Cultural Capital Gallery - Georgian Era Contributors:
Captain Woodes Rogers [1679? –1732]
Nautical Writer & Literary Inspiration

Woodes Rogers
1679? –1732
The long-distance voyager and nautical writer WR is best remembered for his 1712 A Cruising Voyage Round the World, a detailed memoir of his 1708-11 circumnavigation of the globe, which also described how en route he discovered a certain castaway named Alexander Selkirk. His account of the latter’s life in isolation and eventual rescue was read by journalist-turned-author Daniel Defoe (who also had local connections, and is said to have been a friend of WR’s) and became the acknowledged chief inspiration for his Robinson Crusoe.

Though he began as a privateer during the war with Spain, WR distinguished himself as a mariner with his 1708-11 circumnavigation, and later became the man who put an end to piracy in the Bahamas. Despite his own writings and the recent interest in all things to do with pirates, many details of his life remain obscure - his birth-year, his unusual first name, details of his early upbringing in Poole, even the circumstances of his death.

Though a trunk-full of his letters survive in the national archives and he had an adventurous life of the sort that normally attracts biographers (as a sea captain and privateer, and later the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas), many details of his life are still obscure. For example, there is no baptismal record for him, although there is for his brothers, at St James Church Poole.

For a long time there was just the one biography, Bryan DG Little’s 1960 Crusoe's Captain. In the last decade the interest in this subject area prompted no doubt by the Pirates Of The Caribbean films have led to his own extant autobiographical writings becoming the basis of modern retellings of his exploits, such as Spanish Gold: Captain Woodes Rogers And The Pirates Of the Caribbean and Pirate Hunter Of The Caribbean: The Adventurous Life of Captain Woodes Rogers by David Cordingly (a consultant on the Johnny Depp film series). There are also facsimile reproductions in paperback and kindle formats of period texts, which come with the old-fashioned "long" s (where it looks like an f).

Woodes Rogers, the son of a successful mercantile family, was born and raised in Poole before moving to Bristol sometime in the 1690s when he was a teen. He was apprenticed to a Bristol sea-captain but took over the family business when his father died at sea on a slave-trade voyage c1705. He married an admiral's daughter, which made him a freeman of Bristol, and this no doubt helped gain him backing for his ventures. An early 'prospect' or view of Poole, showing what is now called the Old Town. Rogers was born and went to school here, though details are not known. The number of vessels seen in port in this sketch-map is a reflection of its reinvention, after its rise and fall as pirate base in the 100 Years War and subsequent status as 'a poore fishar village' (Tudor historian John Leland's words), after it opened up trade with Newfoundland. Rogers' family enterprise was evidently part of the Newfoundland fishing fleet which made Poole a centre of North Atlantic commerce for around two centuries.
Rogers had interests in several privateer vessels during the war with Spain and their French allies which had begun in 1702. His father had been a friend of the famous captain William Dampier (1651-1715) , and in 1708 WR, his brother and Dampier set off in a pair of well-armed vessels (350 guns each) on a joint privateering voyage that in 3 years would see many adventures, including mutiny, battles with Spanish and French vessels, the death of his brother, circumnavigation of the globe, and the rescue of castaway Alexander Selkirk.

The frontispiece map, drawn by WR's acquaintance, the mapmaker Herman Moll (1654-1732), for his 1712 memoir A Cruising Voyage Round the World, showing [traced in red here] WR's pioneering (and action-packed) 1708-11 circumnavigation. WR was only the 3rd Englishman to achieve this.

 

Left: Title page of Woodes Rogers’s 1712 sailing memoir; note the mention of castaway Alexander Selkirk, which became the inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe when (says the DNB) it was reprinted in 1718, the year before Defoe's novel. Here, 4 pages are also reproduced (from Google Books PDF) below, covering the discovery of Selkirk on the Juan Fernandez Islands off Chile.

