This is the first article of The Tales of Pirates series I will be writing. For the first pirate to be showcased in the series I picked the most successful pirate of the Goolden Age of Piracy (the 1650s -1730s), Bartholomew Roberts. Bartholomew, also known as Black Bart (Welsh: Barti Ddu) captured over 470 ships in less than a four years of his activity. He was also the last great pirate of the Golden age.
Roberts' first flag shows himself and Death holding an hourglass, author of this picture is Orem
Bartholomew was born under the name John Roberts in 1682 in Casnewydd-Bach, Wales. It is not known why he changed his name to Bartholomew, or precisely when he went to the sea, but it is believed it was in 1695 when he was 13.
We know Bartholomew didn’t go to piracy willingly. He was the second mate of the slave ship Princess under Captain Abraham Plumb. They were anchored along the Gold Coast of West Africa, at Anomabu, in June 1719 when they were attacked by two pirate vessels. Vessels named Royal James and Royal Rover were led by Welsh pirate captain Howell Davis who successfully captured the Princess. Roberts was forced to choose between joining pirates and being murdered, along with several other crew members of the Princess.
Captain Davis quickly noticed Bartholomew’s skills as a navigator and consulted with him often. Another benefit to their collaboration was the fact that both men were Welshmen which allowed Captain to confide information to Bartholomew in Welsh. Davis’ trust in Bartholomew grew together with Bart’s love for the pirate lifestyle. He soon came to appreciate pleasures of liberty and power over the low wages and hard labor of honest service.
As a pirate, he was known as a brave and courageous man. He hated cowardice and often punished captains of captured ships if they acted cowardly. He loved fine clothes and jewelry and was always dressed in the best clothes, even in the battle. An unusual trait for a pirate was that he hated drunkenness and preferred to drink tea over rum. He was usually not cruel towards prisoners as some other pirates, but he was a cold-hearted man, which is known from several of his deeds. The most cold-hearted one was when he set a ship with 80 shackled slaves on fire because he wouldn’t lose time on unshackling them.
Becoming a Captain
Six weeks after Bartholomew joined the crew, Royal James had a leak. Captain Davis ordered all crew to move to Royal Rover and left Royal James anchored in waters of Cameroon. Sailing through the Gulf of Guinea he came to a small island under Portuguese dominion, Príncipe. Davis hoisted English Colors, and the Portuguese sent out a little sloop to examine the ship. Davis told them he was an English man of war hunting pirates, and that he had received intelligence there were some upon the coast. He was received as an honorable guest, and Portuguese sent a file of musketeers to receive him and escort him to the governor. Governor promised he would supply him with whatever the Island could afford, and Davis told him the King of England would pay for whatever provisions he would take. At that time a French ship came to the harbor for supplies, and Davis decided to plunder the ship. He persuaded the Portuguese that she had been trading with Pirates and that he found several Pirate goods on board which he seized in the name of the king. Governor commended Davis for his diligence and their relationship further improved. Davis’ original plan was to plunder the island, but he didn’t know where the treasure lay, so he coined up a new scheme. He intended to give a present to the governor in the form of a dozen slaves to return the civilities received from him. Afterwards, he would invite him with the chief men on board of his ship to enjoy dinner in his company. He would then hold him hostage and demand a ransom of 40000 sterling for him.
Over the night one Portuguese sailor from Davis’ fleet swam to the shore and revealed the plan to the governor. The next day Davis, with a few of his men, went on shore to show his respects and bring the governor on board. They were welcomed with regular civilities and invited to governor’s house to take some refreshment before returning to the ship. They were ambushed and all but one member of the entourage were killed. The surviving member managed to escape to Royal Rover and inform the rest of the crew of death of Captain Davis.
The crew found themselves in the necessity to fill the post of captain. Davis’ crew was split into lords and commoners. Lords held a meeting to propose a new leader of the crew, and only six weeks after joining the crew Bartholomew Roberts was proposed as a new captain. All but one member of the crew agreed on the choice and Roberts became the captain of the crew.
That it was not of any great Signification who was dignified with Title; for real and in Truth, all good Governments had (like theirs) the supreme Power lodged with the Community, who might doubtless depute and revoke as suited Interest or Humour. We are the Original of this Claim (says he) and should a Captain be so savvy as to exceed Prescription at any time, why down with Him! It will be a Caution after he is dead to his Successors, of what fatal Consequence any sort of assuming may be. However, it is my Advice, that, while we are sober, we pitch upon a Man of Courage, and skill’d in Navigation, one, who by his Council and Bravery seems best able to defend this Commonwealth, and ward us from the Dangers and Tempests of an instable Element, and the fatal Consequences of Anarchy; and such a one I take Roberts to be. A Fellow! I think, in all Respects, worthy your Esteem and Favour.
