In 1712, privateer, and later pirate hunter, Woodes Rogers, wrote his account of a successful circumnavigation, A Cruising Voyage Round the World. It was a bestseller in its own right. It included, among other things, an account of the rescue of Alexander Selkirk, whose account of living alone for four years in the Juan Fernandez archipelago off the coast of present-day Chile, formed much of the basis for Robinson Crusoe in 1719.
Alexander Selkirk, William Dampier, and Woodes Rogers
Alexander Selkirk had previously sailed with William Dampier, a buccaneer who himself had completed three circumnavigations. Amusingly, Selkirk jumped ship before ending up being marooned by his next captain for excessive complaining. Although, in Selkirk’s defense, he’d been absolutely right in saying that the ship was in danger of sinking. We know this because it sank.
Belonging to a prominent Bristol family, Woodes Rogers seems to have been a fairly nimble leader of maritime men. Like Selkirk, Rogers, too, had paired together with Dampier. The voyage was financed by Bristol Merchants, and was intended to establish British trade interests in the South Seas, in a pair of trading ships adorably named, the Duke and Dutchess.
Indulging in a little privateering on the way, Rogers successfully capitalized on Dampier’s special ability to find fresh produce that would protect his men from scurvy.
Woodes Rogers: A Pirate Hunter
In between the circumnavigation, Rogers turned pirate hunter, heading to Madagascar where it was rumored a nascent pirate empire was in the making, a new Rome founded by new criminals.
With the backing of the British East India Company, Rogers set off on what was ostensibly an enslaving voyage. They intended to use the traffic and captive humans to gather intelligence about the pirate threat in Madagascar.
What Rogers found about the pirates of Madagascar, though, was not very impressive. He wrote, ‘Those miserable wretches, who had made such a noise in the world, were now dwindled to between 60 or 70, most of them very poor and despicable.’
He noted that they were in possession of but a single ship, and not even in command of the respect of their African wives.
The Pirates of Madagascar
The most important narrative of Madagascar from this period does not come from a pirate or Rogers, but from a ship’s boy. He had held a native captive on the island for many years and also often interacted with the ex-pirates infesting the margins of Malagasy society.
The impression one gets is of a vibrant and complex set of rival African states, and some fairly venal European separate traders eking out their existence.
The pirates of Madagascar provoked fantasies of untold expatriate riches, but they didn’t do much to contribute to that legend directly.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Alexandre Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America
One might think that the same would be true of the buccaneers of the Americas. But, in fact, their legends were partly solidified by their own literary contributions, which included valuable geographical and anthropological observations.
Alexandre Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America was first published in English a little over a decade before William Dampier’s account of his travels. Exquemelin’s book was a wealth of description of landscape and peoples. It was not all torture and disembowelment.
There were also chapters on such matters as ‘the fruits, trees and animals found on Hispaniola … the voyage of the author along the coast of Costa Rica [and] the Indians of Cabo Gracias a Dios’.
Indian Culture as Described by Exquemelin
Exquemelin also describes Indian culture, marriage practices, and diet. He draws careful pictures of their weapons and offers a few recipes for a number of ‘delicious drinks’ made from banana, pineapple, and honey, which he says ‘is most delectable’.
He also notes what is safe to eat, what tastes good, what is poisonous, how to defend oneself from mosquitoes and other biting insects, the beauty and marvel of moscas de fuego, fireflies.
At other times, Exquemelin reports with a colonizers eye. He describes the trees of Hispaniola mostly in terms of what they can be used for. Mapou, he points out, is good for canoes, but cedar is better. Acoma, similarly, is heavy and hard like boxwood and is good for building sugar mills. From the sailor’s point of view, he suggests oak to be very serviceable for making ships, which are extremely durable in water and not attacked by marine worms.
And yet, Exquemelin was no naturalist. He did not have the scientific proclivities of Dampier’s mathematically trained mind. But, even so, he knew that the landscape, its fruits and its hazards, were in their own way, as compelling to a European audience as the exploits of pirates.
Pirates as Explorers
Thus, whether we think of pirates as more fundamentally brave, desperate, or depraved in their motivations, they played a significant role as explorers.
Rogers, Dampier, and Exquemelin brought back not only coins and stolen market goods, but also charts, logs, and sometimes publications that describe what we might call topography, as well as geography, botany, and anthropology. Hence, in this, they were significant actors in the machinery of the empire, colonialism, and commerce.
Common Questions about Woodes Rogers
Alexander Selkirk jumped ship before ending up being marooned by his next captain for excessive complaining. Although, in Selkirk’s defense, he’d been absolutely right in saying that the ship was in danger of sinking. We know this because it sank.
Woodes Rogers had paired together with William Dampier. The voyage was financed by Bristol Merchants, and was intended to establish British trade interests in the South Seas.
What Woodes Rogers found about the pirates of Madagascar was not very impressive. He noted that they were in possession of but a single ship, and not even in command of the respect of their African wives.