The Voyagers Return

On 19 September 1711 a squadron of four British warships led by the 70-gun Essex, under the command of Commodore Kerrill Roffey, arrived in the estuary of the River Texel. Their first attempt to escort the privateers back across the Channel to England was foiled by the weather. As they left the Dutch coast they were hit by a south-westerly gale which proved too much for the Manila galleon. In his logbook Commodore Roffey noted that ‘at eight took ye prize in tow it blowed very fresh and ye prize had split her masts and had no other’.1 They retreated back to the Texel. The stormy weather continued for a week but on 1 October they were at last able to set sail and, with the galleon once again under tow, they crossed the Channel and dropped anchor in the Downs, the anchorage which lies between the Goodwin Sands and the town of Deal. Their arrival off the shores of Kent was noted briefly by several London newspapers. The entry in the Daily Courant read, ‘Deal, Octob.2. This morning came in Her Majesty’s ships Essex, Canterbury, Medway, and Dunwich, and under their convoy the Aquapulco Ship, and 2 Privateers of Bristol, from Holland.’2

At Sheerness two of the shipowners’ representatives, Giles Batchelor and Edward Acton, were hoping to board the privateers as soon as they entered the Thames. So bad was the weather that their boat had been nearly swamped on their way downstream to Sheerness, but they had survived and were able to report to John Batchelor that they had met an agent of the East India Company who had acknowledged that it was the company’s intention to seize the Bristol ships and their prize. However, ‘as the wind is still fresh and the tide far spent they cannot stir till morning’.3

On 4 October a favourable wind shift enabled the Essex and her charges to round the North Foreland. The Duke and Dutchess stood into Margate Road while the Essex and the galleon continued threading their way through the channels and mudbanks of the Thames Estuary, anchoring when the tide turned against them and sailing on the incoming flood tide. The weather continued changeable, with fresh gales and squally showers sweeping across the turbulent, grey waters of the estuary. On 8 October the Essex and the galleon anchored at the Nore, off the mouth of the River Medway, and the next day the galleon parted from her escort and headed upstream. She was joined by the Duke and Dutchess and at last, on 14 October 1711, they reached their final destination – the small riverside village of Erith. At this date Erith was no more than a single street of houses leading down to the waterfront. There was an ancient church with a spire and beyond was a wooded hill – the remnant of what had once been a dense forest of oaks and yew. Situated on the south side of a bend in the river and twenty-eight miles downstream from the congested quays of the Pool of London, Erith was used by those shipowners who wanted a quiet anchorage where they could unload their cargoes. What the sailors on board the Duke and Dutchess made of such a remote spot is not recorded. Rogers simply concluded his account of the circumnavigation of the world with the words, ‘This day at 11 of the clock, we and our consort and prize got up to Eriff, where we came to an anchor, which ends our long and fatiguing voyage.’ Edward Cooke, in the closing paragraph of his description of the voyage, noted that it was three years and two months since they had set off from Bristol in August 1708.

Erith might lack the taverns and brothels and port facilities to be found upstream at Wapping and Rotherhithe but it was not too remote for the sharp-eyed representatives of the East India Company. The day following the arrival of the privateers a man called Daniel Hilman, with several assistants appointed by the company, rowed out and thrust on board each ship a piece of paper on which was written: ‘I seize this ship and on all goods aboard for the use and on behalf of the United Company of Merchants of England to the East Indies.’4

The legal right of the East India Company to carry out this action was questionable. The shipowners had already sent a petition to Queen Anne and the Attorney-General explaining their situation but had been informed that it was Her Majesty’s wish that an accommodation be reached by the two parties and recommending that a conference be arranged to settle matters. Batchelor and two of his fellow shipowners had met representatives of the company on 17 August and had protested their innocence of breaking the company’s monopoly of trade with the East. They had pointed out that their ships and their captains had commissions and letters of marque signed by the Lord High Admiral; they had been encouraged in their venture by the Act of Parliament of 1708 which had been intended to promote privateering. They explained that the goods they had on board their ships had all been captured from Spanish ships; they had not taken a single vessel in the Indian Ocean or in waters over which the East India Company claimed exclusive rights; and although they had sold some of their captured goods at the Dutch settlement at Batavia this had been necessary for the purchase of stores and equipment to enable them to complete their voyage.

