Little is known of the early life of Captain Charles Vane, who was an active pirate from 1716 to 1720. He was born in England sometime around the year 1680, and began his pirate ways by joining the crew of Henry Jennings, who at the time was working to salvage a Spanish treasure fleet that had gone down in a storm in 1715. Vane stayed with Jennings for three years, but by early 1718 was sailing as the captain of his own ship, basing himself out of New Providence in the Bahamas. He quickly made a name for himself as a cruel pirate, and by May of that year he'd been reported to the governor of Bermuda by the captains of the two different ships he'd plundered. Both captains were reeling from the torture and murder Vane inflicted upon members of their crews.
By August, governor Woodes Rogers (see Chapter 16) arrived in New Providence with a large contingent of British naval officers, offering pardons to all pirates who were willing to give up pirating. Vane was the only pirate in the town who did not accept his offer.
Charles Vane was entirely against abandoning his piratical career. Pirates who refused to accept Roger's pardon would be tried and executed, and Vane would have nothing of the sort. Instead, he set one of his own ships on fire, steered it directly toward the governor's ship — which was docked in the bay — and fired his cannons. Amid the resulting smoke and turmoil, Vane made a hasty escape.
Terror in the Carolinas
Deciding that the Caribbean was not the safest place for themselves at the time, Vane and his closest and most trusted mate — a pirate by the name of Yeats — set sail for the Carolina coast. Almost immediately after their arrival, they captured four ships. Adding them to their fleet, they began attacking other ships that sailed into or exited the port of Charleston. Angered by pirate attacks, especially those of Vane, the governor of South Carolina commissioned Colonel William Rhett to take two armed sloops and attempt to capture Vane. Around the same time Rhett was pursuing Vane and his fleet, Yeats became enraged that Vane was still considering him a subordinate, and not an equal. Yeats took a ship, fifteen crewmembers, and a hold full of slaves they had recently captured, and left Vane's ship in the dead of night. He sailed into Charleston harbor, turned himself in, and accepted a pardon from the governor.
Vane, in the meantime, sailed off and spent some time at Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, where he met and caroused with Blackbeard. After they went their separate ways, Vane continued to plunder ships bound to or from Charleston, but he was careful to make sure that the crews of the plundered ships overheard his pirates talking about where they were heading. Of course that information would always be incorrect. Unfortunately for Colonel Rhett, he followed this misinformation, and completely lost track of Vane.
Accusations of Cowardice
Leaving the Carolina area in the latter part of 1718, Vane headed north toward New York. He plundered another two ships off the coast of Long Island, and then saw a third ship that he chose to attack. This proved to be Vane's undoing, as the third ship turned out to be a French warship. Vane decided to retreat, and his men obeyed him, given that their pirate code stated that in a time of battle the captain's word is always the final one, but they weren't happy that Vane turned tail and ran. The next day, Vane's crew, led by his quartermaster Calico Jack Rackham, declared that Vane was a coward. They immediately voted to remove him as captain, and replace him with Calico Jack (see Chapter 15). Vane and the few men who had remained loyal to him were given a small ship and set adrift.
What is a cay?
A cay (pronounced “key”) is a small, low island composed mostly of coral or sand. A cay's size is entirely dependent on the weather because they are formed when tides and wind deposit coral and sand onto flat reefs. They can be quickly destroyed as a result of a hurricane.
Vane was down, but not out, and in the next few months he and his remaining crew plundered several ships. For a short time, he regained some of his notoriety, but in February of 1719 Vane's ship met a fierce storm and he was shipwrecked on an uninhabited island in the Bay of Honduras. He and one crewmember were the only ones to survive the shipwreck, and they lived for months on the island by eating fish and turtles. Finally, they were rescued by a passing ship, but Vane's string of bad luck was far from over. While aboard his rescuer's ship, the crew encountered another pirate ship captained by a former buccaneer named Holford. Holford saw Vane working on the ship, and informed the ship's captain who he was rescuing. Holford then put Vane and his surviving crewmember in chains and sailed them to Port Royal, where they were hanged as pirates in March of 1720, following a quick trial. Vane's body was then hung in chains at the entrance to Gun Cay as a warning to other pirates of what would befall them if they were convicted of piracy.