Woodes Rogers, of the Royal Navy, was not your average sea captain.

This man was a pirate hunter, who was funded by British businessmen to attack rich vessels from any country, except Britain, and seize their booty.

He was also responsible for capturing the British pirate Blackbeard, the most infamous pirate in history. In 1718, Woodes Rogers men had hand-to-hand combat with the pirate. When he was killed, the Royal Navy sailors cut off his head and displayed it, "glowering", on the bowsprit of one of their vessels (in the old days, the British seemed to have a fascination with decapitated heads. Children even played football with Cromwell's head).

The ultimate prize for all English pirates between 1565 and 1815 was the Manila galleons. These vast, well-armed ships carried huge riches on both legs of their journey between Manila and Acapulco.

In 1709, Woodes Rogers and men his also discovered a Scotsman, Alexander Selkirk, living alone on a tiny island after being put on their after he fell out with the captain of the ship he was sailing on. Woodes Rogers was a friend of English author Daniel Defoe, who used Selkirk as an inspiration for his character Robinson Crusoe in his new book.

He beheaded Blackbeard and hanged cut-throats by the dozen... the life of history's most ruthless pirate hunter

By Andrew Roberts
06th December 2008
Daily Mail

Royal Navy captain Woodes Rogers armed with a boarding pike, circa 1720. He was not a man to be trifled with.

Despite the calm sea, the chase was on. Sand was thrown across the decks to stop them becoming slippery with blood, and the men set up nets under the masts in case rigging came tumbling down, shot off by cannon fire.

To stop flying splinters, hammocks and bedding were stuffed in the netting, while sheets of lead were laid out ready to plug leaks from small arms fire and cannon shot at the waterline. To prevent the men from scuttling to safety below deck while the fight was on, hatches were shut tight.

The date was December 21, 1709, and after 16 months at sea, two tiny British frigates under the command of Captain Woodes Rogers had finally caught sight of one of the richest prizes afloat - the 500-ton Spanish galleon, the Encarnacion, on her way to Acapulco.

A painting by the artist Jean Leon Jerome Ferris depicts the capture of notorious pirate Blackbeard (left)

The Encarnacion was loaded down with bejewelled snuffboxes, pearls, rich tapestries and priceless china made for the Queen of Spain, as well as laced ivory fans, embroidered silk gowns, more than 1,000 pairs of silk stockings, chests of musk, tons of rare spices and other plunder valued at more than 1 million on the London market - equivalent to several hundred million pounds today.

Captain Woodes Rogers was a privateer - a pirate in all but name - whose expeditions were funded by British businessmen in return for a share of the booty, and sanctioned by the Navy on condition that he confined his attacks to enemy vessels.

And he was so successful, so consummately aware of the tricks of the trade, that he was eventually persuaded by George II to turn from poacher to gamekeeper.

In an age when brutality and ruthlessness were the law of the ocean, he become the most successful pirate hunter of all time.

Utterly fearless, he circumnavigated the globe, overcoming mutiny, scurvy, tornadoes and starvation, not to mention the cutlasses, grapeshot and broadsides of the vessels he attacked.

He discovered the real Robinson Crusoe - a Scots seaman named Alexander Selkirk, who had been marooned on an uninhabited island off Chile for four-and-a-half years after a row with his captain - and it was his friendship with the writer Daniel Defoe that led to the novel.

By the end of his career, he had become Governor of the Bahamas, charged with stopping the 2,000 or more pirates who were decimating British trade in the area.

Following intense hand-to-hand fighting, his men killed and beheaded the infamous Blackbeard, leaving the body of the world's most feared pirate riddled with pistol balls and slashed raw by 20 cutlass wounds.

Such was their triumph in his death, they displayed his 'glowering head' on the bowsprit of one of their vessels.

Now, 300 years after he captured that fabulous Spanish galleon the Encarnacion, a new book, The Pirate Hunter, by the veteran military historian Graham A. Thomas, tells Woodes Rogers' remarkable story.

Nor does the author attempt to romanticise the tale: he rightly points out that then - as now - piracy was a murderous, vicious way of life, based on heartless plunder, terror and rape.

James Purefoy portrays Blackbeard in the 2006 BBC docu-drama

Born in Bristol in 1679, the son of a sea captain, Woodes Rogers married the daughter of an admiral. Before the age of 30, he had shown such seamanship and leadership that a consortium of Bristol merchants raised the money to buy two frigates - the Duke (320 tons and 36 guns) and the Duchess ( 260 tons and 26 guns) - with the commission to capture, ransom and rob any ships he found anywhere in the world.

As a privateer, Woodes Rogers was bound by no laws beyond his own morality. It was agreed that the plunder he brought home would be split two-thirds for the expedition's backers, and one-third to his officers and the crew of 340.

On August 22, 1708, Rogers weighed anchor from Bristol, first setting sail for the Canaries. He was fortunate enough to have secured the services of William Dampier, an explorer who had twice circumnavigated the world and whose experience was to be invaluable.

Unfortunately, he was also forced to take along Dr Thomas Dover, who, as a major investor in the enterprise and the representative of the Bristol merchants, had to be given a major say in decision-making during the expedition.

Woodes Rogers told his merchant backers that he hoped 'the blessing of God may bring vast riches to Great Britain'. As a precaution, he took 36 officers, twice the usual number, 'to prevent mutinies, which often happen in long voyages, and that we might have a large provision for a succession in case of mortality'.

Within a month, the little fleet had captured their first prize off Tenerife - a Spanish vessel loaded with two butts of wine and a hogshead of brandy. 'Now we are well stocked with liquors we shall be better able to endure cold when we get the length of Cape Horn,' Woodes Rogers wrote in his journal.

It took the two tiny ships - hardly bigger than modern fishing trawlers - ten days to round Cape Horn in January 1709, being buffeted by high gales that sent them rolling from beam to beam.

Sails were lost and icebergs narrowly avoided, with every sailor soaked to the skin for days on end; but, nonetheless, they made it around the most treacherous sea lane in the world.

They were in the South Seas of the Pacific Ocean, and desperately short of food and fresh water. Going ashore on Juan Fernandez Island for new provisions, they found an 'abundance of crawfish and a man in goat's skins who looked wilder than the first owners of them'.

This was Alexander Selkirk, who had been put ashore on the island four years and four months previously, by a Captain Stradling with whom he had fallen out.

He had been allowed to take his clothes, bedding, a pistol and some powder, tobacco, a hatchet and knife, a kettle, the Bible and some mathematical instruments - but no food.

He expected it to be a short visit, as he was convinced he would soon be picked up.

Sadly, he was mistaken. Although ships visited the island during Selkirk's lonely sojourn, they were mostly Spanish and their crews had fired on him.

Selkirk built a camp of goatskin tents. He found the first eight months the worst, but had succeeding in making fire by rubbing together two sticks of pimento wood, and had lived off goats that inhabited the island after they had escaped - along with cats and rats - from the ships and pirate vessels that had anchored there.

Johnny Depp stars as Captain Jack Sparrow in the film Pirates of the Caribbean

He devoured the turnips which grew plentifully; he exercised, ate well and became extraordinarily fit. When his knife broke, he made replacements out of the hoops of rotten barrels left by earlier ships that had come in for water.

To keep down the island's rat population after he had woken one night to find them gnawing his feet, he used goat meat to lure more than 100 cats into his compound, where they slept every night.

In 1709, he saw sails and a British flag on the horizon, and then Woodes Rogers' men came ashore in long boats. They were startled by the 'wildman' running at them along the beach.

'He ran with wonderful swiftness through the woods and up the rocks and hills,' said Woodes Rogers later. 'We had a bulldog, which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him in catching goats; but he distanced and tired both the dog and men.'

At first it was hard to understand what Selkirk was saying, because he had not heard English spoken in more than four years.

The terror of being alone 'in such a wild and desolate place,' he said, had been dulled by regular prayer and psalm-singing.

He told how he had danced with his pet cats and goats in the moonlight to avoid the near- suicidal loneliness that fell upon him, and how he had 'diverted himself sometime by cutting his name on trees'.

On his rescue, Selkirk joined the expedition and was soon given command of one of the vessels Rogers captured. He was introduced to foreigners as 'the Governor of Juan Fernandez Island', which in a way he had been.

History sadly does not relate what passed between him and Captain Stradling when next they met, if ever they did.

After three months of waylaying ships off the west coast of South America, Rogers' fleet had increased to eight vessels, as well as the Duke and Duchess.

Sadly, his 20-year-old brother Thomas was killed, shot through the head in one engagement against the Spanish.

On April 22, 1709, Rogers conceived a plan to capture and pillage the Peruvian town of Guayaquil, which he had learned contained a rich treasury.

A statue of Alexander Selkirk, on Robinson Crusoe Island

'Rogers ordered his pinnace forward, heading for the shore, fully confident that the other boats would follow,' records Graham Thomas.

