So much of what we see and read about of the pirate world is based around stereotypes from Stevenson’s Treasure Island, cartoons and exaggerated caricatures, but researching the real privateers of the 18th Century takes you all the way to the city of Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, in New Providence Island.
Rather than stay in one of the more popular, resort-style hotels in Nassau I chose an Airbnb about 10 minutes walk from the shore in an old colonial-style house; the host (a fellow pianist) arranged my airport pickup, drove me to the ferry early in the morning, gave me useful tips on getting around the island and let me play some Chopin on his grand piano before I left for the next leg of my trip.
My first full day started with a walk along the beach and a trip to the Pirates of Nassau Museum. There’s information about the more well-known pirates of the golden age of piracy, including Hornigold, Bonny, Rackham, Vane, as well as information about Woodes Rogers. The first Royal Governor of the Bahamas, Rogers has a strong presence in Nassau and this was a permanent reminder of why I’d travelled so far; I walked down Woodes Rogers Walk several times, and passed by his statue many times on my way to and from my Airbnb.
Once you enter the museum, you make your way towards a mock-up of a dockside shanty town, complete with the sounds of rowdy Nassau revellers and a replica of pirate frigate ‘The Revenge’. Once aboard the ship, you pass through the captain’s quarters and the kitchen to other areas of the Revenge, with costumes and props to recreate life aboard the 18th Century ship. You also listen to sounds of the ship creaking and shanties sung by the Revenge’s crew, while informative plaques dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about piracy and life at sea – and confirm others.
There’s an exhibit focusing on Women in Piracy where you can read (and listen to) stories of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and a corridor showing information about all the legendary pirates of the Golden Age with their respective flags. Towards the end of the museum’s trail is an audio reenactment of Woodes Rogers bringing about the end of the pirates’ reign of Nassau; there are also glass cases filled with artefacts such as Flintlock pistols, documents, trinkets and treasures from pirate exploits over the years.
I heard about Pirate Jeep Tours of Nassau via Instagram and immediately booked myself on a tour on the morning of Good Friday. I’m not a fan of big tour groups but I’m not a driver, so I loved that this company gave me a private tour – just me and Captain Whitebeard (aka John) on a geeky drive around New Providence Island, with him showing me all the landmark pirate spots and me drinking it all in and taking hundreds of photos.
Several tunnels and caves lie underground in Nassau (and all over the Bahamas) but the Caves of New Providence are some of the oldest attractions on the island. The original Bahamas inhabitants (the Lucayans) used the caves for food storage and shelter against hurricanes and later by pirates as an arsenal, for storing loot, and to hide from invaders. John helped me climb into one of the caves and, with a bit of a prompt from his torch, let me see a huge flock of fruit bats which flew over our heads before settling back down for a daytime snooze.
Outside the caves sits a chair decorated with hundreds of sea shells – perfect for a photo op. I’m very grateful that the tour took me to the caves – I’d probably not have found this place otherwise.
Nassau defended itself from four forts on the island – Fort Charlotte, Fort Fincastle, Fort Montagu and the original old fort, sadly destroyed, and a change in my tour itinerary meant we were able to see the sites of all these forts. Fort Montagu sits on the Eastern side of the island and was built in 1741 to defend Nassau from a Spanish invasion.
Fort Fincastle, built in the shape of a paddle steamer, sits at the highest point in New Providence close to the Queen’s Staircase and the Water Tower, and once served as a lighthouse. Built from limestone, its strategic position on high ground gave Nassau inhabitants the advantage over potential attacks. You can look down through grates in the ground to see the tunnels which the pirates would use for hidden passage of their crew and their wares.
Like Fort Fincastle, The Queen’s Staircase was built out of limestone by slaves and is a popular spot for Nassau tourists. As local tour guides love to tell you, the 65 steps were carved to create a direct route from the Fort to the centre of town at the end of the 18th Century, and were named in dedication to Queen Victoria in the 1800s after she signed a declaration to abolish slavery. It’s worth the workout, with the fort at the top and a lush wall of palm trees, vines and exotic foliage awaiting you at the bottom.
The water tower stands near the fort, offering stunning vistas of the city and surrounding waters, although right now it’s currently closed to visitors.
One of the most photogenic places I saw is West Hill Street on the oustkirts of Nassau. It’s home to the Graycliff Hotel, which was once an 18th Century mansion, then an inn, then a prohibition gathering spot, now a luxurious hotel, and the guest list over the years is incredible: Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, The Beatles, and a string of A-list celebrities. Information signs on the walls outside the hotel tell of the resident ‘Ghost of Graycliff’ and ghostly encounters in the Woodes Rogers Suite and apparently some guests have even asked for an extra seat to be set at their table to accommodate the ghost…
Near to the hotel is the site of the first church in the Bahamas which was built between 1694-1703 by Governor of the Bahamas, Nathaniel Trott. Raids on Nassau by the French and Spanish damaged the city but the 1703 fire started by the Spanish was the event that destroyed the church. It was after this event that English proprietors abandoned the the idea of governing Nassau, leaving it open for pirates to move in and soon after pirates outnumbered settlers 5:1.
