In 1718, a former British privateer finally brought Blackbeard and his cronies to bay.
After 15 years of war and not 10 months of peace, British authorities realized they had a problem on their hands in the spring of 1714: a failed state astride one of the most important sea-lanes in the New World. Embarrassingly, it was one of their own colonies.
Something unpleasant was brewing in the war-ravaged Bahama Islands. The French and Spanish had sacked the archipelago’s former capital, Nassau, four times during the just-ended War of Spanish Succession, torching the town, spiking the fort’s guns, carrying away the governor and most of the island’s slaves, and forcing the rest of the population into the jungle.
Now, Bermuda’s governor, Henry Pulleine, warned that the survivors were living “without any face of government, every man doing only what’s right in his own mind.” Pirates had stepped into the vacuum, wreaking havoc on nearby Spanish settlements and merchant vessels, and poison ing the prospects for trade.“Until the Bahamas are settled in some form,” Pulleine concluded, “they will [remain] a nest of pirates.”
Indeed, the Bahamas were about to become the epicenter of one of the greatest piracy outbreaks of all time: a maritime uprising that would sever Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands from their New World empires, cut off trade routes, stifle the flow of goods and information, and threaten the colonies themselves.
Although it would last less than a decade, it would be known as “the Golden Age of Piracy,” and its leaders—Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch (whose surname is often erroneously referred to as “Teach”), “Black Sam” Bellamy, Stede Bonnet, “Calico Jack” Rackham, Mary Read, and Anne Bonny among them—would become the stuff of legend. Fortified in the Bahamian base, they would soar to unprecedented heights of both power and popularity, threatening the social and economic underpinnings of King George’s empire. British military policy not only failed to nip this piracy outbreak in the bud but was also one of its primary causes. And as the Bahamian pirate gangs grew in strength, the Royal Navy was impotent to respond, its warships in America and the West Indies being poorly manned, supplied, and maintained after expensive wars in Europe and among the European colonies.
Even after the king made suppressing piracy a priority, the world’s most powerful navy remained ineffective, as the Admiralty failed to adjust to the subtleties of asymmetric warfare.
When the Royal Navy did succeed, it was usually the result of luck or clever alliances with civilian authorities, who had access to the manpower and equipment naval captains lacked. Indeed in the end, the pirates would be defeated not by the warships of the Royal Navy but by privately financed expeditions, posses, mercenaries—and a man named Woodes Rogers.
Piracy was nothing new in the early 18th century: bandits had been prowling the seas since ancient times, and the late 1600s had seen a sizable outbreak of English piracy off East Africa. But the Bahamian pirates were different from those that came before them in that they didn’t see themselves as engaged in simple theft. Rather, most felt they were involved in a social revolt against the ship owners and captains who had made their lives miserable when they had served in the merchant marine or navy. The pirate Samuel Bellamy oversaw a crew who referred to themselves as “Robin Hood’s Men.”
In a decidedly authoritarian age, these Caribbean pirates elected their captains and could depose them at any time by a popular vote. They shared their plunder equally and some bands even provided primitive disability benefits; Paulsgrave Williams and his gang gave their boats – wain a large cache of treasure on account of “his being wounded amongst them,” while anyone in Bartholomew Roberts’s crew who became “a cripple” or lost a limb was given the equivalent of £200—nearly a decade’s wages for a merchant sailor—“from the common stock” of treasure.
On Blackbeard’s vessels, black men and Native Americans could serve as equal members of the crew, a policy that drew huge numbers of escaped slaves to his ranks; people of African descent composed a quarter of a typical pirate crew, and an outright majority on one of Blackbeard’s ships.
Admiralty policies fueled the piracy outbreak. During the war, sailors who managed to survive the brutal discipline, poor food, and unsanitary conditions aboard Her Majesty’s ships rarely received the wages they were due; as the Admiralty ran out of money, sailors were given “tickets,” official IOUs that they could sell only to loan sharks, and at a fraction of face value. After the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, the bankrupt Royal Navy rapidly contracted, shedding three-quarters of its manpower—36,000 sailors—in the first 24 months of peace. Many thousands more seamen were dumped on the wharves of England and the Americas when privateering commissions (government papers allowing captains to attack enemy shipping in wartime) were withdrawn. With all those sailors begging for work, merchant captains could slash wages in half; even those lucky enough to find work had to survive on little more than £1 a month. The waterfronts of ports like London and Port Royal, Jamaica, were crowded with aggrieved and impoverished sailors.