Speech of the member of the crew, who proposed Bartholomew Roberts as the new Captain
Source: A General History of the Pyrates, 1724
Roberts accepted the role of the Captain saying that since he had dipped his hands in muddy water, and must be a pirate, it was better being a commander than a commoner. As soon as he assumed the post of captain he promoted other officers in place of those who were killed alongside Davis.
His next decision was to avenge the death of his former captain. About thirty men were landed on shore to attack the fort, they marched up directly to the fort while the fort was under fire of their ship’s canons. Portuguese guards left their posts and fled to the town, and pirates marched into the fort without opposition. They threw all the canons of the hill and into the sea, and retreated to their ship. Most of the crew wasn’t satisfied with this and wanted to go ashore once again and burn the town. Roberts told them that bare houses would be a slender reward for their trouble and picked a different plan. They mounted the French ship they seized earlier. The ship was lighter than the Royal Rover, they lightened her further in order to be able to sail closer to town as waters were shallow there. Once there they fired ships’ 12 canons and battered down several houses in the town. They set two Portuguese ships on fire and left the harbor. They sailed to Annabona capturing a few ships along the way. Once there, captain Bartholomew put a vote to the company to decide should they sail to the East-Indies or to Brazil, the latter was chosen and 28 days later they arrived at an uninhabited Island off the Brazilian shore. At the time the main Brazilian export were gold, sugars, and tobacco, so there was plenty of booty to be captured there.
The death of Captain Howell Davis, from The Pirates Own Book, Charles Ellms
The most notable deeds
Once Bart’s crew arrived at the coasts of Brazil, they sailed for 9 weeks without seeing a sail. Lack of ships to pillage discouraged them and they decided to go to the West-Indies. They decided to refill their provision and unexpectedly ran into a fleet of 42 Portuguese trading ships off the Bay of Los Todos Santos. The fleet was protected by two warships, each armed with 70 cannons. Black Bart devised a strategy to capture treasures from the convoy. Most of his crew hid below the deck, and he mixed up his ship with the merchant ships. They came close up to one of the ships and ordered her to send the captain on board quietly. They threatened the crew to give them no quarters if any signal or resistance was made. Captain came on board and Bartholomew saluted him in a friendly manner. He informed him that they were gentlemen of fortune, but that their only business with him is to be informed which ship carried the biggest booty. Roberts promised that he would return his ship without molestation if the information was true, otherwise, he would gift them with immediate death. Portuguese captain pointed to the Sagrada Familia, a ship armed with 40 cannons and manned with a crew of 170. The ship was of superior power compared to Royal Rover, but Black Bart commented that they were only Portuguese, and sailed for the ship immediately. Once they arrived to the ship, captured Portuguese captain was ordered to invite the captain of the Sagrada Familia to the Rover, telling him that he had a matter of consequence to impart to him privately. The crew answered that captain is to wait until they go and get their captain. The pirates realized their plot was revealed and this was an answer given to buying the Sagrada Famiglia time to assume defensive stances.
Without further delay, pirates grappled the ship and boarded it. In conflict, only two pirates fell, compared to many Portuguese who lost their lives. The fleet was alarmed, and signals were sent, but warships were still anchored and pirates had enough time to transport the booty to the Royal Rover before warships came to the assistance of the ship that was being plundered. They found 40000 gold moidores (Portuguese gold coins) and a lot of jewelry designed for the Portuguese king, among which was a cross set with diamonds which Roberts kept for himself. The ship was heavy with booty and Roberts was unwilling to part with the riches so he prepared to fight the warship which was set upon them. There was much distance between two warships in pursue and amidst the confusion, the commander of the first ship was reluctant to engage in a fight with the pirates alone. He opted to wait for the second ship to reinforce him, which gave the Royal Rover enough time to escape with the riches.
