In 1711, three worn-out ships limped up the river Thames and dropped anchor on the edge of London. Their patched sails and stained paintwork spoke of many months away from home. Two of the ships, the frigates Duke and Duchess were British privateers. The third, much larger ship was their prize. She was one of the fabled Spanish Manila galleons, the richest treasure ships afloat, captured on the far side of the world with a hold full of gold, silver and precious Chinese silks. The leader of this expedition was a West Country sea captain called Woodes Rogers.
The late 17th and early 18th century was the golden age of piracy, with leaders like Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts and “Calico” Jack Rackham plundering the Spanish Main. The War of the Spanish Succession, which started in 1702, provided an opportunity for more legitimate ship owners to enriching themselves at Spain’s expense by taking part in privateering. This was when a privately owned warship was licensed by the government, through a Letter of Marque, to attack an enemy. Any profits made from such attacks were legitimately kept by the privateers. As a contemporary wrote, it allowed “the freest piratical life, without the guilt and the fears of that calling.”
Most privateers operated close to their home base, with perhaps an occasional foray into the Mediterranean or across to the Caribbean. But a syndicate of Bristol merchants devised an altogether more ambitious project. They employed Woodes Rogers, who was already a successful merchant captain, to lead two frigates around Cape Horn and plunder the Spanish possessions on the Pacific coast of South America. Having done so, they would return home by circumnavigating the rest of the globe. The ships departed from Bristol on 1 August 1708.
Almost straight away the expedition ran into difficulties. Forty of the original crew from Bristol deserted, forcing Rogers to spend a month in Ireland recruiting replacements. Shortly after this he had to put down a mutiny amongst his crew, when he refused to let them attack a neutral Swedish vessel. A significant number may have been ex-pirates, unfamiliar with the subtle legal distinction between privateering and their former profession. Next he realised that his ships had inadequate cold weather clothing for rounding Cape Horn, and he had to order some to be made for his men from the ships’ supply of blankets. This was just as well, as bad weather drove his ships down to 62 degrees south as they battled their way into the Pacific. It was the furthest South any ship had been, and would have brought Rogers within a few miles of the then undiscovered continent of Antarctica.
As the frigates headed north into warmer waters, the first cases of scurvy broke out, and Rogers headed for Juan Fernandez Island. Here they rescued Alexander Selkirk, a wild looking Scottish sailor, clad in goatskins, with a gun and a Bible. Selkirk had been marooned on the island four years before. When Rogers eventually got home, he told his friend Daniel Defoe Selkirk’s story. The writer then used it as the basis for his classic novel Robinson Crusoe. Having replenished their supplies of fresh produce, the expedition headed for the coast of Spanish America. The wolves were now loose in the sheep pen.
Initially Rogers captured and looted a number of smaller costal trading vessels. Emboldened by this success, he then launched an attack on the port of Guayaquil, in modern Ecuador, forcing the residents to pay a ransom to save their town. Then he headed north, searching for the Spanish treasure galleons that regularly crossed the Pacific between Acapulco and the Far East. A few months later, off the coast of Mexico he encountered two sailing together. The largest of the pair was well armed, and managed to fight off the privateers, damaging both British ships. The frigates then turned on the second galleon, and after a fierce boarding action in which Rogers was shot in the face with a musket, they succeeded in capturing it. Having achieved what they set out to do, it was time for the battered vessels to head for home.
The Duke and Duchess managed to limp across the Pacific Ocean with two of their prizes and reached the port of Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Rogers was in unimaginable pain from the musket ball which was still lodged in the roof of his mouth, but a Dutch surgeon was able to remove it. He sold one of his two prizes, used the money to patch up his frigates and the galleon, and then continued around the world to Britain.
Rogers returned home to mixed fortunes. On the one hand he was a national hero and would go on to be appointed Governor of the Bahamas for two terms, during which he successfully eradicated piracy from the islands. He had also delivered a handsome return for those who had invested in his voyage. On the other hand he had been seriously disfigured by the musket wound, had lost his brother during the voyage and was then successfully sued by his crew over their share in the spoils, a legal action that bankrupted him.
As well as financial enrichment for its investors, Rogers’s voyage provided several contributions to literature. In addition to Robinson Crusoe, Rogers own account, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, became a staple of naval literature. One of Rogers officers, Simon Hatley, returned to the Pacific, where he would emulate Selkirk by becoming the centre of an event immortalised in literature. With his ship beset by storms, Hatley shot an albatross in the hope of better winds, an episode memorialised by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.