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An 18th Century Voyage of Discovery
The Voyage of Woodes Rogers
Woodes Rogers, a sea captain, sailed from Bristol in August 1708 and arrived back in the Thames at Erith in October 1711. His voyage had been an extraordinary journey in which Rogers had circumnavigated the globe, becoming only the third Englishman to have succeeded at that time. Outside the house where Woodes Rogers lived, in the fashionable Queen Square in Bristol, there is a plaque which states simply: 'Woodes Rogers 1679 - 1732 Great Seaman, Circumnavigator, Colonial Governor Lived in a house on this site'. As is often the case with monuments, there is far more history to be found behind the few words on the plaque. Woodes Rogers was indeed a great seaman but the voyage for which he became famous was a privateering voyage, his notoriety stemming from acts of high seas piracy as well as his skill as a seaman.
A group of Bristol businessmen were backers of the voyage. To raise money for the ships, 256 shares at £103 10s were issued. These shares were taken up by a relatively small group of merchants including many prominent Bristolians such as mayors, ex-mayors, sheriffs, aldermen, town clerks and physicians. The person who bought the most shares and so, therefore, the principal investor in the voyage was Thomas Goldney II, the Bristol grocer who had bought 36 shares.
Two ships were fitted out for the voyage, the Duke under the command of Captain Woodes Rogers and the Dutchess under the command of Captain Stephen Courtenay.
Rogers was to be commodore of the voyage but to avoid the sort of trouble encountered on Dampier’s voyage a council with a constitution under the presidency of Thomas Dover was set up to make the decisions. The two ships set off in August 1708 and by September they had encountered their first foreign ship. Rogers’ refusal to search the ship thoroughly led to a mutiny, which was ruthlessly suppressed. Through the winter of 1708 to 1709, the ships made their way down the east coast of South America and round Cape Horn.
It was off the coast of Chile, in February 1709, that the ships rescued Alexander Selkirk at Juan Fernandez. The period from February to December 1709 was an active and lucrative phase in their privateering activities. Twenty ships were captured and plundered including the Assumption, the Santa Josepha, the Ascension, the Joseph and the Havre de Grace. In April 1709, the town of Guayaquil in Ecuador was raided.
The Havre de Grace, now renamed the Marquis, and the Joseph were converted into privateers. The high point of the voyage for the crew was the capture of one of the Spanish treasure ships, the Nuestra Senora de la Incarnacion Disenganio, later renamed the Batchelor. The capture was tempered, however, with the privateers’ failure to seize the second treasure ship, the Bigonia, suffering much damage and loss of life in the attempt.
In January 1710, after despatching prisoners to Acapulco, the ships began their long voyage home across the South Seas via Guam, Batavia and the Cape of Good Hope. In July 1711, the Duke, the Dutchess and the Batchelor arrived in Tetzel in Holland before sailing to England, which they reached in October 1711.
As befitted such a dramatic voyage, the end was also steeped in controversy. The East India Company, determined to ensure the continuation of their monopoly of the South Seas, accused the privateers of trading in Batavia. To that end, they had sent their agents to seize the ships once they docked in London. They succeeded in seizing the Batchelor. The owners, having petitioned the Attorney General to no avail, met the governors of the East India Company. They agreed on a payment of £6,000 to the East India Company to settle the matter, a sum which included a bribe of £161 5s to an unnamed member of the Company. This payment angered the principal shareholder of the voyage, Thomas Goldney II, who believed the money and other miscellaneous expenses ‘weakly parted with’. The sale of goods from the voyage began in 1711 and did not conclude until 1713.
In 1712, Woodes Rogers was brought to court by Stephen Creagh, an agent
of the sailors, on a charge of ‘fraud against the owners’.
The dispute cost him dearly and he was bankrupted in the process despite
his achievements. Rogers sailed to the Bahamas in 1718 where he was appointed
the governor. He died in the Bahamas in 1732.
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