Reductions in Britain’s West Indies fleet also created a security vacuum. During the War of Spanish Succession, at least two fourth-rate frigates, a fifth-rate, a sixth-rate, and two sloops of war had typically guarded Jamaica. Such a squadron had a combined firepower of 200 guns, manned by 1,000 sailors. Now there were usually only two fifth-rates, a tiny sixth-rate, and a sloop of war with a total of 100 guns and 400 men. “[We] humbly pray such a naval strength may be ordered for the protection of the island,” read one of the many petitions Jamaican merchants sent to London, “to secure it from the dangers it [lies] exposed to.”
Those dangers were very close at hand, and soon to expand tenfold. Taking advantage of the reduced naval presence, unscrupulous Spanish coast guard vessels based in Cuba began preying on Jamaica’s shipping in late 1713. They would search English merchantmen at gunpoint and declare them smugglers if they found even a single Spanish coin—the de facto currency of the British Caribbean. Spaniards seized 38 Jamaican merchant vessels in the first two years of peace, incarcerating hundreds of sailors. Those who survived their time in Cuban prisons found that ship owners would not pay them for the time they were imprisoned, increasing their discontent. “Resentment and the want of employ,” one Jamaican resident later recalled, “were certainly the motives to a course of life [i.e., piracy]…that most or many of them would not have taken up had they been redressed or could by any lawful mean have supported themselves.”
The pirate outbreak began humbly enough. In the summer of 1713, Benjamin Hornigold, an ex-privateers- man, gathered a group of 75 fellow sailors and led them from Jamaica to the Bahamas. The 700-island chain was a pirate’s dream: a maze of uncharted islands, reefs, and hidden anchorages perched alongside perhaps the busiest sea-lane in the Americas. The square-rigged sailing vessels of the day could make little progress into the wind and so were compelled to follow the prevailing winds as they journeyed from place to place. Any vessel in the western Caribbean that wished to return to Europe or the busy trading ports of North America’s eastern seaboard had no choice but to sail into the Straits of Florida and let the Gulf Stream carry them northward. It was a dangerous channel: to port lay the forbidding beaches of Spanish Florida, home to hostile Indians; on the starboard, the British Bahamas, which had been without a government for a decade.
With Hornigold’s arrival, those straits got considerably more dangerous. Hornigold, who had an aversion to attacking English vessels, and his colleagues seized control of Nassau, organized themselves into three bands, and used swift sailing canoes to raid Spanish trading vessels in the straits and isolated sugar plantations on the Cuban mainland. They were spectacularly successful. In six months they had brought £13,175 worth of plunder into the ruins of Nassau, a sum 10 times the value of the annual imports of the entire colony of Bermuda. They sold their goods to the merchants of Harbour Island, 50 miles north of Nassau, who happily provided them a steady supply of naval stores, foodstuffs, alcohol, and weapons. By the end of 1714, the band had accumulated £60,000 and had begun to attract the attention of British authorities. Then two unforeseen events caused the pirate population to explode.
The first was a powerful hurricane in July 1715 that reached the Straits of Florida just as the annual Spanish treasure fleet was passing through. Ten galleons loaded with gold, silver, silk, and jewels were driven onto what is now known as Florida’s Treasure Coast. By the time the storm passed, a thousand corpses and some £1,750,000 in treasure were strewn on the beaches and shallows.
The news spread quickly. Soon, from every corner of British America, men were piling aboard vessels to “fish upon ye wrecks.” In Jamaica, sailors were deserting HMS Diamond at a rate of five a day, even though she was about to return to England.“If I had stayed a week longer,” Capt. John Balchen reported, “I do believe I should not have had men enough to have brought me home.”
Most of these treasure seekers would discover that Spanish divers had already recovered most of the valuables. But in nearby Nassau, hundreds were introduced to another method of securing treasure: raiding Spanish targets with Hornigold’s gang.