The Court of the East India Company had informed Batchelor and his colleagues that it had a different opinion regarding their innocence. It had instructed the Company’s agents in the Netherlands to ‘have an eye upon ye proceedings of the Duke and Dutchess of Bristol and their prize’ and to note whether they unloaded all or part of their cargoes there.5 Faced with such intransigence the shipowners eventually decided they had no option but to buy off the company. They agreed to pay the considerable sum of £6,000, to which was added a bribe of £161. 5s. 0d. to an unknown individual who would ensure that the governors of the company made no further claim on the ships and their cargo. One of the Bristol owners, Thomas Goldney, later complained bitterly about the weakness of his colleagues but the others may have been persuaded by the advantages of having the company on their side. It did result in their being lent the services of a senior manager of the Leadenhall Warehouse in the Port of London to oversee the unloading and sorting of the huge variety of riches stowed in the ships’ holds – riches which included bales of brocaded silk, sewing silk and silk ribbons; chests of china ware and steel ware; boxes and crates of indigo, musk, cinnamon, pepper and cloves; and a certain amount of gold, silver and pearls.

The unloading and sale of the goods took many months and when all the sales were completed the total value of the captured goods was reckoned to be just under £148,000 (today about £11.3 million).6 This was modest by comparison with the riches brought back by Francis Drake in the Golden Hind, or with the later expedition led by Commodore Anson which captured the Acapulco galleon in 1743 with treasure estimated at £400,000. Nevertheless the Bristol shipowners achieved a handsome return on their investment. It had been agreed that two-thirds of the total sum would go to the owners and one-third to the crew. Thomas Goldney had invested £3,726 in the venture and was rewarded with £6,826. Dr Thomas Dover had invested £3,312 and received £6,067.7

The crew were not so fortunate. A man of dubious character called Stephen Creagh (an acquaintance later said he ‘knew nothing good of him’) had gone to the Netherlands and persuaded 209 crew members to take him on as their agent. In due course he instituted a case in the Court of Chancery in which he not only accused the ships’ owners and captains of being guilty of irregular practices, but also charged Woodes Rogers with fraud against the owners. The case came to nothing and served only to delay the warehousing of the cargoes. Some members of the crews had still not received the full pay due to them three years later and in June 1714 they sent a petition to the House of Lords. In a second petition they complained that thousands of pounds were lying idle while they and their poor families were ‘perishing from want of bread, and daily thrown into gaols or in danger of being so’.8

William Dampier, who had now completed his third global circumnavigation, did not live to receive his share of the profits. His extraordinary powers of endurance had enabled him to survive tropical hurricanes and the rigours of life with the log-cutters of the Bay of Campeche. During the course of twelve years with roving bands of buccaneers he had endured forced marches through the dense jungle of the Isthmus of Panama, and he had lived through storms, shipwrecks and ruthless attacks on Spanish towns and ships. He had led an abortive expedition to Australia and been reprimanded by a naval court martial. And during the course of a second circumnavigation in command of the privateer St George he had attacked but failed to capture the Manila galleon. Finally, in his late fifties, he had joined Rogers’ privateering expedition, where his navigational skills and his knowledge of barely charted islands and places of refuge had contributed significantly to the success of the venture. He was now aged sixty and showed no inclination to write or publish any observations on his recent experiences. He retired to a house in Coleman Street in the City of London where he lived with his maternal cousin Grace Mercer, who acted as his housekeeper. The street was on the outer edge of the area destroyed by the Fire of London in 1666 and was a mix of old and new buildings. It was near the medieval Guildhall and close to the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally ill. Usually referred to as Bedlam, the hospital had been moved to a new building in Moorfields in 1675, but was still notorious for the brutal treatment of its inmates.

