This is Brilliant, Chickpea!‘IF A PIRATE I MUST BE’
GOVERNORS OF NEW PROVIDENCE
Benjamin Hornigold, 1713-1714, The Happy Return
Benjamin Hornigold, 1714-1716, Benjamin
Henry Jennings, 1716-1719, Marianne
Thomas Barrow, 1719, St Marie
Charles Vane, 1719, Ranger
Edward Teach, 1719-1720, Queen Anne’s Revenge
The 'Republic of Pirates' was born slowly, hesitantly, a patchwork of jumped-up bandits, mercenaries, drunkards and the odd idealist. Benjamin Hornigold was a veteran of Caribbean privateering. It helped that he had been the Captain of several of the trade's most accomplished leaders- Edward Teach, Charles Vane and 'Black' Sam Bellamy had all been his officers at one time or another.
Work done in the 1880s by the pioneering historian R.L. Stevenson has shown that Hornigold's proclamation of the Republic was probably driven by James Flint, a rare pirate with experience as an officer in the Royal Navy. Flint was ambitious and able, but he was never able to overcome the suspicion of his peers and rise to true leadership. He did, however, play a decisive role in holding the temperamental captains together- in 1716, when Hornigold and Henry Jennings clashed over the prize Marianne, Flint established the 'Council of Captains,' a loose governing structure that allowed the Republic to manage its affairs without a Captain abandoning the islands entirely every time the 'Governor' ruled against them. The voting structure was modelled after the division of prizes- every ship had a number of votes equal to its crew, with captains and officers having more. Its quasi democratic nature has been idealised out of all proportion- yes, pirate crews had a great deal more freedom than their law-abiding counterparts, but they remained a brutal affair. Flint himself was a notoriously dictatorial figure- possibly due to his naval experience- who relied on his prize money to keep his crew happy, and his quartermaster (not a mere 'sea-cook') to keep them scared.
Jennings, like Hornigold, was largely Governor only in name. The Republic might not have lasted had it not been for the renewed outbreak of war in Europe- the War of the Quadruple Alliance (the Restoration War, as its known in English) distracted the great powers from squashing the emerging republic. When Woodes Rogers finally arrived in the islands, his expedition was so underfunded and undermanned, stripped as it was of ships and men that could have been used against the Spanish, that he lost the 'Battle of Eleuthera' when the pirates surprised him while he was still regrouping at the other side of the islands. It was still a lesson in the superiority of naval drill: the Royal Navy, though driven off, inflicted far more casualties than they took- Jennings himself would die of alcohol poisoning shortly after the battle.
Thomas Barrow attempted to steal a march on his rivals by immediately declaring himself the new Governor; he in turn was murdered by the vicious Ned Lowe, who was clever enough to proclaim for Charlie Vane and the Ranger. Vane was Governor for all of three weeks, before it became apparent that the Council intended to depose him. He might have fled with his crew, or stepped down, but instead he attempted to murder his fellow captains and was instead personally strung up (besides Lowe) by the new Governor- Edward Teach, better known as 'Blackbeard.
Teach surprised everyone by his mixture of terror and competence. Instead of abolishing the Council, which would have guaranteed that the Republic's ships were scattered to the winds, he listened to it. He imposed his own captains on the 'rebellious' crews of Barrow, Vane and Lowe- which created a solid voting bloc of Teach's allies under the captains Black Caesar, Stede Bonnet and James Hook. This 'pragmatist' party counterbalanced the 'idealists' of the Flint group. Teach was not short of daring; he declared that the Republic would 'enter the war.' Rather than sacking English colonies- which would guarantee retribution- or attacking the French or Spanish, he calculated which colonial power was the weakest and least likely to be able to attack after the war.
Thus, in 1720, the Republic sacked the Dutch port of Curaçao. The Captains of the Council became wealthier than they had imagined possible. It astonished the world. The 'disappearance' of the Queen Anne's Revenge in a storm on the return trip, a storm that miraculously left the other Republican ships untouched, perhaps led to the supposed demoralisation of the Captains. To the disquiet of their crews, when Woodes Rogers returned to the islands with reinforcements, this time around the Captains were entirely happy to accept the King's Pardon.
