Woodes Rogers

Birth: 1679


Woodes Rogers (c. 1679 - 15 July 1732) sea-captain and governor of the Bahamas, was in 1708 appointed captain of the Duke and commander-in-chief of the two ships Duke and Duchess, private men-of-war fitted out by some merchants of Bristol to cruise against the Spaniards in the South Sea. Among the owners, it is stated, were several quakers (Seyer, Memoirs of Bristol, ii. 559), and Thomas Dover, who sailed with the expedition as second captain of the Duke, president of the council and chief medical officer.

William Dampier was master of the Duke and pilot of the expedition, Rogers, it would seem, having no personal experience of the Pacific. The crew were of varied character, about a third were foreigners, and a large proportion of the rest, landsmen-'tailors, tinkers, pedlars, fiddlers, and haymakers.' The ships themselves were 'very crowded and pestered, their holds full of provisions, and between decks encumbered with cables, much bread, and altogether in a very unfit state to engage an enemy.'

They sailed from King Road on 2 Aug. 1708, and, after touching at Cork, steered for the Canary Islands, Rogers, on the way, suppressing a dangerous mutiny by seizing the ringleader-with the assistance of the officers, who were unusually numerous-and making 'one of his chief comrades whip him, which method I thought best for breaking any unlawful friendship amongst them.'

Off Tenerife they captured a small Spanish bark laden with wine and brandy, which they added to their own stores, and touching at St. Vincent of the Cape Verd Islands, and Angra dos Reis on the coast of Brazil, they got round Cape Horn in the beginning of January 1708-9, being driven by a violent storm as far south as latitude 61° 53', 'which,' wrote Rogers, 'for aught we know is the furthest that any one has yet been to the southward.' But the men had suffered greatly from cold, wet, and insufficient clothing, and Rogers resolved to make Juan Fernandez, the exact position of which was still undetermined, but which he fortunately reached on 31 Jan.

It was dark when they came near the land, and seeing a light, they lay to, thinking that it might come from an enemy's ship. In the morning, however, no strange ship was to be seen, and Dover, going on shore in the boat, brought off a man dressed in goatskins and speaking English with difficulty. This was the celebrated Alexander Selkirk, who had been marooned there more than four years before, and, being now recognized by Dampier as an old shipmate and good sailor, was appointed by Rogers a mate of the Duke.

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After refitting at Juan Fernandez, they cruised off the coast of Peru for some months, capturing several small vessels and one larger one-in attacking which Rogers's brother Thomas was killed by a shot through the head-and sacking and ransoming the town of Guayaquil. They then went north, and on 21 Dec., off the coast of California, captured a rich ship from Manila, in engaging which Rogers was severely wounded by a bullet in the mouth, which smashed his upper jaw and lodged there, causing him much pain till it was extracted six months later. From the prisoners he learnt that another ship, larger and richer, had sailed from Manila in company with them, but had separated from them.

This they sighted on the 26th, but it was not till the 27th that their tender, the Marquis, an armed prize, and the Duchess were able to engage her, the Duke being still a long way off, and nearly becalmed. They were beaten off with much loss, and when, on the next day, the Duke got up to her, she too was beaten off, Rogers receiving another severe wound, this time in the foot, 'part of my heel bone,' he says, 'being struck out and ankle cut above half through.' After this they crossed the Pacific, refitted and took in some fresh provisions at Guam, and again at Batavia (June 1710). In the beginning of October they sailed for the Cape of Good Hope, which they reached on 27 Dec., and, sailing thence with the Dutch convoy in April, arrived in the Downs on 1 Oct. 1711.

In the following year Rogers published his journal under the title of 'A Cruising Voyage round the World' (cr. 8vo, 1712; 2nd ed. 1718), a work of great interest and of a quaint humor that renders it delightful reading. In many respects the voyage was a notable one, but in none more than in this, that with a mongrel crew, and with officers often insubordinate and even mutinous, good order and discipline were maintained throughout; and though many men were lost by sickness, especially from an infection caught at Guayaquil, they suffered little or nothing from scurvy, the disease which in the next generation proved so fatal to seamen. Financially, too, the voyage was a success, and seems to have placed Rogers in easy circumstances, so that in 1717 he was able to rent the Bahama Islands from the lords proprietors for twenty-one years. At the same time he obtained a commission as governor.

He arrived at Nassau in July 1718, when he found that the place and the islands generally were a nest of pirates, to the number, he estimated, of more than two thousand. These, under the leadership of Charles Vane and Edward Teach, resented the prospect of disturbance by a settled government. Moreover, with the crews of his own ships, private men-of-war and the inhabitants of Nassau-whose loyalty was doubtful-Rogers could muster only three hundred armed men. And the situation was rendered more difficult by a Spanish protest against the legal occupation of the islands, and threats of an attack by fifteen hundred Spaniards. Rogers bore up against the difficulties with undaunted courage, set the pirates at defiance, and in December 1718 hanged ten of them on his own responsibility, without any valid commission.

A few months later he 'was forced to condemn and hang a fellow for robbing and burning a house.' 'If,' he added, 'for want of lawyers our forms are something deficient, I am fully satisfied we have not erred in justice.' But the home government gave him no support, he had no money, no force, and the king's ships would not come near him; and in the end of February 1720–1 he left for England, his place being temporarily filled by 'Mr. Fairfax, a kinsman of Colonel Bladen's,' presumably Martin Bladen The government sent out a successor, George Phenney, who maintained himself for eight years, at the end of which he was superseded by Rogers, who arrived on 25 Aug. 1729 with a commission dated 18 Oct. 1728, appointing him 'captain general and governor-in-chief over the Bahama Islands.' He died at Nassau on 16 July 1732 (Gent. Mag. 1732, p. 979). He was married and left issue.

[The chief authority is Rogers's Cruising Voyage round the World. The original edition is extremely rare, but there is one copy in the British Museum (G. 15783); another copy, from the library of George III, which appears in the Catalogue (303 h. 8), is in reality only the title-page and introduction, bound up with the second volume of E. Cooke's Voyage to the South Sea (1712). Cooke was first lieutenant of the Duchess and afterwards captain of the Marquis, and published his account of the voyage, in two volumes, just before Rogers. It is altogether an inferior book; its second volume is for the most part a hydrographical description of the ports visited. The account of Rogers's later life is to be found in the correspondence in the Public Record Office, Board of Trade, Bahamas, vols. i. ii. and iii.; see also Notes and Queries, 4th ser. x. 107, referring to Sloane MS. 4459, No. 29.]


John Knox Laughton, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49. pgs. 147-148.

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