The second event was the death of Queen Anne in August 1714, which sparked a succession crisis. Anne died without surviving children, and normally the throne would have passed to the next of kin, her Catholic half-brother, James Francis Edward Stuart. But following religious wars in Great Britain between Protestants and Roman Catholics, Parliament had passed a law in 1701 forbidding Catholics from sitting on the throne, and Anne’s closest Protestant relative was one of her second cousins, a Hanoverian princeling who didn’t speak English and wasn’t interested in learning it.
When he was brought over and crowned King George I, many Britons were outraged, including much of the Scots nobility. (The Stuarts—originally spelled “Stewarts”—were the Scots royal family.) Several formed a conspiracy to put James Stuart on the throne. These so-called Jacobites included the governor of Jamaica, Lord Archibald Hamilton, and several leading planters and merchants in the British West Indies.
For the Royal Navy, the Jacobite threat meant more ships had to be kept in home waters to prevent James Stuart and his supporters from crossing over from exile in France. But there was more.
Governor Hamilton’s part in the planned uprising appears to have been to create a pro-Stuart naval squadron in the West Indies. He helped a group of trusted associates purchase vessels and armaments, issued them “privateering commissions,” and set them loose on French and Spanish shipping. One detachment was sent to attack the Spanish salvage camp in Florida, where it carried off £87,000. These would-be Jacobite patriots were forced to join the disgruntled sailors, slaves, and treasure hunters of Nassau when the 1715 Uprising failed and Lord Hamilton was dragged back to England in chains. With that addition, the pirate republic had become strong enough to challenge the navy’s control of the seas.
The Royal Navy was in no condition to confront a maritime insurgency in the Americas in late 1716 and early 1717. The 1715 Uprising—in which James Stuart had managed to land in Scotland—had rattled the nation and made defending the shores of Britain a top priority. Large numbers of warships were tied up with convoying merchant vessels in the Baltic, where Russia and Sweden were at war. The Americas were a low priority. From Newfoundland to Barbados, the Royal Navy had only 10 small ships—4 fifth-rates, 4 sixth-rates, and 2 sloops of war—with which to patrol 17 colonies, tens of thousands of miles of shoreline, and thousands of square miles of open ocean. Half of these vessels were generally posted at Port Royal, Jamaica, headquarters of the West Indies squadron, leaving just two frigates—HMS Seaford (20 guns) at Antigua and HMS Scarborough (30) at Barbados—to protect all of the Lesser Antilles. Important ports like Bermuda, Charleston, and Philadelphia had no permanent naval presence at all.
Nor could warships stationed in various colonies help one another. Simply getting from one place to another could be next to impossible since square-rigged frigates couldn’t sail into the wind closer than about 70 degrees and would make no progress at all if heavy winds or high waves pushed their bows off the wind. In the Caribbean, the trade winds generally blew from the east, so it was easy for the Scarborough at Barbados to sail downwind to the Leeward Islands or Jamaica, but nigh impossible to return.
If Barbados or any of the British Leeward Islands—Antigua, Nevis, Montserrat, St. Kitts, and Virgin Gorda—were under attack, there was little hope of anyone at fleet headquarters in Jamaica coming to help them. Small, nimble sloops or merchant schooners might carry messages between the islands, but even then it could take several weeks to have a round-trip communication with headquarters. (A reply to an urgent dispatch to the Admiralty took several months.) For the most part, the captains of the isolated station ships were on their own.
To make matters worse, the warships were rarely prepared for combat operations, in large part because their commanding officers were forbidden from acquiring necessary supplies, provisions, and services in the West Indies. Frigates spent months in ports teeming with fresh pork, poultry, fruit, and vegetables, but their men were forced to eat bread infested by weevils and poorly preserved salt meats they had brought from England because the Admiralty believed American food prices were too high. This did little for the health of the crew, who suffered from malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, and a host of tropical diseases for which they had little resistance.
Warships were regularly unable to set sail because of sickness compounded by poor nutrition. In August 1717, Capt. Thomas Jacobs, the Diamond’s new commanding officer, was crossing the Atlantic to begin a yearlong posting in the West Indies when he discovered his provisions were already decaying. “The beef was termited and boiled very black, the pork was rusty and tainted,” he reported home after doubling his crew’s rations in an effort to use up the supplies before they were inedible. By the time he arrived at Veracruz three months later, Jacobs’s crew was so sick with “agues and fevers” he was forced to delay his departure for Jamaica by more than two months. When provisions ran low aboard their ships, captains were under orders to sail for England, guaranteeing that few cruises would last more than a year and that there would be a constant loss of local knowledge. Those captains who purchased provisions in the Americas might find themselves bankrupted when the Navy Board docked the charges from their pay.
