Tie Him to the Bowsprit!


charles vane

“Tie him hand and foot to the top of the bowsprit!” ordered Vane. “Shoot him dead if he will not tell you the whereabouts of his treasure.” It was a reign of terror that was to last for five long years.

Charles Vane was one of the most prolific pirates of the Caribbean, known as much for his vicious temper and treachery as his financial success. It was from Vane that my leading gentleman, John Rackham learnt the tricks of his trade.

Little is known about Vane’s early life, but he arrived in Jamaica some time during the War of Spanish Succession. His piratical exploits began under the leadership of Henry Jennings in 1715. In July of that year, a Spanish treasure fleet was hit by a hurricane off the coast of Florida, spilling tonnes of gold and silver out into the sea. The surviving Spanish sailors brought ashore what they could but Jennings and his crew, (including Vane) ransacked their camp, making off with booty worth £87,000.

In 1718, King George I of England offered a royal pardon of blanket clemency to any pirate who agreed to return to an honest life by September of that year. Many pirates, including Captain Jennings accepted the pardon, not so Vane, who famously threw it back in Governor Woodes Rogers’ face and returned to a life of villainy, this time as captain of a small sloop, Lark.

Vane had recently stolen a French ship and had no intention of giving up his plunder in order to escape the noose. Instead, he packed the ship with explosives, set it on fire and sent it out towards a fleet of Royal Navy warships which had been drafted in to capture any pirates who refused the pardon. As the fire-ship exploded and the naval vessels retreated, Lark sailed away, loaded with Vane’s ill-gotten gains.

By 1718, Vane had recruited over forty of Nassau’s most hardened pirates including the infamous John “Calico Jack” Rackham. His fleet grew considerably and he captured twelve merchant ships in the month of April alone, bringing commerce in the area to its knees. Vane was despised, both by pirates and honest sailors. Notorious for his cruelty, he tortured crews of captured vessels, killed surrendered sailors and cheated on his own crew members. By July he had essentially taken over the town of Nassau.

Vane continued terrorising the seas until November 1718 when he ordered his crew to attack a frigate which was in fact a French warship. Outgunned, Vane retreated but the crew had lost confidence in him and rose up in mutiny against the captain. John Rackham usurped Vane at the helm, but being the gentleman that he was, Rackham furnished Vane and his few followers with a small sloop.

The final straw came for Vane in February 1719, when his ship was broken up in a storm, separating him from his consort, Robert Deal. Vane found himself shipwrecked a desert island in the Bay of Honduras and survived on only his wit until finally a ship arrived, commanded by former buccaneer, Captain Holford. But Vane was so hated among his sea fairing acquaintances that Holford refused to rescue him stating:

“Charles, I shan’t trust you aboard my ship, unless I carry you a prisoner; for I shall have you plotting with my men, knock me on the head and run away with my ship a pirating. I shall be back in a month and if I find you still here I shall take you back to Jamaica and hang you!”

Another ship soon arrived and none of the crew recognising Vane, they allowed him on board. Some time later this vessel met with Captain Holford’s and the two captains dined together. When Holford saw Vane working on deck he locked him in his hold and turned him over to the Jamaican authorities.

Vane was hanged at Gallows Point in Port Royal on March 29, 1721 and his body gibbeted. He went to his death without expressing remorse for his crimes.

For more on the life of pirates visit my author page: Emma Rose Millar, Author


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