The Sea Captain

The commander of the new expedition was Captain Woodes Rogers. He was the son of a sea captain and was twenty-nine years old when his two ships set sail from Bristol. He had many of the leadership qualities which Dampier so lacked. The author of a book of voyages published in 1767 described him as ‘a bold, active, indefatigable officer’ and noted that his most singular talent was ‘a peculiar art he had of maintaining his authority over his seamen, and his readiness in finding out expedients in the most difficult conjunctures’.1 In his journals and letters Rogers comes across as a frank and forthright seafaring man who faced storms, mutinies, sea battles, personal injuries and financial setbacks with admirable fortitude and resolution. However, recent research has revealed flaws in his character which had been generally overlooked.2 He seems to have had an exceedingly hot temper and sometimes resorted to violent language, threatening to cut people’s throats and bloody their noses. On one occasion he was so enraged by the behaviour of a naval officer that he struck him on the head with a pistol. Another time he challenged a naval officer to a duel. His brave leadership in the taking of Guayaquil was questioned in some quarters and he was described by one embittered officer as ‘a dead weight to all our undertakings’.3 In his defence it should be pointed out that he often found himself in stressful situations which would have tested and provoked the calmest of men.

Rogers’ family came originally from Poole, a small but prosperous seaport in Dorset, on the south coast of England. His father, who owned his own ship and had shares in a number of other ventures, was a successful operator in the triangular trade on which the prosperity of Poole was based. Situated at the head of the largest natural harbour in Europe, the port had established a flourishing trade with North America, and in particular with the Newfoundland cod fisheries. Ships sailed from Poole to Newfoundland with cargoes of salt and provisions; they exchanged these for dried and salted fish and sailed back across the Atlantic to Spanish and Portuguese ports where they sold the fish and returned to Poole with cargoes of wine, brandy and olive oil.

In addition to his voyages across the Atlantic Rogers’ father may also have travelled around the coast of Africa, probably in connection with the slave trade. In his Discourse of Winds, published in 1699, Dampier acknowledged his debt to a Captain Rogers for his description of the coast from the Cape of Good Hope to the Red Sea. Elsewhere in the same book Dampier included an account of the bushmen of South Africa ‘as I received it from my ingenious friend Capt Rogers who is lately gone to that place: and hath been there several times before’.4

Captain Woodes Rogers senior and his wife Frances had three children while they were living in Poole. Woodes Rogers was the eldest and was born in 1679. His sister Mary was born a year later and his younger brother John (who would later accompany Woodes on his voyage to the South Seas) was born in 1688. Nothing is known of the children’s education and upbringing. Around 1696 the family moved to Bristol, where they had a house in the parish of St Mary Redcliffe. On 30 November 1697 the eighteen-year-old Woodes Rogers was apprenticed as a mariner to John Yeamans of Bristol and his wife Thomasina. His seafaring experience during the next few years has not been recorded but an examination of the most common destinations of Bristol ships of the period suggests that he would have made frequent sailings to Ireland and the Continent. He must have made at least one crossing of the Atlantic to the fishing grounds of the Newfoundland Banks because in A Cruising Voyage Round the World he noted the great variety of fish in the waters around the island of Juan Fernández, including crawfish and gropers ‘and other good fish in so great plenty anywhere near the shore, that I never saw the like, but at the best fishing season in Newfoundland’.5

Meanwhile his father’s shipping business continued to flourish. He was still making voyages to Newfoundland in 1700, and in 1702 he purchased the lease of a plot for a ‘substantial mansion’ on the south side of Bristol’s newly created Queen Square. This very grand square marked a break with the city’s medieval past and was a clear statement of its position as ‘the greatest, the richest, and the best port of trade in Great Britain, London only excepted’.6 Named in honour of the recently crowned Queen Anne, the square was surrounded on two sides by the River Avon and on the third side by the Quay (then known as the Key), where dozens of ships were moored, their masts towering over the nearby rooftops. The elegant brick houses of Queen Square with their handsome doorways and finely proportioned sash windows were conveniently situated for those concerned with the shipping and trade of Britain’s second port. As John Macky observed in 1714, ‘Behind the Key is a very noble Square, as large as that of Soho in London; in which is kept the Custom House; and most of the eminent merchants who keep their coaches reside here.’7