The Admiralty also discouraged captains from properly maintaining their ships. In the tropics, wooden hulls were quickly fouled by marine plants and attacked by shipworms. To maintain maneuverability and prevent the destruction of the hull, each vessel had to be careened every three months: emptied of guns, supplies, and extra rigging, then leaned on its side so that the bottom could be scraped, singed, and treated with pitch. The process required heavy tackle to pull the vessel onto its side and some sort of base to lean against: a sloping, protected beach or wharf. Smaller vessels could do this on a beach with the right slope, but the larger frigates had to rent space alongside an aging Port Royal hulk because the Admiralty refused to build a careening wharf at fleet headquarters. By January 1716, Balchen reported the hulk “is so much gone to decay, I question whether we could heave down [the 530-ton Diamond] by her.” Like many captains, he was forced to forgo careening and hope for the best.
Some ships became completely useless. HMS Shoreham, a 25- year-old, 28-gun fifth-rate, took up her station guarding the Chesapeake Bay in July 1715, but she was so weakened by shipworms and rotting masts that she didn’t leave the shelter of the navy’s Hampton Roads, Virginia, anchorage for nine months. When she did— to patrol the pirate-infested coast of South Carolina—she ran aground and suffered such damage she was forced to spend the next year undergoing repairs in Charleston. She finally returned to her Virginia station in May 1717, and limped home a year later. The naval carpenter who examined her in London reported she was taking on three feet of water an hour while at anchor suggesting “most of the sheathing…her seams and buttheads…and planks [are] worm eaten.”
The pirates, by contrast, had none of these difficulties. They sailed relatively nimble vessels. Many started their depredations in large sailing canoes called could carry 25 men. These could be paddled straight into periaguas that the wind to head off prey or escape from predators. When they captured an appropriate sloop—fast, agile, and still able to carry 10 cannons—pirate gangs would often incorporate the vessel into their fleet. Either vessel type was of shallow draft, allowing them to easily evade naval frigates and armed merchantmen by taking shortcuts over reefs and shoals. “By this advantage they have made their escape into shoal water from His Majesty’s Ships Winchelsea and Tryall,” Lt. Thomas Durrell, commanding officer of HMS Swift, a sloop of war posted in Jamaica, informed the Admiralty. “If I had my full complement [as] during wartime, it’s my humble opinion that I should be of great service in these parts, I drawing less water than the pirates commonly do.”
Because they were constantly trading up as they captured newer, better vessels, the pirates could avoid long-term maintenance problems, though they regularly careened their ships in remote hideaways.
At their base in Nassau—which had some 3,000 inhabitants by 1717—they soon accumulated a vast boneyard of plundered vessels that could be picked over for spare parts or used as platforms against which to careen larger ships. Securing naval stores, armaments, and provisions was never a problem: the “respectable” merchants of Harbour Island developed a teeming black market bazaar supplied by profit-seeking traders from Charleston to Boston. Although the Bahamas were known far and wide to be a notorious pirate base by 1717, the official customs house registries of American ports are filled with approved clearances for vessels that were bound there; some customs officials personally traded with known associates of the pirates, and did their best to prevent the disruption of this lucrative business.
Health and morale were enhanced by the abundance of food, drink, and plunder aboard pirate vessels and the egalitarian way in which they were shared. The articles pirates signed—a ship’s “constitution”—guaranteed equal shares of food and drink, which were often generously distributed. Captives regularly witnessed riotous parties aboard pirate vessels, particularly after they had seized a cargo of wine or spirits.
Slave ship captain William Snelgrave watched a pirate crew feast on “cheese, butter, sugar and many other things” and then break open barrel after barrel of claret and French brandy and become so drunk that they soon “threw full bucketfuls of each sort upon one another.…And in the evening they washed the decks with what remained.” Later they broke into barrels of what proved to be Irish beef, which they dumped overboard because they preferred the English variety.
