On 5 September 1716 an alarming sheaf of documents arrived on the desk of Mr Burchett at the Admiralty Office in Whitehall. Unlike the tedious complaints which were regularly received from governors and merchants in the Caribbean, these documents contained detailed information which could not be ignored. The documents came from Alexander Spotswood, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, and were characteristic of the man who would acquire a formidable reputation as the bane of the pirates and the nemesis of Blackbeard. He enclosed the sworn deposition of John Vickers, a former resident of the Bahamas who had fled to Virginia. Vickers described the recent raids of Jennings on the Spanish wrecks and shipping, and gave a disturbing account of the violent men who were terrorising the inhabitants of New Providence.1 Spotswood also enclosed his letter of instructions to Captain Beverley, commander of the sloop Virgin, which commissioned him to investigate the current situation in the Bahamas (the number of inhabitants and the state of the forts) and ordered him to see whether any of the wrecked treasure ships were near any coasts or islands belonging to Britain and, if they were, to recover and save as much as he could and ‘to assert the claim of His Majesty to the said wrecks by the Law of Nations as being within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of Great Britain’.2
In his covering letter Spotswood provided a masterly account of recent events in the Bahamas. He described the settlement of the pirates on New Providence, the robberies they had inflicted on the French and Spanish, and the likely consequences of allowing such a crew of robbers to establish themselves on the island. He mentioned the capture of a ship of 32 guns by the pirates: ‘What a vessel of this force, manned by a company of such desperadoes, may be able to attempt, is easy to imagine.’ He considered that all these matters should be brought to the attention of His Majesty and his ministers and concluded that it was in the interest of Great Britain ‘that some Government be speedily established in the Island of Providence and the place made defensible against the sudden attempt of pirates or the neighbouring Spaniards, who have so often obstructed the settlement thereof’.3
Spotswood had also ordered Captain Howard, the commander of HMS Shoreham on the Virginia station, to sail down to St Augustin on the Florida coast. He was to deliver various letters and investigate and report on the Spanish wrecks. Captain Howard’s report was received by Mr Burchett at the Admiralty a few weeks after he had received Spotswood’s documents. Captain Howard described how a number of sloops, with commissions from the Governor of Jamaica, were fishing on the wrecks and had gone ashore and taken 20,000 pieces of eight from the Spaniards. He said that the crews of three of these sloops had subsequently become pirates. ‘One Hornigold, Jennings and Fernando who got two hundred men and are joined by a French man … they harbour at Providence where they re-victual and clean.’4 In his view two small frigates or sloops would be able to rout them out before they acquired more strength.
The Lords of the Admiralty were so concerned about the letters from Governor Spotswood and Captain Howard that Mr Burchett was instructed to pass them on to the Council of Trade and Plantations and to George, Prince of Wales, who was acting as regent while his father, King George I, was paying an extended visit to Hanover. His Royal Highness ordered the Council of Trade and Plantations to consider what course the Government should take ‘to dislodge those profligate fellows or pirates that may have possessed themselves of the Island of Providence’.5
Exactly how Woodes Rogers got to hear of these developments is not known, nor can we be sure whether it was his idea to put his name forward as Governor of the Bahamas or whether he was approached by some of the influential merchants of London and Bristol who traded with the West Indies. What we do know is that a key figure in the subsequent proposals for dealing with the problems of the Bahamas was a wealthy London merchant and shipowner called Samuel Buck. He had sent two of his ships, the Samuel and the Sarah, to New Providence in April 1716. They carried cargoes for trading but their captains were also instructed ‘to view the state of that place to consider what improvement could be made, and how the pirates might best be dislodged, and a trade settled’.6 The Sarah had been captured by pirates but when the Samuel returned Buck decided to set up a partnership with the aim of establishing a new settlement on Providence. He and five copartners would raise the money to send out ships, workmen and soldiers, and restore government to the islands, which had been sorely neglected in recent years.7 In 1670 King Charles II had handed responsibility for the Bahamas to six aristocrats, including the Duke of Albemarle, Lord Craven and Lord Berkeley. As ‘absolute Lords and Proprietors’ they were given authority to enact laws and to appoint governors or deputy governors of the islands.8 The governors whom they had appointed had failed to establish their authority or improve the defences, with the result that the islands had four times been attacked and plundered by the Spanish and were now without any form of government.
