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Black Bart

(3rd mate turned pirate captain)

If we are to believe the claims, Bartholomew Roberts (he was never called Black Bart in his time) was perhaps the most successful pirate of all time, with the capture of over 400 ships and over £50 million of booty[1] in a career that spanned a mere 2 years and six months. While these numbers might be an exaggeration, there is no doubt, he was a dangerous and daring pirate when he came into his own.

As for the claim of most successful pirate, Henry Morgan captured more, but Morgan, rogue that he was, was still technically a privateer. However, several Chinese pirates also captured more ships, had longer careers and attained more wealth; for example 19th centure female pirate Ching Shih.

The word successful is very relative and thus almost meaningless without some qualifiers and thus is not up for debate here. This however does not diminish Roberts impact on piracy in the Caribbean. Roberts had a pirate career of a little over two years and was known to have captured at least 250 ships in that short time period. He also raided at least four major ports and several smaller fishing towns along the coasts of North and South America as well as Africa.

Roberts Ship

Born John Roberts in southern Wales about 1682. little is known about his early career. We pick up his story when he was working as a third mate on the British slave ship, Princess. His ship was taken by Howell Davis in June 1719, and Roberts had the pleasure of becoming forced labor on a pirate ship. Slaver became slave. As luck would have it, Roberts took a fancy to the pirate life and eventually was made part of the crew. Shortly afterward, the up and coming rogue so impressed the pirate crew, that when Davis was killed during the attack on Principe, off the Guinea coast the Crew elected the experienced sailor Captain . Roberts first act as the new captain was to revenge Davis' death by returning to Principe to sack and butcher the town as retribution.

Roberts has been called a pious man in that he had religious services onboard his ships, and never attacked on the Sabbath. He never drank alcohol, only tea, did not allow alcohol consumption or gambling onboard his ships (although his crew was completely drunk when he finally met his end). Yet, we can see from the action above, his piety was confused at best and possibly psychotic. He also devised amusing ways to kill his captives. While some sources say he only killed one or two people other accounts are contrary to this opinion. He was known to torture, The Africans members of his crew were still considered slaves and were not given shares of the booty, and at least 1/3 of his crew were forced, that is made to be pirates. He had a hatred for the Irish and Spaniards. This was the pathologic nature of Black Bart; he would butcher the innocent and then demand his men pray to God. Such was the case of many pirates.

In the vernacular of the time, Roberts was a fop[2]. He dressed in the finest clothes. By all accounts his manner of dress consisted of scarlet breeches, waist sash and overcoat. Upon his head was a tricorn with a red feather in its band and around his neck hung a diamond encrusted cross on a gold chain. It is said the necklace was a prize from a Portuguese merchant man Bart had plundered early in his war against the World. His brace of pistols dangled from his shoulder on a silk sash of scarlet. He was a colorful rogue and by most accounts, handsome to a fault. He sailed upon the Royal Rover, the Fortune, the Royal Fortune, and the Good Fortune. Some sources claimed that crew loved him and would follow him in to the bowels of Hell if he asked. Other sources claim a good third of his crew was always on the verge of mutiny and Roberts would rule with an iron fist and do what ever necessary to break up mutiny plots, including in at least on case killing a possible mutineer.

As mentioned at least a third of his crew was forced to be in his crew. The forced men were not given shares or were given share only in an attempt to get them to join the crew outright. Men who deserted Robert's crew were often chained and sometime killed. in order to prevent desertions, Robert often avoided hospitable towns and often would just remain at sea.

As time passed and his fame grew, Bart amassed a great pirate fleet, often said to be between seven to twenty ships of various sizes. In reality he never had more than three ships and most often he sailed with just two ships. Unfortunately two well armed pirate ships was enough to terrorize the merchant fleets because the Royal Navy was not present in the Caribbean in any great numbers.

It is said that Roberts brought trans-Atlantic shipping to a standstill. The crews of his ships are said to have comprised freed slaves, of many nationalities and senior pirates who called themselves ‘The House of Lords’. The House of Lords was actually the name given to senior pirates on Howell Davis ship. Roberts senior pirates were actually known as the "Old Standards". Despite the so called democracy on pirate ships, Roberts crew had an established pecking order with long time crew members getting larger shares than new comers. Men forced to be pirates were given even less and Pirates of African descent given no share at all.

