Woode Rogers—Pirate/Privateer II


Rogers (right) receives a map of New Providence Island from his son, in a painting by William Hogarth (1729).

They spent less than two weeks at anchor in the harbour of Cape San Lucas, repairing their damaged ships and stocking up with wood and water. Rogers was still suffering from his injuries (it would be many months before he was fully recovered) but for most of the men it was a pleasant interlude. The weather was calm and the air was fresh and healthy, in marked contrast to the tropical heat of Guayaquil. They had little rain but there were heavy dews during the nights. The surrounding countryside was mountainous, with barren, sandy wastes relieved by a scattering of shrubs and bushes. The local Indians became increasingly friendly. They much admired the privateers’ ships and paddled out to them on bark logs and climbed aboard. Rogers described them as tall and straight with much darker complexions than other native people they had seen on the Pacific coast. They had long black hair which hung down to their thighs. ‘The men stark naked, and the women had a covering of leaves over their privities … The language of the native was as unpleasant to us as their aspect, for it was very harsh and broad …’ The Indians’ huts were so badly constructed of branches and reeds that they appeared to be temporary dwellings, and they did not have any pots, utensils or furniture of any kind. They lived chiefly on fish but had no nets or hooks and caught the fish by diving underwater and striking them with sharpened sticks. Although he was critical of the Indians’ appearance and primitive way of life, Rogers was impressed by their honesty: ‘They coveted nothing we had but knives and other cutting instruments, and were so honest that they did not meddle with our coopers or carpenters tools, so that whatever was left ashore at night, we found it untouched in the morning.’

On 10 January 1710 the Duke, the Dutchess, the Marquiss and the Manila galleon (now the Batchelor Frigate) weighed anchor, rounded the end of the cape and sailed out into the Pacific. Their destination was the island of Guam, which lay more than 6,000 miles away on the far side of the great ocean.

On the advice of the Spanish pilot of the Manila galleon they followed the route taken by the west-going Acapulco galleons. From Cape San Lucas they headed west-south-west until they reached the latitude of 13 degrees north. From there they sailed due west along the line of latitude to Guam. The crossing of the Pacific took them two months and it proved to be an arduous and difficult voyage. The Duke had sprung a leak, so one of the pumps had to be manned continuously. To conserve food and water the crews were strictly rationed. Each mess of five men was restricted to one small piece of meat and a pound and a half of flour per day. When some of the Duke’s crew were caught stealing pieces of pork Rogers ordered the ringleader to be flogged by every member of the watch and his companions were put in irons. The black slaves were allowed even less food and water than everyone else and three of them died during the passage. Three other people were buried at sea: an Englishman who had joined the privateers at Guayaquil; the Spanish pilot who had been wounded during the capture of the galleon; and a Welsh tailor on the Duke who had been shot in the leg during the same action and ‘being of a weak constitution, fell into a dysentery which killed him’.

Apart from catching two dolphins they rarely landed any fish but the strict rationing and favourable winds enabled them to reach Guam with fourteen days of provisions left. On the morning of 11 March they sighted the distant hills of the island and by midday they were sailing along a green and verdant shore lined with coconut palms. They were greeted by sailing craft with outriggers which flew past them at astonishing speeds. During the afternoon of the same day they dropped anchor opposite a small village and sent ashore two interpreters with a letter for the Governor of Guam. As Guam was a remote outpost of the Spanish empire and a key staging post for the Acapulco galleons, the privateers were not sure what sort of welcome to expect. To their considerable relief they received a reply from the Governor to the effect that they would be given all the hospitality the island afforded. Within two days of their arrival they were being presented with bullocks, limes, oranges and coconuts, and on 16 March the chief officers were invited to the Governor’s house for a magnificent meal of sixty dishes. By the time of their departure on 21 March they had taken on board more bullocks, sixty hogs, rice, corn, baskets of yams and some 800 coconuts.

