Woode Rogers—Pirate/Privateer I


Rogers’ men search Spanish ladies for their jewels in Guayaquil.

They sighted Cape San Lucas on 2 November 1709 and took up their stations. They spread out so that between them their lookouts could spot any vessel which appeared between the coast and a point some sixty miles out to sea. The Marquiss was stationed nearest the mainland, the Dutchess in the middle and the Duke on the outside, with the bark roving to and fro to carry messages from ship to ship. As far as Rogers and his men were concerned, the only thing that mattered was locating the Manila galleon, and they were experiencing troubles of their own. By 17 November they were running short of water. They sent the bark ashore, where they found a primitive settlement of local Indians. They were given a cautious welcome and allowed to fill up their water barrels from a nearby river. There was still no sign of the galleon on 14 December. They had now been at sea for seven weeks and the Marquiss, which was under the command of Edward Cooke, was in urgent need of repairs to her hull and rigging. She was sent to refit at a place which Rogers and Cooke refer to as Port or Puerto Seguro, on the basis that this was the name given to it by Thomas Cavendish. No such place exists today and it is evident from the description given by one of Cavendish’s sailors, and by Rogers’ detailed description, that the place they were referring to was the sheltered harbour now called Cape San Lucas or Cabo San Lucas. This is situated in the lee of the cape of the same name. Rogers described the entrance of the harbour as being marked by four high rocks which looked like the Needles at the Isle of Wight – and the promontory at the end of the cape certainly does bear a striking resemblance to the Needles.

Out at sea Rogers was increasingly doubtful about seeing the Manila galleon because it was nearly a month past the time when the ship was due. The chief concern now was the shortage of bread and provisions. There was no safe place on the American coast where they could obtain supplies and they had barely enough left to last them the fifty-day voyage across the Pacific to Guam, which was their next destination. On 19 December a council meeting was held on board the Dutchess at which the chief officers decided they would have to abandon their cruise for the Manila galleon. They were bitterly disappointed and as they put their signatures to the resolution ‘all looked very melancholy and dispirited’.

Before heading west into the vastness of the Pacific all three ships needed to stock up with wood and water, so the Duke and Dutchess set a course for Cape San Lucas. They were hampered by calms and a contrary current and were still some way off the coast when, at nine o’clock on the morning of 21 December 1709, the lookout at the masthead of the Duke cried out that he could see a sail on the horizon. ‘We immediately hoisted our ensign, and bore away after her, the Dutchess soon did the same.’

The calm weather continued all through the afternoon of 21 December. The Duke and Dutchess made little progress towards the distant sail and there was some speculation that the ship might be the Marquiss coming out of the harbour at Cape San Lucas. This led to some of the crew laying bets on whether it was the Marquiss or the Manila galleon. They watched the Duke’s pinnace make contact with the Dutchess and lie alongside her for a while before rowing on towards the strange ship. Robert Fry was despatched in the yawl to see whether the men on the Dutchess had managed to identify the ship, and while he was away the Duke hoisted a French ensign and fired a gun, which was answered by a gun from the ship. When Fry returned he brought the good news that ‘it was the ship we had so impatiently waited for, and despaired of seeing her’.

With dusk approaching it was agreed that the two pinnaces should keep close contact with the galleon during the night and at intervals show false fires (an early form of flare) so that the two privateers, which were hampered by the lack of wind, would know exactly where they were. The ships were cleared for action and everything was made ready for engaging and boarding the galleon in the morning. Throughout the hot night the pinnaces showed their lights, which were answered by lights on the privateers. At daybreak the crew of the Duke could see the galleon on their weather bow, about three miles away. The Dutchess was beyond and to leeward of her. At 6 a.m. the pinnace returned and her crew said that during the night the Dutchess had passed close to the galleon, which had fired two shots at her which she had not returned.

