Biography of 'Black Bart' Roberts, Highly Successful Pirate

Captain Bartholomew Roberts

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Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts (1682–Feb. 10, 1722) was a Welsh pirate and the most successful buccaneer of the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy," capturing and looting more ships than contemporaries such as Blackbeard, Edward Low, Jack Rackham, and Francis Spriggs combined. At the height of his power, he had a fleet of four ships and hundreds of pirates to go with his organizational skills, charisma, and daring. He was killed in action by pirate hunters off the African coast in 1722.

Fast Facts: Bartholomew Roberts

  • Famous For: Highly successful pirate
  • Also Known As: Black Bart, John
  • Born: 1682 near Haverfordwest, Wales
  • Died: Feb. 10, 1722 off the Guinea coast

Early Life

Little is known of Roberts' early life, other than that he was born near Haverfordwest, Wales in 1682 and his real first name was possibly John. He took to sea at a young age, proving himself a competent sailor, as by 1719 he was second mate on the slave ship Princess.

The Princess went to Anomabu, in present-day Ghana, to pick up slaves in mid-1719. That June, the Princess was captured by Welsh pirate Howell Davis, who forced several crew members, including Roberts, to join his band.

Only six weeks after "Black Bart" was forced to join the crew, Davis was killed. The crew took a vote, and Roberts was named the new captain. Although he was a reluctant pirate, Roberts embraced the role of captain. According to contemporary historian Capt. Charles Johnson (who might have been Daniel Defoe), Roberts felt that if he must be a pirate, it was better "being a commander than a common man." His first act was to attack the town where Davis had been killed in order to avenge his former captain.

Rich Haul

Roberts and his crew headed for the coast of South America to look for booty. After several weeks they found a treasure fleet bound for Portugal getting ready in All Saint's Bay off northern Brazil. Waiting nearby were 42 ships and their escorts, two massive men-of-war with 70 guns each.

Roberts sailed into the bay as if he were part of the convoy and took one of the ships without anyone noticing. He had the ship's master point out the richest ship at anchor, then sailed up and attacked. Roberts captured the ship and both vessels sailed away; the escort ships couldn't catch them.

Double-Crossed

Soon after, while Roberts was chasing another prize, some of his men, led by Walter Kennedy, made off with the treasure ship and most of the loot. Roberts was infuriated. The remaining pirates devised a set of articles and made newcomers swear to them. They included payments for those injured in battle and punishments for those who stole, deserted, or committed other crimes.

The articles excluded Irishmen from becoming full members of the crew, most likely because of Kennedy, who was Irish.

Overwhelming Ships

Roberts quickly added weapons and men to reach his former strength. When authorities in Barbados learned that he was nearby, they outfitted two pirate hunter ships to bring him in. Roberts saw one of the ships and, not knowing it was a heavily armed pirate-hunter, tried to take it. The other ship opened fire and Roberts was forced to flee. After that, Roberts was always harsh to captured ships from Barbados.

Roberts and his men made their way north to Newfoundland in June 1720 and found 22 ships in the harbor. The crews and townspeople fled at the sight of the pirate's flag. Roberts and his men looted the ships, destroying and sinking all but one, which they commandeered. They then sailed out to the banks, finding several French ships and keeping one. With this small fleet, Roberts and his men captured many more prizes in the area that summer.

They then returned to the Caribbean, where they captured dozens of vessels. They changed ships often, selecting the best vessels and outfitting them for piracy. Roberts' flagship was usually renamed Royal Fortune, and he would often have fleets of three or four ships. He began calling himself the "Admiral of the Leeward Islands." He was sought out by two ships of would-be pirates looking for pointers; he gave them advice, ammunition, and weapons.

Roberts' Flags

Four flags are associated with Roberts. According to Johnson, when Roberts sailed to Africa, he had a black flag bearing a skeleton, representing death, that held an hourglass in one hand and crossbones in the other. Nearby were a spear and three drops of blood.

