PIRATE HUNTER OF THE CARIBBEAN:THE ADVENTUROUS LIFE OF CAPTAIN WOODES ROGERS
By David Cordingly
Random House, $26, 301 pages, illustrated
It wasn't always "better in the Bahamas." That tropical archipelago was a pirates' paradise whose "various governors ... conspicuously failed to exert their authority," David Cordingly writes. "Colonel Cadwalader Jones, who arrived in 1690, was regarded as such a useless and 'whimsical' man that he was twice imprisoned and once confined on a ship in the harbor under armed guard." His successor, Nicholas Trott, "was present when the notorious pirate Henry Avery sailed into the harbor in a ship laden with loot from the Indian Ocean, [and] Trott permitted Avery and his crew to share out their plunder and trade with the inhabitants. When Colonel Haskett arrived in 1701... he was confined in irons ... then put on a boat and sent back to England.
"In 1703 the Spaniards landed again. They demolished the fort ... burnt down houses and took the Deputy Governor off to Havana as a prisoner. French privateers attacked the islands of Eleuthra and Exuma in 1708 and ... tortured the women to find out where they had hidden their wealth."
A "Great Storm" took England by surprise in 1703, destroyed Eddystone Lighthouse, flooded the south coast, and took as many as 15,000 human lives. Four years later, a Royal Navy fleet foundered on the Scilly Isles rocks with the loss of 1,315 seamen, from common tars to admiral. In 1712, a hurricane hit Jamaica, sinking 54 vessels in Port Royal, including two galleys with 200 slaves chained below decks. Three years later, a Spanish treasure fleet lumbered past Florida when the sun disappeared "as though behind a muslin cloud" and the tempest wrecked 10 ships laden with a fortune in seven million pieces-of-eight, some of which were soon recovered by divers and some of which are still down there.
Thus, this breezy history turns tempestuous at times. It flies under false colors from the outset, like high-seas 18th-century pirating itself, which became a worldwide scourge after evolving from legal privateering. This volume's title, "Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean" is a ruse, or perhaps a sop to fans of Jack Sparrow/Johnny Depp spoofs.
The subtitle, on the other hand, is right on course, for this is essentially an orthodox biography; i.e., "The Adventurous Life of Captain Woodes Rogers." Amply researched and touching on relevant themes like admiralty law, it reveals that ridding the seas of outlaws was just one of Rogers' maritime fortes. He had made his mark as a young man who married an admiral's daughter, owned grand houses ashore and buckled plenty of swash at sea.
As a privateer himself, he led an expedition against the Spanish in the Pacific, raided Guayaquil, captured a treasure galleon, got his jaw shot away, and rescued a sailor who had been stranded alone for four years on a remote uninhabited island off Chile. Rogers wrote a book enumerating his own heroics, but its account of Alexander Selkirk's misadventure stole the show and inspired Daniel Defoe's reality-based "Robinson Crusoe."
Mr. Cordingly notes, "In his journals and letters, Rogers comes across as a frank and forthright seafaring man who faced storms, mutinies, sea battles, personal injuries and financial setbacks with admirable fortitude and resolution. However, recent research has revealed flaws in his character, which have been generally overlooked. He seems to have had an exceedingly hot temper and sometimes resorted to violent language, threatening to cut people's throats and bloody their noses."
Received by the king, he served as governor of the Bahamas twice. There in 1718 he presided over "one of the best-known and most often quoted events in the history of the pirates of this period ... [and] one of the landmarks in the British Government's campaign against piracy." The famous trial was notable in part because Parliament overturned a law that required pirates to be returned to England for prosecution. Now courts could be impaneled far from British soil to try felons for capital crimes. Rogers tried 10 pirates in a single proceeding, acquitted a few, and promptly hung the rest. Following standard procedure, he displayed their corpses at the harbor entrance as a warning to others.
Mr. Cordingly has written two well-received books, "Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates" and "Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander," a biography of the model for Patrick O'Brian's fictional hero, Jack Aubrey.
All in all, this narrative might lead a reader to reflect that us moderns are very fortunate. Consider: European voyagers faced worse fates than sailing off the edge. They risked shipwreck, marooning, starvation, scurvy and tropical diseases, while they unwittingly decimated whole nations of native peoples with the poxes they carried. In order to cross an ocean in a matter of months they lived on wormy biscuit and salt pork because they had to; by comparison, to cross a continent in hours we suffer body scans and a crummy meal because we're willing to. In short, this yarn, like most glimpses of the historical past, may tacitly remind readers how lucky we are and how easy life is today.
Philip Kopper is the publisher of Posterity Press Inc.