both the above passages suggests that the information must have been supplied by someone who took part in Rogers’ voyage to Madagascar in 1714 and his expedition to Nassau in 1718. Since Rogers was in London while Johnson was compiling his book, he would seem to be the obvious source.17

Although he lives on in the pages of the General History of the Pyrates, and in the colonial office records of the period, and in his spirited account of his circumnavigation, Rogers remains an elusive figure. There are no descriptions of his physical appearance. The seated figure in Hogarth’s family portrait could be anyone. What is remarkable about Rogers is the way in which his life touched so many aspects of the world in which he lived. It was an age during which the maritime nations of Europe fought for the possession of overseas islands and territories; an age of privateering and piracy, of voyages and books about voyages. It was also an age of merchants and entrepreneurs; of sugar plantations and the slave trade; of speculations and bankruptcies. As a sea captain, privateer, slave trader and colonial governor Rogers was involved in all these things.

We may have no idea of his appearance but we do know that Woodes Rogers was a man of great determination who refused to be cast down by the troubles and setbacks he faced during the course of his life. There is a passage in A Cruising Voyage Round the World which has already been quoted but is worth repeating because it could well serve as his epitaph: ‘I begun this voyage with a resolution to go through with it, and the greatest misfortune or obstacle shall not deter me; I’ll as much as possible avoid being thoughtful and afflicting myself for what can’t be recalled, but indefatigably pursue the concerns of the voyage.’

The English Ship Hampton Court in a Gale, by Willem van de Velde the Younger, c. 1680. Captured in 1707, this ship later became the flagship of the Spanish treasure fleet which was wrecked on the coast of Florida in 1715. (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery)

A Spanish gold doubloon, minted in Mexico in 1714, and subsequently looted by pirates. The doubloon was a two-escudo coin and was worth the same as four pieces of eight. (Private collection/Peter Newark Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library)

The 8-reales coin or ‘piece of eight’ was the most commonly used coin throughout Spain’s empire in the New World. Also called a peso or Spanish dollar, it was a silver coin and usually had a design representing the pillars of Hercules on the reverse. (Private collection)

A pre-Columbian gold pendant in the form of a stylised human figure, from Popayan, Colombia. The gold found in the lands of the Aztec and the Inca empires was the driving force behind the exploits of the Spanish conquistadors. (British Museum, London, UK/The Bridgeman Art Library)

Queen Square, Bristol, Looking South-east, by T. L. Rowbotham. Captain Woodes Rogers’ father bought a house in this elegant square and it later became the home of Rogers and his family. (Bristol’s Museums, Galleries & Archives)

Merchant Ships off Dover, by Charles Brooking. The ship in the centre is similar in size and rig to the ships commanded by Woodes Rogers in his privateering voyage round the world. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

An English Ship at Sea Driven Before a Gale, by Willem van de Velde the Younger, c. 1680. Woodes Rogers’ ships had to contend with conditions even worse than this when rounding Cape Horn in January 1709. (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Engraving after Peircy Brett of the encampment set up by the men of Anson’s expedition on the island of Juan Fernández in 1741. Woodes Rogers’ crews had set up camp on the same spot in 1709 following their encounter with the marooned sailor Alexander Selkirk. (By permission of the British Library)

A Merchant Vessel Being Careened on a Tropical Shore, by Samuel Atkins. The brig has been beached and heeled on one side so that her carpenters can carry out repairs while the weed and barnacles are being burnt off the bottom. (Private collection)

An engraving from Edward Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Sea showing the local Indians and the birds and fish from the Bay of Puerto Seguro (Cabo San Lucas) on the coast of California where Woodes Rogers’ expedition spent several weeks. (By permission of the British Library)

The island of Guam in the Pacific, which was used as a staging post by the westbound Spanish treasure galleons. Woodes Rogers called there on his homeward journey in 1710. The engraving is from Edward Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Sea. (By permission of the British Library)

An Action Between English and French Privateers, by Samuel Scott. The privateer ship Duke, commanded by Woodes Rogers, would have looked very similar to the ship on the right when she went into action against the Manila galleon. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Portrait by Thomas Murray of William Dampier, the former buccaneer and explorer who sailed with Woodes Rogers’ expedition as pilot for the South Seas. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

A painting from the school of Sir Godfrey Kneller of Daniel Defoe, novelist, journalist, political commentator, and the author of Robinson Crusoe. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Captain Woodes Rogers and His Family, by William Hogarth. The Governor of the Bahamas is shown seated beside the fort at Nassau along with his son, his daughter and a maidservant. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

The female pirate Anne Bonny, who left her sailor husband for Calico Jack Rackam. She proved fiercer in action than her fellow pirates and told Rackam that ‘if he had fought like a man, he need not have been hanged like a dog’. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Mary Read, who spent some years as a soldier in Flanders before joining the pirates led by Calico Jack. Following their capture in 1720 Mary Read and Anne Bonny were tried for piracy in Jamaica but were reprieved when they were found to be pregnant. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

The execution of Major Stede Bonnet on the waterfront at Charleston, South Carolina. The pirate, who is holding a posy of flowers, has just been pushed off the back of a horse-drawn cart while the priest, who has heard his confession, looks on. (Private collection)

An engraving from Captain Johnson’s History of the Pyrates depicting the formidable figure of Blackbeard the pirate. He is shown on a tropical shore, armed with a musket, a sword, several pairs of pistols, and with smoking matches stuffed under his hat. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Shipping anchored off the British settlement at Dix Cove near Cape Coast Castle on the west African coast where fifty-two of the pirates led by Bartholomew Roberts were hanged on the beach. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Captain Bartholomew Roberts and his ships on the coast of Guinea. Roberts captured more ships than any other pirate of his day but was tracked down by a naval expedition and killed in a battle off Cape Lopez in 1722. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Crusoe Sees a Footprint in the Sand, an illustration from an edition of Robinson Crusoe published in the 1860s. It was Woodes Rogers’ description of Alexander Selkirk’s life as a castaway which provided Daniel Defoe with the idea for his most famous book. (Private collection)

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