Privateers and pirates painted the early history of The Bahamas, inspiring The Bahamas' earlier motto, Expulsis Piratis Restituta Commercia (pirates expelled, commerce restored). Their roles have been chronicled ad infinitum to the extent that it is often difficult to differentiate between myth and historical fact. Whatever the case, their exploits make fascinating tales.
Pirates first came to The Bahamas to careen, clean and repair their ships in the shallow creeks. Clean hulls gave them the speed to overtake their prey and outrun authorities.
The topography of The Bahamas, with some 700 islands and cays scattered over 100,000 square miles of the mid-Atlantic, was ideal for pirates. Charles Town, which would later become Nassau, was a major headquarters for freebooters, buccaneers, pirates, and privateers.
Its advantages were numerous. It had a natural harbour between New Providence and Hog Island, now Paradise Island. The harbour was well protected and open at both ends, enabling quick exits when necessary, making it extremely difficult for a single ship to completely bottle-up the harbour.
It was close to the major trade routes between the Spanish Main, the Caribbean, Florida, the Carolinas and Europe. Additionally there was plenty of fresh water, fish, turtle, and wild game for restocking the ships.
Among the scoundrels who based their plundering in Nassau, at least for part of their freebooting careers, were Henry Jennings, Henry Morgan, Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, Charles Vane, Stede Bonnet, Capt Benjamin Hornigold, Woodes Rogers, "Calico Jack" Rackman and Capt John Wyatt. There were others of less infamy, such as Thomas Anstis, Henry Every, Richard Worley, Samuel Belamy and Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts.
Henry Morgan (1635-88) was one of the early successful privateers who preyed on Spanish ships. The Spanish, in reprisal, nearly demolished Charles Town. Morgan was knighted at age 34, in December 1675. At 45 Sir Henry was acting governor of Jamaica, Commandant of the Port Royal Regiment, Judge of the Admiralty Court and Justice of the Peace. He died in August, 1688, apparently of jaundice. Four years later, the original capital, Port Royal, was swallowed into the bay by a huge earthquake. The British founded Kingston above the ruins in 1693.
During war, privateering was legal if it was directed against the enemy. Looting enemy ships was legitimate, but few could confine themselves to their legal targets. A French ship laden with gold, sugar and indigo, heading for France from Santo Domingo in late 1713, was the first recorded victim of piracy in The Bahamas. The owner of the cargo was aboard. Near Inagua the ship caught fire. While the pilot tried to douse the fire, the captain ran her aground on a sand bar. He made no attempt to re-float her. By coincidence, "friends" in the area arrived in small boats to "save" the cargo. The owner and pilot later testified in court, in vain.
The following year, a hurricane blew a Spanish treasure fleet carrying booty back to Spain onto shallow Florida reefs. Privateer Henry Jennings attacked and robbed the ill-equipped salvage divers. Jennings and many others of his ilk found New Providence an ideal home base.
Brothers in crime
There is ample evidence that the pirates not only knew each other, but in many cases sailed and plundered together. Blackbeard said it was Henry Jennings, "a sly, crafty old privateer who introduced me to the 'Brethren of the Coast'. "He later sailed with Capt Benjamin Hornigold and Stede Bonnet. Calico Jack Rackman was the quartermaster on one of Charles Vane's ships.
Pirate colony emerges
Other pirate captains soon joined Jennings and his band. Nassau blossomed into a community of 3,000. They lived in tents, shacks and on ships. The pirate economy spawned a service industry of traders, followers, smugglers and hangers-on. Jennings became the unofficial but virtual leader of this motley crew. Together with a group of other pirates, Jennings demonstrated some keen political smarts and they established a more-or-less civilized democratic society in New Providence.
Virginia Governor Alexander Spotswood was probably instrumental in persuading King George I to send Woodes Rogers to New Providence as governor to clean up the pirate situation.
Capt Rogers was a British sea captain and privateer, who became famous by circling the globe and writing a best seller, A Cruising Voyage Around the World. He described the rescue of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk from a South Sea island. This true story was the basis for Daniel Defoe?s Robinson Crusoe. Britain, at the time, was wont to make heroes
of privateers/pirates like Rogers, Sir Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake.
Rogers announced a Royal pardon for pirates who would give up their plundering ways. The pardon had left the pirates divided. Some, including Henry Jennings, the acknowledged leader of this pirate den, had already returned from Bermuda, where they had sailed to accept the royal pardon.
Only Charles Vane and crew were ready to fight. Knowing that they were trapped, Vane accepted the pardon provided he could keep the looted treasure. Rogers thought the pardon was generous enough and did not reply.
A fiery escape
Vane, unwilling to give up his wealth, awaited darkness. They prepared their recent prize, an
ex-French brigantine, for a daring role in a nighttime escape. The guns of the French ship were loaded and pointed forward, toward Rogers' ships. The French vessel was then set to sail toward the anchored ships and was set on fire. The unmanned fire ship sailed right at the Royal Navy vessels. As the cannon began to explode, the crews of the navy vessels were forced to cut their anchor lines in order to save their vessels from a fiery collision. When the powder magazine exploded, the sky lit up enough to see Vane's sloop escaping into the night. Vane then continued his pirate activity along the coast of the Carolinas. When in The Bahamas, he found safe haven in Green Turtle Cay, Abaco. Vane later lost his ship to Rackam, when his crew voted him out.