Partly because of such excesses, the pirates had ample manpower. While pirate captains sometimes forced a skilled carpenter or surgeon to serve aboard their vessels, large numbers of newly captured sailors volunteered to join. When the pirate Sam Bellamy seized a sloop bound for Antigua, a 10-year-old passenger named John King begged that he be taken away with them. When the boy’s mother tried to stop him, an observer later wrote, “He declared that he would kill himself if he was restrained.”
Most volunteers were older but just as enthusiastic; seen side by side, life on a pirate vessel appeared far more attractive than on a merchant vessel, where food was scarce, pay was poor, and working conditions miserable. As a result, pirate sloops typically carried 30 percent to 100 percent more men than a naval sloop of war, a critical advantage in an era when boarding actions were common.
British naval strategy assumed that the mere presence of a man-of-war would keep pirates at bay. But when pirate and naval vessels came in close proximity, the former often had the upper hand. In September 1716 a naval detachment consisting of the Winchelsea (20 cannons), Tryall (10), and Swift (6) anchored off Panama, where pirates in the band of Josiah Burgess observed them. Burgess’s gang was outgunned— they had a 10-gun sloop, an 8-gun sloop, and a pair of periaguas— but they were not frightened off. Instead, Burgess sent 33 well-armed men out to observe the naval vessels from periaguas hidden in the mangroves. On September 12, Lieutenant Durrell sent a 12- man landing party out in the Swift’s pinnace (the largest of ship’s boats) to collect fresh water. As Durrell and his colleagues watched helplessly, the pirates paddled out from their hiding spot, overwhelmed the pinnace’s crew and carried them all away. The Swift had already lost a number of sailors to disease and was now so undermanned that Durrell had to borrow sailors from the Winchelsea to weigh anchor.
Even when the Royal Navy was lucky enough to surprise the pirates, the latter often got away. Francis Hume, captain of the fifth-rate Scarborough at Barbados, was the most successful pirate hunter in the West Indies fleet. On two separate occasions he discovered and trapped pirate bands in remote anchorages. On June 21, 1717, he bottled up John Martel’s gang at St. Croix, where the pirates were looting several captured sloops and refitting a 22-gun slave galley, the John & Marshall; some of Martel’s men fired on the Scarborough from an improvised four-gun battery on shore, but they were soon silenced by the frigate’s six-pounders.
However, the Scarborough was too large to enter the harbor, which gave the pirates an opportunity to escape. Under heavy fire, Martel’s men got the John & Marshall underway, but ran aground on the reef. With the Scarborough tacking back toward them, Martel ordered his men to abandon ship before setting her afire, with 20 slaves still chained in the hold. Martel and 19 of his loyalists made their escape in one of the prize sloops and the other 100 pirates and slaves escaped into the woods. Captain Hume was left with eight slaves, two vessels, and salvageable cargo worth £450.
Eight months later, Hume surprised the infamous pirate commodore Olivier La Buse and his 77-man gang at Isla La Blanquilla, a popular hideaway off the coast of what is now Venezuela. Seeing the Scarborough bearing down on their six-gun sloop, La Buse’s men made a mad scramble onto a small merchant vessel they had been plundering, which was apparently better prepared for a speedy departure. Cutting her anchor lines, La Buse fled out of the harbor with most of his men and their treasure. “I gave chase, but with night coming on, [he was] gaining to windward [so we] stood away again for the [harbor],” Hume later reported. He would return to Barbados with just 17 captives.
Naval officers and crews were supposed to share the proceeds from the auctions of captured pirate vessels and their cargo, but colonial officials regularly tried to steal these modest perks. Barbados governor Robert Lowther confiscated all the Scarborough’s prizes, despite Hume’s heated protests; he was forced to carry the matter all the way to the king, who in 1721 ordered Lowther to compensate the men. The king also had to intervene twice on behalf of the crew of HMS Squirrel: once to force Massachusetts authorities to return five sloops they had captured, the second time to force the grasping Governor Lowther to return a captured pirate vessel. In this second instance, Lowther had gone so far as to have the Squirrel’s captain, Thomas Smart, placed under arrest.
In 1719, Virginia authorities briefly arrested Capt. George Gordon of HMS Pearl (40 guns) for “false imprisonment” of Blackbeard’s quartermaster, who had been engaged in lucrative black market dealings there. Such actions not only dampened naval officers’ enthusiasm to go after the pirates but poisoned their relations with the colonial governments whose security they were supposed to ensure.