The house of Captain Rogers and his family was built on a double plot and was numbered 31–32. Two doors along at number 29 was the house of Admiral William Whetstone, who was soon to become the young Woodes Rogers’ father-in-law. Captain Rogers would have known Whetstone before they became neighbours because the shipping community of Bristol centred around the harbour was relatively small and both men had made voyages to Newfoundland. Following a series of French attacks on the fishing stations servicing the rich cod fisheries on the Grand Banks, the fish merchants of Bristol and Poole had requested naval protection. In 1696 and 1697 the then Captain Whetstone, in command of the 60-gun Dreadnought, had been sent to convoy the fishing fleets across the Atlantic and provide protection for the fishing stations.8 Whether they first met at sea or in Bristol is not known but the two men had much in common.

Before they could move into their new houses in Queen Square the country went to war with France and Spain – a war which would affect the lives of both families. Within weeks of the declaration of war Whetstone was promoted to Rear-Admiral and was despatched with a squadron to join Vice-Admiral Benbow in the West Indies. He would spend much of the next four years in the Caribbean. A by-product of the war was a surge in privateering on both sides of the English Channel. The losses suffered by Bristol shipowners at the hands of French privateers would provide the motivation for the young Woodes Rogers’ expedition to the South Seas.

The War of the Spanish Succession was so called because it was sparked off by the death of the childless King Charles II of Spain. The major powers of western Europe had foreseen the likely problems of the Spanish succession and in a series of treaties had agreed on the peaceful division of the Spanish empire. The chief concern of the English and Dutch was improved access to the riches and markets of Spanish America and they were less concerned about the succession itself. Although rightly suspicious of the continuing ambitions of the French king, Louis XIV, they made no objection to Philip, duc d’Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV, inheriting the Spanish throne and becoming Philip V of Spain. Instead of acting diplomatically at this critical time Louis XIV chose to ride roughshod over the treaties. He encouraged French officials to take over the management of Spain’s American empire. He sent French troops into the Spanish Netherlands, thus posing a direct threat to the Dutch in the United Provinces and indirectly threatening England. And when the exiled King James II died in France in September 1701 Louis infuriated Englishmen of all parties by publicly recognising the young son of James as James III of England. It had taken the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to oust the Roman Catholic James II and replace him with the Protestant monarchs William and Mary. The country had no intention of returning to Catholicism and when William died in March 1702 after a riding accident in Richmond Park he was succeeded on the throne of England by Queen Anne – the dull, ill-educated but staunchly Protestant daughter of James II. The French king had counted on divisions in England preventing any serious reaction to his provocative act but he misjudged the mood of the country. The British ambassador was recalled from Paris and on 4 May 1702 England declared war on France. For the next eleven years England, Scotland, Austria, Prussia and the Netherlands would be ranged against the combined forces of France and Spain.

Events moved swiftly on the continent and at sea. The soldier and diplomat John Churchill, earl of Marlborough, was made commander-in-chief of the forces in the Netherlands. In July 1702 he crossed the Meuse and in October he took Liège from the French, the forerunner of a series of victories which would culminate two years later in the crushing defeat of the French and Bavarian armies at the Battle of Blenheim. In August 1702 Admiral Benbow with six ships of the line intercepted a smaller French squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Jean-Baptiste du Casse on the coast of the Spanish Main near Santa Marta. Over the course of four days a running battle took place which was distinguished by the indomitable courage of Benbow and the incompetence of his captains. On the last day Benbow had his right leg smashed by a chain-shot. He refused to leave the quarterdeck but his ship was so badly damaged that he was forced to break off the action. He died later of his wounds, his heroism earning him posthumous celebrity and ensuring that his name lived on as a popular name for seamen’s taverns (including the fictitious inn which provides the setting for the opening scenes of Treasure Island). Four of Benbow’s captains had to face a court martial in Jamaica which was presided over by Woodes Rogers’ father-in-law, Admiral Whetstone.9 Two captains were found guilty of cowardice and were later executed by firing squad on the deck of HMS Bristol at Plymouth.

