The port city of Nassau, located on New Providence island, is the capital of the Bahamas. In the Golden Age of Piracy, it was notorious for being a pirate haven. Nassau served as the capital of the “Pirate Republic,” a pirate-run colony that existed in the Bahamas in the absence of English rule between 1706 and 1718.
Nassau was originally an English city known as Charles Town. The Bahamas had seen only small attempts at colonization until English settlers sailed to New Providence island from Bermuda in 1666. These settlers quickly came into conflict with the Spanish, as they made their living by salvaging wrecked Spanish ships – which involved driving away Spanish salvage operations by force. In January 1684, a Spanish privateering expedition sailed from Cuba and burned Charles Town to the ground, and carried off most of the residents to Havana.
Settlers gradually returned to New Providence and rebuilt the capital, which they renamed Nassau. The port officially became a refuge for pirates in 1696, when Henry Every sailed into harbor and bribed the governor with gold, silver, and ivory stolen from Indian ships. While the governors of New Providence remained nominally in control, the increasing pirate presence led to them having more say over Nassau’s affairs. When the War of Spanish Succession broke out in 1701, and in 1703 the French and Spanish fleets made a joint attack on the island. Most of the colonists abandoned the outpost, and the English government fled, allowing the pirates to take complete control.
During the next decade Nassau grew under the control of English privateers and pirates. The colony was operated under a pirate code, which declared it a republic, and allowed for democratic election of officials and captains of ships. With the lack of government oversight and the end of the war in 1713, most privateers drifted into outright piracy, attacking any ships in the area, including English vessels.
Nassau was in a prime position to facilitate piracy. It was a short journey from the old pirate haven of Tortuga, whose decline drove more criminals to the pirate republic. It was close to shipping routes of all nations – it was situated just off the coast of Spanish Florida, with the French possessions in Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, to the south, and to the north the English colonies of North America. Cuba was within reach, and the Spanish treasure fleet often sailed through the area on its return to Europe from Havana.
Many of the infamous pirates of the Golden Age operated from Nassau. The most famous of these was Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. The pirates of New Providence elected him as their Magistrate, putting him in charge of enforcing the pirate code for the entire republic. Others such as Stede Bonnet and Calico Jack Rackham frequented the port. Charles Vane was one of the republic’s staunchest supporters, defiantly rejecting later attempts by the British to reassert control.
In 1718, the British sent Woodes Rogers to become the new governor of the island. He saw initial resistance, as Vane blocked the harbor with a burning ship and fired cannons at Rogers’ ship as he fled. But soon, Rogers reasserted English authority in the Bahamas. He offered the pirates a royal pardon, which many accepted, as most were eager to leave their criminal life behind and settle down. While some, such as Vane, refused to accepted the pardon and continued pirating, Rogers hired pirate hunters to bring them to justice.
This period represented both the height of the Golden Age of Piracy and its end. There were many pirates operating after the end of the War of Spanish Succession, and those that fled Nassau were some of the most successful of the era. But soon, many were captured and executed or killed in battle. Nassau had been the last of the pirate havens, and its return to English rule forced the pirates to seek refuge outside of established port towns.
Under Woodes Rogers’ administration, Nassau return to legitimacy. He increased trade and cleaned up the criminal elements, and successfully defended the colony against Spanish attacks when war broke out again in 1719. His saying, “Piracy expelled, commerce restored” continued to be the motto of the Bahamas until it declared independence from Britain in 1973.