GOVERNORS OF THE BAHAMA ISLANDS
Woodes Rogers, 1720-1721,
John Hildesley, 1721-1722
Woodes Rogers was Governor of a volcano, and he knew it. An adept commander and administrator, he did not have the resources to keep the republic in check. The expedition to pacify the Bahamas had been planned years before, when it was Hornigold's collection of sea-thieves and New Providence little more than a brothel with a port attached. Now it had a population of thousands, and the ex-pirate crews were more than happy to live off the loot of Curaçao rather than take up honest work. Rogers' subordinates chafed at his willingness to pardon the captains who had humiliated the Royal Navy the year before, but Rogers realised that any refusal to give amnesty would spark a rebellion that, though unlikely to overthrow the British position, would certainly bankrupt the new colonial government. Instead, Rogers hoped to provoke individual captains into stepping out of line and breaking their parole- if a crew turned pirate, they could be hunted and hanged. Hence, Sam Bellamy being chased up the coast of North America before being taken off the coast of New York, and the execution of James Sparrow after a farcical attempt to steal one of Rogers' brigantines. A year after taking the islands, Rogers could feel confident that he was beginning to control the situation.
Then his subordinate John Hildesley demanded satisfaction after a perceived slight. In any other colony, Rogers could have ignored the insult- but the Bahamas were not yet civilised, and the resentful Royal Navy officers- promised prize money that had not eventuated after the general amnesty- were openly disrespectful. Rogers faced the younger man, and died.
Hildesley's plan was to crack down hard on the pirates by arresting the captains on shore and seizing their ships. The crews would be forced onto farms, and order forcibly restored. He fell at the first hurdle, botching the attempt to take the captains by surprise. A series of running battles across the port turned in favour of the pirates; too many of the Royal Navy's crewmen were drunk in the brothels and taverns and unable to rally to the flag- others decided a life of piracy seemed more promising. In a shocking lapse of ill-discipline, the gates to the harbor fort had been left open, and were famously rushed by a party of cutlass-armed women under the command of Mary Read and Elaine Marley. The remaining Royal Navy ships now came under fire, first from the fort and then from the small boats of the harbor that swarmed alongside.
The Pardons from King George had certainly been voided; luckily new ones from King James were on their way.
ADMIRALS OF NEW PROVIDENCE
Edmund Morcilla, 1722-1733, King James Restored
James ‘Jack’ Rackham, 1733-1740, Ranger
Bartholomew Roberts, 1740-1746, Royal Fortune
Anne Bonny, 1746-1752, Providence
Edmund Morcilla was not Edward Teach. Edward Teach was a vicious buccaneer, a giant man with long black hair and beard decorated with fuses. Edmund Morcilla was a patriotic privateer, a giant man with an entirely shaved head. Edward Teach had died in a storm in 1720, whereas Edmund Morcilla was very much alive. Morcilla had suddenly arrived in the Carribean two years before with a letter of marque from the Spanish government; after the Old Pretender had been installed in London, Morcilla had sailed to Charleston and requested a commission to pacify the 'Hanoverian' stronghold of New Providence. After a donation to South Carolina's governor- made in Dutch guilders, curiously enough- he was furnished with such a commission. He was brought to New Providence on strange tides indeed.
Morcilla had judged the situation well. The restored Stuarts were fragile indeed, and the 1720s were marked by continual wars in Europe as the alliance system fragmented; Britain joined France and Spain against the Dutch and Austrians, but its colonial empire was fragmented by the Fourth Civil War, and France and Spain turned against each other not long afterwards.
Morcilla commanded the support of the council throughout the decade, and it was no mystery why- the trade networks of the Caribbean were being cut to shreds by privateers and pirates, and even the privateers knew that they could best fence their goods in New Providence. The 'Stuart' loyalties of Morcilla lasted a half decade or so; when it became convenient to take British shipping in the name of 'the True Protestant King,' the pirates did so.
Morcilla died very fat and very happy, a horrendously brutal man who had become the Pirate King. It remains a cherished folk belief in the islands that in time of need, he will return to rule under yet another pseudonym.
