Pirate Havens > Nassau
There is a saying in pirate lore, that if a pirate were to dream of heaven, they would think about laying in a hammock in the islands of the Bahamas, sipping rum and feeling the blowing wind and sun on their face. The famous pirate haven of Nassau was located on the uninhabited island of New Providence in the British claimed Bahamas and a place where a pirate could do just that if he wished.
One of the most important sites of pirate activity in the late 17th and early 18th century was Nassau. This port was home to the legendary pirates of the Flying Gang including; Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach, along with 'Calico' Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It was famous for careening hundreds of pirate ships in its shallow waters and many natural harbors at any given time, safe from the patrols of giant British man-o-wars and Spanish galleons of the colonial powers. Nassau was also located directly near the merchant shipping lanes and provided easy access to hordes of lightly defended merchant ships.
During the Golden Age of Caribbean Piracy, the pirates would set up along the coast and have easy access to attack trade ships coming in and out of the port. This led to a lucrative development which granted many pirates great fortunes. Nassau was also perfectly situated with an abundance or freshwater, food stuffs, weapons and relatively little government interference. There was women, gambling and all sorts of other vices to accommodate the pirate haven. There was even a makeshift fort built by the pirates to help prevent invasions.
The Bahamas was first discovered for the Europeans by explorer Christopher Columbus and was inhabited by the native Taino people. Overtime the Taino were either wiped out due to European diseases such as smallpox or had been enslaved and relocated so the Bahamas was a relatively vacant place throughout the golden age of piracy. It did not see any colonization during the 16th century and the Privateering Era and saw light colonization during the Buccaneering Era.
The city and territory of Nassau has always had a turbulent history in terms of settlement. Originally, Nassau was a British city called Charles Town until the Spanish burned it to the ground in 1684. In 1694 it was rebuilt and renamed Nassau in honor of a royal Duke in England. In 1703 a joint occupation of the city by both Spanish and French soldiers occurred which caused the British to abandon the island completely in 1704. As the English House of Lords put it in 1705-06:
‘That the French and Spaniards had twice, dur- ing the Time of the War, over run and plundered the Bahama Islands, that there was no Form of Govern- ment there: That the Harbour of the Isle of Provi- dence, might be easily put in a Posture of Defence, and that it would be of dangerous Consequence, should those Islands fall into the Hands of the Enemy; where- fore the Lords humbly besought her Majesty to use such Methods as she should think proper for taking the said Island into her Hands, in order to secure the same to the Crown of this Kingdom, and to the Security and Advantage of the Trade thereof.”
- A General History of Pyrates (1724)
Due to the abandonment of the island and proximity to the local and global trade routes, this land was perfect for a pirate takeover. Along with the decline and destruction of Port Royal and the closing of Kingston to pirates, many pirates had to relocate to a new island. By 1713 Nassau was run by pirate captains Thomas Barrow, Henry Jennings and Benjamin Hornigold. They declared Nassau the Republic of Pirates and the Flying Gang set up a system of government with themselves as “governors”. Word spread quickly throughout the Caribbean and they were soon joined by many other infamous pirates including Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
The population of Nassau eventually grew to be over two thousand people throughout the Post Spanish Succession Period and was considered the greatest concentration of pirates in the New World. The pirates would spend their acquired treasure in town and a small regional economy grew. The pirates would repair their ships in town and often gamble, drink and go to brothels. Blackbeard actually had his crew build a tower on the highest point of the island in order to harass all ships that came within range.
Author George Woodbury described the settlement of Nassau as;
"No city of homes; it was a place of temporary sojourn and refreshment for a literally floating population ... the only permanent residents were the piratical camp followers, the traders, and the hangers-on; all others were transient. Law and order were unheard of; in New Providence, pirates found a welcome respite.
The pirate takeover of Nassau literally halted trade in the Caribbean, forcing a prompt response by the British Empire who needed to reclaim her territory and continue the lucrative Triangle Trade. After five years of constant bombardment by pirates, in 1718 the King of England sent Woodes Rogers as acting Royal governor to the Bahamas. Offering a Kings Pardon, Rogers offered any pirate the chance to turn over a new leaf and be granted amnesty in the eyes of the King if they renounced their crimes.
Many including Benjamin Hornigold chose to take this option as a means to escape the inevitable. Others chose to fight and the British marines were sent in to occupy the island. However, Woodes wanted to show his presence in the region so he would lead a fleet of three warships which led to the infamous Blockade of Nassau.
Some pirates however chose to make a last ditch effort for freedom. Pirates led by Charles Vane sent a prized French ship out laden with explosives (called a fire ship) out to distract the Royal Navy who was blockading the bay at the time and used the sleight of hand to slip away. When the fire ship exploded into a brilliant display of fireworks, most of the pirates cheered while some used the opportunity to get to their ships and make a quick getaway.
Any pirates left in the Bahamas were rounded up and thrown in jail while they waited for their inevitable execution. Any pirates who took the Kings Pardon were employed to be pirate hunters and track down any of the pirates that escaped or were living elsewhere. Famous pirates to turn pirate hunters were Henry Jennings and Benjamin Hornigold.
Woodes’ slogan for Nassau was “Piracy expelled, commerce restored”. Using pirates to fight pirates, from the Bahamas, piracy was essentially forced out into the many outlying islands of the West Indies. Without a safe haven and an increase in the naval powers of the colonial empires, this marked the decline of the Golden Age of Piracy. Piracy would continue throughout the early 1720’s but would not last the rest of the decade.