Woodes Rogers

Woodes Rogers, the man who developed the crown’s response to the great piracy outbreak, was born in Poole, Dorset, England in 1679, the son of an aspiring merchant. His father built a successful long-distance shipping concern, trading for fish in Newfoundland and, later, slaves in West Africa, and made a number of influential friends in the process, including Sir William Whetstone, a royal navy admiral who commanded the West India fleet during the War of Spanish Succession.

Young Woodes married Whetstone’s daughter, Sarah, in 1704, elevating the Rogers to the highest circles of West Country society. When his father died at sea in 1705, Woodes took control of the family’s affairs.

Woodes Rogers (seated at left) with his daughter, Sarah, and son, William Whetstone Rogers, in a 1729 portrait by William Hogarth. Hogarth painted Rogers in profile to conceal his disfigurement from a Spanish musketball.

Bristol merchants suffered tremendous losses during the War of Spanish Succession, and Rogers was no exception. In 1708 his 130-ton slave ship, Whetstone Galley, was captured by French privateers en route to Africa. Partly in response to this loss, Rogers lobbied his fellow merchants to fund an ambitious privateering mission to raid Spanish shipping in the Pacific Ocean. His father’s friend, the circumnavigator and onetime buccaneer William Dampier, suggested it might be possible to capture one of Spain’s fortress- like Manila treasure galleons.

Intrigued by this possibility, the merchants of Bristol underwrote the construction of two private warships, the Duke and the Dutchess, and placed them under Rogers command. His 1708-11 expedition circumnavigated the globe, captured a small Manila ship, rescued the castaway Alexander Selkirk (the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe), traded slaves, and made Rogers a household name across the British Isles. It also brought hardship.

Rogers brother died in combat; Rogers himself took a musketball in the face during the capture of the treasure ship and, on returning to England, was bankrupted by a protracted law suit brought against him by the East India Company. His infant son died shortly thereafter and, in the aftermath, his marriage became undone.

Rogers through himself into his work, becoming interested in the activities and possible suppression of the pirates of Madagascar, made famous by the exploits of Henry Avery. He groveled before his enemies at the East India Company, and received their permission to carry slaves from Madagascar to the EIC base on the island of Sumatra (now part of Indonesia).

As detailed in The Republic of Pirates, Rogers’ encounters with fugitive pirates led him to develop the outlines of a strategy to defeat them – a combination of carrot (a royal pardon to those who would surrender) and stick (a robust military action against those who would not.) He would wind up executing this plan not in Madagascar, but in the Bahamas.

He used his contacts to lobby for and, eventually, receive a royal commission to act as Governor of of the Bahamas, so long as he would liberate them from pirate control. King George put key elements of Rogers Madagascar strategy into practice, offering a pardon to divide the pirates, and supplying Rogers with a naval escort to conquer those who remained. Rogers’ fleet – which included a private mercenary force
and a shipload of colonists – arrived at Nassau in July 1718 and, after a confrontation with Charles Vane, took control of the island. While he won the assistance of several leading pirates, including Benjamin Hornigold, Rogers’ hold on power was tenuous.

The Republic of Pirates describes the harrowing challenges he faced: disease, defection, the destruction of commerce by Vane’s gang, and the constant threat of invasion from Spain from December 1718.

Rogers’ strategy was ultimately successful, ending the pirate republic and dispersing the remaining pirate gangs across the world, where most of them were picked off, one by one. Nonetheless, he was relieved of his governorship in 1722 and wound up in debtor’s prison for personal loans he took out to protect the colony
from invasion.

His reputation was restored following the publication of A General History of the Pyrates (1724), ultimately resulting in compensation from the crown and, in 1728, his restoration to the governorship of the Bahamas.

He died in Nassau on July 15, 1732