He was succeeded by another fat and happy man, Calico Jack Rackham. A notoriously incompetent sailor, Rackham's rule marked the tricky transition towards actual republican government. The other captains were unhappy knowing that power lay in the hands of the Admiral's first mate, and a woman at that- but as peace began to take hold, there was a growing worry that the republic's days were numbered. It seemed wiser not to be the Admiral when the Royal Navy finally, surely, arrived to take the islands.
It never happened. Peace was accompanied by financial collapse. As the wars had slowly wound down and negotiations began in Ghent and Geneva, investors had built great castles on the trade that was to follow. Alas, reality was unkind to the investors in the South Sea and Mississippi Companies, and first France and then Britain saw massive bankruptcies and insolvencies. This spread across western Europe, and eventually across the Atlantic. Navies were cut to the bone.
In 1736, the British and French dictated the Treaty of Nassau: New Providence would be paid to 'secure its waters,' in exchange for recognition of the Republic's independence. The Republic took the deal; many crews were dismayed, but most of the great captains were aging now and beginning to yearn for some sort of secure retirement. The Republic was a horrendously unequal place: its farms and fishing vessels supported the flamboyant captains, but their grinding poverty was not coupled with any representation. The Captains now took on the role of insurance agents- inspecting vessels for the correct paperwork, collecting the 'escort tax,' and accompanying those that complied to safety. The Spanish and Dutch refused to sign the Treaty, and spent several more years being the target of traditional raids- but after decades, the Golden Age of Piracy was coming to an end.
In 1740 another milestone was marked: the peaceful transfer of power through an election. Bart Roberts was fabulously wealthy, having taken over a thousand ships in his career. He also had delusions of culture, and had once abducted a chamber quartet to play while he sailed. His six year reign was a time of generous spending: public monuments, the Gallery of the Republic and even the commissioning of the 'Caribbean Symphony.' It remains a great source of embarrassment to the abolitionist Peaceful Society of Friends that their first member to become a head of state was a slave-trading, murdering, gambling, kidnapper. He died on top of a sex worker, and was given a state funeral that, to the shock of the ambassadors and the few missionaries on the island, became something of an orgy. He remains a staple of fiction set in this period- like Charles Stuart II, a tyrant mitigated by sheer style and amicability.
To general surprise, he was succeeded by Ann Bonny. By the end of Roberts' tenure Spain had finally signed the Treaty of Nassau; the Captains now spent most of their time in port or on patrol, not swapping stories of daring raids and captured prizes. With the need to find ships that could protect the Republic more than the ad hoc collection of brigantines and sloops and refitted frigates that had served for decades, some in the islands realised that there was a chance to buy a franchise. Bonny took her accumulated fortune and pooled it with the subscription of various fishing, farming and labouring families on the islands. It was enough to purchase a- very small- frigate from the shipyards of Portugal. As well as its permanent crew, it had a rotating roster of hundreds of people who could only afford to spend a few weeks at sea a year- enough to count as crew, and therefore receive a vote. Within a few years, most of the Republic's new vessels operated under such an arrangement. It created an effective system of naval reserves, allowed a release valve for the disenfranchised and still kept power largely in the hands of the nautical aristocracy.
Bonny spent less on art than Roberts, but more on the islands. Distrusted by her fellow captains, she relied upon the bulk of the population for the legitimacy of her reign. She opened the Saint Joan Hospital, as well as various schools. Her most risky decision was to press for abolitionism. New Providence had never been much of a slave-trading state, though that was hardly comfort to the poor souls who had been captured and resold by various captains. It had always had an unusually large population of free Africans, and some had even had voting rights- going back to Teach's appointment of the man known only as Black Caesar as a captain. But with the decline in piracy fewer and fewer Europeans were leaving their ships to join the islands, and that meant fewer and fewer people to crew the fleet that kept New Providence alive. Bonny's decision to abolish slavery was only reached when yet another Anglo-French war broke out, lessening the chances of reprisal.
Bonny passed in her sleep in 1752. She is venerated as a saint in Bahamian Vodou, and the portrait of 'Grandmother Bonny' still adorns many a kitchen and clinic wall in the islands.
Over the 1750s and 1760s, New Providence would become the great creole port of the Caribbean. As the century closed, the Age of Revolutions would bring the last great outbreak of Caribbean piracy- but this time, men and women like Admiral Tacky would be liberators as well as thieves.