BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The real history of piracy
, August 20, 2011
Captain Woodes Rogers and the Pirates of the Caribbean
by David Cordingly
Hardback: 320 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
In popular culture, there has been an abiding fascination with pirates who trawled the Caribbean, typified most recently by the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films. Spanish Gold explores the real history behind the legends, focussing on Woodes Rogers who, as governor of the Bahamas, was instrumental in the suppression of piracy.
David Cordingly, a former keeper of the pictures and head of exhibitions at Britain’s National Maritime Museum, commences his study by reminding us that English piracy in the New World paradoxically began, and remained for most of its history, as a government-sanctioned activity!
Naval heroes such as Sir Francis Drake were issued with special government licences, called “letters of marque and reprisal”, which allowed them to use their private vessels to intercept and plunder enemy ships — usually Spanish ones. Issuing such letters was a standard practice during times of war, such as during the War of the Spanish Succession.
However, such individuals were referred to as “privateers” rather than pirates.
Another successful privateer was Woodes Rogers. In 1707 he teamed up with William Dampier — the first Englishman to explore the coast of Australia — who had just returned from an unsuccessful privateering venture. Their intended target was the Manila galleons, two ships full of treasures from the Spanish Philippines, which crossed the Pacific Ocean to New Spain annually.
After a lengthy voyage and some success against minor targets, Rogers successfully intercepted and captured one of the two vessels off the Pacific coast of North America.
Ironically, on his return to England, after having circumnavigated the globe, Rogers had to declare himself bankrupt, after being pursued by crew members for their unpaid wages.
However, during the course of the expedition, he rescued a marooned sailor, Alexander Selkirk, usually regarded as the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, although other potential candidates for this honour are explored by Cordingly towards the end of the book.
Cordingly then examines Rogers’ first term as governor of the Bahamas from 1718 to 1721. This appointment came in the wake of considerable pressure from merchants, who had been victims of increased pirate activity in the wake of the Peace of Utrecht in 1713.
This agreement had seen Britain end its involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. However, one of the consequences was an increase in the number of unemployed men who became involved in piracy. It was during the second decade of the 18th century that piracy peaked.
Rogers was determined not only to stamp out piracy, but also to develop the Bahamas’ forts and other defence structures, so as to protect these Caribbean islands from a surprise attack, particularly from the Spanish.
One of his more successful strategies was to grant amnesties to pirates who agreed to refrain from piracy but then to pursue relentlessly those who refused the amnesty. Rogers was to serve a second term as governor from 1728 until his death in 1732 while in office.
Spanish Gold also mentions the careers of a number of famous — or rather, infamous — pirates. Perhaps two of the most intriguing were the female duo, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who sailed with Captain John (“Calico Jack”) Rackam.
Although they had the reputation of being even more savage than some male pirates, their uncharacteristic decision on one occasion to spare the life of a female captive resulted in her becoming a key prosecution witness against them at their trial.
Woodes Rogers was a crucially important figure in the suppression of piracy; but perhaps his greater legacy was his written account of the pirates themselves, providing a primary source for egregious characters such as those described above.
An instant bestseller, his account aroused great interest among the general public in the subject of piracy, an interest that has yet to abate, given the range of novels and films currently available on the subject.
Spanish Gold is a fascinating and readable account of the history of piracy, particularly in the Caribbean.
While the book has much to say about Rogers, it also provides an interesting introduction to other pirate stories that have continued to fascinate the general public to the present day.