Book Review: Spanish Gold
Captain Woodes Rogers and the Pirates of the Caribbean
Bloomsbury 298pp £20
ISBN 978 0 7475 9963 0
David Cordingly took up piracy comparatively late in life. Previously he had led a distinguished and more conventional existence as keeper of the Royal Pavilion’s art gallery in Brighton; as assistant director of the Museum of London; and then as keeper of pictures and head of exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
His 1992 Greenwich exhibition on pirates led directly to an offer he could not refuse from the American publisher, Random House. The resulting book, published as Under the Black Flag, established him as a world expert on 18th-century piracy and is still in print. He was even credited as historical consultant for the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, starring Johnny Depp, which put a celluloid seal on Cordingly’s piratical status. Spanish Gold takes as its thread the life of one man, Captain Woodes Rogers, and uses it to draw together a number of different intertwined strands. In telling the story Cordingly manages to weave scrupulous documentary research archives into a rattling good yarn.
The outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1702 was an open invitation to British ship owners to arm their vessels, apply for a covering commission from the High Court of Admiralty and set off as privateers, officially licensed by the government to capture any enemy shipping they could find. The potential prize of prizes was one of the Spanish galleons annually carrying silver from Acapulco in Mexico to Manila and silk and spices back from Manila to Spanish America. Rogers duly captured a Manila galleon, though he never became rich as a result. During his three-year circumnavigation as a privateer, chancing his arm in the tradition of Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish and Henry Morgan, he met or sailed with many of the legendary British sailors of that era. (In 1709 he rescued Alexander Selkirk, who some five years earlier had been marooned alone on the island of Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile, today renamed as Robinson Crusoe Island.)
Then in 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht ended the War of the Spanish Succession for the British. It also led directly to the ‘golden age’ of piracy in the Caribbean. Privateering was perfect on-the-job training for proper piracy to which suddenly unemployed sailors turned in large numbers for want of alternative lucrative work. Both kinds of seafaring were also curiously democratic, with crews regularly voting to replace captains who failed to deliver the goods. Nassau in the Bahamas became overnight the pirate capital of the Atlantic, the base of operations from which Edward Teach (Blackbeard), John Rackham (Calico Jack) and all the others created mayhem along the whole of the eastern seaboard of America and in the Caribbean, badly disrupting trade, particularly in sugar and slaves.
Rogers got himself appointed governor of the Bahamas with a brief to ‘drive the pirates from their lodgement at Harbour Island and Providence’. He arrived in the West Indies in 1718 and was surprisingly successful, starting with the trial in December of 10 pirates (nine of whom were hanged on the waterfront at Nassau). His continuing efforts for the next 14 years to keep the Bahamas a pirate-free zone ruined his health and bankrupted him as the government consistently failed to support him or to reimburse him the expenses involved. He died unsung at Nassau in 1732, aged 53. The account of how the pirates, driven from Nassau, were hunted down from Boston to Jamaica and killed in battle or publicly hanged documents how, for all its contemporary 'theme park' glamour and the best efforts of Johnny Depp, the life of the pirates of the Caribbean was in reality nasty, brutish and short.
Hugh Stephenson is Emeritus Professor of Journalism at City University, London. He has sailed around South America via Robinson Crusoe Island, Panama and the West Indies.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology