Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Other Pirate City

Throughout the 17th century Port Royal had the reputation of being the wickedest city in Central America and the Caribbean, but there were other sinful cities. When you think of Port Royal, you probably think pirates, wenches, and rum. Well, for a brief period in the early 18th century, the Bahamian city of Nassau was probably even worse.

The Bahamas hadn't had a proper government since 1703, so by 1714, pirates made the Bahamian island of New Providence their base of operations. There, pirates like Thomas Barrow raided ships and sold their stolen goods. Pirates took over Nassau, where they outnumbered and terrorized the colonists so much that Thomas Walker, the Chief Justice of New Providence, left the island with his family after Benjamin Hornigold had promised to kill him. One citizen described the pirates as
"...plundering the inhabitants, burning their houses, and ravishing their wives."

The outlaws dubbed themselves the Flying Gang, and as more pirates rushed in, there were more than 500 of them by 1717. All sorts of people came to Nassau - escaped black and Indian ex-slaves, out of work mariners, indentured laborers, fugitives, smugglers, gun runners, whores. The locals landowners were so terrified they made one of the pirate captains into a civic leader to try to appease them.

At New Providence, pirates could careen their ships and make repairs. Vendors sold whatever the pirates had stolen - everything from food to enslaved Africans. The pirates didn't want the hassle of selling stolen goods on the islands with established governments and rule of law (namely Jamaica and Cuba), so they jumped at the chance to trade with the colonists on Harbour Island, located about 50 miles from Nassau. Many Harbour Island's landowners and merchants had no problem dealing with pirates and buying their goods. Some were even willing to let their daughters marry some of the pirates.

There were very few buildings in Nassau - if there were even any at all - so the pirates just set up tents wherever they wanted. Taverns were everywhere, and so were whores of every age and ethnicity. In the taverns, pirates gambled their riches away, reveled with prostitutes, beat each other senseless, and drank until they passed out.

Freedom from the authorities made them fearless, but it wouldn't last much longer. Within a few years, Woodes Rogers would make it his mission to put an end to this lawlessness and restore Nassau to the British Crown.