It may have been Samuel Buck who suggested that Rogers apply for the post of governor, or it may be that Rogers heard about the problems of the Bahamas and saw his opportunity. What is certain is that he abandoned his Madagascar project and by July 1717 was lobbying for the Bahamas post. He entered into partnership with the other sponsors and addressed a letter to the Lords Proprietors explaining that he and his partners had raised funds for an armed merchant ship and were proposing to take her to the Bahamas ‘with such smaller vessels as shall be necessary to carry all things fit for a new settlement’.9 The merchant ship would act as guardship to the settlement while fortifications were improved and barracks built for the garrison. He asked their lordships to grant him and his partners a twenty-one-year lease, on certain conditions – for instance, for the first seven years they would pay only a peppercorn rent.
Rogers also approached King George. He sent a paper which set out the current problems of the Bahamas and his offer to proceed to New Providence with a ship and a garrison to restore order. He also sent the King a petition in which he pointed out that he was ‘conversant with remote undertakings’ and was therefore emboldened to request that His Majesty might be graciously pleased to appoint him governor of the islands.10 His proposals were accompanied by a petition signed by fifty-six merchants who traded with different parts of the King’s dominions in America and had suffered severe losses at the hands of the pirates. They stressed the need to restore order in the Bahamas, which had been so often plundered by the enemy during the late war and were now at the mercy of loose people and pirates ‘to the utter ruin of the industrious inhabitants and to the great prejudice of trade in general …’.11
In July 1717 another group of merchants sent a memorial to Joseph Addison, the poet and essayist who had co-founded the Spectator. In addition to his work as a writer and journalist Addison was also a Member of Parliament and had recently been appointed as one of the commissioners of the Council of Trade and Plantations. The merchants informed Addison of the strategic importance of the Bahamas, ‘the key to the Gulf of Florida’, and of the danger from the French and Spanish as well as the pirates. They expressed their support for Rogers’ proposals for settling and securing the islands, and pointed out that he was a person of integrity and capacity. They recommended him ‘as a person every way qualified for such an undertaking’.12
On 3 September Addison was able to report to the Council of Trade and Plantations that the King had agreed to a number of measures to deal with the situation in the West Indies. The Admiralty would be sending one fourth-rate and two fifth-rate men-of-war ‘to suppress the pirates and protect the trade’. A proclamation was to be prepared to announce the royal pardon to those pirates who surrendered themselves within a certain time. And, being very well satisfied with the character given of Captain Woodes Rogers ‘by the most considerable merchants of London and Bristol’, the King was pleased to appoint Captain Rogers to be Governor of the Bahama Islands ‘to drive the pirates from their lodgement at Harbour Island and Providence’.13
The newspapers duly reported that some men-of-war were to be sent to the West Indies and gave details of the royal pardon being promised to the pirates who surrendered, but they made no mention at this stage of Rogers’ appointment. There had been a rash of robberies by highwaymen and others during that year and the details of these and the subsequent executions dominated the London news. The savage response of the authorities to these domestic crimes is worth noting because it puts in context the massed hangings of pirates which would take place in the colonies between 1718 and 1726.14 In January 1717 three highwaymen had robbed the Bristol Mail coach at Brentford. They were caught two days later and were sentenced to death following their trial at the Old Bailey. They were hanged at Tyburn on 20 May. Eight people were hanged for burglary three weeks later. In August four people were hanged at Maidstone and a week later seven were executed at Kingston-upon-Thames, including a husband and wife found guilty of coining. The woman was burnt to death. Fourteen men and a woman were sentenced to death and were executed on 17 October. On 18 October the Irish Mail coach was held up by five highwaymen on Finchley Common, north of London. They robbed all the passengers, including a lady ‘whom they stripped of her gold watch, rings, clothes, smock and all, leaving her naked, the coachman being obliged to wrap her in his greatcoat, and the lady forced to go home in that condition’.15 Four of the five highwaymen were caught and later hanged. Lesser punishments recorded by the London newspapers included burning malefactors in the hand, public whippings, the pillory, fines and imprisonment in Newgate or Marshalsea prisons.