It seems possible that Dampier was given a small advance on the money owed to him for his role as pilot for the Bristol privateers while the legal proceedings in Chancery dragged on but he was chiefly dependent on the Customs House sinecure which he had been awarded following the publication in 1697 of his much acclaimed book A New Voyage Round the World. He died early in 1715, leaving debts of £677 17s. 1d. In his last will, which he signed on 29 November 1714, he was recorded as being of sound and perfect mind but ‘weak and diseased’. The will was proved on 23 March 1715 and in it Dampier left one-tenth of his estate to his brother George and the remainder to Grace Mercer, who eventually received Dampier’s share of the prize money from the Master in Chancery, which amounted to £1,050 17s. 10d.9

Alexander Selkirk seems to have done better than most of the crew financially and certainly deserved to do so. Unlike the other privateers, who had been away for just over three years, he had been away for more than eight years, half of that time spent surviving alone on a Pacific island. Rescued by Rogers’ expedition, he had proved an extremely capable seaman. He had been made master of the Increase, the ship they had captured off the island of Lobos, and had later been appointed master of the captured Manila galleon, the renamed Batchelor, under the nominal command of Thomas Dover. As master and navigator he was entitled to ten shares of that part of the prize money allotted to the crew, which would have amounted to £450, and he was also entitled to a certain amount of Storm money and Plunder money. When interviewed by Richard Steele for an article which appeared in The Englishman in December 1713 he said, ‘I am now worth eight hundred pounds, but shall never be so happy as when I was not worth a farthing.’

In addition to his share of the prize money, we learn from the will which Selkirk drew up in 1717 that he owned a house as well as gardens, yards and orchards in his native village of Largo in Scotland. When his will was disputed by his second wife (of which more later) she maintained that he had left in the hands of his first wife some money, plate, bonds and securities ‘to the value of five hundred pounds and upwards, particularly four gold rings, one silver tobacco box, one gold head of a cane, one pair of gold candlesticks, one silver-hilted sword, a considerable parcel of linen cloth and divers sea books and instruments’.10 Some of these items, notably the gold rings, candlesticks and sword, were probably acquired during the looting of Guayaquil or were plundered from ships they had captured off the coast of South America.

Rogers, who had carried the chief burden of command throughout the voyage, had the most difficult homecoming of them all. Not only was he the principal target of the legal action instituted in the courts by Stephen Creagh, but his share of the profits failed to cover his debts. Some of the crew had expected the value of the plunder to be in the region of £3 million and accused Rogers of stealing a portion of it and hiding it at Batavia. This may have been a wild and baseless accusation but more serious was a letter written to the owners by Thomas Dover and signed by Dampier and others. The letter was sent soon after their arrival in the Netherlands and complained that Rogers ‘is disposing of what he thinks fit out of this ship … We called a Council and would have had the chest out of him of pearl, jewels and gold but he swore by God we should not upon which I proposed to the Council to confine him … and was threatened with death.’11

Rogers was entitled as captain to twenty-four shares, which came to £1,015 4s. 0d.12 With the addition of Storm money and other allowances granted to him, the total amounted to little more than £1,530. Before the proceedings in Chancery were concluded he was declared bankrupt. On 10 January 1712 readers of the London Gazette were informed that ‘a Commission of Bankrupt is awarded against Woods Rogers of the City of Bristol’. He was required to report to the White Lion in Broad Street, Bristol, and then to the Trumpet in Shire Lane in the City of London, where ‘the creditors are to come prepared to prove debts, pay Contribution-money, and chuse an Assignee or Assignees’.13 The most likely reason for Rogers’ financial problems was his wife Sarah’s debts because she had had no source of income while he was away. She had left their gracious house in Queen Square, Bristol, and taken their three children to live with her father, Admiral Whetstone. When Whetstone died in April 1711 she continued to live with her mother-in-law, Lady Whetstone, but she must have run up considerable debts during the three years of Rogers’ absence.

Rogers may have been aware of the problems he faced on his return. He had been in great pain for many months and was frequently unable to perform his duties as captain. In an earlier letter, written to the shipowners from Cape Town, Thomas Dover had complained that Rogers was ‘a dead weight’ whose behaviour was marked by violent threats to the crew. Embittered as Rogers was by the knowledge that he stood to gain very little from the voyage in spite of his steadfast leadership during storms, mutinies, the raid on Guayaquil and the attack on the Manila galleon, we can see why he might have been driven to the desperate measures described by Dover in his letter from the Netherlands.