The failure at Santa Marta was soon redeemed by the Battle of Vigo Bay. In October 1702 the Spanish treasure fleet was heading back across the Atlantic escorted by a powerful escort of French warships. Warned that there were British fleets at Cadiz and at Brest, the treasure fleet steered for Vigo on the north-west coast of Spain. Once inside the long, narrow inlet at Vigo the French commander protected the anchored fleet with a floating boom and began unloading the gold and silver. Heading north after a failed attempt to capture Cadiz, Admiral Sir George Rooke, in command of a fleet of Dutch and British warships, learnt of the whereabouts of the treasure fleet and mounted an attack with fireships. The leading British warship broke the boom and marines went ashore and captured the defending gun batteries. In the fierce battle which followed twelve French ships were captured or burnt and all nineteen Spanish vessels were taken or destroyed. Although little known today compared with the battles of the Napoleonic era, the allied victory at Vigo was a devastating blow to enemy morale, comparable to Drake’s fireship attack on Cadiz of 1587 or Nelson’s victory at the Nile.

Another bad year for France and Spain was 1704. In July Sir George Rooke captured Gibraltar, which in itself was no great feat as the small fortress defending the exposed anchorage was manned by a garrison of only 150 soldiers. But the strategic value of a naval base commanding the entrance to the Mediterranean was obvious and the French despatched a fleet of fifty warships to recapture the fortress. They were met off Malaga on 13 August by an equally powerful Anglo-Dutch fleet commanded by Rooke. The ensuing action was a long, hard-fought duel with heavy casualties on both sides. Neither side could claim a victory but when the French fleet eventually withdrew Gibraltar remained in English hands.

These and other naval actions contributed to a change of direction in the war at sea. The French Government decided to abandon its navy and devote its resources to privateering. Unlike British privateering, which, from the days of Drake and Cavendish, had tended to be a matter of individual enterprise and was usually restricted to attacks on single ships, French privateering, or guerre de course, was on a large scale and was intended to cripple the enemy’s trade. Squadrons of privateers, sometimes with naval warships chartered to private owners, were encouraged to attack rich convoys of merchant ships. It was a form of warfare at which the French excelled and produced a number of privateer commanders who became national heroes. Jean Bart of Dunkirk had shown the way in 1694 when he had captured an entire Dutch grain convoy in the North Sea. Prominent among his successors in the War of the Spanish Succession were the Comte Claude de Forbin, also from Dunkirk, and René Duguay-Trouin from St Malo. Forbin was a dashing Gascon nobleman who pulled off a major coup in May 1707 when his squadron captured two British 70-gun warships off Beachy Head, together with their convoy of twenty-two merchant ships. Duguay-Trouin was ennobled by Louis XIV for his exploits in 1709, by which date he was reckoned to have taken sixteen warships and some 300 English and Dutch merchantmen. An article published in a London newspaper in November 1707 complained that English ships were being taken like shoals of herrings: ‘Our merchants are beggared; our commerce broke; our trade gone; our staple and manufacture ruined.’10 This was an exaggeration but the privateering war conducted by France was certainly effective. Between 1702 and the end of the war in 1713 French privateers took nearly 7,000 prizes, compared with the 2,239 prizes taken by British privateers and warships in the same period.11

Captain Rogers junior (whose father had died in 1705) was among the Bristol shipowners who had suffered at the hands of French privateers, and this seems to have been the primary motivation for his voyage to the Pacific. In the book he wrote on his return, he observed, ‘Most of us, the chief officers, embraced this trip of privateering round the world, to retrieve the losses we had sustained by the enemy.’ He was inspired by the example of the French privateer Beauchesne-Gouin, who had sailed from La Rochelle to the Pacific with two ships in 1698 and initiated ‘a vast trade in those seas’. Rogers had a copy of his journal and noted that in the first few years of trading with South America the French had carried home ‘above 100 millions of dollars, which is near 25 millions sterling’. Another motivating force was an Act of Parliament passed in early 1708 which was designed to encourage British privateers by abolishing the ancient right of the Crown to have a share in the prize proceeds. This meant that after a captured enemy ship and her cargo had been assessed and valued by an Admiralty Court the captor would have ‘the sole interest and property in such prize or prizes so taken’ and the proceeds were to be divided among the officers, seamen and others ‘according to their respective shares’.12

William Dampier must also have played a part in the setting up of Rogers’ voyage. According to Edward Cooke, who was one of Rogers’ chief officers, ‘Captain Dampier never gave over the project, ’till he had prevailed with some able persons at Bristol to venture upon an undertaking which might turn to prodigious advantage.’13 It seems more likely that it was Rogers who did most of the prevailing but Dampier’s previous experience would have been of great assistance in the planning of the voyage.