Six weeks after the decision to appoint him as Governor of the Bahamas a report appeared in the Post Boy newspaper. Readers were informed that ‘Captain Rogers, who took the Acapulco Ship in the South-Seas’ had kissed His Majesty’s hand at Hampton Court Palace on being made Governor. A brief report a few days later declared that ‘Captain Rogers sets out in a few days for his government of the Island of Providence’, but this announcement was premature as it would be seven months before Rogers set sail from Spithead. In addition to preparing and provisioning his ship he and his copartners had to raise an independent company of soldiers and find people who would be prepared to settle on New Providence and help with the restoration of the fort, build houses and clear the land for planting crops. Not till the end of April 1718 would the squadron of warships and armed merchantmen be ready to embark on their mission.
Meanwhile the situation in the Caribbean was rapidly deteriorating. It is evident from many other reports received by the Council of Trade and Plantations around this time that the pirates were now operating right across the Caribbean and along the Eastern seaboard of North America, and had acquired some powerful vessels.16 The seriousness of the situation was summed up by Peter Heywood, who had succeeded Archibald Hamilton as Governor of Jamaica. ‘I think the pyrates daily increase, taking and plundering most ships and vessels bound to this island,’ he wrote on 21 December. The pirates had landed on the leeward side of the island and robbed the local inhabitants and the situation was now so bad ‘that no ships that are bound for Great Britain dare stir without a convoy …’.17
During the autumn and winter of 1717 and into the spring of 1718 Rogers, Buck and their partners made preparations for the expedition to the Bahamas. Four merchant ships were fitted out, loaded with cargoes suitable for trading in the West Indies, and supplied with seamen. The biggest of the ships was the 460-ton Delicia of 30 guns, which had a crew of ninety. She was accompanied by the 300-ton Willing Mind, 20 guns and twenty-two men; the 135-ton Samuel, of 6 guns and twenty-six men; and the seventy-five-ton sloop Buck, of 6 guns and twelve men.18 The partners managed to assemble more than 100 men to form a company of soldiers, and some 200 civilians, some of whom were accompanied by women and children. Among the civilians were men with useful trades such as carpenters, coopers and builders. Enough basic provisions were bought to last for fourteen months, as well as tools and equipment for building houses, repairing fortifications and clearing the land. The intention was to plant enough crops of sugar, tobacco, ginger, indigo and cotton to enable the settlers to earn a living and the copartners to recover the costs of setting up the expedition. It was later estimated that the total cost of the ships, the wages of the sailors and soldiers and the cost of rebuilding the fort at Nassau amounted to more than £90,000.19
To accompany the merchantmen the Admiralty provided three warships: the fifth-rate ship Milford, 32 guns, commanded by Captain Chamberlain (promoted commodore in recognition of his role in charge of the squadron); the sixth-rate Rose, 20 guns, Captain Whitney; and the sloop Shark, 10 guns, Captain Pomeroy. All three ships were fitted out at the royal dockyards on the Thames. In mid-January 1718 the Milford was lying on moorings at Woolwich, the Rose and the Shark were at Deptford. Captain Whitney arrived at Deptford dockyard on 18 January and noted in his logbook that the Rose was in the wet dock, ‘there being orders from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to fit her for a foreign voyage to the southward’. During the next six weeks the ships were overhauled, their masts taken out and replaced, new rigging set up and stores and provisions taken on board. By 18 March they had left the dockyards and were anchored in Galleons Reach, the stretch of the Thames between Woolwich and Barking. There they were joined by the Delicia. In light winds and fair weather they made their way downstream, out of the Thames Estuary and round the North Foreland to the anchorage at the Downs, where they paused briefly so that Commodore Chamberlain could send letters ashore. Strong winds and squally weather greeted them as they entered the Solent on 25 April. After five days at anchor among the warships and smaller craft at Spithead, the Milford signalled to the squadron to weigh anchor. At 2 p.m. on 1 May they set sail for the West Indies. As they proceeded down the Channel they were joined by the Samuel and then by the transport ship Willing Mind and the sloop Buck.
