Royal Governor Woodes Rogers

Governor Woodes Rogers (1679 –1732)

Woodes Rogers was a boy in Poole until his teens, when his family moved to Bristol with their shipping and trading business.

He went to Newfoundland as an apprentice seaman and set off later at the age of 28 on a voyage around the world as a privateer captain with two vessels, the Duke and Duchess, and three hundred and thirty men under his command.

He found the castaway Alexander Selkirk on Juan De Fernandez Island in the Pacific, whose experiences became known world-wide through Daniel Defoe’s book, Robinson Crusoe, following Rogers’ return to Bristol.

Later in life and at his own expense, and that of merchant backers, he established the first colony of the Bahamas after first ridding the islands of pirates. His fame endured there – the motto of the Bahamas until 1973 was “piracy expelled and commerce restored” a direct reference to his significance.

Woodes Rogers grew up in Poole he appeared in a census at the age of nine. He is thought to have been born here but that is not evident from the records. Nonetheless he will have learnt his early seamanship first in Poole’s waters.

Rogers’ father was a sea captain and burgess of Poole; in a 1690 Poole Poll Tax list, the family was living in Thames Street and consisted of Woods Rogers senior, Frances his wife, Woodes his son and another child.

When Woodes was in his teens the family moved to Bristol where his father had a large house built in Queen Square, within a stone’s throw of the docks. Woodes was apprenticed to a seaman in Bristol and saw trips to Newfoundland amongst other places.

Rogers became a sea captain and in 1708 aged 28 he was charged as a privateer to command two ships – the Duke and Duchess, on a circumnavigation of the globe via the Pacific where he was invited to seize any Spanish interests, and did! His three year round-the-world voyage was full of action and found long-lasting interest as the basis for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe story.

Rogers set off with the Duke and Duchess vessels, backed by private interests (several Bristol merchants were involved) and 300 miles off of the coast of Chile found Alexander Selkirk on St Juan de Fernandez Island. Selkirk who had been a castaway there for four years was taken on board. On the way back to England Rogers interrogated him and wrote up his extraordinary story.

Before returning to Britain Rogers engaged the Manilla Galleon – a Spanish treasure ship – and won the skirmish, capturing the vessels and securing around £150,000 (or several £s million, in today’s money) for himself, his backers and his crews. In the action Rogers was the one person to take a serious injury; a bullet in the face carried away parts of his jawbone and lodged in the roof of his mouth. Despite this event, he continued to issue orders in writing from a seated position on deck. He returned from the trip weakened by his exploits; in an earlier battle a wooden splinter from cannon shot had swept away parts of his foot and ankle.

Rogers published the story of his voyage and of the castaway Selkirk on his return to Britain. Daniel Defoe, living in Bristol at the time, is thought to have developed the Robinson Crusoe story from the tale.

Back in England, Rogers’ next project led to Madagascar where he intended to set up a colony with private backing. After a couple of years the idea fell through and he returned to England. This time he set up a plan to go to the Bahamas and soon was appointed Governor there, again financed privately, with a view to rid the Islands of a piracy scourge and to establish a better farming and trading environment. The Governor of Bermuda had reported upwards of 1000 pirates to be in New Providence at the time.

In 1718 Rogers set off and took with him at his (and his backers’) expense a force of 300 foot soldiers to convert the wooden fort on the Caribbean island of New Providence into a stone one. Landing there as Governor of the island in September that year he established a court, and tried and hanged several pirates by Christmas.

Before his arrival on the islands famous pirates such as Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Benjamin Hornigold had just left so as not to attract his attentions; this despite the King’s offer of a free pardon to all those who were willing to give up piracy, an offer that many took up.

After some years Rogers returned penniless to Britain in 1721 and ended up in debtors’ prison. It took seven years until the Admiralty was convinced of the legitimacy of his claim for payment backdated to the beginning of his previous sojourn that his fortunes turned and he was able to return to the Bahamas to carry on his work as Governor. As William Hogarth’s painting of Rogers and his family below shows; he evidently found himself better off before going out to the Bahamas again.

Rogers and family
Woodes Rogers receiving the map of New Providence Island from his son, his daughter is seated and a maid looks on – William Hogarth C 1727/8 Queens House – National Maritime Museum
 

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