One of the giveaways that Defoe's account was inspired by WR's account of Selkirk is the goatskin attire WR described and which is pictured left in the first edition of Defoe's book. This would have been uncomfortable in the Caribbean setting Defoe uses but was appropriate for Selkirk's actual situation much farther south, off Chile.

 

The voyage itself, though successful, left WR unwell and in financial trouble, due to wounds he had suffered in battle and then squabbling among investors and crew. WR ended up bankrupt, and lost his home and his wife. However he recovered his fortunes by writing the book, which was one of the first authentic travel memoirs in English literature. It's been suggested as a source of inspiration not only for Defoe but for Jonathan Swift (reputedly another acquaintance of WR's) when he wrote his satire Gulliver's Travels (1726).

 

 

The passage in his account describing the rescue of castaway Alexander Selkirk is shown right (mouse-over each page-image to see 2nd one underneath).

"Immediately our Pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought an abundance of Craw-fish, with a Man cloth’d in Goat-Skins, who Look’d wilder than the first Owners of them. He had been on the Island four years and four months, being left there by Capt. Stradling. In the Cinque-Ports; his name was Alexander Selkirk…
He had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could, but for the first eight months had to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with pimento trees, covered them with long grass, and lined them with the skins of goats, which he killed with his own gun as he wanted, so long as the powder lasted, which was but a pound; and that being almost spent he got fire by rubbing two sticks of pimento wood together upon his knee..."

 

Selkirk became a celebrity in his own right, though his circumstances were different from Crusoe's. He had sailed, ironically, with another privateering voyage led by WR's associate Dampier; he was not shipwrecked but had asked to be left ashore as he felt the vessel he was on was not seaworthy and would not make it back to port. He proved correct, and the start and end of his voyage were as full of incident as the adventures of the fictional castaway they inspired. Rogers referred him as the 'governor' of his desert island, and for the return voyage appointed him a Mate, putting him in charge of a seized Spanish ship. Selkirk returned home to Britain for a time, but became restless and joined the Navy's West African anti-piracy patrol, caught fever and died at sea in 1721.

 

'Absorbed In Robinson Crusoe' painted c1860 by Robert Collinson [RA 1871]. Some captions specify the background as Bournemouth, which appears possible.

Woodes Rogers’s most famous exploit remains his rescue of castaway Alexander Selkirk. This incident not only appears in his own 1712 memoir [see cover shot above], but in biographical accounts of Daniel Defoe and his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe as well as accounts of its real-life model, Alexander Selkirk. Defoe did visit Dorset (and likely Poole) for his 1724-7 national guidebook known as the Tour; some think Defoe knew WR or at least met him there, but no particulars have surfaced so far.
It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Defoe's work on literature for it was both an inspirational romantic work (some describe it as a capitalist-colonial parable) and a realist one. The novel purports to be an actual sailing memoir, similar to WR's 1712 popular book, and is regarded as a prototype realist novel, for the pretense of being a true story requires the narrative to remain within the bounds of reality.

 

Left: a pair of illustrations from the above 1835 edition of Robinson Crusoe. (Mouse over image to see 2nd illustration.) WR's account made more of Selkirk than an earlier dismissive account, now forgotten, by one of his fellow officers. His portrait made Selkirk a colourful figure who did not succumb to his situation but built his own home, found inspiration in the bible, caught goats for food, and for company tamed some of the island's feral cats. The castaway soon became a literary fixture in fiction, focus of an ongoing series of novels known as Robinsonades.

WR had an adventurous life as a sea captain and privateer, and became the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas. As a young man he went on privately backed voyages, circumnavigating the world. But after the death of Queen Anne and the accession of George I, the by now well-established mariner was able to obtain official backing for his subsequent voyages and colonial enterprises. He was involved from 1718 in curtailing pirate activity in the Caribbean.

At that time, ports like Nassau were overrun by pirates. In return for driving out the pirates, WR was given the governorship of the area and a share of proceeds. Backed by 3 RN vessels, he battled pirates, Spanish interests, tropical disease and poor official support but drove the pirate ships away. His 3-year term as Governor left him sick and in debt, and on his return, he was put in debtors' prison.