It took them three weeks to reach Madeira, and at this point Chamberlain ordered the Rose to leave the squadron and press ahead to Barbados. He gave Captain Whitney instructions to find pilots to assist their arrival at New Providence. The rest of the squadron followed on more slowly towards the Bahamas. The Rose reached Barbados on 4 July and anchored in Carlisle Bay. Four days later, with a pilot on board, she headed north and made her way past Montserrat and Anguilla until 23 July, when her lookouts sighted the long, low-lying island of Eleuthera. At 3 p.m. the next day five ships were seen on the horizon. Whitney cleared his ship for action and headed south towards the distant sails. When he hailed the nearest ship he found it was the Delicia carrying Governor Rogers. As he drew closer to the three merchant vessels and their naval escort Whitney saluted the Milford with seven guns and received a seven-gun salute in reply. All the ships heaved to so that Whitney could be briefed by Commodore Chamberlain. It was agreed that they would wait till early next morning and then the Rose would go ahead and lead the way along the coast of Eleuthera, towards New Providence. They sighted their destination on the afternoon of 25 July and headed for the harbour entrance of Nassau, unaware of the hostile reception that awaited them.
Woodes Rogers had overcome many obstacles and faced many setbacks during his privateering voyage round the world but even for a man of his experience the situation in the Bahamas was daunting. He had been briefed on what to expect by merchants trading in the West Indies, and by the reports of colonial governors, but the reality of the situation on New Providence was worse than any of the reports.
Unlike Jamaica with its fine natural harbour and its mountains, valleys and pastures, the Bahamas consisted of more than 700 low-lying islands, many of them barren outcrops scattered with scrub and mangroves or sandy islets surrounded by coral reefs. Only a few of the islands were inhabited, notably Eleuthera, the nearby Harbour Island and New Providence. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492 his first landfall had been on one of the outer islands of the Bahamas. It was inhabited by Arawak Indians called Lucayans who had migrated there from South America. Columbus had named the island San Salvador and claimed it in the names of the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. Failing to find any gold or silver in the Bahamas, the Spanish who followed Columbus more or less abandoned the islands. In 1629 England put in a formal claim to the Bahamas but no settlement took place until the 1640s and 1650s. When King Charles II handed responsibility for the Bahamas to the Lords Proprietors in 1670, there were a few people eking out a living on Eleuthera, and on New Providence some plantations of cotton and tobacco had been established and a small town had grown up along the waterfront of the harbour. Originally called Charles Town, this was renamed Nassau in 1695 in honour of King William III, who was from the Dutch house of Orange-Nassau. The harbour was relatively shallow and the approaches were not easy but the anchorage was protected by a low offshore island called Hog Island and provided a convenient base for merchant vessels and privateers.
The Spanish on the great islands of Cuba and Hispaniola resented the presence of the English interlopers in an area which they regarded as theirs by right of discovery and conquest. Relations varied between neutrality and outright hostility. Some of the inhabitants of New Providence made a useful income by recovering goods and treasure from the many ships wrecked on the reefs of the Bahamas. Most of the wrecked ships were Spanish, which provoked a savage retaliation against the islanders. We learn that ‘their vessels were many times seized, their persons imprisoned and not seldom murdered and inhumanely treated by the Spaniards’.20 In 1682 the Spanish made a concerted attack on New Providence from Cuba, destroying the plantations, demolishing houses, plundering the inhabitants and, according to one report, roasting alive the Governor, Colonel Clarke. Two years later the Spanish launched a second attack, destroying the new improvements, committing further barbarities and ‘leaving those that escaped in a miserable condition dispersed in the holes and woods amongst the islands’.21
The various governors who followed Colonel Clarke conspicuously failed to exert their authority. Colonel Cadwalader Jones, who arrived in 1690, was regarded as such a useless and ‘whimsical’ man that he was twice imprisoned and once confined on a ship in the harbour under armed guard. His successor, Nicholas Trott, arrived in 1694 and was present when the notorious pirate Henry Avery sailed into the harbour in a ship laden with loot from the capture of a fabulous treasure ship in the Indian Ocean. Trott permitted Avery and his crew to share out their plunder and trade with the inhabitants. When Colonel Haskett arrived in 1701 his attempts to impose order were met by open rebellion. He was confined in irons for six weeks and then put on a boat and sent back to England. In 1703 the Spaniards landed again. They demolished the fort which the inhabitants had built, burnt down houses and took the Deputy Governor off to Havana as a prisoner. French privateers attacked the islands of Eleuthera and Exuma in 1708 and, according to the deposition of Elizabeth Stroude of the Bahamas, they beat and tortured the women to find out where they had hidden their wealth.22