Yet at the key moment, cowardly Dr Dover, representing the investors, argued that the town had been warned - bells were being rung and fireworks were going off - and that the assault was therefore hopelessly compromised.

By the time they realised the next day that Guayaquil had merely been celebrating a saint's day, the town was, indeed, warned, and carried a vast fortune in gold inland to be buried in secret.

Rogers attacked nonetheless, but when they captured the town by a brave frontal assault, all they found was 'flour, peas, beans and jars of wine and brandy'.

So, they negotiated with the Spanish not to raze it to the ground and managed to extract 22,000 silver pieces of eight out of the authorities before sailing away.

Throughout his piratical career, Rogers enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for treating his prisoners with respect.

They were ransomed for the maximum possible price, it was true, but the women were treated with civility, and the men allowed to retain their dignity, often being invited to dine with Rogers.

The ultimate prize for all English pirates between 1565 and 1815 was the Manila galleons. These vast, well-armed ships carried huge riches on both legs of their journey between Manila and Acapulco.

Going westwards, they carried silver pesos, rubies, pearls, jade, gold and silver plate. Those sailing eastwards towards New Spain (Mexico, California and Central America) carried spices and silks for the European markets.

For a privateer to capture a wellladen Manila galleon meant never having to work again.

By late November 1709, things were going badly for Rogers' fleet. Water was low, all the turtles (their emergency rations) had been eaten, many of the crew were ill and sailors were stealing each other's bread, even at the risk of being flogged and then clapped in irons in the hold.

Rogers knew they could not backtrack southwards to Cape Horn because the Spanish, with hugely superior forces, were waiting for them there.

'We are now something dubious of seeing the Manila ship,' he wrote disconsolately.

'It's nearly a month after the time they generally fall in with this coast.'

Yet just as doubt was giving way to despair, at 9am on December 21, off the coast of California, a lookout in the crow's nest spotted a sail seven leagues (21 miles) away, and the fleet gave chase.

Rogers had spent the many months at sea drilling his gun-crews so that they could fire faster and more accurately than any enemy. That way, he hoped the British pirates would be able to take on the larger, 500-ton, 50-gun Encarnacion.

After a long chase, 'both ships were parallel, and firing broadsides at each other at point-blank range.

'Thickening, choking smoke from the roaring guns filled the air, shrouding both ships with a black gloom, while above the whine of shot, the splintering of wood and the ripping of sails came the whip-crack sounds of small arms fire as the snipers in the rigging of both ships opened fire, trying to pick off the officers on the decks of each ship.'

Rogers later wrote of how 'They return [fire] as thick for a while, but they did not ply their guns as fast as we'.

'Surgeons lit their lanterns below decks,' records Graham Thomas, 'spreading canvas on the wooden operating tables and laying out their instruments, knives, saws, probes, ligatures and gags to stop the men screaming as they cut off arms or legs while assistants brought boiling pitch to cauterise the men's wounds.'

The oil tanker Sirius Star was captured by Somali pirates last month, with 25 crew members being held hostage

At one time, a 12lb cannonball hit and split the mizzenmast of the Duke. Had it come down, it would have spelled the end for the ship, with the crew winding up prisoners of the Spanish.

Luckily, it held. Soon afterwards, Rogers was hit in the left cheek by a musket ball which tore away a large part of his upper jaw and knocked several teeth out onto the deck. He stayed conscious and fought on, however, writing out his orders 'to prevent the loss of blood and because of the pain I suffered by speaking'.

The Spanish struck their colours - or surrendered - soon afterwards.

Rogers' capture of the Encarnacion was a great feat of leadership and seamanship, but after long legal wranglings once he had returned home with his plunder, he wound up with only 1,600 of the prize money. It hardly covered the debts his wife had notched up in the three years of his absence.

For this reason, he decided to accept George II's commission to sail to the West Indies as Governor of the Bahamas, to root out the piracy that was threatening to strangle all trade in the Caribbean.

Rogers landed at Nassau in 1718 and conducted a vicious, but ultimately successful war against the 'disorderly, unwashed bunch of cutthroats' he hunted down there.

On one occasion, he hanged eight pirates in one day (although he spared a ninth at the last minute when he discovered his 'loyal and good' parents came from Weymouth.)

Understanding well the mind of a pirate, he was the scourge of the Jolly Roger until his death in 1732.

Pirate Hunter: The Life Of Captain Woodes Rogers by Graham A. Thomas (Pen & Sword Ltd).