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Benjamin Hornigold and the Republic of Pirates

Benjamin Hornigold and the Republic of Pirates

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Benjamin Hornigold was an English pirate from the early 18 th century who operated in the waters of the  Caribbean, specifically in the Bahamas. Best remembered for establishing the ‘Republic of Pirates’ - a pirate stronghold in Nassau on the Bahamian island of New Providence - in later life he switched sides and became a pirate hunter, helping to bring down the confederacy he had created. 

Becoming a Pirate During the Golden Age of Piracy

Very little is known about Benjamin Hornigold before he became a pirate. It is believed that he was born around 1680, and that he may have originally been from the English county of  Norfolk. Based on the latter, it has been speculated that Hornigold might have initially served on ships sailing from either King’s Lynn or Great Yarmouth. Hornigold only became a  pirate in the 1710s, with his first recorded act of piracy taking place in the winter of 1713/4. In that year, Hornigold began to loot merchant ships off the coast of Nassau, New Providence, using sailing canoes known as  periaguas, and a small sloop.

Hornigold was operating during the so-called Golden Age of Piracy.  This era began around the middle of the 1680s shortly after Hornigold was born (though some sources regard the 1650s as the starting point of this period.) It ended around 1730, about a decade after Hornigold’s death. It is estimated that during the Golden Age of Piracy there were more than 5,000 pirates operating at sea and scholars have pinpointed a number of factors leading to the rise in piracy during this time. 

England was experiencing a time of social disruption, with people moving from the countryside to the cities in search of employment.  The conditions in these urban areas, however, were no better and many viewed working on a sailing ship as a way out of their predicament.  Nevertheless, ordinary sailors had to work hard, were subject to strict discipline, and earned only modest wages. Piracy, on the other hand, provided these sailors an opportunity to amass their fortunes quickly, and also the chance to take command of their own destiny. Therefore, it is not too difficult to understand the allure of piracy, in spite of the risks it entailed.

The War of the Spanish Succession, which began in 1701 following the death of Charles II, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, ended in 1714. As Charles did not leave behind an heir, two dynasties - the Austrian Habsburgs and the French Bourbons - both claimed the Spanish throne, resulting in war in Europe. One of the effects of the war was the employment of many sailors in the navies of the warring European states. When the war ended in 1714, however, many of these men were left unemployed, turning to piracy to make a living. It may be possible that Hornigold was one of these unemployed sailors who became a pirate following the war.

For young men such as Benjamin Hornigold it isn’t hard to understand why the life of a pirate would be attractive in the 1700s. ( Kovalenko I  / Adobe Stock)

Pirate or Privateer: What’s the Difference?

Oddly enough, in all his years as a  pirate, Hornigold was careful not to attack British ships. In this respect, his behavior more closely resembles that of a privateer.  The difference between a privateer and a pirate was that the former was given a commission from a state to raid ships belonging to other states).  Such commissions were easy to obtain during times of war, but once the war was over, they were no longer valid. Needless to say, many privateers found it difficult to give up this profitable activity and therefore continued as pirates when their commissions ended. 

It may be possible that Hornigold served as a privateer for the British during the  War of the Spanish Succession , raiding ships belonging to his country’s enemies. If so, Hornigold’s activities would have been illegal following the expiry of his commission. Yet, as the Spanish throne was still occupied by a member of the House of Bourbon, whom the British (England and Scotland before 1707) fought against during the war, Hornigold might have considered himself rendering his country a service by attacking Spanish ships and sparing British ones. This peculiarity would eventually cause his crew to turn against him.

Establishing the Republic of Pirates in Nassau

In the meantime, Hornigold helped to establish the Republic of Pirates in Nassau, on the island of New Providence. Even before the Republic of Pirates was founded, New Providence was already notorious as a pirate hub. Piracy thrived on the island, and in the  Bahamas more generally, as early as the 1680s, as a consequence of lax English rule. Nassau was especially attractive to pirates as it is located right in the middle of the  trade routes  between the  Caribbean and the Atlantic. Moreover, the settlement was located by a naturally defended bay and had a small local population willing to purchase stolen or contraband goods from the pirates. 

By the end of the 17 th century, Nassau had attracted so many pirates that British colonial administrators in neighboring areas complained, though privately, that it was a hive of pirates. In 1703, during the War of the Spanish Succession, the French and Spanish raided Nassau, briefly occupied the settlement, and destroyed it. As a consequence, the little control that the English colonial administration had over Nassau was shattered. This provided further inducement to the pirates to use the settlement as a base of operations. 

With the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, the resulting spike in piracy meant that while Nassau had historically been used as a temporary base camp for pirates, they began to settle on a more permanent basis. Based at Nassau, Hornigold was one of the unofficial “rulers” of the Republic of Pirates. Another English pirate, Henry Jennings, was Hornigold’s “co-ruler” and rival. The Republic of Pirates was more than just a pirate den. It grew into a vibrant settlement, as it attracted not only pirates, but also civilians from various walks of life – American and Jamaican colonists, merchants, and ex-sailors from the  Royal Navy .