The next destination was the Dutch trading port of Batavia (Jakarta), which was more than 3,200 miles away. They headed south-west for Ternate, one of the Moluccas. On 15 April they encountered three waterspouts, ‘one of which had like to have broke on the Marquiss, but the Dutchess by firing two shot, broke it before it reached her’. They survived several storms but the Duke was taking in more water than ever, so that it took four men half an hour to pump her free of water and the pumping had to continue night and day. They threaded their way past innumerable islands, never quite certain where they were until on 29 May they reached Butan on the south-east corner of the Celebes. Here they were courteously received by the King of Butan. Presents were exchanged and they replenished their wood and water, but they had to pay extravagant prices for the provisions brought out to them by the local inhabitants. They set sail on 8 June and two days later intercepted a small vessel whose Malayan captain agreed to pilot them through the shoals and islands that lay between them and Batavia. By 14 June they were passing the island of Madura, off the north coast of Java, and on the afternoon of 20 June they saw thirty or forty ships lying in the roadstead of the great Dutch port. They dropped anchor just after sunset ‘at the long desired port of Batavia’.

The sailors were so delighted to find themselves in a civilised place where alcohol was cheap and plentiful that some of them were seen hugging one another with glee. Rogers himself was astonished to see such a noble city in this part of the world and the Europeans so well established. Batavia was the centre for the flourishing Dutch empire in the East Indies. Much of it looked like Amsterdam: there were fifteen canals which were crossed by numerous stone bridges and lined with handsome brick houses; there were elegant churches and an impressive town hall overlooking a square in the centre of the city; there were hospitals and schools and printing houses. On the outskirts were fine country houses with gardens shaded by fruit trees and decorated with statues and fountains, ‘so that this city is one of the pleasantest in the world. I don’t think it so large as Bristol, but ’tis more populous.’

Batavia was ruled by Abraham van Riebeck, the Governor-General, who lived like a prince with a personal escort of guards bearing halberds, and a garrison of more than 1,000 soldiers. His residence was a palace within a heavily fortified citadel and when the privateers sent a deputation to meet him they were greeted in a great hall decorated with armour and hung with flags. He examined and approved their commissions as private men-of-war and agreed to their using the port facilities to careen their ships. However, the chief administrator of the port proved obstructive and more than four weeks passed before they were able to take the Marquiss across to Hoorn Island and heave her on her side. When they did so the carpenters discovered that her bottom planks had been eaten to a honeycomb by teredo worms. They had no option but to sell her at a knockdown price of 575 Dutch dollars and transfer her prize goods to the other three ships.

During their prolonged stay in the Dutch port Rogers wrote a second letter to Alderman Batchelor in Bristol. He gave no more information about the value of the Manila galleon’s cargo and explained, ‘I don’t write fuller here nor to any one else, because of the distance and uncertainty of going safe.’ He did mention that they had lost seventy men by death or desertion, and he did admit that he was much thinner and weaker than usual and had been so ill as a result of his wounds that he had not been able to conduct his normal business. His journal entry for 30 June records in more detail the extent of his wounds, and indicates the extreme discomfort he must have been under:

8 days ago the Doctor cut a large musket shot out of my mouth, which had been there near 6 months, ever since I was first wounded; we reckoned it a piece of my jaw-bone, the upper and lower jaw being much broken, and almost closed together, so that the Doctor had much ado to come at the shot, to get it out. I had also several pieces of my foot and heel-bone taken out, and God be thanked, am now in a fair way to have the use of my foot, and to recover my health. The hole the shot made in my face is now scarcely discernible.

For all its amenities Batavia could be a deadly place for visiting seamen, and during the eighteen weeks the privateers spent in the vicinity four of them fell ill with ‘fevers and fluxes’ and died. Sixty years later Captain James Cook called in at the port during his first great voyage of exploration in the Endeavour. He had not lost a single man from sickness in a voyage which had taken him from England around Cape Horn to Tahiti and then on to New Zealand and Australia, but in Batavia his men went down with fevers (probably malaria and typhoid) and within a few weeks thirty-one were dead.

Before leaving Batavia the privateers recruited seventeen more men, mostly Dutchmen, to replace those who had died and those who had deserted. On 24 October they weighed anchor and set sail for the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. They sighted Table Mountain on 27 December and the following day they entered the harbour of Cape Town. They saluted the Dutch fort with nine guns and dropped anchor a mile offshore. The anchorage was exposed to fierce gusts of wind from the mountains and to winter storms from the sea, but the town, which Edward Cooke reckoned to be about the size of Falmouth, enjoyed a fresh and healthy climate. Some 250 houses and a church were surrounded by small vineyards and plantations of oak trees. The dockyard and naval storehouses had everything needed to refit and service the ships of the Dutch East India Company, while a fine hospital ‘furnished with physicians and surgeons as regularly as any in Europe’ was able to look after 600 to 700 sick men from the ships returning from the Far East.

