The sloop arrived in the afternoon of April Fool’s Day 1696, swinging around the low, sandy expanse of Hog Island and into Nassau’s wide, dazzlingly blue harbor.
At first, the villagers on the beach and the sailors in the harbor took little notice. Small and nondescript, this sloop was a familiar sight, a trading vessel from the nearby island of Eleuthera, fifty miles to the east. She came to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, on a regular basis to trade salt and produce for cloth and sugar, and to get news brought in from England, Jamaica, and the Carolinas. The bystanders expected to see her crew drop anchor, load their goods into their longboat, and row toward the beach, as the capital had no wharves or piers. Later, their cargoes disposed of, the crew would go drinking in one of Nassau’s public houses, trading updates of the ongoing war, the movements of the infernal French, and cursing the absence of the Royal Navy.
But not on this day.
The sloop’s crew rowed ashore. Its captain, a local man familiar to all, jumped onto the beach, followed by several strangers. The latter wore unusual clothing: silks from India, perhaps, a kerchief in bright African patterns, headgear from Arabia, as rank and dirty as the cheap woolens worn by any common seaman. Those who came near enough to overhear their speech or peer into their tanned faces could tell they were English and Irish mariners not unlike those from other large ships that came from the far side of the Atlantic.
The party made its way through the tiny village, a few dozen houses clustered along the shore in the shadow of a modest stone fortress. They crossed the newly cleared town square, passing the island’s humble wooden church, eventually arriving at the recently built home of Governor Nicholas Trott. They stood barefoot on the sun-baked sand and dirt, the fecund smell of the tropics filling their nostrils. Townspeople stopped to stare at the wild-looking men waiting on the governor’s doorstep. A servant opened the door and, upon exchanging a few words with the sloop’s master, rushed off to inform His Excellency that an urgent message had arrived.
~Nicholas Trott already had his hands full that morning. His colony was in trouble. England had been at war with France for eight years, disrupting the Bahamas’ trade and supply lines. Trott received a report that the French had captured the island of Exuma, 140 miles away, and were headed for Nassau with three warships and 320 men. Nassau had no warships at its disposal; in fact, no ships of the Royal Navy had passed this way in several years, there not being nearly enough of them to protect England’s sprawling empire. There was Fort Nassau, newly built from local stone, with twenty-eight cannon mounted on its ramparts, but with many settlers fleeing for the better protection of Jamaica, South Carolina, and Bermuda, Trott was finding it almost impossible to keep the structure manned. There were no more than seventy men left in town, including the elderly and disabled. Half the male population was serving guard duty at any one time in addition to attending to their usual occupations, which left many of them, in Trott’s words, “terribly fatigued.” Trott knew that if the French attacked in force, there was little hope of holding Nassau and the rest of New Providence, the island on which his tiny capital was perched. These were Trott’s preoccupations when he received the merchant captain from Eleuthera and his mysterious companions.
The strangers’ leader, Henry Adams, explained that he and his colleagues had recently arrived in the Bahamas aboard the Fancy, a private warship of forty-six guns and 113 men, and sought Trott’s permission to come into Nassau’s harbor. Adams handed over a letter from his captain, Henry Bridgeman, containing a most outlandish proposition. The Fancy, Bridgeman claimed, had just arrived in Eleuthera from the coast of Africa, where he had been slave trading without the permission of the Royal Africa Company, which owned a monopoly over such activities. Captain Bridgeman’s letter explained that the Fancy had run low on provisions and its crew was in need of shore leave. Were the governor to be so kind as to allow the ship into the harbor, he would be amply rewarded. Every member of the crew would give Trott a personal gift of twenty Spanish pieces of eight and two pieces of gold, with Bridgeman, as commander, kicking in a double share. The strangers were offering him a bribe worth some £860 at a time when a governor’s annual salary was but £300. To top it off, the crew would also give him the Fancy herself, once they had unloaded and disposed of the (as yet) unspecified cargo. He could pocket nearly three years of wages and become the owner of a sizeable warship simply by letting the strangers ashore and not asking any pointed questions.
Trott pocketed the letter and called an emergency meeting of the colony’s governing council. The minutes of that meeting have since been lost, but from the testimony of others in Nassau at the time, it’s clear that Governor Trott neglected to mention the bribes to the councilmen. Instead, he appealed to their shared interest in the colony’s security. The Fancy, he pointed out, was as large as a fifth-rate frigate of the Royal Navy, and her presence might deter a French attack. The addition of her crew would nearly double the number of able-bodied men on New Providence, ensuring that Fort Nassau’s guns would be manned in the event of an invasion. And besides, where would they be if Bridgeman chose to refit his vessel at the French port of Martinique or, worse, decided to attack Nassau itself? Violating the Royal Africa Company’s monopoly was a fairly minor crime, an insufficient reason to deny him entry.
The members of the council concurred. The governor gave Henry Adams a “very civil” letter welcoming the Fancy to Nassau, where she and her crew “were welcome to come and to go as they pleased.”
Not long thereafter, a great ship rounded Hog Island,* her decks crowded with sailors, her sides pierced with gun ports, and her hull sunk low in the water under the weight of her cargo. Adams and his party were the first to come ashore, their longboat filled with bags and chests. The promised loot was there: a fortune in silver pieces of eight and golden coins minted in Arabia and beyond. Longboats ferried the crew ashore throughout the day. The rest of the crew resembled the landing party: ordinary-looking mariners dressed in oriental finery, each bearing large parcels of gold, silver, and jewels. The man calling himself Captain Bridgeman also came ashore and, after a closed meeting with Trott, turned the great warship over to him. When the governor arrived aboard the Fancy, he found they had left him a tip: The hold contained more than fifty tons of elephant tusks, 100 barrels of gunpowder, several chests filled with guns and muskets, and a remarkable collection of ship’s anchors.
* In 1962, the Bahamian legislature renamed it Paradise Island at the request of American supermarket tycoon Huntington Hartford. It is now taken up by luxury resort hotels.
Trott would later claim to have had no reason to suspect the Fancy’s crew of being involved in piracy. “How could I know it?” he testified under oath. “Supposition is not proof.” Captain Bridgeman and his men had claimed to be unlicensed merchants, he added, and the people of New Providence “saw no reason to disbelieve them.” But Trott was no fool. He had been a merchant captain himself and well knew that treasures of the sort the Fancy carried were not the product of some unsanctioned bargaining with the people of Africa’s Slave Coast. Standing aboard the Fancy, her hold filled with ivory and weapons, her sails patched from cannonball damage and musket balls embedded in her deck work, Trott was forced to make a choice: enforce the law or pocket the money. He didn’t ponder very long.
On the governor’s orders, boats began ferrying the Fancy’s remaining cargo ashore. Soon the beach was littered with chests of ivory tusks and firearms, piles of sails, anchors and tackle, barrels of gunpowder and provisions, heavy cannon and their ammunition. Trott put his personal boatswain and several African slaves aboard the ship. The ivory tusks, the pieces of eight and bags of gold coins were delivered to his private quarters. Captain Bridgeman and his men were free to drink and carouse in Nassau’s two pubs and could leave whenever they wished.
Copyright © 2007 by Colin Woodard
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