Rogers had married Sarah, the daughter of Admiral, now Sir William, Whetstone, in January 1705, and by the time he sailed from Bristol in August 1708 they had three children: a girl named Sarah; a boy called William Whetstone after his grandfather; and a girl named Mary. Rogers had inherited his father’s grand house in Queen Square and was now a Freeman of the City of Bristol because he had married the daughter of a Freeman. He had the status and the necessary connections to persuade a number of prosperous citizens to fund his ambitious expedition. Among his sponsors were three Mayors of Bristol, the Town Clerk, two Sheriffs of Bristol and Alderman John Batchelor, who had twice been Master of the Society of Merchant Venturers. The largest sum was contributed by Thomas Goldney, a prominent Quaker merchant who contributed £3,762. The total sum invested in the project was £13,188 12s., which in today’s terms would be about £1 million.

Most British privateers confined their cruises to the English Channel and the Atlantic coast of France and Spain. Privateering cruises against Spanish targets in the Pacific were rare, and, apart from the raids of the buccaneers and the recent forays of the French privateers, the only voyages which were comparable to the one planned by Rogers were those of Drake, Cavendish and Dampier. Such voyages, which were likely to take three or four years, required careful planning; sturdy, seaworthy ships; reliable and experienced officers; and provisions and gear for many months at sea. Thanks to the combined experience of his sponsors and supporters, and the advice of William Dampier, the expedition was admirably prepared. In comparing it with other long-distance voyages John Callander considered that ‘there was never any voyage of this nature so happily adjusted, so well provided for in all respects, or in which the accidents, that usually happen in privateers, were so effectually guarded against’.14

Two three-masted ships were purchased for the voyage: the Duke of around 350 tons and the Dutchess of about 300 tons (different sources give different figures). The Duke was armed with 30 guns, and in addition carried 200 small arms, 100 cutlasses, thirty barrels of powder, fifty rounds of shot for the carriage guns and ‘about thirty hundreds of small shot’.15 She had two suits of sails, six anchors, five anchor cables, twenty hundredweight of spars and cordage, and provisions for around sixteen months. The Dutchess was armed with 26 guns and had a similarly comprehensive list of small arms, ammunition, gear and provisions.

On 9 April 1708 the privateering commissions for the Duke and Dutchess were drawn up. The original documents are filed in a large cardboard box in the National Archives at Kew, along with dozens of commissions for other ships of around the same date. Issued by the Lord High Admiral, Prince George of Denmark (the consort of Queen Anne) and addressed to Sir Charles Hedges, Judge of the High Court of Admiralty, the commissioning document for the Duke required the Judge ‘to cause a Commission or Letter of Marque or Reprisal to be issued out of the High Court of Admiralty unto Captain Woodes Rogers – Commander of the Duke Friggott [frigate] …’ and authorised the said Woodes Rogers ‘to Apprehend, Seize and take the Ships, Vessels and Goods belonging to France and other Her Majesty’s Enemys’.16 Rogers was required to keep an exact journal of his proceedings, to take note of all prizes taken and to record the time and place of capture and the value of each prize ‘as near as he can judge’. He was also requested to obtain intelligence of the movements and strength of the enemy and to transmit this information to the Lord High Admiral whenever the opportunity arose. The same wording appears on the commission issued to Captain Courtney, commander of the Dutchess.

