The King of Nassau

Fans know that the TV-series Black Sails blurs the line between fact and fiction. Characters made famous by R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island mingle with historical people who lived – and died – during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Creative license is sometimes necessary, but even so, an astounding amount of historical details made their way into the otherwise fictional story of Captain Flint and Long John Silver.

It helps, of course, that newspapers and court records state with fair accuracy when the most famous of pirate captains died, and whether that was in battle, at sea, or at the end of a long hemp rope.

Except one. One historical pirate captain is well known for his amazing accomplishments, but his life before and after sailing on the Account remains shrouded to this day.

As if he had risen from the sea, to be returned to her when his purpose was served…

It all starts with the story of a Spanish galleon named Urca de Lima.

Yes, she was a real ship, carrying a real treasure. And she, along with the rest of the Spanish Treasure Fleet, was wrecked on the Florida coast by a hurricane in late July of 1715.

Like a flame drawing moths, word of the sunken treasure fleet drew in pirates from all over the Caribbean. To protect their priceless cargo, the surviving Spanish crews salvaged the strewn gold and stored it in the newly-built fort at nearby St Augustine.   

The Urca treasure also beckoned Captain Henry Jennings. With Captain ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy sailing consort, he led the pirate fleet that arrived in St Augustine to relieve the Spanish of their burden.

The treasure fleet’s survivors put up a fight, but Jennings made short work of them: the gold was his. Once it was loaded, however, he didn't set sail for Nassau. Instead, he headed for Jamaica.

Because curiously enough, Jennings’ attack on this Spanish property had been sanctioned by Lord Archibald Hamilton, governor of Jamaica.

Indeed, this nasty piece of work was inspired by history.

However, there is no clear record of Henry Jennings before 1715.

It is believed that he was a wealthy plantation owner in Jamaica, but whatever he was before he turned to piracy, his reasons for this career change remain a mystery.

We don't know Jennings’ background, but his partner-in-crime Sam Bellamy was a former Navy officer and a gentleman pirate with a reputation for being good-natured and merciful. As stark a contrast to Jennings as James McGraw to Flint.

Perhaps, though, an answer could be found in Jennings’ violent temper and vengeful nature. As a pirate captain, he was notorious for his ruthlessness and brutality, both against prize ships and anyone else who opposed him.

When Bellamy double-crossed Jennings and stole a good portion of the Urca treasure for himself, the understandably furious Jennings slaughtered a group of French and British prisoners in retaliation.

By 1716, Lord Hamilton washed his hands of Jennings, and the captain was declared an enemy of the people.

To avoid the noose, Jennings fled to the Bahamas, where he made port in a washed-out little town called Nassau. Here, together with privateers-turned-pirates Captain Benjamin Hornigold and his lieutenant Edward Teach, Jennings formed The Flying Gang.

This alliance would grow to include the most fearsome and famous captains of the time: Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Mary Read among them.

It was The Flying Gang who made Nassau into the pirate capitol it is now famous for. With Jennings’ considerable wealth reaped from the Urca, Hornigold refitted the crumbling fortress to protect the bay.

Even after Bellamy betrayed him, making off with much of the Urca treasure, and Hornigold turning out to be more of a rival than an ally, it was Jennings who was effectively the town’s mayor. His diplomatic skills put him in a perfect position to be leader of their Pirate Republic, and soon de-facto ruler of New Providence island.

Known for his cruelty as much as for his fortune, pirates who made port in Nassau paid him a hefty share of their spoils for his protection (likely in part through the fencing operations, which he at least influenced or possibly controlled).

Two years into this lucrative state of affairs, Hornigold wasn’t a problem any more either: his crew had mutinied and the old dog had accepted the King’s pardon in order to take revenge.

Because by January 1718, Woodes Rogers had arrived.

The new governor of the Bahamas offered Jennings amnesty, as he had Hornigold…

…and Jennings accepted. He, too, turned from being a pirate to being a pirate hunter.

Obviously, this is where the story takes a brief detour from the parallels to Flint’s.

Already rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams after his exploits (or rather, exploitation) in Nassau, Jennings had no real need to be a privateer, but he now hunted down Teach, Vane, and others who had once been his friends.

Until he got bored of it. With a pardon in his pocket and with more wealth than he could hope to spend, Jennings left for Bermuda and retired in luxury.

Or did he?

Wild stories claim that he returned to the pirate’s life. Some say he died in battle, others that he was captured and died in a Spanish jail.

Nothing is certain about how Henry Jennings met his end, but it is not unthinkable that he indeed lived out his life in his quiet paradise retreat, where he eventually died of old age.

The happy-ever-after we all hope for.

And what became of Jennings’ first haul? The loot he stole from the Urca, which Bellamy then stole from him?

Bellamy kept his treasure onboard his ship Whydah, a three-masted ship with no less than 28 guns - and curiously reminiscent of how the Walrus was designed for the series.

The Whydah was caught in a storm in April 1717, capsized and was lost near the coast of Long Island. Only two of her 145-man crew survived. Bellamy did not, but in 1984, the wreckage of the Whydah was discovered, with all she'd had on board.

The treasure, once taken from the Urca de Lima and the largest pirate haul on record, is now a museum display in Massachusetts.

Want to see the famed gold for yourself? Visit the museum website here: 

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