Whether Rogers was reunited with his wife and family in London or Bristol is not known but, ten months after his return, his wife gave birth to their fourth child, a boy who was christened at St Michael’s Church in the city. Sadly the child lived for only eight months and was buried in the same church in April 1712. It may have been soon after this that the couple separated. Sarah continued to live in Bristol and Rogers spent most of his time in London. His priority now was to publish his sea journal in book form. This may have been prompted by the knowledge that Edward Cooke was intending to publish his own account of the voyage, and no doubt the financial rewards of publication were a significant motive. But Rogers makes it clear in the introduction to his book that his primary objective was to tell his side of the story: ‘I was not fond to appear in print; but the solicitations of my friends who had read my journal, and the mistaken reports that were spread abroad of our voyage, prevailed with me at last to publish it.’

While Rogers was involved with legal disputes and family concerns, Edward Cooke was free to concentrate on the preparation of his book. As second captain of the Dutchess he had been involved in most of the key decisions and actions during the circumnavigation and he had a good story to tell. Five months after the privateers’ ships dropped anchor in the Thames his book was in print. On 27 March 1712 an advertisement appeared in a London newspaper which began, ‘This day is published A Voyage to the South Sea, and round the World by the Bristol ships the Duke and Duchess, in the years 1708, 1709 and 1711 … by Capt Edw. Cooke.’14 It was illustrated with a fold-out map, coastal profiles, charts of a number of islands and woodcuts of some of the fish, birds and animals encountered during the voyage. Cooke shrewdly dedicated his book to Robert Harley, who had recently become the leading politician of the day and had a particular interest in the South Seas.

Three months later, on 26 June, an advertisement appeared in the same newspaper for Rogers’ book. It was entitled A Cruising Voyage Round the World and was priced at six shillings. It lacked the numerous illustrations of Cooke’s volume but it did include a detailed account of how Alexander Selkirk had endured his years as a castaway. Cooke had dismissed Selkirk’s adventures in a few sentences but ‘that short hint raised the curiosity of some persons to expect a more particular relation of his living in that tedious solitude’. His printers hastily brought out a second volume in which he did full justice to Selkirk’s ordeal.

Neither Rogers’ nor Cooke’s account showed the intense curiosity about the natural world or the keen observation and powers of description which distinguished Dampier’s publications. Indeed Rogers made it clear that he had chosen to keep to the language of the sea, ‘which is more genuine and natural for a mariner’. He knew that people expected books about distant voyages to be concerned with new and wonderful discoveries, but he explained that he had restricted his descriptions to those places which would be useful for future trade. His lengthy introduction drew attention to the vast wealth of Spain’s empire in South and Central America, and he pointed out that in recent years the French had proved remarkably successful at trading in the South Seas and had ‘carried home above 100 millions of dollars, which is near 25 millions sterling’. Rogers encouraged his countrymen to establish a trading settlement in Chile, where the climate was so wholesome. His taking of Guayaquil with a handful of undisciplined men showed that the Spanish would offer little opposition, and the natives of Chile, who were a brave people, had such an aversion to the Spanish that they would readily side with the English in order to be free from the cruelty and oppression they had suffered for so long.

Rogers’ arguments were very much in tune with the times. Daniel Defoe had been writing pamphlets encouraging the South Sea trade for several years.15 The cause had been taken up by Robert Harley, former speaker of the House of Commons and now Lord Treasurer and head of the Tory administration which had enjoyed a landslide win in the general election of 1710. Although he was a notoriously poor speaker Harley was a master of behind-the-scenes diplomacy. He was largely responsible for setting up the South Sea Company. This was an ambitious scheme to take over a large proportion of the national debt incurred during the war with France and Spain, and at the same time to profit from trading with Spain’s colonies in South America. A bill was introduced in May 1711 which was intended to give ‘the Company of Merchants of Great Britain Trading to the South Seas and other parts of America’ a monopoly similar to that enjoyed by the East India Company in the Far East. The bill received the royal assent on 12 June, a few months before Rogers’ expedition arrived in the Thames with a captured galleon as visible proof of the riches of the South Seas. During the winter months following their return both Rogers and Cooke were consulted by the company. Cooke submitted a list of the principal harbours on the Pacific coast of South America, and Rogers provided some practical advice on a scheme for sending a major expedition from Britain to the Pacific.16 The high hopes of the promoters of the South Sea Company were never realised. All depended on securing peace with Spain and not till 1713 did the company gain limited access to Spanish markets in America. The much-sought-after asiento de negros allowed the company to ship 4,800 African slaves every year across the Atlantic, but Spain would agree to only one ship a year being allowed to trade with South America. The company did survive the South Sea Bubble of 1720 when thousands of people were ruined by the crash of its stock but the venture became an object lesson on the folly of wild and unrealistic speculation.

