Black Sails Season 3 History: The Real Woodes Rogers

There's a new man of the high seas in town on Black Sails season 3, but who exactly was the real Woodes Rogers?

This historical article contains potential spoilers for Black Sails season 3.

Black Sails is the story of the pirate war for the island of Nassau. It includes both fictional and historical characters. And this season, as the battle moves forward, we will be meeting this world’s version of Woodes Rogers, the man who ultimately broke the organized power of the pirates during their Golden Age.

And I already know what your first question is going to be. Who names their son “Woodes”? The answer is… A guy whose name is also “Woodes.”

Rogers was named for his father, a shipping owner who was often absent from the family. The younger Woodes (born in 1679) wasn’t set up in an apprenticeship until he was 19, very old for this type of education. But the elder Rogers died only a few years later.

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Young Woodes Rogers became the owner of a prosperous shipping company in his mid-twenties. When, at age 27, he married Sarah Whetstone of the prominent Whetstone family, he became one of the most well-connected young men in the shipping town of Bristol. A few years later, when his father-in-law died, he inherited further shipping interests.

Bristol is believed to have been the original home of Blackbeard. The two men were of a similar age, in the same business, and would have attended the same church and sailed from the same docks. It’s fascinating to imagine that the pirate hunter and the pirate might have known each other.

But Rogers belonged to the class, not of sailors, but of ship owners. He stood in opposition to men like Blackbeard who sailed before the mast and suffered beatings and privation from the very start.

In 1707, during the conflict that has been called both The War of Spanish Succession and Queen Anne’s War, a man named William Dampier approached young Rogers will a plan to arm a ship, obtain papers as a privateer, and sail against the Spanish. Dampier was a man of great experience. He had been held prisoner by the Spanish alongside Henry Avery, who broke out of that captivity to become the most notorious pirate of his day. Historians believe that Dampier may have given Avery instructions in how to sail to the Indian Ocean, where Avery made his fortune and earned his reputation as one of the most successful pirates of all time.

Dampier had remained on the side of the angels, and had obtained ships for a circumnavigation of the globe, which made him as famous as Avery, though in an entirely different way. Dampier was a swashbuckling figure, with a history as a privateer. When, later, he met some of Avery’s pirate crew, he was far more interested in socializing with them than arresting them. He even persuaded one to join his merchant crew.

Dampier persuaded Rogers to provide ships and financing for his next privateering adventure. Rogers had been losing money due to the war, and the experienced Dampier seemed to know what he was doing, and assured a profitable voyage. Rogers didn’t know that Dampier was himself desperate for money, having just lost a fortune on his last privateering voyage, when he had faced mutiny and nearly lost his ships due to not preparing them properly against the elements.

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Rogers provided two ships, the Duke and the Duchess, and sailed with Dampier on what would eventually be mankind’s fourth circumnavigation of the globe.

The voyage did not go well. No warm clothes had been brought for the trip around the Drake Passage (which took them closer to Antarctica than to South America). They ran out of alcohol. The crew mutinied. Food ran short. Scurvy set in. Spanish vessels were few and far between.

Woodes Rogers suffered personal disaster when his brother, a member of the expedition, was killed in a skirmish with the Spanish. He himself was wounded, with a musket ball lodged in the roof of his mouth, which he carried until the expedition again reached England.

A few vessels were captured along the way, and the privateers attacked a Spanish city, Guayaquil, today located in Ecuador, which managed to hide most of its valuables. Rogers negotiated a small ransom from the town leaders, but his sailors were so dissatisfied that they dug up the town’s dead in search of valuables. What they found is not recorded, but sickness broke out among the crew shortly thereafter.

When the expedition landed at Juan Fernando Island to take on supplies, they discovered Alexander Selkirk, who had chosen to be marooned on the island during Dampier’s last expedition over lack of faith in Dampier’s leadership. But after living alone for four years and catching goats with his bare hands for food, Selkirk was willing to give Dampier another try. It’s probably a statement about the expedition that Selkirk was named first mate to the Duchess almost immediately.

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He seems to have brought luck to the expedition. Shortly thereafter the expedition captured two Spanish vessels, their best prize to date.