By 1713 New Providence had become a regular meeting place for pirates. In that year the Governor of Bermuda warned the Council of Trade and Plantations that ‘till the Bahamas are settled in some form they will still be a nest for pyrates; and we are now informed they are gathering together again, having riotously and quickly spent what they wickedly got’.23 We have already seen the arrival in New Providence of the logwood cutters and former privateers like Henry Jennings, but in the years immediately preceding Rogers’ arrival there had been further developments. By 1715 an unofficial leader had emerged from among the disparate crews and groupings of pirates based at Nassau. His name was Benjamin Hornigold. He had served aboard Jamaican privateers during the recent war and, after the Peace of Utrecht, turned to piracy. Unlike many of his fellow pirates he continued to regard himself as an English patriot and restricted his attacks to Spanish and French ships. He had begun his piratical career by using open boats to attack small merchant vessels and by the end of 1713 had brought back to Nassau plundered slaves, silks, rum, sugar and silver coins worth an estimated £13,175.24 By 1715 he was attacking bigger ships off the coast of Cuba and in December of that year he captured a large Spanish sloop which he renamed the Benjamin. He armed her with ten carriage guns and sailed her back to Cuba with a crew of 200. Off the Cuban coast he joined forces with Sam Bellamy and the French pirate Olivier La Buse to form a formidable squadron of three pirate ships: the Benjamin, the Marianne (commanded by Bellamy) and La Buse’s Postillon. Against Hornigold’s wishes they captured an English ship in the Yucatan Channel and then two Spanish brigantines. By May 1716 Hornigold was back in Nassau, which was now gaining a reputation as a lawless and dangerous place.
A vivid picture of the state of things at this time is contained in the formal deposition of John Vickers which Alexander Spotswood had sent to London together with his own assessment of the situation. Like several other law-abiding citizens of New Providence, Vickers had fled to Virginia. He described how Henry Jennings had arrived at the island on 22 April 1716 with a captured French ship which he had taken in the Bay of Hounds. Vickers claimed that ‘there are at Providence about 50 men who have deserted the sloops which were upon the wrecks, & commit great disorders in that island, plundering the inhabitants, burning their houses, and ravishing their wives’. He mentioned that earlier in the year a pirate called Benjamin Hornigold had sailed out of Nassau in the sloop Mary with a crew of 140 men and had captured a Spanish sloop on the coast of Florida, and he went on to say that ‘it is common for the sailors now at Providence (who call themselves the Flying Gang) to extort money from the inhabitants … many of the inhabitants of that island had deserted their habitations for fear of being murdered’.25
The leading member of Hornigold’s crew was an impressive figure who would later be described by one of his victims as ‘a tall spare man with a very black beard which he wore very long’.26 This was a former privateer from Bristol whose name was variously recorded as Edward Teach, Thatch, Titche, Tatch and Tach, but who would become better known as Blackbeard. In the autumn of 1716 he was given command of a sloop which he had captured with Hornigold and for the next year he continued to cruise in company with Hornigold. Captain Johnson published a dramatic account of Blackbeard’s life in his General History of the Pyrates of 1724, but the first mention in print of the man who would become the most notorious of all the Caribbean pirates was a report from Captain Matthew Munte. Sent to the Deputy Governor of South Carolina in March 1717, the merchant sea captain noted: ‘Five pirates made ye harbour of Providence their place of rendezvous, viz. Hornigold, a sloop with 10 guns and about 80 men; Jennings, a sloop with 10 guns and 100 men; Burgiss, a sloop with 8 guns and about 80 men; White, in a small vessel with 30 men and small arms; Thatch, a sloop 6 guns and about 70 men.’27
During the summer of 1717 Blackbeard was cruising off the coasts of Virginia and Delaware, where he made a series of attacks on merchant vessels which were duly reported in the Boston News-Letter and recorded in depositions from the captains of the ships captured. At some point in the autumn of the same year Blackbeard teamed up with Major Stede Bonnet, the most improbable of pirates. Bonnet was the son of a sugar planter on Barbados and had inherited the family estates. He had married a neighbour’s daughter but, owing to ‘a disorder of his mind’ or ‘some discomforts he found in a married state’, he decided to abandon his wife and estates and take up piracy. He acquired a fine sloop of 10 guns which he named the Revenge and embarked on a series of raids. Exactly where and when he first met Blackbeard is not clear, but it is evident that Bonnet knew nothing about ships and lacked any ability to manage a pirate crew. Blackbeard offered to take over command of his ship, ‘telling him that as he had not been used to the fatigues and care of such a post, it would be better for him to decline it and live easy, at his pleasure in such a ship as his …’.28 It was later reported in the newspapers that Bonnet had been observed on board Blackbeard’s ship and ‘he had no command, he walks about in his morning gown, and then to his books of which he has a good library aboard’.29
Blackbeard made good use of the Revenge. On 28 November he was cruising in company with his smaller sloop Adventure some sixty miles west of Martinique when his lookouts spotted a large ship on the horizon. She was La Concorde, a French slave ship of 200 tons armed with 14 guns.30 She had taken on board 516 African slaves at the coastal trading post of Whydah (now Ouidah in Benin). She had a crew of forty but during the voyage across the Atlantic half of the men had gone down with scurvy or dysentery. Confronted by two armed sloops, their decks lined with 250 pirates, the French captain, Pierre Dosset, decided against resistance and surrendered. A prize crew was put aboard her and the three ships sailed to the tiny island of Bequia, near St Vincent in the Grenadines. There the slaves were taken off and the ship was converted from a French Guineaman to a powerful pirate ship of 40 guns. She was renamed the Queen Anne’s Revenge and became Blackbeard’s flagship.
