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January 07, 2008

Why did pirate hunter Woodes Rogers lose his governorship?


One of the many historical mysteries connected to the Golden Age of Piracy concerns Woodes Rogers, the man who brought the Flying Gang pirates down. Why was he dismissed as the Governor of the Bahamas in 1721?

As told in The Republic of Pirates, Rogers was unceremoniously fired after an incredible feat: defending Nassau against a Spanish invasion force many times his strength in March 1720. Abandoned by both the British government and his own business partners, Rogers even languished for a time in a London debtor's prison for debts he'd accumulated defending the Bahamas from pirates and Spanish alike. While he was later rehabilitated, it's never been clear just what he'd done to displease his superiors in London.

However, newly discovered documents suggest the possibility that Rogers dismissal may have been linked to his erratic behavior towards officers of the Royal Navy.

While at the British National Archives recently, I located the letters of Captain Johnathan Hidlesley of the HMS Flamborough. As related in the book, Hidesley and Rogers fought a duel in South Carolina in late 1720 over some disagreement they had in Nassau earlier that year. The young officer's letters describe, in detail, what happened in Nassau -- an account that puts Rogers in an extremely unfavorable light.

The Flamborough was the only Royal Navy warship in the Bahamas at the time of the Spanish invasion, and her young commander through himself into the island's defense. As Hidesley later explained in letters to his superiors, during the attack he sent some of his men aboard Rogers' armed merchant ship, Delicia, "there being no watch aboard her." Rogers responded in the most bizzare fashion: he ordered the guns of Fort Nassau to be trained on the Flamborough and had Hidlesley and his first officer arrested! immediately after the invasion, he challenged Hidlesley to a duel, but failed to appear at the appointed time. (They later fought an inconclusive match in Charleston.) Rogers also allegedly encouraged "a mob" to attack the Flamborough's first officer on the streets of Nassau.

In his letter, Hidlesley's tone is apologetic. "If my ignorance of the extent of my commission had led me inot any error in this affair... I humbly [hope] their Lordshps will be pleased to excuse what I have done...and consider me as a young officer who may better know how to act..." He ennumerates any grievances Rogers could have had against him, all of them involving questions of whether Rogers had the right to order a naval captain around. (He did not.) Rogers may have been particularly incensed by Hidesley's refusal to attack Havana -- a suicide mission. 

Rogers had already offended the captains of HMS. Milford, Rose, and Shark. By threatening one of the King's ships and arresting her commander, Rogers likely prompted the Admiralty to move against him in London. It strengthens the impression that Rogers, while brave and patriotic, had an erratic streak that turned many would-be allies against him.


-- Colin Woodard

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