By the time the Duke and Duchess made it back to England, they had racked up a lawsuit (putting in at a Dutch settlement for supplied had broken a monopoly belonging to the British East India company.) Rogers, as owner, paid the modern equivalent of nearly a million dollars in fines. Arrival in England allowed Rogers to finally have the musket ball removed from his mouth, but he was permanently disfigured. The loss of his brother depressed him. And his profits, after the lawsuits and expenses, were less than he would have realized if he had stayed home and tended to his affairs.

In what must have seemed like the crowning defeat, his efforts to write a book about his adventures were initially trumped by one of his own employees, who wrote his own book and published first.

In this one respect, however, Rogers was vindicated. His own book, A Cruising Voyage Round the World was a better seller, recouping some of his losses. The public was especially enthralled with the story of Selkirk, which had been downplayed in the previous book. The story was so popular that a writer named Daniel Defoe, novelized the tale into a book called Robinson Crusoe.

Then came lawsuits over the disposition of the spoils. Rogers was sued by his own crew, and lost. He had to sell his home to pay his debts. While the pirates in the Caribbean, poor men with no family connections, were robbing ships and amassing fortunes, Rogers, who had started life with all the advantages, was losing nearly everything. The pirates were partying in Nassau, and Rodgers was sitting in a rented house, nursing his permanently deformed mouth and missing his brother. 

His wife, Sarah, became pregnant shortly after his return, but the child died in infancy. This was the end of a marriage that was already on the rocks. The Rogers were unable to divorce, due to the laws of the time, but they separated permanently.

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Woodes Rogers had not lived up to his potential.

In 1713, probably inspired by Dampier’s tales of the pirate island of Madagascar, Rogers conceived the idea of making the Indian Ocean safe for the very East India Company which had taken him for nearly a million pounds. He put together an expedition whose ostensible purpose was to buy slaves. He spied on the pirates instead, and learned that, while Madagascar had been a haven to retired pirates for decades, the former robbers missed civilization and wished to return home.

Rogers came back to England in 1715 and presented his idea to the East India Company, he was vetoed. The famous trading company was more afraid of a peaceful settlement in Madagascar, which might turn into a rival trading center, than of a few retired pirates.

Rogers had made a small profit from the sale of the slaves, and it seems to have revived him. Undaunted by the rebuff, he moved his proposed operations to the West Indies, and proposed to clean up Nassau, the center of a pirate community that had brought shipping in the Caribbean to a near standstill. Rogers was named Captain General and Governor in Chief of the Bahamas by King George I.

He prepared well for this expedition, gathering seven ships, a hundred soldiers, supplies, colonists and craftsmen. He was also armed with an unlimited number of pardons to hand out to any pirate who promised to “go straight.”

The pirates were not cooperative. Rogers sailed into the port at New Providence, but Charles Vane sent fire ships into the harbor, trying to destroy his small fleet, and when that did not work went off to gain Blackbeard’s help in re-taking the city. The rest of the pirates gathered to plan an armed resistance, but their potential alliance was hindered by the fact that they all showed up to the first meeting dead drunk.

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The only pirate who seemed to have a plan was Benjamin Hornigold, who advised the others to just take the pardons and decide later if they wanted to give up pirating or not (Hornigold kept up his pardon, and later went to work for the government). Most of the pirates agreed, especially since they got to keep the money.

Pirates being what they were, Rogers had to fight off a couple of rebellions and an assignation attempt, but all in all the pirates gave him less trouble than the Spanish and the Royal Navy (who refused to support him and sailed off.)  A tropical fever carried off half of Roger’s supporters. War broke out with Spain again, and Rogers defended the colony with his own money. London refused to answer his letters.

Finally, in 1721, Rogers returned to England to learn that a different governor had been appointed, and his shipping business was in liquidation. He was arrested for debt and spent time in jail. It was only years later, in 1723, when he made contributions to the book The Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates that public opinion turned in his favor, causing him to be re-appointed to the governorship of the Bahamas and given a royal pension.

Though this term was less disastrous, Roger was by this time a broken man, alone, beset by pain from several former injuries, racked with the after effects of tropical illness. He went out with a whimper, 1732, leaving only the Bahamas official motto, “Piracy expelled, commerce restored.”

When the Bahamas gained their independence from Britain in 1973, the motto was changed.

TS Rhodes is the author of The Pirate Empire series. She blogs about pirates at thepirateempire.blogspot.com