By the spring of 1717, the pirates had the Royal Navy on the run. Several of the Bahamian pirates had traded their way up to full-fledged men-of-war. These sleek, heavily armed ship-rigged vessels were every bit as powerful as any frigate Britain had posted in the Western Hemisphere. Samuel Bellamy had converted the 300-ton English slave ship Whydah into a 28-gun warship, which was accompanied by a 10-gun sloop. La Buse was sailing a 250-ton ship with 26 guns and 200 men, giving him roughly the same firepower as a fifth-rate frigate but twice the manpower.
By the fall, Blackbeard was in command of a 250-ton slaver, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, with 40 guns, 200 men, and two escorts: a 12-gun sloop and a 10-gun brigantine. Blackbeard, who appears to have learned his trade under Hornigold, cultivated a fearsome image, going into battle with lighted fuses tied into his signature beard. His men bore muskets, axes, and homemade grenades, and were clad in a hodge-podge of clothes seized from wealthy passengers. Spanish authorities dubbed him “the Great Devil.” There was no naval force capable of stopping him outside of Port Royal harbor. Fear stalked the navy’s commanding officers, and crept into their reports to the Admiralty. Sloops of war that had spearheaded anti-piracy operations in 1715–1716 were now considered prey.
“The Tryall sloop takes this opportunity to go to her station at Antigua [but] it [is risky] for her to venture alone,” Commodore Bartholomew Candler, the senior officer on Jamaica, reported in July 1717. “For…the least pirate in these seas has 100 men and most of them have many more, and here there are many of them.” With only 40 men, HMS Swift was considered so undermanned that Candler forbade her to leave the harbor unaccompanied.
Larger vessels were just as vulnerable. When the 24-gun Seaford arrived in the Leeward Islands in May 1717, Governor Walter Hamilton was immediately concerned she was “such a small bauble” that she “would be in danger of being overpowered” were she to confront pirates, he wrote the Admiralty. The governor was forced to cancel a planned tour of his colony’s far-off islands when La Buse was sighted in the area, and when he finally did make the trip a few months later, a Blackbeard sighting “gave the people of [St. Kitts] such just apprehensions [for] my safety that they [sent] a good sloop to attend the man of war to bring me [home].”
The pirates pressed their advantage, carrying out ever-more-audacious operations. Bellamy occupied Virgin Gorda, seat of the deputy governor of the British Leeward Islands, for several days, the pirates treating the colonial outpost as one of their prizes and leaving with fresh recruits. Charles Vane blockaded Charleston, seizing every vessel that came in or out of the harbor entrance, while Blackbeard set Guadeloupe Town on fire, burned half the merchant fleet at St. Kitts, and threatened to torch Philadelphia.
In the winter of 1716–1717, Blackbeard and the “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet, who had been a well-to-do planter on Barbados before turning to crime, stalked the flagship of the South Seas Company, the Royal James, and her escort, HMS Diamond, across the Gulf of Mexico, intending to seize them both.
The Bahamian pirates continuously threatened to launch an amphibious invasion of Bermuda. “The negro men…are grown so very impudent and insulting of late that we have reason to suspect their rising [and]…fear their joining with the pirates,” that colony’s governor warned his superiors before asking that 100 soldiers and “one fourth-rate man-of-war or two fifth-rates” be sent to defend the island.
Officials in London were being bombarded by similarly alarming reports and calls for action. In December 1716 the governor of Jamaica reported that pirates “take more than half the ships and vessels” bound for his colony. The empire’s top diplomats warned the Crown that “unless some effectual and immediate protection is sent” to repress the American pirates, “the whole trade from Great Britain…to those parts will not only be obstructed, but [will be] in imminent danger of being lost.”
There were also suggestions that the pirates’ successes were fomenting social unrest. Governor Spotswood fumed that Virginians had “an unaccountable inclination to favor pirates,” while his counterpart in South Carolina weathered a pro-pirate riot in which Charleston narrowly avoided being burned to the ground. Operations against the pirates had to be kept secret even from colonial governing councils for fear secret sympathizers would pass intelligence to the outlaws.