Another Roberts flag also was black, with a white figure, representing Roberts, holding a flaming sword and standing on two skulls. Beneath them 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 from either place. When Roberts was killed, according to Johnson, his flag featured a skeleton and a man with a flaming sword, signifying defiance of death.

The flag most commonly associated with Roberts was black and displayed a pirate and a skeleton holding an hourglass between them.

Deserters

Roberts often faced discipline problems. In early 1721, Roberts killed one crew member in a brawl and was attacked later by one of that man's friends. This caused a division among the already disgruntled crew. One faction wanted out, convincing the captain of one of Roberts' ships, Thomas Anstis, to desert Roberts. They did, setting out on their own in April 1721.

Anstis proved to be an unsuccessful pirate. Meanwhile, the Caribbean had become too dangerous for Roberts, who headed for Africa.

Africa

Roberts neared Senegal in June 1721 and began raiding shipping along the coast. He anchored at Sierra Leone, where he heard that two Royal Navy ships, the Swallow and the Weymouth, had been in the area but had left a month before. They took the Onslow, a massive frigate, renamed her the Royal Fortune, and mounted 40 cannons.

With a fleet of four ships and at the height of his strength, he could attack anyone with impunity. For the next few months, Roberts took dozens of prizes. Each pirate began amassing a small fortune.

Cruelty

In January 1722, Roberts showed his cruelty. He was sailing off Whydah, a well-known slaving area, and found a slave ship, the Porcupine, at anchor. The captain was ashore. Roberts took the ship and demanded a ransom from the captain, who refused to deal with pirates. Roberts ordered the Porcupine burned, but his men didn't release the slaves on board.

Johnson describes the slaves' "miserable choice of perishing by fire or water," writing that those who jumped overboard were seized by sharks and "tore limb from limb alive ... A cruelty unparalell'd!"

Beginning of the End

In February 1722, Roberts was repairing his ship when a large vessel approached. It turned to flee, so Roberts sent his consort vessel, the Great Ranger, to capture it. The other ship was actually the Swallow, a large man-of-war that had been looking for them under the command of Capt. Challoner Ogle. Once they were out of Roberts' sight, the Swallow turned and attacked the Great Ranger.

After a two-hour battle, the Great Ranger was crippled and her remaining crew surrendered. Ogle sent the Great Ranger limping away with the pirates in chains and went back for Roberts.

Final Battle

The Swallow returned on Feb. 10 to find the Royal Fortune still at anchor. Two other ships were there: a tender to the Royal Fortune and a trading vessel, the Neptune. One of Roberts' men had served on the Swallow and recognized it. Some men wanted to flee, but Roberts decided to fight. They sailed out to meet the Swallow.

Roberts 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 lost heart and within an hour they surrendered. One hundred and fifty-two pirates were arrested. The Neptune had vanished, but not before looting the abandoned smaller pirate ship. Ogle set sail for Cape Coast Castle on Africa's west coast.

A trial was held at Cape Coast Castle. Of the 152 pirates, 52 Africans were sold back into slavery, 54 were hanged, and 37 were sentenced to serve as indentured servants and sent to the West Indies. Those who could prove they had been forced to join the crew against their will were acquitted.

Legacy

"Black Bart" Roberts was the greatest pirate of his generation: it is estimated that he took 400 ships during his three-year career. He isn't as famous as some contemporaries, such as BlackbeardStede Bonnet, or Charles Vane, but he was a much better pirate. His nickname seems to have come from his dark hair and complexion instead of a cruel nature, although he could be as ruthless as any contemporary.

Roberts owed his success to many factors, including his 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; fear of him and his men made merchants stay in port.

Roberts is a favorite of true pirate buffs. He was mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Iin the movie "The Princess Bride," the name Dread Pirate Roberts refers to him. He often appears in pirate video games and has been the subject of novels, histories, and movies.

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