The National Archives also hold a great number of documents, leather-bound ledgers and loose papers concerning the organisation of the voyage, instructions on how the two ships were to keep in touch at sea, records of the wages paid to the crews of the ships, and details of the prizes captured. Among the most interesting of these documents is one giving instructions from the managers and owners of the ships to Woodes Rogers. This is dated 14 July 1708, two weeks before the ships sailed. He was required to sail with the first fair wind to Cork in Ireland, where he was to contact Messrs Robert and Noblett Rogers, who would supply the two ships with all necessary provisions for the voyage. During his stay in Cork he was to endeavour to get hold of ‘what men you want, and can get’ and then to depart in company with the Hastings, man-of-war. He was instructed on the procedure to follow on taking a prize or accepting a ransom for a prize. The owners then set out the main objective of the voyage:

But our grand design being to seek out one or both ye ships belonging to Acapulco in South America, you are to consult your pilot Capt. William Dampier in Council on whose knowledge in those parts we do mainly depend for satisfactory success. If you are so fortunate to come up with her, you are to attack her, and use all possible means to take her …17

The document concludes by urging Rogers to prevent all animosities, quarrels and mischiefs at sea and ‘to preserve a most agreeable concord and harmony during ye whole course of ye voyage’.18

A critical component for the success of the expedition would be the calibre of the officers and with one or two exceptions Rogers was well served by those selected. Captain Stephen Courtney, who was appointed commander of the Dutchess, was described as ‘a man of birth, fortune, and of very amiable qualities’.19 He had with him as his second-in-command Captain Edward Cooke, a merchant sea captain who had twice had his ship captured by the French. Like Rogers he would publish an account of the voyage. This is not as detailed or as well written as Rogers’ book but is valuable because it gives us another viewpoint, and provides a first-hand account of life on board the Dutchess.

A key figure on the Duke was Dr Thomas Dover, a 46-year-old physician who had been an undergraduate at Oxford, gained his medical degree at Cambridge and would later make his name and fortune with his patent medicine, Dover’s Powder. As a major investor in the voyage (he had contributed £3,312) he was appointed president of the council which the owners had insisted should meet at regular intervals to make key decisions on the running of the ships. In addition to his own expertise Dover brought with him a number of other medical men, including his brother-in-law, who was an apothecary, and James Wasse, a surgeon who had been trained in the medical school at Leiden. The downside of Dover’s appointment was that he was quick-tempered and argumentative and would make life difficult for Rogers on several occasions. The other officers included Rogers’ twenty-year-old brother John; and the owners’ agents, Carleton Vanbrugh and William Bath, who were responsible for noting the details and value of all prizes and plunder.

Dampier, as we have already seen, was to be the pilot. So great was the respect he had acquired through his publications and his travels that the sponsors of the Bristol expedition were prepared to overlook the disastrous outcomes of his two most recent ventures. His voyage to New Guinea and Australia as a naval captain in command of HMS Roebuck had achieved little in the way of discoveries and had ended ignominiously with his ship sinking on the shores of Ascension Island. Dampier and his crew had been rescued six weeks later by a passing squadron of British ships but when he returned to England in 1701 he had to face a court martial for the loss of his ship, and then a second court martial for his treatment of his crew and in particular for his ‘very hard and cruel usage towards Lieutenant Fisher’. He was fined all his pay for the voyage and the court concluded that he was not a fit person to be employed as commander of any of Her Majesty’s ships.

Dampier’s second voyage had been a privateering venture to the Pacific which had been backed by a group of London and Bristol investors. In September 1703 he had left the Irish port of Kinsale in command of the 200-ton St George of 26 guns, which was accompanied by the Cinque Ports, a vessel of ninety tons and 26 guns. According to Alexander Selkirk, who was on board the Cinque Ports, she was ‘a good new ship in very good condition as to body, masts, sails’.20 The St George he described as an old ship but a strong one ‘and fitted out for the said voyage in all things and stores’. The voyage was dogged by mutinies and desertions and both ships eventually became so riddled with worm that they had to be abandoned. The first sign of serious trouble took place when they reached the island of Juan Fernández. Forty-two members of the crew of the Cinque Ports refused to serve under Captain Stradling, the young commander of the ship, and set up camp ashore. Dampier persuaded them to return to their ship and when a French merchantman of 36 guns hove in sight the two ships joined forces to attack her. The result was a humiliating failure. Dampier would later blame his crew for deserting their posts but he was accused of failing to consult Stradling on their tactics beforehand, and then of providing no effective leadership during the seven-hour action, and hiding behind a barricade of beds, rugs and blankets on the quarterdeck ‘to defend himself from the small shot of the enemy’. Nine members of the crew of the St Georgewere killed, and it was later learnt that the French ship had lost a great many more killed and wounded and had been about to surrender when Dampier called off the action.

