An early-18th-century engraving of Charles Vane
|Died||March 29, 1721 (aged 40)|
|Place of death||Port Royal, Jamaica|
|Base of operations||West Indies|
Ranger (six-gun sloop)
Ranger (12-gun brigantine)
|Wealth||Equiv. US $2.5 million today; #17 Forbes top-earning pirates|
Charles Vane (c.1680 – March 29, 1721) was an English pirate who preyed upon English and French shipping. His pirate career lasted from 1716 to 1719. His flagship was a brigantine named the Ranger.
Vane was among the pirate captains who operated out of the notorious base at New Providence in the Bahamas known as the "Pirates' republic", after the British abandoned the colony during the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1721, after a relatively long and violent career in piracy, he was captured and was executed by hanging at Gallows Point, Port Royal, Jamaica.
Serving under Henry Jennings
Charles Vane's history is not well documented, but he most likely started his career aboard one of Lord Archibald Hamilton's privateers. Charles Vane arrived in Port Royal sometime during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). In 1716, he began serving under the infamous pirate Henry Jennings. In late July of 1715, a Spanish treasure fleet was hit by a hurricane off the coast of Florida, dumping tons of Spanish gold and silver not far from shore. As the surviving Spanish sailors salvaged what they could, pirates made a beeline for the wreck site. Jennings (with Vane on board) was one of the first to reach the site, and his buccaneers raided the Spanish camp on shore, making off with some £87,000 in recovered gold and silver.
The King's pardon
In 1718, the King George I of England sent Cpt. Woodes Rogers with a royal pardon of blanket clemency for all pirates who wished to return to an honest life, provided they turned themselves in by September 1718. Rogers also commanded four Royal Navy warships to clean up those pirates who refused to surrender. Many pirates accepted, including Jennings. Vane, however, scoffed at the notion of retirement from piracy and soon became the leader of those who refused the pardon. Vane and a handful of other pirates outfitted a small sloop, the Lark, for service as a pirate vessel. Vane had recently plundered a French prize and wasn't about to turn over his rich spoils for a free pass from the gallows. Instead, he loaded the plundered ship with explosives, set her on fire, and set it drifting straight at the newly arrived English vessels. The powder magazines ignited and cannons burst as the fire ship's explosion rocked the bay. In their hasty attempt to avoid the floating fireball, Rogers' warships lost sight of Vane's booty-filled sloop as it disappeared into the night. On February 23, 1718, the royal frigate HMS Phoenix arrived in Nassau. Vane and his men were captured, but were released as a goodwill gesture. Within a couple of weeks Vane and several of his hardened companions were ready to once again take to piracy. He soon recruited forty of Nassau's unrepentant pirates, including seasoned buccaneer Edward England and "Calico Jack" Rackham, who would himself become a notorious pirate captain.
Vane's reign of terror
Vane was infamous for his cruelty toward the crews of captured vessels. After his first act as a pirate he was reported to the governor of Bermuda for torturing men on rival vessels while on a salvage mission. He also showed scant respect for the pirate code, cheating his own crews out of their fair share of plunder and killing surrendered sailors after promising them quarter. By April of 1718, Vane had a handful of small ships and was ready for action; in that month, he captured twelve merchant ships. Vane and his men treated the sailors and merchants cruelly in spite of the fact that they had surrendered rather than fight. One sailor was bound hand and foot and tied to the top of the bowsprit and the pirates threatened to shoot him if he did not tell where the treasure on board was located. Fear of Vane drove commerce in the area to a halt.
Vane subsequently traded up ships by capturing first a Barbados sloop and then a large 12-gun brigantine, each of which he named the Ranger in turn. His brutal attacks became well known, and Vane was cornered in February 1718 by Vincent Pearse, commander of the HMS Phoenix. Word had recently spread of the royal pardon offered to pirates in exchange for a guarantee they would quit plundering, so Vane claimed he'd actually been en route to surrender to Pearse and accepted the pardon on the spot, gaining his freedom though losing his captured ship, the Lark. As soon as he was free of Pearse he ignored the pardon and resumed his depredations. Vane knew that Woodes Rogers, the new governor, would be arriving soon. Vane decided that his position in Nassau was too weak, so he set out to capture a proper pirate ship. He soon took a 20-gun French ship and made it his flagship. In June and July of 1718, he seized many more small merchant vessels, more than enough to keep his men happy. Vane triumphantly re-entered Nassau, essentially taking over the town. Vane controlled the Nassau harbor and the small fort, which flew a pirate flag from its flagpole.