Bartholomew Roberts with his ship and captured merchant ships in the background, by Benjamin Cole
Escaping the Portuguese warships, the Rover set sail for Devil’s Island off the coast of Guiana to spend the booty. A few weeks later, on their way for the River Surinam, they captured another sloop. They gained intelligence from captured sloops crew, that a brigantine loaded with provisions was also accompanying it on the voyage. Bart took 40 men on the sloop to pursue it leaving Walter Kennedy, an Irish pirate from his crew, in command of the Royal Rover. Roberts sailed with contrary winds and currents for eight days and lost the brigantine. In addition, they were running out of supplies. He anchored the sloop and sent few of his men on a small boat to notice the crew on the Royal Rover of their condition and order them to sail to the captain with provisions. While waiting for the Rover they were spent all of their water supplies and were forced to tear up the floor of the cabin and patch up a small boat with which they could paddle ashore to replenish their water supplies. After a few days, the boat that sailed to the Rover returned with unfortunate news. Kennedy had betrayed them, named himself the captain of the Royal Rover, and sailed away with the ship and its treasures, leaving all those who objected marooned. Roberts renamed the sloop to Royal Fortune and decided to write the set of articles which each of his future crewmen had to sign and swear on the bible to uphold. The first decision was to exclude all Irish men from joining the crew. This was probably done because Kennedy, who betrayed Roberts was an Irishman.
Here are some articles from Bartholomew’s Pirate Code, taken from A General History of the Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson:
Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has an equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes, because, (over and above their proper share,) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of cloaths: But if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar, in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their Punishment.
No person to game at cards or dice for money.
The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: If any of the crew, after that hour, still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.
To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean, and fit for service.
No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were sound seducing any of the latter sex and carried her to Sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.
To desert, the ship, or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.
No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.
No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared a 1000 l. If in order to this, any man should lose a Limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have 800 dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionably.
The Captain and Quarter-Master to receive two shares of a prize; the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers, one and a quarter.
The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favor.
With his small crew, Roberts decided to go to the West-Indies hoping to change his fortune and replenish the losses. On the way, he pillaged two sloops and a brigantine. Booty was enough to resupply and arm the Royal Fortune. However, the brigantine informed the governor of Barbados about the Pirates a few days later. Two ships were sent in pursuit of Roberts crew. When they spotted the vessel, they decided pretended to run away from the pirates and lured them to attack. Once the Royal Fortune opened fire, two ships from Barbados returned fire from their canons. Roberts was forced to throw most of the canons and provisions in the see to lighten the ship and managed to escape. He headed for Dominica to repair the Royal Fortune while being hunted by the two ships from Barbados and two more sloops from Martinique. Since that time he held men from Barbados and Martinique in special contempt and was particularly severe to them when they got in his way. He swore vengeance against the inhabitants of Barbados and Martinique and had a new flag made. The Flag showcased Bartholomew standing on two skulls, representing the heads of Barbadian and Martiniquian men.
Black Bart's new flag, author of this picture is Orem
Having escaped their pursuers and repaired their boat, the crew sailed for Newfoundland and arrived there by the end of June 1720. With only a small crew Roberts decided to pillage Trepassey harbor. He entered the harbor with his pirate flag hoisted, beating drums and sounding trumpets. Twenty-four ships were anchored in the harbor, but when the crews of those ships saw the dramatic entrance of the pirates, they all left their ships and fled ashore. Bartholomew burned all the ships except a Bristol galley which he armed with 16 canons and took as the new ship for his crew. He also destroyed fisheries and plantations on the coast. On the way out of the harbor, he ran into a fleet of ten French ships. He sunk nine of them leaving only one with 26 canons aboard, which he commandeered and renamed into Royal Fortune, switching ships once again.
Black Bart’s crew was so successful in pirating that they brought almost all traffic in the Caribbean to a standstill. As a consequence, they decided to set sail to West Africa and continue their business there. They switched the ships a few more time, naming each ship Royal Fortune, and adding two more ships to their fleet, Ranger and Little Ranger which was used as a store-ship.
On 5th February 1722, HMS Swallow commanded by Captain Chaloner Ogle, which was hunting Roberts for over half a year came upon the pirate at Cape Lopez. The Swallow pretended to be a fleeing merchant ship, and the Ranger was sent in pursuit. Once out of earshot of other ships, Captain Ogle opened fire and successfully captured the Ranger. Meanwhile, Roberts managed to capture another trading ship, Neptune, on 9th February, and his crew got drunk celebrating. The next day, Swallow returned to Cape Lopez and set sail towards the Royal Fortune. As usually, Roberts dressed in his finest clothes in preparation for battle. After the smoke from the first volley fired by the Swallow cleared, Bartholomew Roberts was found hanging over the canon, dead. This was the end of dreadful Black Bart. His death is also considered as the end of the Golden Age of Piracy as there was no such capable pirate ever after.
According to his wishes, the crew threw him into the sea and continued the battle. Their morale was shaken by the death of their Captain, and they were defeated after two hours of battle. Most of the captured pirates were later hanged in the biggest pirate trial in history.
If you are interested in my series about the Haitian Vodou, check the last post from the series here: Haitian Vodou - Papa Legba.