There was still no wind, so Rogers ordered his crew to get out eight of the ship’s large oars or sweeps and for an hour they rowed until a light breeze sprang up. He then ordered a kettle of chocolate to be prepared for the ship’s company, before arranging for prayers to be said. While these were in progress they were interrupted by the guns of the galleon, which was slowly bearing down on them with barrels of gunpowder hanging from her yardarms to discourage the privateers from attempting to board her. At 8 a.m. the Duke opened fire, first with her bow-chasers and then, as they came closer, with her full broadside. The thundering boom of the carriage guns was joined by the rattle of small-arms fire as the crews of the Duke and the galleon fired volleys of shot at each other with muskets and pistols. Rogers was the first and only serious casualty on his ship. ‘I was shot through the left cheek, the bullet struck away great part of my upper jaw, and several of my teeth, part of which dropped down on the deck where I fell … I was forced to write what I would say, to prevent the loss of blood, and because of the pain I suffered by speaking.’

The Duke’s gun crews had been well trained and were able to fire faster and more effectively than those of the galleon. They kept on firing as the Duke swung alongside the stout wooden hull of the galleon, causing so many casualties that the galleon’s commander hauled down his ensign and surrendered. As there was still very little wind, the Dutchess, being to leeward, had difficulty in reaching the galleon. When she came within range she fired her guns and a volley of small shot, but the fight was over. As the clouds of acrid gunsmoke cleared and drifted away the three ships drifted on the calm waters of the Pacific. Edward Cooke, who watched the action from a hill overlooking the harbour where the Marquiss was anchored, reckoned the engagement lasted no more than half an hour.

Rogers sent a boat across to the galleon to bring her captain and officers over to the Duke. They learnt that the ship they had captured was called the Nuestra Señora de la Incarnación Disenganio and her commander was Monsieur Jean Pichberty, a French chevalier (in his report Rogers anglicised his name and rank to Sir John Pichberty). He was the brother-in-law of Admiral Jean-Baptiste du Casse, who had fought Admiral Benbow and Admiral Whetstone in the West Indies. On board his ship were 190 sailors and servants, ten passengers and eight black Africans. During the action they had lost nine killed, ten wounded ‘and several blown up and burnt with powder’.

The vessel which the privateers had captured was not, strictly speaking, a galleon but a frigate-built merchant ship, armed with 20 carriage guns on a single gun deck and 20 swivel guns mounted on her rails. At 400 tons burden she was not much larger than the 350-ton Duke and her captain had little option but to surrender when faced with the 30-gun Duke and the 26-gun Dutchess. From her commander the privateers learnt that she had set sail from Manila in company with a much larger galleon, the Nuestra Señora de Begoña, a newly built vessel of 900 tons armed with 40 carriage guns on two decks and an equal number of swivel guns. The two galleons had lost touch with each other during the 7,000-mile voyage but had an agreement to meet off Cape San Lucas in order to present a combined front to the privateers – the captains of both ships had received information at Manila, via English trading posts in India, that two Bristol ships were planning to intercept and attack them.

For the rest of the day and during the night the three ships remained out at sea while their crews carried out repairs, and the privateers’ surgeons dressed the wounds of the injured men on board the Spanish ship. The following day, 23 December, they headed towards Cape San Lucas and at 4 p.m. they rounded the distinctive rocky promontory at the end of the cape and dropped anchor in the sheltered waters of the bay beyond. The Marquiss was there to greet them ‘and all the company much overjoyed at our unexpected good fortune’. That night Rogers felt something clog his throat. He swallowed with great pain and presumed the object was either part of his jawbone or the musket shot which had hit him. In his journal he made light of the injury but admitted that his head and throat were badly swollen and he had considerable difficulty in swallowing the liquids he needed for nourishment. In the morning a council meeting was held on the Duke but Rogers was unable to attend. The other chief officers agreed that the Dutchess and the Marquiss would set sail immediately and cruise for eight days with the objective of intercepting the other Manila galleon. They duly weighed anchor at eight in the evening and headed out to sea.

