Biography of Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts

The Most Successful Pirate of the Caribbean

Captain Bartholomew Roberts, engraving.
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Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts (1682-1722) was a Welsh pirate. He was the most successful pirate of the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy," capturing and looting more ships than pirates like Blackbeard, Edward Low, Jack Rackham, and Francis Spriggs put together. At the height of his power, he had a fleet of four ships and hundreds of pirates. His success was due to his organization, charisma and daring. He was killed in action by pirate hunters off the coast of Africa in 1722.

Early Life and Capture by Pirates

Not much is known of Roberts' early life, other than that he was born in Wales in 1682 and that his real first name was possibly John. He took to the sea at a young age, and proved himself a competent sailing man, as by 1719 he was the second mate on board the slave ship Princess. The Princess went to Anomabu, in present-day Ghana, to pick up some slaves in mid- 1719. In June of 1719, the Princess was captured by the Welsh pirate Howell Davis, who made several crew members, including Roberts, join his pirates. Roberts did not want to join but had no choice.

Ascension to Captain

"Black Bart" seems to have made a good impression on the pirates. Only six weeks after he was forced to join the crew, Captain Davis was killed. The crew took a vote, and Roberts was named the new captain. Although he had been a reluctant pirate, Roberts embraced the role of captain. According to contemporary historian Captain Charles Johnson, Roberts felt that if he must be a pirate, it was better "being a commander than a common man." His first order was to attack the town where Davis had been killed, to avenge his former captain.

A Rich Haul off Brazil

Captain Roberts and his crew headed for the coast of South America to look for prizes. After several weeks of finding nothing, they hit the mother lode: a treasure fleet bound for Portugal was getting ready in All Saint's Bay off of northern Brazil. There were 42 ships there, and their escort ships, two massive men-of-war with 70 guns each, were waiting nearby. Roberts sailed into the bay as if he were part of the convoy and was able to take one of the ships without anyone noticing. He had the master point out the richest of the ships at anchor. Once he identified his target, he sailed up to her and attacked. Before anyone knew what was happening, Roberts had captured the ship and both vessels were sailing away. The escort ships gave chase but could not catch them.

Double-Crossed and Articles

Not long after, while Roberts was off chasing a ship he thought had supplies, some of his men, led by Walter Kennedy, made off with the Portuguese treasure ship and most of the loot. Roberts was infuriated and determined to not let it happen again. The pirates wrote up a set of articles and made all newcomers swear to them. It included payments for those injured in battle and punishments for those who stole, deserted or committed other crimes. The articles also excluded Irishmen from becoming full members of the crew. This was most likely in remembrance of Kennedy, who was Irish.

Battle off Barbados

Roberts and his men quickly took some more prizes, adding weapons and men to return to his former strength. When the authorities in Barbados learned that he was in the area, they outfitted two pirate hunter ships to bring him in and put them under the command of Captain Rogers from Bristol. Roberts saw Rogers' ship shortly thereafter, and not knowing that it was a heavily armed pirate-hunter, tried to take it. Rogers opened fire and Roberts was forced to flee. After that, Roberts was always harsh to captured ships from Barbados.

A Formidable Pirate

Roberts and his men made their way north to Newfoundland. They arrived in June of 1720 and found 22 ships in the harbor. All of the people from the ships and town fled at the sight of the black flag, and Roberts and his men looted the ships, destroying and sinking all but one of them, which they took as their own. They destroyed the fisheries and left the area devastated. They then sailed out to the banks, where they found some French ships. Again they kept one, a 26-gun ship they rechristened the Fortune. They still had another sloop, and with this small fleet, Roberts and his men captured many more prizes in the area in the summer of 1720.

Admiral of the Leeward Islands

Roberts and his men returned to the Caribbean, where they began a very successful run of piracy. They captured dozens of vessels. They changed ships often, selecting the best vessels they had plundered and fitted them out for piracy. Roberts' flagship was usually re-named Royal Fortune, and he would often have fleets of three or four ships working for him. He began referring to himself as the "Admiral of the Leeward Islands." He was even sought out on one occasion by two ships full of would-be pirates looking for pointers: he took a fancy to them and gave them some advice, ammunition, and weapons.

Roberts' Flags

There are four flags associated with Captain Roberts. According to Captain Johnson, a contemporary historian, when Roberts sailed to Africa, he had a black flag with a skeleton on it. The skeleton, representing death, held an hourglass in one hand and crossbones in the other. Nearby were a spear and three red drops of blood.

Roberts' other flag was also black, with a white figure (representing Roberts) holding a flaming sword and standing on two skulls. Beneath was written ABH and AMH, standing for "A Barbadian Head" and "A Martinico's Head." Roberts hated the governors of Barbados and Martinique for sending pirate hunters after him and was always cruel to ships he captured when they were from either place. When he was killed, according to Johnson, his flag had a skeleton and a man with a flaming sword: it signified defiance of death.

The flag most commonly associated with Roberts is a black one with a pirate and a skeleton, both holding an hourglass.