Recent research, and the discovery of the remains of the ship in the waters off Beaufort, North Carolina, have revealed a lot of information about her.31 She had been built at Nantes in 1710 and was owned by the slave merchant René Montaudouin. After spending three years as a privateer in the Caribbean preying on English merchant vessels she had been adapted for the slave trade in 1713. Her first slaving voyage had taken her from Benin to Martinique and her second was from the River Congo to Saint Domingue (which became Haiti), both voyages proving highly profitable for her owner. The French report on the capture of La Concorde ‘by Edouard Titche, English’ indicates that only 455 of the 519 slaves survived her third slaving voyage.
Within weeks of the acquisition of his new command Blackbeard and his flotilla embarked on a piratical cruise among the Windward Islands. At the end of November it was reported that ‘a great ship from Boston was taken at or near St Lucia or St Vincent by Captain Teach the pirate in a French ship of 32 guns’.32 The captured ship was the Great Allen, commanded by Captain Taylor. Having whipped the captain to find out where he had hidden his money, the pirates plundered his cargo, put the crew ashore and set fire to his ship.
On 5 December the pirates intercepted the sloop Margaret a few miles west of Crab Island near Puerto Rico. Her master, Henry Bostock, later provided a detailed description of the incident.33 He said that the pirates had stopped the Margaret with small-arms fire and ordered him to come on board the French Guineaman, where he met Blackbeard on the quarterdeck. He was asked what he had on board and when he said he had a cargo of cattle and hogs Blackbeard sent a boat across to the Margaret and took from her hold four beef cattle, thirty-five hogs, a barrel of gunpowder, five small arms, two cutlasses, the captain’s books and instruments and some linen. Bostock was detained on board the pirate ship for eight hours. He was not abused in any way and was able to find out some useful information. He learnt that the pirate ship, which had been captured six or seven weeks before, had 36 mounted guns and a crew of around 300. As well as a ship well stocked with provisions Bostock saw ‘a great deal of plate on board of them, tankards, cups, &c, particularly one of his men took notice of a very fine cup which they told him they had taken out of one Captain Taylor’.34 In addition to setting fire to Taylor’s ship the pirates, Bostock learnt, had burnt several other vessels, including ‘a sloop belonging to Antigua one McGill owner’. Their current plans were to sail to Samana Bay in Hispaniola to careen and then lie in wait for the Spanish squadron due to sail from Havana to Puerto Rico with money for the garrisons.
By the time Rogers’ expedition reached the Bahamas in July 1718 Blackbeard had moved on to the coast of North America and was terrorising the inhabitants of Charleston, South Carolina. Of more immediate concern to Rogers and his approaching squadron was the presence in Nassau harbour of Charles Vane, the most aggressive and brutal of the local pirate captains. As with most pirates, little is known of his background and early life. He seems to have been associated with Henry Jennings and may have joined him in plundering the Spanish wrecks, but he first came to prominence when news of the King’s pardon for pirates reached New Providence. Copies of the royal proclamation were brought to Nassau by the son of Governor Bennett of Bermuda in December 1717 and caused conflict and divisions among the pirates. Most of them, notably Jennings and Hornigold, were prepared to accept the pardon but a hard-line group including Charles Vane, Paulsgrave Williams, Edward England and John Rackam refused to submit to the crown.
