Woodes Rogers

Woodes Rogers

English sea captain, privateer and colonial governor Woodes Rogers (c. 1679 – 1732), son of a prosperous merchant captain who made his money with the Newfoundland fishing fleet, was apprenticed to Bristol mariner John Yeamans in November 1697. 

\He completed his time in November 1704 and married Sarah Whetstone, daughter of Rear Admiral Sir William Whetstone the British commander-in-chief in the West Indies the following January. The marriage enhanced the family's standing and allowed Rogers to become a freeman, or voting citizen, of Bristol. 

After his father died at sea, Rogers inherited his ships and business but losses to the French during the War of the Spanish Succession, although he does not record their extent in his book, prompted him to turn to privateering to remedy an uncomfortable financial position.

He is best known for his privateering voyage around the world (1708 – 1711) which set out to break the Spanish and French monopoly of trade in the South Sea, and he was determined to change the situation. 

Backed by Bristol merchants, he fitted out two merchant ships, the Duke and the Duchess, enlisting William Dampier as master of the Duke and pilot of the expedition, which set sail from King Road, near Bristol, at the start of August 1708. After a stop at Cork, they sailed to the Canary Islands, suppressing a mutiny en route, and captured a small Spanish barque laden with wine and brandy off Teneriffe. After replenishment stops at the Cape Verde Islands and St Vincent, they rounded the Horn where a violent storm blew them far to the south. 

In the Pacific, they headed for Juan Fernandez, arriving there on 31 January 1709 When some of the crew were sent ashore on the morning of 2 February, they were approached by a man 'clothed in goatskins', Alexander Selkirk, a former crewman of Dampier's, who had been marooned there for more than four years. Selkirk's story appeared in print in Rogers's Cruising Voyage, and his adventures provided the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. After watering and refitting at Juan Fernandez, the expedition cruised off Chile and Peru, taking several prizes and capturing the town of Guayaquil on the island of Puna. After two months at the island of Gorgona, they captured an inbound Manila galleon, though Rogers was severely wounded in the incident.

Leaving the California coast on 10 January 1710 the expedition crossed the Pacific in a two-month voyage that covered nearly ten thousand kilometres. After refitting and taking fresh provisions at Guam, Rogers sailed to the Moluccas, and on to Batavia, arriving on 20 June 1710 for a four-month stay. They left, bound for the Cape of Good Hope on 12 October, arrived there on 29 December for another extended visit. 

The homeward leg started on 5 April 1711 and ended in the Thames on 14 October, The expedition was back in England in October 1711, having circumnavigated the globe in the vessels they departed in with most of the original crew alive. The voyage's financial backers doubled their money, and the successful expedition generated a wave of public interest. Encouraged by his friends, Rogers recast rather than rewrote his journal as A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712).

Back in England, having made about £14,000 from the voyage, Rogers should have been comfortable, but a combination of circumstances conspired against him. 

His father-in-law had died while he was away, his family had run up debts in his absence, and his dealings with the Dutch in Batavia violated the British East India Company's monopoly. The legal battle that ensued saw the East India Company picked up £6,000 to settle their claim. 

Another legal battle saw two hundred members of his crew claim that they had not received their fair share of the expedition profits. When that action succeeded, and the profits from his book were not enough to recoup his previous losses Rogers was forced into bankruptcy and had to sell his home in Bristol to support his family.

An expedition to purchase slaves in Madagascar and sell them, with the East India Company's approval in the Dutch East Indies allowed Rogers to gather details about pirates in Madagascar, with a possibility of destroying or reforming them and colonising Madagascar once they were gone. Many of the pirates had gone native, and Rogers persuaded them to sign a petition asking for clemency from Queen Anne. While the expedition was profitable, and he cleared his debts, the East India Company vetoed the idea of a colony on Madagascar, and Rogers turned his attention to the West Indies.  He was able to forge an agreement for a company to manage the Bahamas, which were infested with pirates and plagued by French and Spanish attacks, in exchange for a share of the colony's profits. The islands were nominally governed by absentee Lords Proprietor, who surrendered the civil and military government of the islands to the crown except for quit rents and royalties, which they leased to Rogers' company for twenty-one years in return for a token payment. So Rogers was appointed 'Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief' of the Bahamas with the power to suppress piracy by whatever means necessary. When he sailed from London in the Delicia to take up the appointment on 22 April 1718, he carried a royal proclamation which granted a pardon to any pirates who surrendered before 5 September.

The seven-ship expedition carried 100 soldiers, 130 colonists, and took three and a half months to cross the Atlantic. When Rogers anchored in Nassau harbour on 25 July 1718, the word from the shore was that most of the pirates except Edward Teach (Blackbeard) and Charles Vane would accept royal clemency and change their lifestyle. Vane and ninety of his crew escaped that evening, setting a French prize alight and making their way out of the harbour in the subsequent confusion. Rogers landed in Nassau the following morning with the reformed pirates forming a guard of honour and set to work immediately. As soon as he was sworn in as governor, he set about establishing a council and making necessary civil appointments. Nassau's fort, which lay in ruins, was repaired and garrisoned, overgrown streets were cleared and tidied, and the garrison reinforced by three companies of militia. Rogers proposed to development a whaling industry and to increase the production of salt, which had a ready market in Newfoundland's cod fishing industry. However, there were problems, particularly with disease, and his workforce was disinclined to work an honest living. Some reverted to piracy, which remained an on-going problem in the islands. Rogers had constant complaints about the lack of protection against the swarms of pirates and the threat of attack from Spain, and by 1720, ill, discouraged and deeply in debt, he decided to plead its cause in England. When he left Nassau at the end of March 1721, he carried a 'Memorial' from the council endorsing his policies and suggesting administrative reforms (an end to the proprietors' power, the formation of a colonial assembly, and increased allowance to defend the colony) but his appeal  to the lords of the Treasury fell on deaf ears.

To make matters worse, he was imprisoned for debt and spent some years there. Rogers was, however,  eventually absolved of his debts and went on to supply much of the information for a best-selling work (A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates) by one of London's writer-publishers. The author may have been Daniel Defoe, but the work was credited to Captain Charles Johnson. 

The book's success did, however, bring Rogers back into the national limelight. In 1726 he successfully petitioned George I for a pension, conveniently backdated to 1721.

Meanwhile, his replacement as governor in the Bahamas was encountering the same difficulties as Rogers had experienced. On 28 February 1728, the council in the Bahamas petitioned George II for Rogers's return. A petition the following month from Sir Hans Sloane and other influential supporters sealed the issue, and Rogers received a new commission as governor in December. He was back in New Providence in the summer of 1729, with his son William Whetstone Rogers (1717–1735) and daughter Sarah (d. 1743). His second term faced internal rather than external challenges centred around taxation and revenue. His new assembly met on 30 September that year and passed significant reforms despite resistance from the proprietors' interests led by the assembly's speaker, John Colebrooke. Efforts were made to expand the economy by planting cotton and sugar cane, but amid ongoing disputes with Colebrooke's party, Rogers died at Nassau on 15 July 1732 and was buried there. The location of his grave is unknown.

Sources: Chambers Biographical Dictionary; Gail Saunders, Woodes Rogers (c. 1679–1732); Wikipedia

© Ian Hughes 2017