Vane's escape and Blackbeard
In August 1718, the new governor of New Providence, Woodes Rogers, and two men-of-war full of troops arrived in Nassau to oversee the pardon, and more importantly for Vane, to capture those who violated it. While most pirates accepted the enforced pardon, Vane resisted it and any who attempted to honestly reform. He made an impression by firing on the Royal Navy immediately, and sent a letter to Rogers demanding to be allowed to dispose of his plundered goods before accepting the King's pardon. As night fell, Vane knew his situation was impossible, so he set fire to his flagship and sent it towards the Navy ships, hoping to destroy them in a massive explosion. The Navy ships were able hurriedly to cut their anchor lines to get away, but Vane and his men escaped in his fast six-gun sloop, defiantly firing at the governor as he passed and threatening to return. He evaded the few Royal Navy vessels in the area and sailed north.
Vane continued practising piracy on the open seas, amassing a large crew and three ships. He was so successful, in fact, that Governor Rogers decided to send out Colonel William Rhett to hunt Vane down. Meanwhile, he had given command of one of his ships to a fellow pirate by the name of Yeats, and the two pillaged and looted vessels that were entering and leaving the port at Charleston, looking to emulate Blackbeard's success. However, Vane created division among his crew by refusing to capture several promising vessels, leading Yeats to abscond in the night with a large portion of treasure and one of the captured brigs. Vane continued pirating and had some success but still dreamed of the days when Nassau was under pirate control. He headed to North Carolina where Edward "Blackbeard" Teach had gone semi-legitimate. The two pirate crews socialized for a week in October 1718 on the shores of Ocracoke Island. Vane hoped to convince his old friend to join in an attack on Nassau, but Blackbeard declined, having too much to lose.
Vane then turned north toward New York. On November 23, Vane ordered an attack on a frigate which turned out to be a French Navy warship. Out-gunned, Vane broke off the fight and fled. His men, led by the reckless Calico Jack Rackham, had wanted to stay and fight and take the French ship. The next day, the crew deposed Vane as captain, electing Rackham instead. Vane and fifteen others were given a small sloop and the two pirate crews went their separate ways. Sailing south again, he set about clawing his way back up the pirate ranks by seizing ever larger ships.
Capture and execution
Vane's final blow came after his ship was wrecked in a storm in February 1719, separating him from his consort, Robert Deal. One of the few survivors, Vane washed up on an uninhabited island in the Bay of Honduras. Eventually a ship arrived, but unfortunately for Vane it was commanded by an old acquaintance and former buccaneer Captain Holford. Holford would not rescue Vane from the island 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.
Before departing, Holford stated that he would be back on the island in a month, and threatened that if he found Vane still there, he would take him back to Jamaica and hang him. Another ship soon arrived and as none of the crew recognized Vane he was allowed on board. Unluckily, Captain Holford's ship met with this ship at sea, and the captain of Vane's ship invited Holford, a friend of his, to dine with him. While there, Holford saw Vane working aboard and informed the captain who Vane truly was. The captain quickly relinquished Vane to Captain Holford who locked him in his hold and promptly turned him over to the authorities in Jamaica.
It is unclear why Vane seems to have been imprisoned for over a year before the trial. Vane may have been marooned longer than the few weeks recorded, or there may have been distant witnesses to gather once he was captured. Most likely his reputation had earned the disdain of pirates, royal mariners and the public at large and they wanted him to rot in gaol before being executed. At his trial, numerous witnesses from merchant vessels captured by Vane testified against him, as did Vincent Pearse, Captain of the HMS Phoenix, who related how Vane had made a mockery of the King's pardon. When it was Vane's turn to present his defense, he called no witnesses and asked no questions. He was found guilty, and sentenced to death on March 22, 1721. On March 29, 1721, Vane was hanged at Gallows Point in Port Royal. He died without expressing remorse for his crimes. After death, his body was hung from a gibbet on Gun Cay, at the mouth of harbor at Port Royal, as a warning against piracy.
In popular culture
- Charles Vane is fictionalized in the Starz 2014–15 TV series Black Sails, portrayed by Zach McGowan.
- He appears as a non-player character in the 2013 video game Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, voiced by Ralph Ineson.
- Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
- Woolsey, Matt (September 19, 2008). "Top-Earning Pirates". Forbes.com. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
- Woodard 2007, pp. 234–240.
- Woodard 2007.
- "Charles Vane, Pirate Charles Vane, Captain Charles Vane". ThePiratesRealm.com. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
- "Pirate Encyclopedia: Charles Vane". AgeOfPirates.com. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
- "Cross and Cutlass: Charles Vane, Charles Towne Pirate". CrossAndCutlass.blogspot.com. 2009-02-13. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
- "When did Charles Vane die?". RepublicOfPirates.net. 2008-10-18. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
- Menefee, S.P. "Vane, Charles," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 56 (2004): pp. 94–95.
- Pickering, David. Pirates. CollinsGem. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY. (2006):p-75.
- Woodard, Colin (2007). The Republic of Pirates. New York, NY.: Harcourt, Inc. ISBN 978-0-15-603462-3.