By dawn the next day they were six miles off Cape San Lucas. Edward Cooke, commanding the Marquiss, recorded in his journal, ‘Sunday, December 25, being Christmas Day, at eight in the morning were two leagues of Cape St Luke, and saw a sail bearing S.W. distant about seven leagues, which we concluded to be the great Manila ship.’ Both ships gave chase but made little progress and by nightfall they were still several miles away. At around midnight the Dutchess came within gunshot of the galleon and opened fire. In the ensuing action the powerful guns of the galleon inflicted so much damage on the masts and rigging of the Dutchess that Captain Courtney was forced to break off the action in order to carry out repairs. The Marquiss was still some four miles from the scene at daybreak owing to the continuing lack of wind. And then, at 8 a.m., Cooke saw the Duke slowly emerging from Cape San Lucas and heading their way.

Rogers had wanted the Duke and Dutchess to go out together to intercept and attack the great galleon but he had been over-ruled. He had, however, arranged for two lookouts to be positioned on the hill above the harbour with orders to signal him if they saw another ship appear on the horizon. Meanwhile he had spent a productive Christmas Day negotiating terms with the commander of the captured Manila ship, who was clearly a man of influence. Jean Pichberty agreed to pay five bills of exchange, payable in London, for the sum of 6,000 dollars. This would cover the remaining ransom money due for the taking of Guayaquil and would enable the privateers to release the three Guayaquil hostages who were still being held as surety for the ransom.

During the afternoon of 25 December the lookouts on the hill above Cape San Lucas made the agreed signal with flags to indicate that a third ship had appeared in addition to the distant sails of the Dutchess and the Marquiss. Rogers was determined to put to sea at once. Arrangements were hastily made to secure the large number of prisoners now in their hands, and at 7 p.m. the Duke set sail. His officers had tried to persuade him to remain on board the prize in the harbour but to no avail. He remained in command in spite of the injury he had sustained, but admitted, ‘I was in so weak a condition, and my head and throat so much swelled, that I yet spoke in great pain, and not loud enough to be heard at any distance.’

There was so little wind that the Duke was still nine miles to leeward of the galleon at noon the following day. Her crew watched helplessly as the diminutive Marquiss moved in to attack. She was dwarfed by the galleon but her sailors gave three cheers, fired a broadside and raked her massive sides with volleys of small-arms fire. She was joined by the Dutchess, which came up under the stern of the galleon and poured in a broadside before drifting away. For several hours the two privateer ships attempted to make some impression on the apparently impregnable galleon, moving in to attack and then falling away out of range of her guns. By nightfall the Marquiss had almost run out of ammunition. According to Cooke, they fired ‘above 300 great shot, about 50 cross bars, and two great chests of steel bars, besides abundance of partridge small shot, and above nine barrels of powder’. Not till the early hours of the next day was the Duke close enough to send a boat across to find out what sort of condition her two consorts were in. The boat returned with the news that the foremast of the Dutchess was seriously damaged and her crew had suffered many casualties. The Marquiss had escaped lightly but Rogers arranged for three barrels of gunpowder and a supply of shot to be rowed across to her.

At daybreak on 27 December the three privateers made a combined attack on the great galleon, later recorded in graphic seaman’s language by Cooke:

Captain Courtney in the Dutchess, stood close up, gave his broadside and volleys and then ran ahead. The Marquiss coming up under her quarter, did the like, and the Duke next performed the same along her lee-side. We kept raking of her fore and aft, and then wore to get out of the way of the Duke’s shot, still firing, as did the other ships … The enemy fired at us all three at once, but slow, seldom missing our masts and rigging, and sometimes hulling us. After lying near half an hour along the chase’s side, the Dutchess lay by to stop her leaks, and secure her foremast being much disabled, having 25 men killed and wounded and the sails and rigging much shattered.

