The Real Rescue of Crusoe

This month is the bicentenary of a daring voyage. 200 years ago Woodes Rogers set sail from Bristol on a swashbuckling journey around the world.

Statue of Woodes Rogers in Nassau

Woodes Rogers reaches for his pistol outside the British Colonial Hilton in Nassau.

Woodes Rogers is an appealing character for a pirate - intelligent, humane and honourable. But then he didn't see privateering as piracy. For centuries privately-owned ships could be licensed to seize enemy vessels in time of war. These were the privateers - a well-known breed in Bristol.

Woodes Rogers was the descendant of a John Rogers of Poole in Dorset who had married Ann Woods. Her surname was passed down in the family as a Christian name. John's grandson Woods or Woodes Rogers was a sea captain based in Poole initially. By 1697 he had moved to Bristol, where he apprenticed his son Woodes Rogers to a Bristol mariner. The younger Woodes was about 18 at the time. As soon as his apprenticeship was over, he lost no time in taking a bride. In 1705 he married Sarah Whetstone, daughter of Admiral Sir William Whetstone.

Plaque on the house of Woodes Rogers

This plaque on 35 Queen Square records where the house of Woodes Rogers once stood.

The families of both bride and groom lived in the newly-developed Queen Square. A building lease there had been granted to Woodes Rogers senior in 1702. He barely had time to enjoy his new house, for he died at sea around the end of 1705, leaving the house to the younger Woodes.

At the time the Spanish were jealously guarding their monopoly of trade in the South Seas, which we now call the South Pacific. Meanwhile Britain was at war with France, which was strongly supported by its alliance with Spain. So in 1707 Queen Anne encouraged privateers by surrendering all government shares in their booty. Here was a tempting opportunity for bold seadogs.

The buccaneering Captain William Dampier had already circled the globe twice and knew the South Seas. He eagerly promoted a plan to plunder Spanish commerce. A consortium of wealthy Bristol merchants backed the venture. Two ships - the Duke and Duchess were fitted out. They were wisely placed under the command of the reliable Rogers, with the moodier Dampier as pilot.

On 2 August 1708 Rogers set sail in convoy from Avonmouth. He was chagrined to see other vessels bound for Cork speeding ahead of the Duke and Duchess, which were poorly rigged and manned. It was a bad start. However Rogers made good use of weeks in Cork, leaving on 1 September with ships in trim and 150 new hands.

His journal tells a tale of success against the odds. He had to cope with mutinous crews and incompetent officers. The arrogant Dr. Thomas Dover had put money into the enterprise and insisted on supervising it in person. He was not only in charge of all six medical staff, but second in command to Rogers, and a constant thorn in his side. Even as a medical man he was little help. Scurvy took a terrible toll on long-distance sailors. Dr. Dover insisted that alum was an infallible preventative. (It is useless.) Fortunately Rogers knew better and stocked up on limes when he could.

The rescue of Selkirk

Mr Selkirk joins the Duke. Engraving illustrating a scene from Woodes Roger's journal.

From Ireland the Duke and Duchess ran south to the Canary and Cape Verde Islands and then crossed the Atlantic to Brazil, following the coast south to brave the perils of Cape Horn. Their next stop was the Juan Ferdandez Islands, where they were alarmed to see a great fire blaze on a beach. Fearing the Spanish, Rogers sent out a boat to investigate. Great was his surprise when it returned with a wild-looking man in goatskins. His crew had rescued the marooned Alexander Selkirk, whose story was to inspire Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe.

Thus far Rogers had captured a ship here and there, but the prize in his sights was far richer. A huge galleon sailed each year from Manila to Acapulco laden with luxuries from the East: silks, spices, gold and porcelain. Rogers lay patiently in wait. He had to wait so long that he was about to give up when sail was sighted. It was a galleon! In fact it was one of two which had sailed together. Rogers tried to capture both, but had to be content with one magnificent prize.

From there the Duke and Duchess and the captured galleon headed west to Guam, threaded their way through the islands of the East Indies to Batavia, crossed the Indian Ocean to Cape Town and made their way to Holland. Finally on 14 October 1711 four British warships escorted them up the Thames. The adventure had cost Rogers a shattered jaw, broken heel and the loss of his brother, who had sailed with him. But it was a success.

That attracted attention in high places. The Bahamas belonged nominally to Britain, but had been a nest of pirates for years. So in 1718 Woodes Rogers was appointed Governor of the islands to bring order to this haven of lawlessness. He carried a royal pardon to all those who surrendered. Most did and the rest fled, but Rogers then struggled to build a secure colony with a sound economy and government. He died at Nassau on 15 July 1732.

Further reading:

Dig finds camp of real Crusoe: A report by the BBC on the excavation of what is believed to be the remains of Alexander Selkirk's camp on Aguas Buenas, now renamed Robinson Crusoe Island.