Nassau's Pirates: Revealing the Sordid History of the Bahamian Port City

Now a tourist haven, the small colony was once run by pirates, for pirates.

Nassau Pirates; sailors disembark on Bahamian shores
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nassau, capital and largest city of the Bahamas, is lined with tropical beaches and luxury resorts and hotels, making it a popular tourist destination for decades. But three centuries ago, Nassau was popular with an entirely different crowd—pirates. The colony long abandoned by the British crown evolved from ramshackle huts into a pirate republic, populated and loosely governed by buccaneers as a home base during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Nassau was originally founded as a British privateering base called Charles Town in 1670, but was promptly razed by Spanish forces 14 years later. Nicholas Trott, Governor of the Bahamas, rebuilt the town in 1695, and named it Nassau after King William III. Trott had his work cut out for him, as England were at war with France and Nassau had no warships in its harbor or even enough manpower to man the fort he built.

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In 1696, a mysterious ship, the Fancy, arrived in Nassau. Her captain, Benjamin Bridgeman, offered Trott a bribe worth close to triple his salary along with his ship if he would allow the Fancy’s crew to unload their cargo with no questions asked. Trott called a council meeting, and argued that the crew would nearly double their manpower, and the imposing sight of the Fancywould deter the French ... and failed to mention the bribe. The council agreed, and the French spared Nassau.

The Fancy would later be recognized as a stolen ship, as Henry Bridgeman was none other than Henry Avery, the most wanted pirate in Britain. Trott was relieved of his governorship for letting the legendary pirate go. In 1703, French and Spanish forces raided Nassau and captured the new governor. His replacement arrived to a couple dozen families squatting in huts in the woods, and didn’t even bother to open his commission. Once again, the settlement was abandoned.

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In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht signaled the beginning of the end of the War of Spanish Succession, putting thousands of sailors and privateers out of work, left to linger around Port Royal, Jamaica. The Spanish were still capturing English ships under the pretense of “smuggling”, and privateers Benjamin Hornigold and Edward Thatch wanted to retaliate. Port Royal was once a bustling pirate haven, but a devastating earthquake and fire had left it destitute.

A new base was needed, and Hornigold immediately suggested the Bahamas, littered with islands, shoals, and anchorages perfect for refueling or setting up ambushes. Hornigold gathered his forces and sailed to Nassau.

Nassau pirate Henry Avery is handed treasure
  • An illustration of Henry Avery receiving his bounty.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The pirates raided nearby Spanish plantations and ships, dubbing themselves the “Flying Gang”. Thomas Walker, the only official representative left in the Bahamas, was wary of the danger and captured some of the buccaneers, then went on a diplomatic visit to Havana. When he returned to Nassau, he found that Hornigold had rescued the recently imprisoned pirates, who now openly threatened him. Later, a Spanish treasure fleet was destroyed in a storm nearby, which sparked a treasure hunt—and brought even more lowlifes to the Bahamas. When Henry Jennings anchored in Nassau with a massive haul of Spanish silver, Walker knew that the colony had gone to the pirates.

Nassau’s population began to grow. Joining the few dozen civilians and the Flying Gang were wreckers, logwood cutters, fugitives, unemployed sailors, free Blacks, and escaped slaves. Illicit merchants—smugglers, sex workers, fences, arms dealers—flocked to the island of New Providence. Huts and hovels were constructed with driftwood or the hulls of beached ships, covered with torn sails and palmetto leaves. When Hornigold began to restore the old fort, Thomas Walker decided to flee with his family.

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While new Nassau was as populated and formidable as it had been under the Crown’s control, life wasn’t perfect for its founding felon Hornigold. He lost face when he was ousted as commodore for refusing to attack English and Dutch ships. Hornigold’s influence continued to diminish after the rapid rise of young captain Sam Bellamy, who in short time took over a colony in the Virgin Islands and prized the Whydah, a huge slave ship that became the most fearsome pirate vessel in the Caribbean.

Bellamy quickly became the wealthiest pirate ever—a title he continues to hold—but was not satisfied. Bellamy struck out for New England, leaving behind the Nassau pirates.

Meanwhile, Hornigold and Thatch continued to develop Nassau’s defenses, and that of Harbour Island, where they bought supplies from. Hornigold also captured a sloop and placed it under the command of his long-term partner Edward Thatch, who gave himself a new nickname: Blackbeard.

Nassau pirates; Blackbeard is captured during ship fight
  • Blackbeard is captured during a fight on his ship's deck in 1718.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hornigold and Blackbeard went on a terrorizing run from Florida to Panama, taking in more money than the privateer Henry Jennings’s haul from the Spanish shipwrecks. Then, tragedy struck for the pirates, as Sam Bellamy and the Whydah went down in a terrible storm. The survivors were captured and sentenced to hang in Boston. A furious Blackbeard was determined to get revenge on those who had hung his former compatriots.

When a rich planter-turned-pirate named Stede Bonnet anchored in Nassau, boasting a fine ship and wounded crew, Blackbeard set his plan into motion. Blackbeard and Bonnet traveled up the coast of the United States, using his terrifying appearance to cause captains to surrender without firing a shot.

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The pirates had complete control of the Bahamas and surrounding waters for years, and eventually the Crown had to take notice. A pardon was issued to all pirates, to the delight of a slight majority of Nassau’s outlaws, including Jennings and even Hornigold. Dissenting pirates drove away representatives, but the January 1718 arrival of Woodes Rogers, newly appointed Governor of the Bahamas, changed things for the port city.

Rogers brought food, colonists, religious pamphlets, and pardons, and was happily received by Hornigold. While there was some resistance, Rogers was more concerned with Spaniards than pirates within a year. In November 1718, Blackbeard was killed in battle, and the Golden Age of Piracy died swiftly after.

Today, little of Nassau’s outlaw origins can be seen behind luxury resorts and popular beaches, but the city’s stature as a hub for finance and tourism is completely indebted to the criminals that preyed on such industries, and for nearly a decade ran their own pirate republic.

Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published on 15 Jul 2020