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A Reluctant Pirate
During the duration of his short career, the name Bartholomew Roberts was the terror of the seas. From the coasts of Africa to the Caribbean, from Brazil to Newfoundland everyone knew and feared this notorious pirate whom many historians regard as the last great captain to emerge during the Golden Age of Piracy.
Although his name did not become as well known as Blackbeard’s, if one gives a look at their respective careers, we quickly find out that Roberts was much more successful than Blackbeard, and in less than 3 years he captured and looted an estimated 400 ships.
Just like in the case of all the other pirates who were active in the golden age, there’s not much information about the early life of Roberts. He was a Welshman and historians believe that he was born in 1682. His real name was John Roberts, but for unknown reasons, he later changed it to Bartholomew. Historians also believe that he most probably became a sailor from a young age; however, before becoming a pirate, he most probably was never in command of a ship.
During the years of the Golden Age of Piracy, many sailors willingly joined pirate crews, so it comes as quite a bit of a surprise to know that the most successful pirate of them all, Bartholomew ’Black Bart’ Roberts, was forced to join the crew of captain Howell Davis at pistol point.
Roberts was serving aboard a slave ship when Davis fell upon them and forced them to surrender. Pirates usually offered to enlist crewmen from the captured ships to join them, which many willingly accepted, but conscripting sailors into their service was much less common. Conscription was generally limited to personnel who had some specialized knowledge which was vital to the good functioning of the pirate ship. Surgeons, for example, were always in short supply. Roberts was not a surgeon; however, he was believed to have been an excellent sailor and a very skilled navigator.
Another fact that may have played a role in the conscription of Roberts to Davis’s crew was the fact that he, just like Davis, was a Welshman, and the captain may have wanted a fellow Welshman in his crew.
It is believed that at first, Roberts was far from happy, but fate presented him a unique opportunity six weeks later when Davis was killed in an ambush. Davis was a charming and cunning man who could easily pass off as a merchant, and he made a habit of holding colonial officials, including governors, to ransom by inviting them to dinner and capturing his unsuspecting guests. His plans, however, went badly awry on the island of Principe, where the Portuguese governor did not take Davis’s bait but rather set up an ambush where Davis was killed.
Left without a captain, the crew of the Royal Rover held elections and rather surprisingly chose Bartholomew Roberts, a man who joined them only six weeks earlier as their new captain. Roberts accepted the promotion and immediately made plans to avenge the death of Davis.
Under the personal command of Roberts, a group of pirates attacked the fort, which was protecting the bay of the island and surprised the defenders. Once in control of the fort, the pirates spiked the cannons to render the fort useless for a time and returned to their ship. Some crewmen wanted to burn the whole port to the ground, but Roberts dissuaded them, arguing that they had already avenged Davis by attacking and neutralising the fort.
After successfully avenging his predecessor Roberts led his man to the coast of Brazil. The pirates hunted unsuccessfully for rich prey for nearly two months before they finally ran into a large convoy of Portuguese ships at All Saints Bay. The pirates succeeded in infiltrating the convoy and invited another captain to their ship. The unsuspecting captain accepted the offer, but to his horror, he found out that he was now a hostage of the pirates.
Roberts offered to spare the captain's life if, in exchange for it, he would show them the richest ship from the convoy. Not being in a position to say no, the captain agreed and pointed to the rich Sagrada Familia, which was holding a cargo worth some 40,000 Portuguese gold pieces and jewels of the Royal family. Using the element of surprise to their advantage, the pirates fell on the Sagrada Familia and captured it with minimal casualties. They ransacked the ship and fled the bay before the escorts of the fleet were able to block their way.
Following their successful heist, Roberts and his men left behind the coast of Brazil and headed north to Devils Island and the river Surinam. By this time, the pirates added another ship to the Royal Rover, a sloop. When they sighted a passing brigantine, Roberts decided to give chase in the swift sailing sloop and left Walter Kennedy behind in charge of the Royal Rover.
Unfortunately for Roberts, they failed to capture the brigantine, and while he was off hunting, Kennedy incited a mutiny, took command over the Royal Rover and sailed off into the distance with the treasure from the Sagrada Familia.