In February 1718 Captain Pearce, commander of HMS Phoenix, 26 guns, arrived at Nassau hoping to persuade more pirates to accept the royal pardon.35 He found fourteen vessels lying at anchor. Some were flying English, Dutch, French or Spanish flags but several were flying black or red pirate flags. When he learnt that Vane, the leader of the rebellious pirates, had taken his sloop Lark to a nearby island, Captain Pearce tracked him down, forced Vane to surrender and escorted the Lark back to Nassau. The naval officer’s resolute action had an adverse effect on those pirates who had already accepted the royal pardon. Alarmed that Vane and his crew would be executed, they told Pearce that more of the local inhabitants would surrender if Vane, England and the other fourteen men on the Lark were released. Pearce agreed to do so, and during the next two days he was gratified to receive the surrender of many more pirates. He had soon accumulated 209 signatures or marks on the necessary documents.
Vane had no intention of giving up piracy and he persuaded forty other men to sneak out of the harbour in two boats and capture a small Jamaican sloop that was sailing by. In defiance of the anchored British warship they brought the sloop into the harbour with a pirate flag flying at her masthead and proceeded to plunder her. An attempt by Pearce to board the Jamaica sloop was repulsed, and he later wrote, ‘I several times summoned the inhabitants together in His Majesty’s name and used all the arguments possible to prevail with them to assist me in suppressing the said pirate. But they always rejected all methods I proposed.’36 His authority was constantly flouted during the following weeks. Three of his sailors deserted his ship and joined the pirates, and Vane’s company was now more than seventy-five strong. With his ship increasingly vulnerable to attack, Pearce made preparations to depart. On 8 April the Phoenix sailed from Nassau in company with five merchant vessels and headed for New York.
Vane now embarked on a series of vicious attacks on passing merchant ships, three of them being documented in detail by some of the victims. On 14 April Vane intercepted the Bermuda sloop Diamond near Rum Key. Vane was sailing the sloop Ranger of 6 guns and had a crew of seventy. The pirates boarded the Diamond, stole 300 pieces of eight and a Negro slave, beat up the captain John Tibby and his crew and then hanged one of the seamen by his neck until he was almost dead. The seaman, Nathaniel Catling, would later testify that after they let him down on the deck, ‘one of them perceiving he began to revive cut him with a cutlass over his collar bone and would have continued the same till he had murdered this deponent had not one of their own gang contradicted it, being, as he said, too great a cruelty’.37 The captain was then forced to cut away his mast and bowsprit before the pirates set fire to the sloop.
The same day Vane and his men attacked another sloop, the William and Martha of Bermuda, under the command of Captain Edward North. They took everything of value on the vessel, and assaulted the captain and crew ‘by beating them and using other cruelties, particularly to one, who they bound, hands and feet and tied (upon his back) down to the bowsprit with matches to his eyes burning and a pistol loaded (as he supposes) with the muzzle into his mouth, thereby to oblige him to confess what money was on board’.38 North observed that while he was on board the pirate sloop he heard such expressions as ‘Curse the king and all the higher powers’ and ‘Damn the Governor’ and that the usual toast when drinking was ‘Damnation to King George’.
On 19 April the Bermuda sloop Samuel, captained by Joseph Bossa, was attacked near Crooked Island by the Ranger.39 The pirates stripped her of her cargo of dry goods, and again beat up the captain and the crew. From the various depositions given by the victims when they returned to Bermuda we learn that during this cruise Vane plundered at least twelve vessels, in each case subjecting the crew to beatings and other cruelties in revenge for the fact that the Bermuda authorities had imprisoned a man called Thomas Brown on suspicion of piracy. No records have come to light of Vane’s activities in the subsequent weeks but, according to Captain Johnson, he was back in Nassau by 4 July with a number of prizes, including a French ship of 20 guns and a French brigantine laden with sugar, indigo, brandy, claret and white wine. He apparently stormed ashore with a sword in his hand and threatened to burn down the principal houses of the town, ‘and tho he committed no murders, his behaviour was extremely insolent to all who were not as great villains as himself’.40 For twenty days Vane ruled Nassau, stopping all vessels entering the harbour and preventing any ships from leaving. When he was informed that a governor had been appointed and was on his way from England, ‘he swore, while he was in the harbour, he would suffer no other Governor than himself’.41