Charles Vane was a bad ‘un. He terrorized the Caribbean, bringing trade to in the area to a halt, tortured his captives, and cheated his crews out of their fair share of plunder.
A woodblock portrait made from a description shows a man in a long coat, wearing a gentleman’s wig and carrying a sword. His nose is hawk-like, and he wear a goatee over a few day’s growth of stubble.
No one knows where Vane came from. He was probably born around 1680, and likely served as a Navy sailor or privateer during the War of Spanish Succession. He hung around Jamaica in 1714, and when the Spanish Treasure fleet wrecked against the coast of Florida in 1715, he joined up with Henry Jennings, an English privateer captain. He helped Jennings to “acquire” a ship named the St. Marie and raise a crew to sail to Florida.
There they fought off all comers in what quickly turned into a free-for-all. French and Spanish military were trying to salvage the treasure, while thousands of pirates, privateers, and young men looking to strike it rich tried to steal part of the gold.
Vane captured enough money to live on for a while, and when Jennings returned to Jamaica – he still considered himself a lawful privateer – Vane wandered off to New Providence, already a port run entirely by pirates.
Vane hung around, drinking whoring and going out on occasional pirate raids, until 1718. He developed a reputation for beating up his victims at random, especially ships’ officers. Even if he had already promised mercy, anything that set him off would cause a violent outburst.
When the English send Woodes Rogers into New Providence with an offer of a free pardon to any pirate willing to forego his pirating ways, many pirates celebrated. Vane raised a mob who vowed to remain pirates forever. When Rogers raised the Union Jack over New Providence’s fort, Vane attacked the fort, took down the flag, and replaced it with a Jolly Roger, or as it was called by a witness, “A black flag with a death’s head on it.”
In the meantime, Vane and Jennings sent word to James Stuart, a pretender to the throne of England, offering to become James’ navy, in exchange for a pardon from him, larger war ships, and permission to make war on England.
James agreed in principal, but was not quick to send the required ships. In the meantime, the leaders of the largest body of pirates, Hornigold and Jennings, advised the pirates to accept the pardon, while arriving ships laden with treasure reminded the pirates of how profitable their profession could be. At last a major council was held, but some of the pirates came in drunk, and in no time at all everyone was shouting.
The council broke up in the most literal fashion, with pirates heading out in all directions, some to take the pardon in other ports, some to plunder new ships, some to hunt for another pirate port.
Vane acquired the sloop Lark and began outfitting it for use as a pirate ship. But enough pirates were angry with him for one reason or another that, when the Navy ship Phoenix captained by a man named Vincent Pearse.
Pearse found Vane and his crew and blocked the small cove where they were working on their new ship. The pirates decided to pretend that they were planning to sail their new ship to meet Pearse and take the pardon, but they were not believed for a moment. Instead, Pearse arrested them and took them back to New Providence for execution.
But while the rank-and-file pirates didn’t like Vane, the leaders of the pirate community did not want to see one of their own hanged in what had almost been the capital of a pirate nation. They rowed out to the Phoenix as it lay in Nassau Harbor and demanded that Vane be set free. Pearse finally agreed, and in return a veritable who’s who of the pirate world lined up to be pardoned for their crimes.
Captain Pearse must have thought that he had it made, but a few days later his was probably disappointed when his celebration of the Price of Wales’ birthday was marred by the pirates setting a boat on fire and trying to steer the flaming hulk into his ship.
Worse came later. Vane and a group of his friends snuck off in the night in rowboats and captured a small merchant vessel. They brought it back to Nassau Harbor, entering by a natural “back door” and plundered the ship in shallow water, where the much larger Phoenix could not go.
Vane paraded his success through, even though Pearse fired on him repeatedly, and the number of Vane’s followers tripled in only three days. Right under Pearse’s nose, they outfitted a pirate ship, which they renamed the Ranger. They then went out to terrorize the Caribbean.
Vane captured 12 ships in less than 6 weeks. He tortured the crews, hanging one man, placing lihted matches in the eyes of another, beat the passengers, flogged the captains. He kept some of the ships he captured.
He returned to New Providence and made the place his own. The Phoenix had departed. Then another large pirate ship sailed into the harbor. Blackbeard, having newly acquired the Queen Anne’s Revenge had come home.
For a month, the pirates partied, waiting for word from the Stuarts in France. But the Pretender’s cause was in decline, and after a while Vane realized that he’d have to get his own war ship. He gathered his friends and went hunting.
They captured ship after ship, building a pirate armada and frequently making trades for large and larger ships. Vane renamed each ship the Ranger in turn. Finally they returned to Nassau Harbor.
This time while they were enjoying their spoils, two British warships entered the harbor. Unable, in his larger vessel, to run out the “back door.” So the pirates grabbed every useful thing in the port, from farm animals and supplies to a skilled carpenter they roused out of bed.
They sent a fire-ship at the British and escaped in the confusion. But realizing that they were unlikely to ever return to their former home was not encouraging. And by now Vane knew his deal with the Stuarts wouldn’t work out. For weeks, the ships floated on the waves while the pirates devoured their supplies and remained drunk.
When they finally found a ship to attack, Vane thought they were overmatched. He decided to break off the engagement and run. This was not popular with the crew. Vane’s second in command, Jack Rackham, deposed him as captain, putting Vane and his few supporters adrift in a pair of rowboats.
The boats were separated in a storm, and Vane ended up alone on a desert island. He was supported by turtle hunters who, knowing his identity, gave him supplied but refused to allow him on their boats.
Vane finally found someone who didn’t recognize him, joined the merchant’s crew and was working as a common sailor when he was outed by one of his former crew members. He was arrested and hauled into Kingston Jamaica, where he was tired and hanged on March 29th, 1721.
His body was left hanging in the harbor as a warning to other pirates until it disintegrated.