King George’s response was crafted not by the Lords of the Admiralty or the foreign office but by a former privateer, Woodes Rogers. A Bristol slave trader, Rogers was the most famous privateer active in the War of Spanish Succession, having circumnavigated the world to raid Spanish shipping and settlements in the Pacific, where he captured a treasure-laden Manila galleon. After the war, he had become obsessed with pirates, having encountered a settlement of Indian Ocean pirates on Madagascar during a postwar slave-trading cruise. He became convinced that with a careful combination of carrot, stick, and religious propaganda, piracy could be quelled, allowing a productive, law-abiding colony to rise from what had been a pirate’s nest.
Rogers had spent 1715–1716 lobbying his friends in government—he was a friend to the king’s secretary of state and the son-in-law of the third-highest-ranking officer in the navy, the recently deceased admiral of the White, William Whetstone—to allow him to test his theories. When the depredations of the Bahamian pirates reached fever pitch in the summer of 1717, the Crown decided to give him the chance.
The scheme went like this: The king would outsource the reoccupation and governance of the Bahamas to a corporation of private investors Rogers had assembled. The corporation would send soldiers, colonists, supplies, and several private warships to Nassau; the Admiralty would contribute a squadron of frigates to support the initial landing, and the Crown would issue a pardon for any pirate who peacefully surrendered to the new governor, Woodes Rogers. Diehards would be put down by force of arms.
Rogers and his investors would then recoup their investments from the colony’s profits. The king issued his pardon on September 5, 1717, and copies reached the colonies in December and January. The governor of Bermuda, Benjamin Bennett, immediately sent his son to Nassau to inform the pirates, who first considered killing the young man.
Ultimately, the news split the pirates into two factions. Moderates like Hornigold, Burgess, and Henry Jennings—men eager to return to society with their ill-gotten gains—celebrated by climbing to the top of Fort Nassau and raising the Union Jack.
The diehards, led by the bombastic Charles Vane, stormed the fort to raise “the Black Flag with the Death’s Head in it.” The latter group apparently included many Jacobites, since they passed a message to the Stuart court-in-exile asking it to send “such a person as has borne some character in the Royal Navy of England” to serve as the Jacobite “Captain General of America, by Sea and Land.”
When HMS Phoenix (20 guns) arrived from New York in February to learn how the pirates would respond, the situation remained tense. While 209 of the 500 pirates then in town came aboard to sign surrender pledges, Vane’s men made a point of bringing a merchant ship into the harbor and plundering it in full view of the frigate.
In the middle of the night, the Phoenix’s captain, Vincent Pearse, sent a boatload of sailors to storm Vane’s sloop, but they were repulsed by a fusillade of musket fire. In the coming weeks, the mood ashore turned defiant, and Pearse received messages “to be gone or it should be worse for him.” He departed on April 6, 1718, after three of his own men had defected to the pirates.
A single sixth-rate frigate may not have intimidated the pirates, but the expedition Rogers led, which arrived July 24, was another matter. The fleet consisted of HMS Milford (30 guns), HMS Rose (20), and HMS Shark (10), the corporation’s armed merchantman Delicia (36), the Willing Mind (20), the Buck (10) and the Samuel (6), plus 100 soldiers and 130 colonists. It was the largest military force deployed to the Americas since the Peace of Utrecht.
Still, Vane’s diehard faction was uncowed. As the Rose entered the harbor, Vane fired on her from his recently captured 30-gun ship before retreating to a sloop in the eastern end of Nassau harbor, which was separated from the main anchorage by a shoal-draft sandbar and had its own entrance. He then waited until the British fleet anchored and night fell before setting his now-cornered 30-gun ship ablaze and sailing her straight at the Rose and the Shark; their crews hacked away the anchor lines, frantically raised their sails, and only narrowly escaped destruction. In the morning, Vane and 100 followers made their escape before the shallow-drafting Shark and Buck could cut them off.
With all the firepower in the harbor, the 500 to 700 remaining pirates did not oppose Rogers when he landed on the 27th. The Rose and the Shark fired 11-gun salutes as the new governor stepped ashore to be welcomed by pro-pardon residents. Hornigold and Burgess had their crews form orderly lines on the road to the fort and fire a running musket salute as Rogers walked past. A crowd of 300 listened to a welcoming speech he gave from the walls of the fort and, in the words of Rogers, “showed many tokens of joy for the re-introduction of government.”