Bart's legendary 30-month career came to a well deserved and violent, if not deceptive end on February 10, 1722, when the warship HMS Swallow commanded by Captain ChalonorOgle caught up with Roberts off the coast of Cape Lopez (now Gabon). Roberts was caught unawares by the sly Ogle. Ogle had recognized the Good Fortune and knew his opponent was none other than Roberts. Ogle quickly ran up the French colors and approached Bart under false colors. The tricked worked. As Roberts tried to determine what ship might be approaching, one of his officer told him it was a British Man-O-War but Roberts continued to hesitate. By the time he called his pirates to action, the Swallow was within pistol shots according to the official account, perhaps a distance under fifty yards. Ogle ran out his guns as he cut the French colors and raised the Royal Jack. The two ships exchanged broadsides, almost at the same time, but the effects were not equal. Most of the shot from the Good Fortune missed but not so the Swallow. The first volley brought down the mizzenmast. almost immediately as second volley from the Swallow cut loose, this time with a load of grape shot spreading death and destruction across the decks of the Good Fortune. That was all it took. Roberts was caught with this second broadside, having half his neck ripped out by a one inch ball of grape shot. He fell over a cannon, and died within seconds. The battle was over almost before it began.

Many members of Bart's crew were said to have cried bitterly over his lifeless body. As the Swallow closed in closer to board the now seriously damaged Good Fortune, the crew respected their captain's last wish, weighted his body and tossed it overboard so that he would not be taken prisoner, while living or in death. So far, total death toll for the pirate crew was two dead, besides Robert and ten more wounded. but with their captain dead, they proved the cowards they were, struck their colors and surrendered, allowing the Swallow to board the Good Fortune without another shot fired. The Swallow in turn, suffered no dead or wounded in the engagement. Some of the pirates tried to blow up the ship but was stopped by the navigator, one of the forced pirates named Glasby.

The pirates were taken to Cape Coast Castle in West Africa to await one of the grandest pirate trials in English history. The proceedings/festivities began March 28, 1722. among the crew were 70 Africans who were sold back into slavery. Among the White Europeans, thirty-seven were put to work in labor camps. The typical sentence was seven years. But seven years on a prison plantations translated to a slow certain death of malnutrition and disease. Fifty four of the pirates were presented with the hangman's noose and dangled 'till dead, and then some. The remaining pirates, including the forced pirate Glasby, were acquitted, meaning they were either well connected, could afford a ransom of some sort, or proved to the court that they were forced into the piracy and did all they could to resist the pirates. Glasby, the navigator had served on Roberts crew for almost two years, had attempted two escape on at least two occasions, had prevented the torture of several ship's captains and crew members and had done other things to thwart Roberts' actions and was quickly acquitted for his efforts. He went on to be a chief witness for the court and on his word alone many men were acquitted and also put to death for piracy.

Black Bart's Articles are probably the most famous to have been carried down over the centuries. They show his idiosyncrasies concerning women, alcohol and gambling among murderers and thieves.

The Articles of Captain Roberts

The Articles of Captain Roberts
  1. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
  2. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter hardships.
  3. No person to game at cards or dice for money.
  4. 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.
  5. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.
  6. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.
  7. To desert their ship or quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.
  8. No striking one another on board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.
  9. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared £1,000. 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, proportionately.
  10. The captain and quartermaster to receive two shares of prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and a quarter.
  11. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, only by night, but the other six days and nights, not without special favor.

[1] Many of the ships attributed to Black Bart were taken in port raids. Black Bart was notorious for raiding ports along the Atlantic coast. It is uncertain what types of ships were taken during these port raids. The number may include small fishing vessels or other similar vessels. While he was very successful in these port raids, they lack the romance of the swashbuckling myth of a Tyrone Powers movie. This however does not lessen the destruction and panic brought about during his reign of terror. Only about 250 ships are positively identified as attacked by Roberts'. The number of 400 vessels is an often repeated estimate About £8,000 of gold was recovered from his ship when it was captured It is doubtful that . £50 million pounds of commerse even crossed the Atlantic during Roberts sojourn as a pirate.

[2] Fop: One who is foolishly attentive to and vain of his appearance, dress, or manners; a dandy, an exquisite. The word fop does not refer to one's sexual orientation. While some sources attempt to claim Roberts gay, there is no real evidence in original or even secondary source material to defend the claim. If Roberts had been gay, charges of sodomy or unnatural acts would have also been brought against him and members of his crew. There is no suggestion of such charges in the original court documents or early biographies. Most such claims come from 20th century revisionist historians with an agenda.

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The only author and editor of all pages on the site. Most of what I write about is based on years of book reading on the topic. My first web page was published back in 1994.

Updated: 04 September 2022