Along colourful West Hill Street you can find the Heritage Museum of the Bahamas, the delicious Graycliff Chocolatier (their sea salt dark chocolate is delicious) and around the corner you can find Government House, the Governor’s official residence, a pink and white colonial style building guarded by Christopher Columbus on Mount Fitzwilliam.
A statue of Woodes Rogers stands outside a (closed) hotel. The British Colonial Hilton is currently closed for renovation, but it stands on the site of the Old Fort of Nassau. The fort was built in 1697 and took a battering from the Spaniards, and eventually pirates operated out of it; once Rogers took control of Nassau, he publicly hanged many pirates by the Fort, and it was used as a military barracks until its eventual destruction 200 years after construction. Someone who worked on the TV show Black Sails had advised me that there used to be a historical mural inside the hotel depicting Rogers with the pirates; there were some set dressing cannons but little else remained of its dark history.
A name which was mentioned several times in the museum and on my pirate tour was Charles Vane. A legendary pirate captain, Vane was ruthless and highly skilled, and launched one of the most famous attacks on the British Navy from Nassau. Under threat from Woodes Rogers and unwilling to accept the King’s pardon, he set his ship on fire and sailed it towards Rogers’ fleet. My tour guide took me to the supposed location of these attacks; while it looks so very different now, it’s fun to stand at the shores of Nassau and imagine the waters filled with naval fleets and fleeing pirates.
Nassau is a popular spot for tourists and many of the Caribbean cruise ships call into its famous port. While I wasn’t there for the sun and sand, I did stop to enjoy both of those things in between touring and wandering around the city. Palm trees, wooden food and drink shacks, clear waters and inviting beaches are all around the island and I did find a favourite spot to stop each morning and enjoy my book of choice: Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold, author of the Fetch Phillips novels and actor (he played John Silver in Black Sails).
Harbour Island was one of the main outposts for pirates in the 1700s and was protected from the Spanish by the government in Nassau, thanks to intervention from pirates, and helped provide sustenance and goods for the people of the island. Often these were fenced goods which had been captured during plundering, and renowned pirate John Cockram eventually settled in Harbour Island following the legendary King’s Pardons.
Today, Harbour Island is known for its pink sandy beaches, white picket-fenced beach houses, exquisite hotels and restaurants and is a world away from Nassau. The ferry from Nassau harbour took 3 hours and I was lucky to have a reservation at the beautiful Landing Hotel. The Landing’s breakfasts and dinners are legendary on the island (I managed to get dinner there one of the nights of my stay – and mention the ricotta pancakes to anyone on Briland and they’ll know what you’re talking about) and the views from my room and the balcony upstairs offered beautiful views of sunsets over the harbour.
It was extremely warm during my stay and throughout my days of exploring the island I found some lovely places to stop for refreshment. Arthur’s Bakery was my first stop for lunch after getting off the ferry and checking into the hotel, and the Sweet Spot Cafe has a plant-based menu and their coconut smoothies and whole wheat pancakes were a tasty lunch treat. I also enjoyed a few iced coffees at the Cocoa Coffee House who offer a menu featuring locally sourced food and coffee beans – I learned very quickly that Bahamian coffee is delicious and has quite the kick!
Leaving Harbour Island, I flew from North Eleuthera airport for one last brush with the pirate world. The story of Blackbeard and the Eleuthera Gold can be read here and although my stay was brief, it was great to see another island and know I was close to where another legendary raid took place.
I’d like to give a shoutout to a small business based on Harbour Island, Harbour Island Canvas. Started in 2013, this independent company makes and sells one-of-a-kind bags, purses, backpacks and much more, all from used sails! You can read about the origins of the shop here, and how each bag is lovingly designed and crafted from sails that once had a life on the seas. Thanks to some Instagram messages before my trip, I was welcomed with a huge smile (a lovely feeling when you’re far from home) and now whenever I travel, I’ll carry some Bahamian sails with me.
I hope this isn’t my last visit to the Bahamas. The friendliness, food, hospitality and incredible scenery has filled my heart and my camera roll, and although I had to wait two years to finally complete this trip, it was worth the wait.
Two more shoutouts:
Scarlet Ingstad, historian and author of (amongst other works) The She-Wolf, a fictional account of the tales of Anne Bonny, and the ladies of Fathoms Deep Podcast who offered me sage advice and encouraged me to follow my geeky heart several times over.
If you’re remotely interested in pirates, you should check out:
Black Sails, an epic and underrated TV show which calls itself a prequel to Treasure Island, but is so much more than that
The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard
Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly
General History of the Pyrates by Daniel Defoe
Black Flags, Blue Waters by Erin Jay Dolin
The Golden Age of Piracy by David Head