From Juan Fernández they had sailed north to the Bay of Panama, where they made an abortive attack on the town of Santa Maria. In May 1704 Dampier and Stradling parted company after a series of disagreements. Stradling returned to Juan Fernández and it was there that Alexander Selkirk demanded to be put ashore. The only reliable account of the circumstances of his marooning comes from Woodes Rogers, who wrote, ‘The reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and his captain; which, together with the ships being leaky, made him willing rather to stay here, than go along with them at first; and when at last willing, the captain would not receive him.’ In his interview with Selkirk after his return to England the writer and journalist Richard Steele noted, ‘He was put ashore from a leaky vessel, with the captain of which he had had an irreconcilable difference.’ He too noted that Selkirk changed his mind when Stradling decided to take him at his word and abandon him on the island. He recorded that Selkirk had been looking forward to his new life ‘till the instant in which he saw the vessel put off; at which moment his heart yearned within him, and melted at the parting with his comrades and all human society at once’.21

The Cinque Ports was indeed so leaky that she later sank off the coast of South America. Thirty-two members of the crew took to rafts but only eighteen, including Stradling, managed to reach the mainland. They were captured by the Spanish and taken to Lima and imprisoned. Dampier and his men fared little better. The hull of the St George was so badly eaten away by worm that ‘in some places in the hold we could thrust our thumbs quite through with ease’. In spite of this, and the fact that mutiny, death and desertion had cut down the number of his crew to sixty-four, Dampier decided to make an attack on the Manila galleon as she neared the end of her six-month voyage across the Pacific.

They sighted the galleon on the morning of 6 December 1704 while they were cruising off a low-lying coastal plain with the volcano of Colima clearly visible in the distance. By ten o’clock the two ships were within gunshot distance. The galleon hoisted her Spanish ensign and fired a gun to leeward, a sign that she assumed the St George was a friend and not an enemy vessel. Among the prisoners on board the privateer was the Spanish captain of a local trading ship who had been brought up in London and once served as a gunner for an English buccaneer. He advised Dampier to head straight for the galleon and board her before her men had time to prepare for action. Perversely Dampier chose to hoist an English ensign and fired a shot directly at the galleon. The captain of the galleon immediately changed course, worked his way to windward of the privateer, cleared for action and ran out his guns. When the boatswain of the St George ordered the helmsman to steer alongside ready for boarding, Dampier told the helmsman he would shoot him in the head if he edged any nearer the galleon.

While Dampier and his officers argued about what to do next the galleon opened fire. Her guns were eighteen-pounders and twenty-four-pounders, against which the five-pounders of the privateer had no chance. Every direct shot from the galleon struck deeply into the decayed timbers of the privateer. Two feet of planking were stove in on each side of the stem and several shot hit the hull underwater, causing one of the crew to tell Dampier that they were sinking. According to John Welbe, a midshipman on the St George, Dampier’s response was to cry out, ‘Where is the canoe?’ and he was for getting in the boat to save his life. The carpenter managed to stop the leaks but Dampier ordered them to stand off from the enemy, ‘which accordingly we did: all the ship’s company being exceedingly vexed at the captain’s ill conduct’. As they drew away from the galleon Dampier announced that he was going below to sleep. When he woke the next morning the galleon was still in sight but he ordered the helmsman to steer directly away from her.

Within a few weeks half the crew of the St George had deserted and the privateering expedition was abandoned. Eighteen of the original crew were back in England by August 1706, including William Funnell, who wrote and published a detailed and critical account of the cruise. Dampier did not return to England until 1707. He issued an angry and confused response to Funnell’s publication but this was contradicted by a broadsheet from midshipman Welbe which was entitled An Answer to Captain Dampier’s Vindication of His Voyage to the South Seas in the Ship St George. The sponsors of the expedition, who had lost everything they had invested in the project, did not embark on legal proceedings against Dampier until 1712, when he returned from the expedition led by Rogers.

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