When the Duke and Dutchess had set out on their privateering voyage in the summer of 1708 England had been at war with France and Spain for six years. Marlborough had followed his famous victory at Blenheim with another victory over the French at Malplaquet but it was at a heavy cost in lives. He told his wife that it had been a very bloody battle but ‘it is now in our powers to have what peace we please’. However, neither Britain nor her enemies were in the mood for peace and it would be another five years before representatives of the warring nations finally gathered in the Dutch city of Utrecht to end the War of the Spanish Succession. Robert Harley, who in 1711 had been elevated to the peerage as Baron Harley, Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, was one of the leading advocates for peace. In addition to his diplomatic efforts he enlisted the help of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift to influence public opinion in Britain. Defoe, who had been working for Harley for several years, wrote a series of articles setting out the benefits of peace in the Review, the periodical he founded in 1709. Jonathan Swift, recently appointed editor of the Examiner, published a pamphlet entitled ‘The Conduct of Allies’ in which he both attacked the Whigs for prolonging a war which had proved ruinously expensive for the nation and blamed the Dutch for their failure to share the financial burden. The pamphlet went into six editions and sold 11,000 copies in two months. Harley also persuaded the Queen to create eleven new peers in order to overcome the Whig opposition to peace in the House of Lords. A series of unofficial negotiations finally paved the way for the Treaty of Utrecht, which was signed on 11 April 1713 by representatives of Britain, France, Spain, Savoy and the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

A key clause of the treaty stipulated that Philip V of Spain must renounce for himself and his descendants any right to the French throne, thus removing the great fear of Britain and her allies that there might be a union of the French and Spanish crowns. Britain gained the North American territories of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Hudson’s Bay; and in the Mediterranean she acquired Gibraltar and Minorca, both of strategic importance for naval operations. Austria gained the Spanish Netherlands, Sardinia and the Kingdom of Naples. France agreed to dismantle the harbour fortifications of Dunkirk, which had sheltered an extremely effective flotilla of French privateers. During the war these corsairs had prowled up and down the English Channel and captured or ransomed 1,685 merchant ships.17

News of the peace treaty was greeted in England by the ringing of church bells and by the lighting of bonfires in the streets. Handel composed the Utrecht Te Deum, which was performed at a thanksgiving service in Wren’s recently completed St Paul’s Cathedral on 7 July 1713. Across the Atlantic the Boston News-Letter reported that the proclamation of the peace was greeted ‘with all demonstrations of joy, and followed by firing the guns of the town, and at the forts, both of Salem and Marblehead’.18

Meanwhile some interesting developments had been taking place in the social life of London. Throughout the City and the West End coffee houses had become meeting places where men from many walks of life met to gossip, transact business and exchange news. The first coffee house had opened in London in 1652 but it was during the reign of Queen Anne that coffee houses proliferated and by the time of her death in 1714 there were reckoned to be 497 in the capital. Certain premises tended to attract men with similar interests: St James’s Coffee House in St James’s Street became a meeting place for Whigs while Tories made for the Cocoa Tree in Pall Mall; literary men tended to gather in Button’s Coffee House in Russell Street, Covent Garden; merchants and shipowners met to discuss shipping news in Edward Lloyd’s premises in Lombard Street.

The coffee houses became the breeding ground for the newspapers. At first these were no more than single sheets which were distributed to those using the coffee houses but so great was the demand that they were soon being printed and circulated on a commercial scale. ‘What attracts enormously to these coffee houses,’ wrote a Swiss visitor, ‘are the gazettes and other public papers. All Englishmen are great newsmongers.’19 Defoe’s thrice-weekly Review and Swift’s weekly Examiner have already been noted but there were several others, notably the Daily Courant, which had the distinction of being the first daily newspaper in the world when it appeared on the scene in 1702. One of the most influential of all the papers was the Spectator, first issued in 1711. This was the creation of Joseph Addison and his friend Richard Steele. They had been contemporaries at Oxford and both entered politics but it was through their journalism that they made their mark. What distinguished the Spectator from other newspapers and periodicals was that it provided an intelligent commentary on events and included witty observations on the manners, morals and literature of the day.