A still from the 1954 Bunuel film adaptation of Robinson Crusoe. Pirates feature in the finale of the story, when Crusoe overcomes them to seize their vessel.

Much of WR's energy went into suppressing the pirates of the Caribbean. When he arrived in 1718 at the chief Bahamian port, Nassau, it was a stronghold of some 2,000 pirates, many under the sway of Captain 'Blackbeard' Teach. WR disarmed some by offering them a King's Pardon to return to England but others like Teach fought to the death. WR's accounts of his anti-piracy activities formed the basis of another book, and it is likely the authentic underpinning of many a fictional pirate tale since. Some historians include Defoe's 1720 pirate tale Captain Singleton in this, suggesting the protagonist is based on WR and his associate Dampier. The "King's Pardon offer" has certainly become a genre motif. Another is the 'pirate superstition' motif, which was evidenced in real life when one of Selkirk's former crewmates shot an albatross: the sailors' belief the bird was an ill-omen was replaced by the observation that shooting it was what brought bad luck. The 1719 incident was picked up by Coleridge and used in his 'Rime Of The Ancient Mariner', and the motif was used more recently in the film Master And Commander, based on the Patrick O'Brian novel-sequence. Woodes Rogers also appears as a character in pirate novels, such as George MacDonald Fraser's Captain In Calico.

WR as seen in Hogarth's 1729 painting of Woodes Rogers just after he was made the Bahamas's first Royal Governor. The document WR's son is holding up is the plan to rebuild the ruined fortress of Nassau to prevent further pirate and Spanish attacks. WR served two difficult terms as first Royal Governor of the then pirate-infested Bahamas, and was eventually successful, though at personal cost.

With his anti-piracy struggle the subject of a new 1724 bestseller, to which he may have contributed [see note, right], WR was belatedly given recognition and a pension, and second term as Governor in 1728. Back in the Bahamas, he faced more thankless difficulties and the exhausted WR died age c53 in Nassau in 1732, of "mysterious causes." Nevertheless, the Bahamas' colony was able to adopt the motto "Expulsis, Piratis, Restituta Commercia" -' Piracy expelled, commerce restored' ... which could also be WR's epitaph.

There is also a theory WR was involved in the writing of a bestselling 1724 still famous history, A General History Of The Pyrates. (The work is the basis of modern books such as the 2007 Republic Of Pirates, cover shown above.)

Authorship is credited to ‘Captain Charles Johnson’, who may have been WR or a pseudonym for his collaborator. Defoe is credited in some modern editions as author, but this is disputed. At any rate, the book was a bestseller and is credited with returning him to royal favour, for he appears in it as a staunch opponent of the pirates. He was soon sent back to the Bahamas to finish the fight.

 

He recently became a character in 10 episodes of Seasons 3–4 of the partly fact-based tv series Black Sails, where he is portrayed by Luke Roberts. Season Three deals with the occupation of Nassau by a British fleet led by Rogers, and his increasingly ruthless ploys to drive away the pirates. He is pictured here meeting with his opponent Captain Flint.

In the partly factual Starz TV series Black Sails, Rogers begins by seeking allies but as alliances or deals fail and new intrigues appear, he becomes increasingly hard-hearted.

Sites Of Interest:
Poole Museum and Quay: Woodes Rogers was born and raised in Poole, before moving to Bristol with his family sometime in the 1690s. His family firm was part of the Newfoundland fishing fleet which made Poole a centre of North Atlantic commerce for around two centuries. Despite this and his fame, there seems to be no local commemoration of him as a "son of Poole", though the town museum (pictured left is its Scaplens Court townhouse building) has displays covering his era.
Unlike in Bristol (where he moved as a teen) and Nassau (where he spent his final years), there is no blue plaque commemorating him. The family address and other details such as his schooling in Poole have not yet been documented. The church which he and his family would have attended was demolished and rebuilt after his death - the present St James Church downtown only dates back to c1820.

 
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