Charles Vane (1680? - 1721) was an English pirate who was active during the "Golden Age of Piracy." Vane distinguished himself by his unrepentant attitude towards piracy and his cruelty to those he captured. After being abandoned by his own crew, he was arrested and hanged.
Service under Henry Jennings and the Spanish Wrecks
Charles Vane arrived in Port Royal sometime during the War of 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.
Rejection of the King's Pardon
In 1718, the King of England issued a blanket pardon for all pirates who wished to return to an honest life. Many 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. 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 some of his die-hard companions were ready to once again take to piracy. Soon he had forty of Nassau's worst cutthroats, including seasoned buccaneer Edward England and "Calico Jack" Rackham, who would himself become a notorious pirate captain.
Vane's Reign of Terror
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 instead of fought. 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 takes Nassau
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's bold escape
On July 24, as Vane and his men were preparing to set sail once again, a Royal Navy Frigate sailed into the harbor: the new governor had come at last. Vane controlled the harbor and the small fort, which flew a pirate flag from its flagpole. 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 to hurriedly cut their anchor lines and get away, but Vane and his men escaped.
Vane and Blackbeard
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 partied 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.
On November 23, Vane ordered an attack on a frigate which turned out to be a French Navy warship. Outgunned, Vane broke off the fight and ran for it. 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.
Capture of Charles Vane
Vane and his men managed to capture a few more ships and by December they had five in total. They headed for the Bay Islands of Honduras. Not long after they set out, however, a massive hurricane scattered their ships. Vane's small sloop was destroyed, his men were drowned and he was shipwrecked on a small island. After a few miserable months, a British ship arrived. Unfortunately for Vane, the Captain, a man by the name of Holcomb, recognized him and refused to take him on board. Another ship picked up Vane (who had given a false name), but Holcomb went aboard one day and recognized him. Vane was slapped into chains and brought back to Spanish Town in British Jamaica.
Death and Legacy of Charles Vane
Vane was tried for piracy on March 22, 1721. The outcome was in little doubt, as there was a long line of witnesses against him including many of his victims. He didn't even offer a defense. He was hanged on March 29, 1721 at Gallows Point in Port Royal. His body was hung from a gibbet near the entrance to the harbor as a warning to other pirates.
Vane is remembered today as one of the most unrepentant pirates of all time. His greatest impact may have been his steadfast refusal to accept a pardon, giving other like-minded pirates a leader to rally around.
His hanging and the subsequent display of his body may have even had some of the hoped-for effect: the "Golden Age of Piracy" would come to an end not long after his demise.
Defoe, Daniel (Captain Charles Johnson). A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of PiratesGuilford: the Lyons Press, 2009
Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.
Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Mariner Books, 2008.