By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
The captain who takes up the most space in A General History of the Pyrates—a text that highlighted the Golden Age of Caribbean piracy—is Bartholomew Roberts, who might be better thought of as a pirate admiral than a pirate captain. It is perfectly true that from 1719 to 1722, Roberts captured hundreds of ships and fishing vessels. This was a very unusually long career, considering most Golden Agers cruised as pirates only for a year or two.
Learning about the Pirates of the Caribbean
According to the historian Joel Baer, “For Roberts, piracy was not a temporary respite from work in the maritime services or on land, as it was for many under the black flag.” Or to return to A General History of the Pyrates’ more poetical writing, Roberts “ravaged the seas longer than the rest”.
Roberts was a paradox, at once the most outstanding of pirates needing no pardons or land base, but according to the General History, he was at the very same time the most typical of them.
The author explains, “When we found the Circumstances in Roberts’s Life, and other Pyrates, either as to Pyratical Articles, or any Thing else, to be the same, we thought it best to give them but once, and chose Roberts’s Life for that Purpose, he having made more Noise in the World than some others.”
In short, we can learn a lot about Pirates of the Caribbean in the Golden Age by considering Roberts’ experience.
A Skilled Mariner from Wales
Roberts was a Welshman, born in 1682 in Pembrokeshire. He later somehow acquired the nickname Black Bart, which at the time would most likely have indicated he was dark-haired, with an olive complexion.
In 1719, in his thirties, he was the second mate aboard a Guinea trader, the Royal African Company’s ship Princess. Their slaving voyage was interrupted, however, when the ship was captured by the pirate Howel Davis, another Welshman from the same area as Roberts.
Roberts at first resisted becoming a pirate, or so he said, but that’s what they all said. He seems to have come around quickly, however. And after Davis died at the hands of pirate hunters, a month or so later, Roberts was elected by the remaining pirates to replace Davis.
Roberts, like other pirate captains such as Blackbeard, was a skilled mariner and an ambitious man who found an easier path to promotion outside the law than inside it.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
How Bartholomew Roberts Used to Attack
Roberts turned out to be very good at pirating. Aboard his flagship the Rover—which was another word for a pirate—he set sail for Brazil, and discovered a huge convoy of 42 Portuguese merchant ships. Roberts stealthily picked off a ship from the edge of the convoy to serve as a decoy, and then boldly attacked the richest ship in their midst, the Sagrada Familia, with 40 guns and 150 men.
Now typically, pirates’ favorite shock and awe tactic, which is what Roberts used here, was grappling and boarding the larger ship before its crew could prepare adequately for battle, and quickly carrying her away before a proper pursuit could be mustered.
The prize was a rich one full of gold, sugar, tobacco, and a cross encrusted with diamonds, that was to have been on its way to King Joao V of Portugal.
End of Roberts’s Career and His Death
Evidently buoyed by his initial success, Robert soon undertook another attack. He left his flagship to make what he thought would be a quick voyage in a different vessel, to snap up a passing prize laden with much needed provisions. However, contrary winds sent his fleet back leeward. Roberts sent to the Rover for help, but it turned out that Roberts’ lieutenant, Captain Kennedy, had absconded to Barbados with the Rover and the loot from the Sagrada Familia, leaving Roberts and his fellows with little money and nothing to eat.
After Kennedy’s betrayal, Roberts rebuilt, sailing to Barbados for men and prizes, then cruising the Caribbean for a bit more before heading to Newfoundland, back to the West Indies, and then off to the West African coast to attack the bustling slave port of Ouidah. His career, which by some estimates involved the capture of up to 400 vessels, many of them fishermen, finally ended near Cape Lopez when he was found by a pirate hunter.
Captain Chaloner Ogle had been sent to deal with the pirate ships near the coast of West Africa. Roberts, aborting his flagship Royal Fortune, was shot early in the battle.
He bled to death, and his body was tossed overboard, as he’d apparently requested, still dressed in finery, including the diamond cross reminiscent of the one he’d once waylaid on its way to the Portuguese court. The Royal Fortune was shortly dismasted and forced to surrender.
What Happened to Roberts’s Crew?
Like Roberts’ life and death, the fate of those on his ship is instructive of the Golden Age pirate experience. In all, 13 pirates were killed in the battle, while 188 pirates and 70 African prisoners were taken alive. 19 of the pirates died before trial, and all but four of the remaining pirates were tried at Cape Coast, on the seaboard of modern-day Ghana, in a rather problematic mass proceeding.
Most of them claimed to have been forced into piracy, a common tactic at piracy trials, but also sometimes the truth. Indeed, 74 of Roberts’ men were acquitted. Most of the others were hanged.
Common Questions about Bartholomew Roberts
According to A General History of the Pyrates, Bartholomew Roberts was a Welshman pirate from Pembrokeshire who was born in 1682. He later earned the nickname Black Bart.
Bartholomew Roberts chose the best and richest ships to attack. He chose pirates’ favorite shock and awe tactic, which was grappling and boarding the larger ship before its crew could prepare adequately for battle, and quickly carrying her away before a proper pursuit could be mustered.
Bartholomew Roberts was killed in a battle with Captain Chaloner Ogle. In all, 13 pirates were killed in the battle, while 188 pirates and 70 African prisoners were taken alive. Nineteen of the pirates died before trial, and all but four of the remaining pirates were tried at Cape Coast. Of them, 74 were acquitted, while most of the others were hanged.