Nassau, the capital of New Providence, may be a modern Caribbean capital, but it has a fascinating secret: it was once home to the eighteenth century republic of pirates. The pirates are long gone, but their relics still remain.
I could do with a parrot. And a cutlass. All good pirates have parrots and cutlasses. If you don’t have them, you’re barely even qualified. You might as well ask if you can do it from home because you get seasick. I’m at the helm of the extraordinary new Predator 74, busting through the waves at 40 knots (which, I have to say, feels utterly effortless under the steam of the MAN V12-1900 horsepower engines) passing along the northern coast of New Providence in The Bahamas, and I really need a parrot and cutlass because back in the eighteenth century this island was the centre of the Republic of Pirates and I want to blend in.
‘The Republic of Pirates?’ I hear you say. ‘Was that a real republic?’ Well, yes. A bit. From 1706–1718 the saltiest sea dogs and the most calamitous cutthroats established their own little piratic paradise in Nassau, the capital. It soon became a deadly town where whoever drew the sword first was likely to stay alive. That said, they did have a set of rules: the Pirate Code, which catered for a share of the spoils from any seaborne robbery and attempted to keep some sort of order between men who had no need of law courts for their disputes.
Nassau’s reputation for piracy started in 1696 when Henry Avery, an English privateer, arrived in Nassau harbour at the helm of a 46-gun warship crewed by 100 hardened men. “By the character we have had of the people of Providence, we cannot think that the pirate, who was very rich, was unwelcome to them,” wrote historian John Oldmixon in 1741.
In 1716, the most fearsome pirate of all arrived in Nassau: Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach, an English privateer veteran of the naval war with Spain and France. “Word of the pirate republic spread throughout the western hemisphere,” says Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates. “New Providence became a sanctuary for runaway slaves, as many moved to join the pirate crew or the merchants, tradesmen and farmers who supported them.”
And as the arrow-sharp lines of the latest, most prestigious, addition to the Predator range lifts us through the water I know that we might even be passing above some of the lost booty from those privateering expeditions. Over the years, gold ingots, fine religious artefacts and even scientific instruments have been lifted from the sea bed around The Bahamas. Some come from wrecks that divers love to explore. These include the Maravillas, which sank in 1656 off Grand Bahama Island. It was on its way from Havana to Spain laden with valuables, including a life-sized solid gold statue of the Madonna and child. In a storm, the Maravillas crashed into another ship and went down. Although much has been salvaged from the ship – gold coins, jewels – there is still a lot down there, including that priceless statue.
Or for an easy beach dive exploration, there’s Lucayan Beach, also on Grand Bahama, where 10,000 silver cob coins were found in shallow water in 1964. The ship they came from has never been identified, but more coins were found in the 1990s, so there might be more to find. If you’re looking for proper buried pirate treasure, however, head out to Morgan’s Bluff Beach on the sparsely populated island of Andros where the notorious Captain Morgan is said to have hidden his booty under the
sand. Even if you don’t find it, a dive will show you the world’s third-largest fringing barrier reef and mesmerising blue holes that some say are home to the sea monster The Lusca, a giant octopus.
Contemplating the options, I step back into the saloon and pour myself a good shot of heavy local rum from the wet bar. We’re heading for port, but if we were to keep on going for a couple of hours we could instead make it to the coast of Florida, and the glitz and glamour of Miami. Alternatively, there are 700 islands in The Bahamas archipelago to cruise around (with a length of 23m and width of 5.4m, this Predator is the same size as some of
them) and the boat’s generous wood-floored galley is bursting with seafood ready for the grill, so we can eat out under the stars.
They are all tempting prospects, but we have dinner reservations in Nassau. The island capital is a charming town with much of its colonial history and architecture still in place, so while you won’t step inside heaving pirate-filled inns, you will be surrounded by pretty white wooden Georgian buildings – and there’s still lots of hustle and bustle around the port. For younger buccaneers, there’s plenty of entertainment at the Pirates of Nassau museum, which sports a scale reconstruction of the plundering ship Revenge and animatronic pirates. So we’ll put in here for the night.
Yes, nowadays they operate under computerised code, rather than the Pirate Code, but The Bahamas’ privateers are still in charge