To prevent another such episode, Roberts created his own pirate code and made his crew swear upon the Bible to uphold it.
In the popular imagination, the life of the pirates is depicted as carefree and wild, but contrary to this image, Roberts’s code was quite strict. Although crew members were free to consume alcohol so long as there was a supply of it, he still tried to moderate alcoholism by forcing the man to drink above deck after eight o’clock. He also demanded that his man to keep their weapons in good order, and the presence of women on the ship was also prohibited, and if by chance they were still present, they were to be guarded so their virtue should not suffer any damage.
Peak of His Career
Up to May 1720, Roberts plundered the Caribbean and brought havoc to the waters around Barbados and Martinique. The locals had enough of the pirate depredations and sent two well-armed pirate hunter ships against Roberts and Montigny la Palisse, a French pirate who made common cause with Roberts. When encountering the pirate hunters, La Palisse quickly ran away. Roberts had more fight in him but was forced to flee after he sustained heavy damage and several casualties. After repairing the ship, Roberts decided to abandon the Caribbean for the time being and try his luck in other places.
The pirates headed north to Newfoundland and fell upon the unsuspecting merchant and fishing ships in Trepassey bay. Once the captains in the harbour saw the pirates enter the bay, they all panicked and ran, allowing Roberts to capture over 20 vessels without a fight while he only had a single ship at his disposal.
Disgusted by the cowardice of the captains, Roberts demanded the captains of the abandoned ship meet him on his ship; otherwise, he would destroy their vessels. Roberts took over a brig in the bay and made it his new flagship.
The pirates eventually left Trepassey bay in late June and set ablaze all the vessels in it. On their way back to the Caribbean, the pirates captured several more vessels, and Roberts made one his new flagship, the Good Fortune. Fitted with 26 guns, the Good Fortune was a formidable ship and allowed Roberts to target more ambitious prizes. La Pallise also rejoined him when they met again.
Once back in the Caribbean, Roberts and his companions captured several dozen ships and plundered the sea lanes until April 1721, when finally Roberts decided it was time to leave the Caribbean behind for the time being and head back to the coast of Africa. Not all his accomplices agreed with his plans, and one captain named Thomas Anstis decided to abandon Roberts to remain in the Caribbean.
By late spring, the pirates were at Cape Verde, where they abandoned the heavily leaking Royal Fortune( which was the Good Fortune renamed by Roberts), but soon captured another two ships and added to their fleet, bringing up their strength to three ships.
The pirates looted their way through the coast of Africa throughout the rest of the year and captured a powerful frigate in the summer. Roberts rechristened the frigate as the new Royal Fortune, the fourth one by that time and made it his new flagship.
The Death of Black Bart
In January 1722, the pirates sailed into the bay of Whydah, where they held to ransom the eleven ships anchoring in the bay. All but one captain agreed to pay the demanded ransom; one, however, refused. Outraged by this insolence, Roberts unleashed his fury on the ship of this captain and sank it while the slave cargo was still below deck.
Roberts’s luck ran out a couple of weeks later when a British warship, the HMS Swallow, attacked them at Cape Lopez. Roberts’s crew had just captured a prize earlier that day, got drunk and were in no state to fight. Roberts knew this and decided to run; however, thanks to the terrain, the pirates were unable to make a run and avoid the guns of the British ship. Nonetheless, Roberts estimated that they could still make their escape even if they received a full broadside.
The pirates agreed to the plan, but as they were sailing past the British ship, the broadside hit them, causing them two casualties, one of them being their captain, who was hit in the throat and died instantly.
The death of Roberts seemingly demoralised his crew, who decided to surrender when the Swallow caught up with them.
Thus ended the life of Bartholomew Roberts, the most successful and last great pirate captain to emerge in the Golden Age, who, in a short career that lasted less than 36 months, captured an estimated 400 vessels, was known as the Invincible and was the absolute terror of the seas.
Sherry, Frank. (2008). Raiders and Rebels: A History of the Golden Age of Piracy. Harper Perennial.
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