In addition to the damage caused by the guns of the galleon, the privateers were also subjected to a hail of hand-grenades (described as ‘stink pots’) which blew up several cases of powder on the quarterdeck of the Duke and started a fire on the Marquiss which the crew managed to extinguish before it spread. Around 11 a.m. the Duke broke off the action after her mainmast had received two direct shots. Rogers made the signal for the other captains and senior officers to come aboard his ship for a meeting. There was still a general determination to continue the action but the ships’ carpenters warned that the foremast of the Dutchess and the mainmast of the Duke were likely to go by the board and take the other masts with them. The Dutchess had thirty men killed or wounded, and the Duke had eleven wounded, including Rogers, who had been hit in the ankle with a wood splinter which exposed his heel bone. He had lost a lot of blood and was unable to stand. It was evident that they had little chance of taking the great galleon. Between them they had fewer than 120 men fit for boarding the enemy, which, according to information they had obtained from the prisoners they had taken in the smaller galleon, had around 450 men on board, including a large number of Europeans, ‘several of whom had been formerly pirates, and having now got all their wealth aboard, were resolved to defend it to the last’.

The problem was that the privateers’ guns were making no impression on the powerful teak hull of the galleon, which towered above them and made it difficult to cause significant casualties among her crew. According to Cooke, ‘we might as well have fought a castle’, and Rogers noted that the ships built at Manila were much stronger and had thicker sides than ships built in Europe so that ‘few of our shot entered her sides to any purpose, and our small arms availed less, there being not a man to be seen above board’. It was agreed that it was better to secure the prize they had already taken than to resume the action and risk losing more men and further damage to their battered ships. As always the resolution was drawn up in writing and was signed by the captains commanding the three ships as well as eleven other officers, including William Dampier, Robert Fry and Alexander Selkirk.

On the evening of 28 December the ships limped slowly back towards Cape San Lucas. On the Duke it was necessary to take down the main topgallant mast and secure the mainmast with additional stays and runners, while the other ships also carried out running repairs. Contrary winds and currents slowed their progress and not till the evening of the following day did they reach the safe haven of the harbour in the lee of the cape. As they anchored alongside their Spanish prize a light shower of rain swept across the bay.

During the next two days negotiations were concluded with Jean Pichberty and the three Guayaquil hostages, all of whom signed a document to the effect that they had been well treated and that the financial transactions made for the payment of the ransom had been carried out voluntarily and with their full consent. On 1 January the hostages and the captain and crew of the Manila galleon-sailed for Acapulco in the Jesus, Maria y José, the thirty-five-ton coasting vessel the privateers had captured off Lobos Island. The Spaniards were supplied with water and provisions for the voyage and the captain was allowed to retain all his books and instruments, ‘So that they parted very friendly, and acknowledged we had been very civil to ’em.’

The captain took with him a letter from Rogers to Alderman Batchelor and the other sponsors of the expedition. The letter eventually reached Bristol and is preserved among the other documents relating to the voyage of the Duke and Dutchess. It is addressed from California, dated 31 December 1709, and provides a brief account of the taking of the smaller Manila galleon and the unsuccessful attack on the larger galleon: ‘This ship was too strong for us, and has wounded all our masts …’ Rogers mentioned the death of his brother and his own injuries, but, being aware that the letter must pass through enemy hands before it reached its destination, he gave no information about the value of the captured galleon’s cargo, nor did he describe the raid on Guayaquil or the taking of other prizes. He ended, ‘My endeavours shall not be wanting on all occasions when please God to restore me to my strength.’

Before leaving Cape San Lucas and setting sail for home, Rogers had to face another mutiny. This time it was orchestrated by Thomas Dover and concerned the command of their valuable prize, which had been renamed the Batchelor Frigate, in honour of their chief sponsor. Rogers made it clear that he wanted an experienced sea officer to take command of the galleon on the homeward voyage. Dover wanted the command himself and persuaded a number of other officers, including Courtney, Cooke and Dampier, to support his claim. There followed a paper war in which both sides recorded their arguments at length. Rogers and his supporters made it clear that Dover, who was no seaman, was utterly incapable of acting as commander of a sailing ship, and Rogers further pointed out that ‘his temper is so violent that capable men cannot well act under him’. In the end it was agreed that Dover be given nominal command but that Robert Fry and William Stretton would be responsible for navigating and sailing the ship ‘and that the said Capt. Thomas Dover shall not molest, hinder or contradict them in their business’. Alexander Selkirk was appointed to the key post of master of the ship.

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