When Vane was finally captured, he had slipped aboard a merchant vessel as an ordinary seaman. He was recognized by another captain and former pirate, seized and turned over to the authorities. Among his documented offenses was the capture of the sloop John and Elizabeth off the coast of Abaco. He was hanged for piracy on March 29, 1720.
Feisty femmes of piracy
Rackam, who took over Vane's ship, was another who refused the pardon brought by Capt Rogers. Rackam, by most accounts, was a lacklustre pirate and is best remembered because of two members of his crew. Anne Bonny and Mary Read both gained notoriety as the only female pirates in the Caribbean. They each hid their sex, dressing and fighting as men alongside the other members of the crew.
Anne was born in Ireland in about 1700, the illegitimate child of a prominent lawyer, William Cormac, and the family maid. Her father
fled the resulting scandal, taking mother and child to Charleston, SC. Anne was troublesome, stubborn and bad tempered. She eventually married James Bonny and moved to New Providence.
Disillusioned with her husband, Anne took up with Rackam, who showered her with gifts. When Rackam offered to buy Anne from James Bonny, he refused, so Rackam took Anne and a few of his old pirate pals and commandeered a merchant sloop. Thus began Anne's pirate career. Mary Read joined the crew when the pirates captured a Dutch merchant ship she was serving on.
In late October 1720, off the coast of Jamaica, a British Navy sloop, commanded by Capt Jonathan Barnet, encountered Rackam's anchored ship. With most of the crew drunk, Anne and Mary offered the only resistance the pirates put up. Realizing that the fight was lost the women attacked their cowardly and drunken shipmates, killing one and wounding several, screaming at them to "fight like men." All were captured, put on trial for piracy and sentenced to hang. But Anne, by then only 20, and Mary, 36, had their death sentences commuted by reason of pregnancy, although Mary died within months, of a fever, in April 1721.
A profitable partnership
Capt Benjamin Hornigold served on a privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession. When the war ended in 1713, he, like many others, turned to piracy out of necessity. Meanwhile young Edward Teach got his first taste of adventure during Queen Anne's War, serving on a privateer out of Kingston, Jamaica, plundering French ships. In early 1716 he signed on as a crew member of the pirate Capt Benjamin Hornigold, whose base was Nassau. Teach quickly distinguished himself by his strength, courage and reckless mien. Teach was later given command of a French sloop, taken off St Vincent in the West Indies. He converted the Concorde into a pirate ship manned by 300 men and carrying 40 guns. He changed her name to Queen Anne's Revenge and chose her for his flagship. About the same time he earned the nickname of Blackbeard, and he and Hornigold sailed and plundered together.
Toward the end of 1717, they seized a French ship loaded with gold, jewels and other items of value. The two then parted company. Hornigold, already wealthy, accepted the offer of George I to pardon pirates promising to reform and left Blackbeard, his lieutenant, in charge. Blackbeard, hearing news of Rogers? trip to New Providence, departed for America; Hornigold remained in New Providence.
Death of a villain
Blackbeard formed an instant friendship with the "gentleman pirate" Stede Bonnet, a respected plantation owner of Barbados, who took up piracy to escape a bad marriage. During this period, a successful hunt by the pirates in the sea lanes between The Bahamas and South Carolina led to the capture of a dozen ships. Some of the captured sailors signed on with Blackbeard's crew.
Blackbeard continued piracy in the Carolinas and made a deal to share a percentage of his profits with North Carolina Governor Charles Eden, in exchange for freedom to operate from there. Virginia Governor Spotswood, who had jurisdiction over The Bahamas, commissioned Lieut Robert Maynard and Capt Ellis Brand of the Royal Navy to find him. Maynard caught Blackbeard in shallow Ocracoke Inlet, NC. A bloody hand-to-hand battle ensued in which Maynard fought Blackbeard to the death. Blackbeard had been shot five times and had two dozen cutlass wounds. During his life, he was believed to have had 14 wives.
Blackbeard has been described as "the embodiment of impregnable wickedness, of reckless daring, a nightmarish villain so lacking in any human kindness that no crime was above him" the living picture of an ogre who roamed the seas and withered all before him with his very presence." He was, an 18th-century writer said, like "a frightful meteor" that "frightened America more than any comet that has appeared there in a long time."
Hornigold's career change
When Woodes Rogers, appointed governor of The Bahamas, arrived in 1718, Hornigold was there to welcome him as one of the leaders of a rabble of pirates that remained on the island. Rogers extended the king's pardon to Hornigold among others. Rogers thought highly of Hornigold, who wanted to return to legitimate privateering at the first opportunity. That came when Rogers commissioned him to hunt pirates. Hornigold set off in pursuit of Charles Vane and Stede Bonnet. He pursued them to Long Island Sound, but lost both during the chase. A later conflict with a small band of pirates caused Rogers to again enlist Hornigold for help, and this time he was successful, bringing in 13 pirates. About 1719, Hornigold was sent to Mexico on a trading voyage and his ship struck a reef far from land. He was never heard from again.
By 1725 the Golden Age of Piracy was over. The pirates had been expelled and commerce restored.