Although Rogers spent much of his time ashore during the three months they stayed at Cape Town, he remained thin and in poor health but he was able to write a long and optimistic letter to Alderman Batchelor. ‘I heartily congratulate your good fortune,’ he began, and for the first time he revealed the riches of the Manila galleon. ‘Her cargo consists of most sorts of goods India affords proper for Acapulco and New Spain, the chief of which are silks, brocades, Bengale goods of several sorts, raw silk, musks, spices, steel ware and china ware.’ He reckoned that the likely value of the cargo was one million Spanish dollars. In addition to this the possessions of the ship’s officers, men and passengers amounted to not less than 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of eight. In terms of English money he estimated that the prize, after allowing for damage to some of the goods, was worth around £200,000 (£15.5 million today). He was already aware that they were likely to face all sorts of problems when they returned home with their prize goods and he asked Batchelor and his fellow owners to be ready to act for them ‘and to hasten to us as soon as you hear of our arrival in any part of Great Britain’.

With no sign of an end of the war in Europe, and the consequent danger from French warships and privateers, it was agreed that the Duke, the Dutchess and the Batchelor should join a Dutch convoy of East Indiamen for the voyage home. The convoy was under the command of Admiral Pieter de Vos and consisted of sixteeen Dutch ships and nine British ships, including the Bristol privateers and their prize. They sailed from Cape Town on 5 April and headed out into the heavy swell of the South Atlantic. On 30 April they made the island of St Helena, which Cooke noted was ‘garrisoned by the English, for the refreshment of India Ships’, and early on the morning of 7 May they passed Ascension Island, then uninhabited and no more than a tiny speck in the great expanse of the ocean.

As they approached the waters off Europe the Dutch admiral hoisted a broad pennant and all the other Indiamen hoisted long naval pennants from their mastheads so that they would look like a squadron of men-of-war rather than peaceful merchantmen. And to avoid French ships lying in wait in the English Channel and the Irish Channel the convoy made a long detour. They sailed west of Ireland and around the coast of Scotland, pausing briefly off the Shetland Isles to pick up provisions and to join a squadron of ten Dutch warships which had been sent to escort the convoy down the East Coast of England to the Netherlands. On the morning of 23 July 1711 the leading ships in the convoy sighted the Dutch coast and pilot boats came out to meet them. The guns of all the British ships fired a thunderous salute to the Admiral, while the Dutch ships ‘fired all their guns for joy at their safe arrival in their own country’. The Bristol ships waited for the flood tide to take them over the harbour bar into the River Texel. At eight in the evening they finally dropped anchor in Texel Road about two miles offshore. Cooke noted that the voyage from the Cape of Good Hope had taken them three months and seventeen days.

The day after their arrival Rogers made his way to Amsterdam, where there was a letter from the Bristol owners. This advised them to remain at their current moorings until some of the owners came over to see them. There were a number of problems to be sorted out, the most critical being the hostile reaction of the directors of the English East India Company, who ‘were incensed against us, though we knew not for what’. The company had a monopoly of trade between Britain and the East which included everywhere from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Magellan. The company’s agents had kept the directors informed of the movements of the Bristol privateers and the directors were determined to seize and confiscate the Manila galleon. When Squire Holledge and a small group of the shipowners arrived on 5 August they were welcomed by a salute from the guns of the three ships. After a brief visit to each ship they travelled to Amsterdam with the ships’ officers to see the Chief Magistrate of the city. They presented him with a brief account of the voyage and swore that their only trading in the Indies had been for provisions and basic necessities.

Some of the crew were now becoming mutinous not only because they wanted their share of the prize goods but also because they wanted to get home. The ships’ council agreed to make an immediate payout of twenty Dutch guilders to each sailor, ten guilders to each landsman ‘and to every officer in proportion as his occasion required’. Meanwhile the shipowners had persuaded the Admiralty to provide an armed escort to accompany the ships back to England. Among the surviving correspondence of the expedition is a letter to John Batchelor from Sir Thomas Hardy, Rear-Admiral of the Blue. Writing from his flagship HMS Monk on 9 September, the admiral assured Batchelor and his colleagues that warships would be sent to bring the ships across from the Netherlands and a fourth-rate ship would take them up the Thames to the Nore. He ended, ‘I wish you success over the East India Company.’


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