Notorious Hideaways

Florida, the Bahamas, and Bermuda were three areas from which pirates could easily maneuver around the Caribbean basin and easily hide when a warship or privateer was in hot pursuit. Florida's location made it a strategically important area, even though it was not a treasure port itself. The Spanish often used Florida as an area for various treasure ships to convene and prepare to convoy back to Spain. In 1564, the French Huguenot pirates established a settlement near present-day Saint Augustine, Florida, with the intent of using it to attack the Spanish treasure fleet. In an effort to defend themselves, the Spanish quickly sent Pedro Menendez to set up a colony in Florida and rid the Spanish of French pirates, as well as any future pirates who would establish subsequent settlements. Menendez was successful in driving the French out, and there were no further pirate havens set up in Florida, but the same cannot be said about the Bahamas and Bermuda, where pirate hangouts flourished during the Golden Age.

Why was Cuba a popular pirate haven?

Spanish presence on the island of Cuba prevented pirates from setting up colonies, so instead they spent time in the saloons and whorehouses of Havana, listening for tips on when the Spanish fleet would be arriving. The citizens of Havana would gladly give such information, as it would result in either pirates having money they could spend in Havana or a pirate's hanging, which was a popular form of entertainment.

A Heavenly Haven

New Providence, an island in the Bahamas, was one of the last Caribbean pirate havens to come to prominence. It was founded by the British in 1656, but after repeated attacks by the French and Spanish, the British abandoned the island. It remained mostly unsettled and ignored until 1714, when privateer Henry Jennings attacked and robbed several Spanish divers who were attempting to salvage the cargo of a Spanish treasure ship that had sunk during a hurricane and scattered atop reefs in Florida. Jennings needed a nearby base, so he quickly settled on New Providence.

The island proved to be an ideal base for pirates. The harbor between New Providence City (present-day Nassau) and Hog Island (now Paradise Island) allowed two ways in and out, but neither was deep enough for a warship to enter. It was also in close proximity to the American colonies and Cuba, which made it an easy place to sell and trade plundered goods while also ensuring that resident pirates had an abundance of ships to attack. The island provided adequate food, fresh water, timber, and other provisions, as well as secluded beaches where pirate ships could be careened and repaired. Pirates readily enjoyed themselves in New Providence, and it was often said, “When a pirate slept, he didn't dream that he'd died and gone to heaven, he dreamed that he had once again returned to New Providence.”

Besides Henry Jennings, New Providence enjoyed a famous clientele including Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham and his female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and Samuel Bellamy. For about four years, New Providence was truly a haven to the pirates of the Caribbean, a fact that didn't sit well with the British government, who owned the island. In 1718, King George I sent Woodes Rogers to New Providence as the new governor, with orders to “clean up the pirate mess.”

Rogers had spent several years as a very successful privateer (see Chapter 13) and he knew pirates and their habits. He arrived in the harbor at New Providence in September of 1718, bearing royal pardons for any pirates who would accept them, and promising to defeat any pirates who would not. Of all the resident pirates, only Charles Vane offered resistance before escaping from the harbor. The rest accepted pardons, at least temporarily. Rogers then sent a handful of pardoned sailors in pursuit of other pirates, and he subsequently hung those who were caught. By 1721, Rogers had rid the island of pirates, cleaned up New Providence, and rebuilt the fort the pirates had previously destroyed. With the downfall of New Providence, the Golden Age of piracy had reached its end.

Execution Dock was a place no pirate wanted to visit. Located in the Wapping district of London along the Thames, the dock served as gallows for many pirates, including Captain Kidd. After pirates were hanged, incoming tides would rise over bodies, which by the third tide would wash the victims away. As an example to others, some pirates were hanged, covered in tar, and suspended in irons at Graves Point.

The Devil's Triangle

Unlike the Bahama Islands, Bermuda wasn't situated on the primary trade routes for most Spanish ships, but it did serve as a refuge for slave traders sailing to North America. A British colony since 1609, Bermuda is around 600 nautical miles east of the United States and is a collection of several main islands and over 130 smaller islands. This, of course, provided ideal hiding places for pirates and smugglers who sought a safe haven that was somewhat off the beaten path. The British saw the potential that Bermuda offered and eventually established the islands as its Royal Navy headquarters.

Unlike many of the other pirate havens, the primary target of piracy in the Bermuda area was slavery. Many ships carrying slaves from Africa stopped in Bermuda en route to America or other destinations. On occasion, the indigenous population would fall victim to pirate attacks, but for the most part there was not as much violence as on the other pirate havens. In the end, it was the increased presence of British military that eventually turned Bermuda into an anti-haven for pirates who were engaged in anything other than smuggling.

One pirate who made Bermuda his base of operations was American Thomas Tew, who left his home in Rhode Island in the early 1690s to become a privateer. Once established in Bermuda, Tew set about securing financing, and with the eventual help of a consortium purchased an eight-gun sloop that was named Amity. A letter of marque from Bermuda's governor gave Tew the power to target French vessels, and he began his first captaincy by sailing for the coast of West Africa in order to conduct a raid on a slaving station. It is said that en route to his destination, Tew's ship was caught in a violent storm and he was separated from the other ship he was sailing with. At that point, Tew convinced his crew that more riches were to be gained through piracy than by working for the government. With that pivotal move, his career as a pirate began.

The first timber on the hull of a wooden vessel was called “the devil” because it was difficult to work on during ship repairs. Typically the longest seam of the ship, it required caulking with pitch or pay. All seamen hated performing the repair. Subsequently, the action became known as paying the devil and was synonomous with unpleasant situations.

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