It was Richard Steele who interviewed Alexander Selkirk and provided another view of the circumstances of his marooning and the practical measures he took to ensure his survival.20 ‘I had the pleasure frequently to converse with the man soon after his arrival in England in the year 1711,’ he wrote. ‘It was a matter of great curiosity to hear him, as he is a man of good sense …’ Steele underlined the fact that Selkirk chose to be put ashore at Juan Fernández because of his irreconcilable difference with his disagreeable commander but noted that his resolution changed when he saw the vessel put off from the shore and he realised he was parting from his comrades and all human society at once. He recounted how Selkirk overcame his initial depression by frequent reading of the scriptures so that he learnt to enjoy his solitary existence. ‘It was his manner to use stated hours and places for exercises of devotion which he performed aloud, in order to keep up the faculties of speech …’ Steele also noted how Selkirk’s manner and appearance changed as he became accustomed to the busy life of London:

When I first saw him I thought if I had not been let into his character and story I could have discerned that he had been much separated from company from his aspect and gesture; there was a strong but cheerful seriousness in his look, and a certain disregard to the ordinary things about him, as if he had been sunk in thought … Though I had frequently conversed with him, after a few months’ absence he met me in the street, and though he spoke to me, I could not recollect that I had seen him; familiar discourse in this town had taken off the loneliness of his aspect, and quite altered the air of his face.

Selkirk seems to have relapsed into the restless and irresponsible behaviour which was not uncommon among sailors ashore. After spending a year or so in London as a lodger with Katherine Mason, the wife of a Covent Garden tailor, he evidently moved to Bristol because in September 1713 the records of the Queen’s Bench show that Alexander Selkirk ‘of the parish of St Stephens in Bristol, Nauta’ was arraigned for committing an assault on Richard Nettle, a shipwright.21 He then decided to return to Largo. There he fell in love with a local girl, Sophia Bruce, and persuaded her to move down to London with him. In the first of his two wills he appointed his ‘loveing and well beloved friend Sophia Bruce of Pell Mell London Spinster’ as his heir.22 This will was signed at Wapping on 13 January 1717. According to sworn evidence given by Sophia six years later he married her on or about 4 March 1717 and then ‘went on board his Majesties Ship the Enterprize without altering the said will or making any other will and did not return to Great Brittain till about Eight Months after’, when he took up with Sophia again and stayed with her in London for the next eight months.23 HMS Enterprise was a 40-gun ship commanded by Captain Mungo Herdman and her logbooks indicate that she spent this period on a series of cruises which took her around the west coast of the British Isles as far north as Stornaway and then south to Lisbon and Vigo Bay. She was back in Plymouth by the autumn of 1720.24 Her muster books for this time are missing, so we do not know exactly when Selkirk signed on to her books or whether Sophia was correct in saying that he left the ship after eight months and returned to her in London. It seems more likely that he remained a member of the crew of the Enterpriseuntil 20 October 1720, when Captain Herdman was given command of HMS Weymouth, and the entire crew of the Enterprise were ‘turned over’ to the Weymouth, a new ship of 50 guns which was moored at Plymouth.

It is well documented that Selkirk was first mate on the Weymouth and, unfortunately for Sophia, it is also well documented that he went through a second marriage in Plymouth. In the registers of St Andrew’s parish church there is an entry which records that Alexander Selkirk and Frances Candish were granted a licence by Mr Forster on 12 December 1720.25 Frances Candish appears to have been an attractive widow who was the proprietor of a public house at Oreston in the parish of Plymstock, which was close to the waterfront of Plymouth Sound. On the same day as the marriage, no doubt prompted by his new wife, Selkirk made a second will in which he gave and bequeathed all his wages, sums of money, lands, tenements, goods and chattels ‘unto my well-beloved wife Frances Silkirk of Oarston’. He made her his sole executor of this, his last will and testament, ‘hereby revoking all former and other wills’.26