Departure of Thomas Anstis

Roberts often had discipline problems on board his ships. In early 1721, Roberts killed one of his pirates in a brawl, only to be attacked later by one of that man's friends. This caused a division among the crew, some of whom had already been disgruntled. The faction that wanted out convinced the captain of one of Roberts' ships, a wicked pirate named Thomas Anstis, to desert Roberts and set out on their own. This they did in April of 1721. Anstis would go on to a brief and largely unsuccessful career as a pirate. Meanwhile, things had gotten too dangerous in the Caribbean for Roberts, who decided to head to Africa.

Roberts in Africa

Roberts arrived on the coast of Senegal in June of 1721 and began raiding shipping along the coast. He anchored at Sierra Leone, where he heard the welcome news: two Royal Navy ships, the Swallow and the Weymouth, had been in the area but had left a month or so before and were not expected back anytime soon. This meant that he could operate virtually unopposed in the area, keeping one step behind the Men of War. They took the Onslow, a massive frigate, renamed her the Royal Fortune and mounted 40 cannons on her. He had a fleet of four ships and was at the height of his strength: he could pretty much attack anyone with impunity. For the next few months, Roberts and his crew took dozens of prizes and each pirate began amassing a small fortune.

The Porcupine

Roberts was cruel and ruthless. In January of 1722, he was sailing off of Whydah, a well-known slaving area. He found a slave ship, the Porcupine, at anchor. The captain was ashore. Roberts took the ship and demanded a ransom from the captain, named Fletcher. Fletcher refused to ransom the ship: according to Captain Johnson, he did so because he refused to deal with pirates. Roberts ordered the Porcupine burnt, but his men didn't release the slaves on board first. Johnson's vivid telling of the horrible story bears repeating:

"Roberts sends the Boat to transport the Negroes, in order to set her on Fire; but being in haste, and finding that unshackling them cost much Time and Labour, they actually set her on Fire, with eighty of those poor Wretches on Board, chained two and two together, under the miserable Choice of perishing by Fire or Water: Those who jumped overboard from the Flames, were seized by Sharks, a voracious Fish, in Plenty in this Road, and, in their Sight, tore Limb from Limb alive. A Cruelty unparalell'd!"

Capture of the Great Ranger

In February of 1722, Roberts was making repairs to his ship when he saw a large vessel approach. When the vessel saw them, it appeared to flee, so Roberts sent his consort vessel, the Great Ranger, to capture it. The other ship was actually none other than the Swallow, a large Man of War which had been looking for them and under the command of Captain Challoner Ogle. Once they were out of sight of Roberts, the Swallow turned and gave battle to the Great Ranger. After a two-hour battle, the Great Ranger was in tatters and her remaining crew surrendered. After some hasty repairs, Ogle sent the Great Ranger away with a prize crew and the pirates in chains and went back for Roberts.

The Final Battle of Black Bart Roberts

The Swallow returned on February 10 to find the Royal Fortune still at anchor. There were two other ships there: one was a tender to the Royal Fortune and the other was a trading vessel out of London called the Neptune. Apparently, the captain had some business with Roberts, perhaps an illegal trade in stolen goods. One of Robert's men, a pirate named Armstrong, had once served on the Swallow and was able to identify it. Some of the men wanted to flee, but Roberts decided to give battle. They sailed out to meet the Swallow as Roberts dressed for a fight.

Here is Captain Johnson's description: "Roberts himself made a gallant Figure, at the Time of the Engagement, being dressed in a rich crimson Damask Waistcoat and Breeches, a red Feather in his Hat, a Gold Chain round his Neck, with a Diamond Cross hanging to it, a Sword in his Hand, and two Pair of Pistols hanging at the End of a Silk Sling."

Unfortunately for Roberts, his fancy clothes did not make him invulnerable, and he was killed in the first broadside as grapeshot fired from one of the Swallow's cannons tore out his throat. Obeying his standing order, his men threw his body overboard. Without Roberts, the pirates on board quickly lost heart and within an hour they surrendered. 152 pirates were arrested. As for the other ships, the Neptune had vanished, but not before looting the abandoned smaller pirate ship. Captain Ogle set sail for Cape Coast Castle.

Trial of Roberts' Pirates

At Cape Coast Castle, a trial was held for the captured pirates. Of the 152 pirates, 52 were Africans, and they were sold back into slavery. Of the others, 54 were hanged and 37 were sentenced to serve as indentured servants and sent to the West Indies. The rest were acquitted because they could prove that they had been forced to join the crew against their will.

Legacy of Bartholomew Roberts

"Black Bart" Roberts was the greatest pirate of his generation: it is estimated that he took some 400 ships during his three-year career. It is interesting that he is not as famous as some of his contemporaries such as Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, or Charles Vane, as he was a much better pirate than they were. His nickname, "Black Bart," seems to have come more from his dark hair and complexion than from the presence of any sort of cruelty in his nature, although it is certain that he could be as ruthless as any of his pirate contemporaries.

Roberts owed his success to many factors, including his personal charisma and leadership, his daring and ruthlessness and his ability to coordinate small fleets to maximum effect. Wherever he was, commerce came to a halt, as fear of him and his men made merchants stay in port.

Roberts is a favorite of true pirate buffs. He was mentioned in  "Treasure Island," that classic of pirate lit. In the movie "The Princess Bride," the name "Dread Pirate Roberts" is a reference to him. He often appears in pirate video games and has been the subject of several novels, histories, and movies.