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Sanders Press Release

Heave ho, my hearties;
Books: Critic's choice
LENGTH: 830 words

IF A PIRATE I MUST BE...THE STORY OF BARTHOLOMEW ROBERTS by Richard Sanders (Aurum Press, Pounds 14.99)

THE LIVES of the pirates of the Caribbean were not all yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. But 'drink and the devil' did for most of them.

Even before the most successful pirate of all, Bartholomew Roberts, who drank nothing but tea.

When he finally met his Nemesis, the splendidly named Captain Ogle, RN, his crew were so drunk that they could not sail straight. After an erratic chase the Navy, in the shape of HMS Swallow, overhauled them and did for them with a broadside.

Captain Roberts was found dead beside the wheel of his ship, the Royal Fortune, his throat ripped out by grape shot. He was wearing his battle dress, a crimson damask coat and breeches, a golden necklace and a red feather in his hat. Four pistols were slung from his shoulders.

So perished the greatest pirate of the golden age. In three years on the high seas he had taken 400 ships as prizes. He commanded at the peak 350 men and 50 guns. His name was feared from Newfound-land to Brazil and along the coast of Guinea. He styled himself 'Admiral of the Leeward Islands'.

Thanks to A General History Of The Robberies And Murders Of The Most Notorious Pirates, published in 1724, we know a lot about his life and times at sea.

Richard Sanders' book abounds in detail that brings piracy in its golden age back to roaring life. And it is not what you would have expected.

PIRATES did not make any man walk the plank. This legend was invented a century later. The method of execution was to tie offenders to the mast and shoot them. Flogging and marooning were other punish-ments.

The popular picture of pirates grappling a prize ship alongside and leaping aboard with a pistol in each hand and a cutlass in their teeth also needs amending.

It was not often necessary. The vast majority of ships surrendered meekly by striking their colours once the pirates fired their guns and raised the black flag. Out of the 400 ships captured by Roberts only the two largest put up a fight.

Bartholomew Roberts was a reluctant pirate. A dark and swarthy man from a poor Pembrokeshire vil-lage, he had served in merchant and navy ships before he was captured by pirates off West Africa in a slave ship of which he was the lowly third mate.

Conditions for slave ships' crews were noxious, the pay was Pounds 2 a year and the prospects were of an early death from fever. Even so, he resisted the pirates' invitation to join them. But the pirate captain was adamant. Roberts was dragged aboard.

His new captain was also a Pembrokeshire man, Hywel Davis. He loved wine and women, neither of which interested Roberts, who was a sober, solitary man with little taste for violence.

When Davis was killed in an ambush ashore six weeks later, Roberts was elected captain in his place, a tribute to his seamanship skills and leadership qualities. Pirates were democrats.

All their officers were elected and major decisions taken by vote, except in battle.

Accepting the sword of office presented amid a hail of gunshot, Roberts said: 'If a pirate I must be 'tis better being a commander than a common man.' He set about drawing up Articles for his crew - their rules of conduct.

Many are eye-opening.

  • No gambling and no women (or boys) allowed on board.
  • Lights out at eight o'clock - any later drinking to be done on deck.
  • No fighting - all quarrels to be settled ashore by duel with pistols or cutlasses.
  • Penalties for deserting your post in battle, or bringing a woman aboard in disguise: death or marooning.
  • The musicians to have Sundays off. Roberts kept a band to play on the poop for dancing and celebra-tions - and when going into battle.

It is amazing that Roberts had the stature to enforce rules like these on a crew of ungovernable brutes, some of them huge thugs with names like Miss Nanny or Little David.

Luckily his first prize, a Portuguese treasure ship from Brazil which they fought and boarded, was stuffed with gold and valuable cargo worth in all Pounds 100,000.

That meant shares of Pounds 500 per man - more than a seaman earned in a lifetime. Roberts, as cap-tain, got two shares.

BY NOW he flew his own black flag alongside the Jolly Roger (which was a full skeleton, not just a skull and crossbones). His flag showed a picture of himself standing upon two skulls.

Yet he was not a bloodthirsty killer like Black Beard. Other than in battle, his men killed not a single member of all the crews they captured.

This may be the reason his name is so little known to us, although Sanders's impressively researched book has put that to rights.

In Elizabethan times he would have been seen as a national hero instead of a 'gentleman of fortune'.

'A merry life and a short one shall be my motto,' he declared. His lasted just three more years.

In 1722, when his body was thrown overboard by his men, there were 2,000 pirates at large.

By 1726, they had vanished from the seas, put down by a largely British naval force. The age of piracy was over.

  • LOAD-DATE: February 16, 2007
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Updated: 04 September 2022