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Pirate Hunter: The Life of Captain Woodes Rogers

Many people find reading about pirates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries exciting and romantic. Pirate Hunter takes a different approach with Captain Woodes Rogers challenging those buccaneers for profit and fame, as well as efforts to enhance Great Britain’s power. Most people likely know Rogers as the captain who rescued Alexander Selkirk in 1709 from Selkirk’s seven-year isolation in the Pacific. Rogers proved to be an able captain with excellent talents for commanding vessels. His ships belonged to British merchants associated with the British East India Company, as well as those he and his crews captured.

Little more than a pirate himself, Rogers pillaged up and down the west coast of South America attempting to gain riches for himself and his sponsors. While officially a privateer, Rogers, like other privateers, acted like pirates with manners as he did not permit murder, pillage, or rape. Thomas stressed Rogers’s skills as a good ship commander making sure that his men were well fed and taken care of during the three-year journey. Fortunately for him, William Dampier served as an officer on Rogers’s vessel. Dampier, one of the most famous privateers, had published three books about his circumnavigations of the earth and provided much needed information to Rogers.

Because Rogers was not the owner of the vessels, he had to deal with officers who were part of the business end of the expeditions. They often overruled Rogers’s decisions even though they had little experience commanding vessels. Losing few men in the battles at sea, Rogers was injured twice in different encounters with the Spanish, once in the face when he lost part of his jaw and another time that badly injured his foot. Despite his injuries, Rogers continued to issue commands and make sure that his crew and ships escaped and/or won the battles.

After three years, he returned to England, but spent the next five years clearing up financial matters with his officers, crew, and the East India Company. His efforts to provide a just division of profits left him heavily in debt, especially when his wife’s debts are added into the total. To recoup some of his losses, he decided to get another expedition to go to Madagascar with the intention of eliminating pirates there and bringing the area under the influence of the British Empire. After failing in that endeavor, he returned home and negotiated a position in the Bahamas.

In 1718, Rogers arrived in the Bahamas as the new, yet unpaid, governor. He attempted to use his personal funds to eliminate pirates from the islands and build the archipelago into a British stronghold against the Spanish, especially those in Cuba. Sadly, he counted on pirates to help him build up the island despite the fact that they drank too much and were far from interested in working for the British government. Soon, he returned to England, once again in debt. After a short time there, he returned to the Bahamas as a salaried governor and died shortly thereafter. 

Thomas called Rogers a “trail-blazer” and one of “the best of British heroes” (160).   Rogers was an interesting man. It appears that he never managed to get lucky enough to have complete command of his voyages and those he dealt with. With only thirty-nine citations and a brief list of books for further reading, it is difficult to discover where Thomas located his information. He credits the files of various archives, including those of the National Maritime Museum in London, yet precisely where Thomas’s information comes from is unclear. Much of the book appears to be from Rogers’s journal. By the end of his life, Rogers became a sad and sympathetic man. He tried hard, but it just never seemed to work out for him. Thomas provided a kind and generous biography of Captain Woodes Rogers.

Pirate Hunter: The Life of Captain Woodes Rogers
By Graham A. Thomas, Pen & Sword Maritime, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England, (2019).

Reviewed by Diana L. Ahmad, Ph.D. of Missouri University of Science and Technology.

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