At the heart of the Republic of Pirates was the Pirate Code, or something very similar to it. This was a code of conduct adhered to by pirates, and gave the settlement some semblance of law and order. Amongst other things, the Pirate Code stipulated that loot was to be shared equally, and that captains and pirate leaders could be removed by a popular vote. These rules were apparently established in response to the tyranny experienced by many sailors at the hands of their superiors whilst working for merchants or the navies of various European powers. It has been pointed out however, that this may be a highly romanticized version of the later codes. In any case, it was possible for ordinary pirates to rise to the top, and for powerful leaders to be overthrown democratically. The latter, as a matter of fact, happened to Hornigold.

Benjamin Hornigold helped to establish the Republic of Pirates in Nassau on the island of New Providence. ( Public domain )

Mutiny Against Hornigold and the King’s Pardon

As mentioned earlier, Hornigold was careful not to attack British ships, an attitude which found little favor with his crew. Consequently, in 1716 his men mutinied, voting to remove him as captain so as to be able to raid any ship they pleased. Hornigold and his followers were left with a sloop that they had captured previously. His former crew chose Samuel Bellamy to replace him as captain. Although Hornigold’s power was greatly reduced as a result of this mutiny, he was still able to carry out raids. Therefore, Hornigold continued his piratical activities until the end of 1717.

In 1718, Hornigold heard about the King’s Pardon, which was issued by King George I on the 5 th of September the previous year. This document granted a full pardon to any pirate who surrendered him or herself to the colonial governors of the  British Empire . Hornigold accepted the pardon and surrendered himself to Woodes Rogers, the newly appointed Royal Governor of the Bahamas.

Incidentally, Rogers himself had been a privateer between 1708 and 1711. This privateering expedition led Rogers to circumnavigate the globe, and his most famous feat during this voyage is probably the rescue of  Alexander Selkirk , a Scottish sailor marooned on a desert island in the South Pacific Ocean. When the expedition returned to England, Selkirk’s story gained enormous publicity, becoming a source of inspiration behind Daniel Defoe’s novel  Robinson Crusoe .

Therefore, Rogers was not only a governor, but also an experienced seaman. Moreover, he was well aware of the potential of using pardoned pirates to hunt down their former comrades who refused to accept the King’s Pardon. Therefore, after Hornigold was pardoned, he was commissioned by Rogers to go after other pirates. This marks the beginning of Hornigold’s career as a pirate hunter. 

Benjamin Hornigold the Pirate Hunter

Hornigold seems to have had no qualms in hunting down his former associates. This would have been in line with his zeal in serving his country, which is also the explanation behind his avoidance of British ships whilst he was still a pirate. In any case, Hornigold was quite a successful pirate hunter, catching many pirates who were then executed by hanging. Two of the most famous pirates captured by Hornigold were Nicholas Woodall, an associate of Charles Vane, and John Auger. Vane was in fact Hornigold’s main target, though he managed to elude the pirate hunter’s grasp.

As for Rogers, he knew that commissioning pirate hunters like Hornigold was not enough to stamp out piracy in the  Bahamas. In order to achieve this, he would need to destroy the Republic of Pirates. Therefore, in July 1718 the governor blockaded Nassau. Although some pirates succeeded in breaking the blockade, most of them were captured by the British. Thus, the Republic of Pirates was brought to an end and Nassau came under the control of the British once again.

As for Hornigold, his career as a pirate hunter did not last very long. Towards the end of 1719, when Benjamin Hornigold was either still actively hunting pirates in the Caribbean or making a trading voyage to Mexico, his ship was caught in a hurricane.  Wrecked on a reef, a few of his men managed to save themselves with a canoe, but Hornigold was less fortunate and lost his life at sea.

While he wasn’t the most successful or ruthless of pirates, Benjamin Hornigold has gone down in history as being in a league of his own. ( grandfailure / Adobe Stock)

Pirate in a League of His Own

In terms of loot, Hornigold was far from being the most successful pirate. His greatest catch, for instance, was a French-Dutch fluyt called  Concorde, which had 26 guns. The  Concorde, incidentally, was the last ship looted by Hornigold during his career as a pirate. Neither was Hornigold known to have been a particularly ruthless pirate. On one occasion, for example, after Hornigold’s pirates attacked a sloop off  Honduras, they did not cause further injury to the ship’s crew. Instead, they only took the hats from them. Apparently, the pirates had gotten drunk the night before, tossing their hats overboard, and hence were in need of new ones.

Hornigold’s establishment of the Republic of Pirates was by far his greatest achievement, though he was also a mentor of sorts to other pirates, the most famous of whom was Edward Teach, better known as  Blackbeard. Hornigold, who had taken Teach as his first mate, recognized his ability and potential. Therefore, he rewarded him by making him a captain, giving him a small  pirate ship  and crew to command. Later on, the two men went separate ways, Hornigold becoming a pirate hunter, and Teach one of the most notorious  pirates in history.

Benjamin Hornigold might not be listed amongst the most successful or infamous of pirates, nevertheless, his achievements were significant amongst the annals of pirate history. With a style quite different from that of conventional pirates of his era, you could say that Hornigold was in a league of his own. 

Top image: Benjamin Hornigold was an unconventional pirate known for establishing the Republic of Pirates in Nassau. Source:  Fotokvadrat / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

References

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