SPECIAL REPORT FROM THE BAHAMAS, PART 1: WHEN ROGUES RULED THE ROOST

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Restored early 18th century pirate ship.

NASSAU, NEW PROVIDENCE ISLAND, THE BAHAMAS -- Imagine a cozy bay full of sloops, schooners and brigantines, all anchored under Jolly Rogers flapping in the gentle breezes. Ashore, their crews – better than a thousand of the era’s bloodiest scofflaws – are drowning themselves in booze, punching each other around and otherwise forgetting about the pirate business in dozens of sleazy taverns lining the bay of Nassau.

“We had here a rare opportunity, a chance to take something base and shape it into a government... But in two years we pissed it away,” lamented Benjamin Hornigold, who with Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) helped found the “Pirate Republic” in 1715 on this spot some 180 miles east of Miami.

Guns of Fort Charlotte overlook Nassau Harbor.

It was a golden opportunity. There being no government here to speak of, Nassau for years had been a lawless, pirate-friendly port, attracting lots of settlers of the Jolly Roger persuasion. More and more marauders opted to bunk down here including such colorful brigands as William Kidd, Anne Bonney, “Black Sam” Bellamy, “Calico Jack” Rackham and Mary Reed. By the time 1715 rolled around, there were 10 buccaneers moseying about the port – mostly whooping it up in the taverns – for every one of the local folks.

Founders of the Pirate Republic envisioned a Utopian-like community with a formal “Code of Conduct” featuring democratically elected ships’ captains, equal sharing of plunder and the like. It all looked good on paper, but when you put 1,000 mostly slimy cutthroats together (another notorious rogue, Charles Vane, called the Republic “a confederation of drunkards and dunces”) it’s hard to see how anything Utopian could come out of this.

It couldn’t, and in 1718, with the Republic turned into a Margaritaville for marauders, it didn’t take much for King George I to restore English control of the island.

Tourists wander around Nassau checking out bargains at hundreds of duty-free shops.

Fast-forward 300 years, and Nassau, once the capital of the rogues’ Republic, is now the capital of the 700 islands of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. And like Nassau’s homies were once outnumbered by pirates, today’s quarter-million locals are far outnumbered by tourists, pouring off planes, private boats and cruise ships.

Public buses run every few minutes from the resorts along Cable Beach to downtown Nassau, where hundreds of wall-to-wall duty-free shops await bargain-seekers from the hotels as well as thousands of day-visitors from as many as eight big cruise liners at a time. The bus fare is a good deal, too – just US$1.25 each way.

Cruise ships dock near Nassau’s shopping lanes.

Tours of the island feature stops at three 18th century forts atop hills around the harbor and at several museums, among them the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation. A popular attraction in the downtown area is the block-long Pirates of Nassau Museum, where tourists board a mocked up buccaneers’ ship “to walk through a pirate’s life as they plot, plunder and rule the high seas.”

Re-creation of a pirate attack at the Pirates of Nassau Museum.

Guides at the museum say merchant ships loaded with gold, silver and products from mainland plantations stopped at The Bahamas to load up on meat, veggies, fruits and fresh water before crossing the Atlantic on the way to European ports.

At favored harbors, like Nassau, the merchant ships were sitting ducks for marauders hiding there.

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