'Black' Bart Roberts was one of the most feared and certainly one of the most successful pirates to have come out of the golden age of piracy. In his short, four-year career he is reputed to have captured over 400 ships and thousands of pounds worth of cargo and money.
As with many pirates, the early days of Roberts' life before he became notorious are hazy and mostly lost to the passing of time. It is thought that he was born in 1682, yet two places in Wales claim to have been his birthplace: Casnewydd Bach1 and Little Newcastle near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire. He very probably left for the sea at an early age and joined a ship as a young cabin boy. However, by June 1719 third mate John Roberts was serving aboard a ship that was negotiating the purchase of slaves off the coast of Ghana. The ship was attacked and captured by the pirate Hywell Davis, and many of its crew were forced into joining Davis' crew. Among these new recruits was John Roberts, who proceeded to adopt the new name Bartholomew Roberts. However, only a short month after joining the pirate crew, Roberts' new ship was ambushed by the Governor of the nearby island of Principe, and Davis was killed. Roberts was obviously a very influential man, as he managed to become the elected captain of his new ship, and is reported to have accepted his new role as an outlaw, stating:
It is better to be a commander than a common man, since I have dipped my hands in muddy water and must be a pirate.
The Democratic Captain
Far from embracing the image of ill discipline and debauchery that clung to most pirates, 'Black' Bart produced a series of 'articles' which his crew had to follow, which made his ship a surprisingly fair and democratic vessel, especially when compared to the rigours encountered on Royal Naval vessels at the time.
Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment. He shall have an equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized, and shall use them at pleasure unless a scarcity may make it necessary for the common good that a retrenchment may be voted.
Every man shall be called fairly in turn by the list on board of prizes, because over and above their proper share, they are allowed a shift of clothes. But if they defraud the company to the value of even one dollar in plate, jewels or money, they shall be marooned. If any man rob another he shall have his nose and ears slit, and be put ashore where he shall be sure to encounter hardships.
None shall game for money either with dice or cards.
The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night, and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour they shall sit upon the open deck without lights.
Each man shall keep his piece, cutlass and pistols at all times clean and ready for action.
No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man shall be found seducing any of the latter sex and carrying her to sea in disguise he shall suffer death.
He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning.
None shall strike another on board the ship, but every man's quarrel shall be ended on shore by sword or pistol in this manner. At the word of command from the quartermaster, each man being previously placed back to back, shall turn and fire immediately. If any man do not, the quartermaster shall knock the piece out of his hand. If both miss their aim they shall take to their cutlasses, and he that draweth first blood shall be declared the victor.
No man shall talk of breaking up their way of living till each has a share of ï¿½l,000. Every man who shall become a cripple or lose a limb in the service shall have 800 pieces of eight from the common stock and for lesser hurts proportionately.
The captain and the quartermaster shall each receive two shares of a prize, the master gunner and boatswain, one and one half shares, all other officers one and one quarter, and private gentlemen of fortune one share each.
The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day only by right. On all other days by favour only.
With his guidelines laid out, Bart planned his campaign. His first attack was against a pair of Dutch and English slave ships he encountered on the way to Brazilian coastal waters. After the attack he proceeded to loot and then burn the two ships before sailing on to Brazil, where he encountered no fewer than 42 Portuguese trading vessels and their escort of two 70-gun warships. He immediately attacked the larger of the two warships and swiftly subdued it and a smaller 10-gun sloop. Unfortunately one of his crew, Walter Kennedy, was obviously not pleased with Bart and took the 70-gun ship, the Rover, and its £30,000 worth of gold as his own and sailed off, leaving Bart with just the 10-gun sloop. The latter obviously was not too displeased, as he named this little ship the Fortune and set sail towards Newfoundland.
By June 1720 Bart was wreaking havoc along the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland, where he would plunder ships of all sizes, capturing or destroying some 26 sloops and 150 fishing boats along with many buildings on shore. By this time he had added to his fleet by trading a captured 18-gun galley for a 28-gun French ship he named the Royal Fortune. Roberts was an intelligent and dapper man who realised he could not stay in one area for too long, and he soon sailed south to the Caribbean where he plundered 15 French and English ships in Saint Kitts harbour. In January 1721 Roberts sailed into the harbour of French Martinique and signalled to the ships there that there was a slave sale in nearby St Lucia that was guaranteed to earn them a profit. He then proceeded to sail to St Lucia himself, where he ambushed the 14 French ships that came seeking some money. Roberts added to his fleet by taking an 18-gun brigantine he renamed Good Fortune. This was when his 'Black' reputation started to emerge, as many of the French prisoners were severely tortured and killed. Roberts continued to haunt the area, next capturing a 52-gun ship he renamed the Royal Fortune, on board which was the Governor of Martinique. Firmly cementing his reputation as a fearsome pirate, Black Bart hanged the Governor and the ship became Bart's next flagship.
Bart had almost single-handedly stopped shipping in that area of the Caribbean and obviously decided things were getting too hot for him. In April 1721 he was found sailing off the coast of west Africa. Here he attacked a Royal Africa Company's ship, the Onslow. It carried a cargo of some £9,000, which must have offset his rage at learning of another crew member, Thomas Anstis, who had absconded while in charge of Bart's ship the Good Fortune. With a ship missing, Bart kept the Onslow, renaming her the Ranger. By January 1722 Roberts was near the Ivory Coast where he attacked and captured a 32-gun French warship which he renamed the Great Ranger. Near Whydah he captured and ransomed 11 slave ships for eight pounds of gold dust each, and when one Captain refused him Roberts burnt the ship to ashes, including the 80 slaves who were still alive in its hold. All this action was starting to draw attention to Bart's activities. He was seriously affecting the British trading companies' business and pirate hunters were becoming eager for his blood.
The End of Black Bart
On 5 February, 1722 the pirate hunter Challoner Ogle came upon the Royal Fortune near Cape Lopez in Gabon. Some say Roberts mistook Ogle's ship the Swallow for an innocent merchantman. Others say that all of Bart's crew were drunk following a successful raid the day before. Whatever the truth, Bart's crew were unprepared for the broadside Ogle sent at them; they swiftly replied with their own cannon fire but to no avail. When all the gun smoke cleared Bartholomew Roberts was found slumped dead over a cannon: the blast of Ogle's first bombardment had found its mark. Ever loyal, Bart's crew decided not to let the British lay their hands on Robert's body; instead they cast it over the side and attempted to flee. However, the Royal Fortune was shattered and didn't have its competent captain onboard. The crew were forced to surrender, were taken prisoner and tried for piracy at Cape Coast in Ghana. Of the crew 74 were acquitted, 70 former slaves were returned to slavery, 54 pirates were hanged, and 37 received lesser sentences.
The infamy of Black Bart Roberts lives on long after his death, and perhaps escaping the noose and going out in a blaze of cannon fire is the way he'd have wanted to be remembered. Whatever his wishes, it's clear that he deserved the 'Black Bart' name. Bartholomew Roberts is a constant reminder that the pirates of old were not jolly, rum-swigging fellows, all yo-ho-ho and 'splice the main brace', but instead were often vicious killers with few moral scruples. In their heyday, they were generally despised by the population as much as muggers and murderers are today. Pirates remain some of history's most misunderstood people.