In 1723, following the death of Selkirk, the two women would meet in the Court of Chancery to determine which of them had the stronger claim to receive his wages, his lands and possessions. The legal battle was acrimonious and poor Sophia found herself described as ‘a person of very indifferent character and reputation’ and that Selkirk had been ‘a boarder or lodger with her for about the space of five or six months’. By this time Frances had married a third time, and she and her new husband, Francis Hall, were determined to get their hands on all Selkirk’s money and estate as well as the gold candlesticks, gold rings and silver-hilted sword he had acquired during his privateering voyages. Frances evidently had the stronger case in law because Sophia lost everything. It is not known whether Sophia remained in London or returned to her native Largo but an undated letter from her survives which was written to Mr Say, a dissenting minister of Westminster, in which she appealed for help. It begins:

Reverend Sir,

I being a person much reduced to want, by reason of this hard season, makes me presume to trouble you, which I hope your goodness will not resist to relieve, I being the widow of Mr Selchrig who was left four years and four months on the island of John Ferinanda [sic], and besides I had three uncles in Scotland, all ministers …27

It has to be said that it was not uncommon for sailors like Selkirk to live up to their traditional image of having a wife in every port. Usually these were casual affairs but on occasion a sailor made it official. Rogers noted in A Cruising Voyage Round the Worldthat during the weeks the Duke and Dutchess were stocking up in Ireland, ‘Our crew were continually marrying, tho they expected to sail immediately. Among others there was a Dane coupled by a Romish Priest to an Irish Woman, without understanding a word of each other’s language, so that they were forced to use an interpreter …’ In 1732 a special court was set up for the relief of poor widows of commissioned officers and warrant officers of the Royal Navy. An examination of the records shows that between 1750 and 1800 there were twenty-two cases in which two wives applied for the pension of the same man.28 The usual practice of the charity’s commissioners was to award the pension to the first wife provided that she could supply proof of the date of her marriage. Sophia Bruce was unable to provide this proof and so lost her case.

HMS Weymouth, with Selkirk on board, left Plymouth on 21 December 1720 and headed for Portsmouth. She remained in the anchorage at Spithead for the next six weeks while a convoy of merchant ships bound for Africa was assembled. On 5 February she set sail in the company of HMS Swallow, under the command of Captain Chaloner Ogle. The two ships had orders to escort the merchant ships to the Guinea Coast and then to track down the pirates who were operating in that area. It would prove to be the last of Selkirk’s ocean voyages.

The remaining years of Rogers’ life would also be much concerned with the pirates. Following the publication of A Cruising Voyage Round the World in 1712 he embarked on a curious project which began as a commercial venture to make money from slave trading. It involved a voyage to Madagascar, where he made contact with the remnants of a pirate colony, and developed into a scheme to establish an English settlement on the island. During the voyage of the Duke and Dutchess Rogers had been much impressed by the success of the Dutch settlements at Batavia and in South Africa and had noted that the Dutch at Cape Town ‘generally send a ship every year from hence to Madagascar for slaves, to supply their plantations’. Having found the backing of enough sponsors to purchase the 460-ton merchant ship Delicia, he approached the East India Company and in October 1713 obtained their approval to buy slaves in Madagascar for sale in the East Indies.29

Rogers arrived in Cape Town in the early part of 1714, and then spent two months on the coast of Madagascar. Once a flourishing rendezvous for pirates who preyed on shipping in the Indian Ocean and the haunt of such celebrated pirates as Henry Avery, Captain Kidd and Thomas Tew, the island was now home to a miserable collection of pirates who had married native women and were accompanied by a motley collection of children and grandchildren. According to one description of Rogers’ visit, ‘they had nothing to cover them but the skins of beasts … and being overgrown with beard, and hair upon their bodies, they appeared the most savage figures that a man’s imagination can frame’.30 It seems that Rogers did manage to get hold of enough slaves to make it worth his while to head for the East India Company’s trading post at Benkoelen in Sumatra, where he sold them and made contact with the Governor, Joseph Collett.31

By 1715 Rogers was back in England. The records of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge show that in April 1716 he was negotiating with the society to send books to Madagascar. On 7 May he wrote to Sir Hans Sloane, the celebrated physician, naturalist and collector: ‘I being ambitious to promote a settlement on Madagascar beg [you will be] pleased to send me what accounts you have of that island …’32 There is no record of Sloane providing him with any information and within a year of this request Rogers had abandoned his plans for Madagascar and become involved in a much more ambitious scheme. This would lead to his appointment as Governor of the Bahamas and would bring him into direct conflict with some of the most notorious pirates of the day.

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