The honeymoon was not to last. Vane’s gang harassed the island’s commerce. Rogers and most of his colonists and soldiers fell ill with some epidemic disease that killed 86 of them. Over Rogers’s strenuous objections, Commodore Peter Chamberlaine departed for New York with the Milford and the Shark on August 16. The Rose followed on September 14, leaving Rogers critically vulnerable. Many of his subjects returned to piracy, one party actually making off with the Buck. Abandoned by the Royal Navy, Rogers’s administration and, by extension, the anti-piracy campaign, nearly foundered.
But it did not. Thanks to the support of Hornigold, Burgess, Jennings, and other pro-pardon pirates who manned the fort, a coup was nipped in the bud and many of their former colleagues were brought to justice. While the control Rogers held on the island would remain tenuous for years, he deprived the pirates of their primary sanctuary and supply lines, allowing them to be picked off, one by one.
The Royal Navy, despite reinforcements and direct orders to hunt pirates, seldom succeeded. Civilian-led, well-manned expeditions using agile sloops apprehended the vast majority of the pirates still at large in the Americas. A posse based in Charleston ambushed Bonnet’s gang in North Carolina. A Jamaican privateer apprehended Calico Jack Rackham and the women pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny. The notorious Charles Vane, who lost his vessel in a storm, was brought to justice by an ordinary merchant captain; a Jamaican court sentenced him to death.
The Royal Navy’s greatest triumph—the destruction of Blackbeard’s gang at Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, in November 1718—came after the navy abandoned its ships and tactics in favor of those used by civilian posses.
By the fall of 1718, Blackbeard had set himself up as an outlaw with official protection. He had taken the king’s pardon from Charles Eden, governor of the poor, undeveloped, and nearly uninhabited colony of North Carolina. In short order he took up a residence, a wife, and the management of an extensive piracy operation in the colony’s village capital, Bath. His men were seizing ships, looting them in Pamlico Sound, and selling the cargoes to Governor Eden, who stored them in the customs collector’s barn. With the governor in his pocket and more than 30 men under his command, Blackbeard had reason to believe he was safely beyond the law.
What he didn’t count on was that the governor of neighboring Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, was not one to let the law, or borders, get in his way. Spotswood, infuriated at the pirate’s impunity, colluded with Captain Gordon of the Pearl and Capt. Ellis Brand of the Lyme (28 guns) to organize a two-pronged invasion of North Carolina. Brand and a small contingent of his men would proceed overland from Hampton Roads to Bath, while the Lyme’s first lieutenant, Robert Maynard, would lead a 60-man naval expedition to Pamlico Sound. Since the frigates were woefully inappropriate to the task, Spotswood purchased two small sloops and placed them at the officer’s disposal.
Maynard’s men engaged Blackbeard’s anchored Adventure (8 guns) in the shoal waters inside Ocracoke Island on the morning of November 22, 1718. Their small, unarmed sloops appeared unthreatening, allowing Maynard to close within “half [a] pistol shot” before Blackbeard’s men could raise sails and fire a broadside. This disabled the first sloop, the Ranger, killing its commanding officer and mate, but when the sailors returned fire, one of their musket balls managed to sever the pirates’ jib halyard, slowing her to a stop.
This allowed Maynard’s sloop, the Jane, to row alongside, where she received a broadside of grapeshot and partridge shot that killed or injured 21 of his men.
Under cover of the gun smoke, however, Maynard directed 14 uninjured men to conceal themselves in the hold. When Blackbeard’s boarding party stepped on the Jane, Maynard’s forces rushed out in a surprise attack. By the time the struggle ended, Blackbeard and 19 of his men were dead, the rest taken prisoner. The victorious sailors decapitated their nemesis, tossed his body into the sea, and hung his head from the Adventure’s bowsprit.
With the capture of Nassau and the elimination of Blackbeard’s gang, the pirates of the Caribbean would never regain the upper hand. Ships would continue to be attacked for several years, but pirates could never again hope to carve out their own republic in the Caribbean, nor plot to overthrow the Hanoverian kings of England. The wisest disappeared into obscurity off the coasts of Africa. The rest would spend most of their time simply fighting to survive. By 1725, the sea-lanes were generally safe again, although the Royal Navy could take little credit.
Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.