Black Bart: Real Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bartholomew Roberts with his ship and captured merchant ships in the background. A copper engraving[1] from A History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson c. 1724

Black Bart was about as prolific a pirate as they come. The number of plundered ships associated with his name is a staggering 400, which in the two years Black Bart plied his trade would make the attainment of such a number physically impossible.

Piratical exaggerations aside, there is no doubt that Black Bart was a major pirate player in his brief career. He was single-handedly responsible for nearly bringing all shipping to a halt in the Caribbean — no small feat considering the number of patroling naval vessels in the waters.

Black Bart was born Bartholomew Roberts in south Wales in an unknown year (as so many pirates seem to have been), and died (records of pirate deaths abound, however) in 1723.

Roberts went to sea as a merchant seaman in possibly the year 1695. His name was not featured in sea annals again until 1718, when he became mate of a Barbados sloop. Thereafter he rose quickly, becoming the third mate of the slave-ship Princess in the following year.

Here is where Roberts would turn from an honest seaman to a pirate. While the Princess was anchored along the Gold Coast of west Africa in early 1719, she was seized by pirates arriving in the Royal Rover and the Royal James under the command of Captain Howell Davis. Some of the Princess’ crew, including Roberts, were forced to join the pirates. Although reluctant at first, Roberts soon came to embrace his new-found skull-and-crossbones life.

Captain Davis quickly recognized Roberts’ navigational skills and relied increasingly on him. Just six weeks later, however, Davis was shot dead while on a kidnapping mission after docking at the Portuguese Isle of Princes (later renamed Príncipe). Though a newcomer, Roberts’ skills were apparent and he was voted the new captain of the Royal Rover (the Royal James having been lost recently to worm-induced wood rot).

Roberts’ first action as the new captain was to avenge the death of Davis by attacking the island under cover of darkness, with the result that most of the male population was killed before the pirates carried away everything of value that they could. As a bonus, two days later the English ship Experiment was captured.

Thereafter Roberts sailed to Brazil and the Caribbean, and for almost two years, until early 1721, attacked and destroyed dozens of ships. Just as home owners periodically have a mind to paint their living room in a new color, Roberts and his pirate chums decided at this time to change the name of their ship from the Royal Rover to the Fortune. At one point the inhabitants of Barbados, who had had their fill of recent pirate attacks, sent two heavily armed ships, the Summerset and the Philipa, out after Roberts to put an end to this-here pirate nuisance. Roberts had by this time been joined by the Sea King, under the command of the French captain Montigny la Palisse, who bravely hightailed it without a scratch at first sight of the Summerset and the Philipa. The Fortune, after suffering extensive damage, managed to get away and dock at Dominica. Meanwhile, Roberts heard that there were also two ships from Martinique out looking for him, which immediately put the inhabitants of both Barbados and Martinique at the top of Roberts’ most-hated-and-likely-to-get-killed list.

The Fortune later headed northward and, among its exploits, attacked the harbor of Trepassey, Newfoundland, capturing a dozen anchored ships (which would later be burned) in the process. Roberts, who was a brave pirate’s-pirate and man’s-man type (despite dressing foppishly), was outraged at the cowardice of the ships’ captains, who, one and all, had fled their ships in a panic-stricken, wet-me-knickers state without so much as firing a shot.

All, or rather most, pirate captains come to a bloody end. Black Bart’s end came in February, 1722, when the British warship HMS Swallow, under the command of Captain Chaloner Ogle, sighted the Royal Fortune (so named after yet another name change) off the coast of Cape Lopez (itself having undergone a name change and today known as Gabon). After a broadside exchange between the two ships, which left the Royal Fortune’s mizzenmast none the worst for it, a grapeshot volley from the Swallow claimed the life of Roberts, who caught a one-inch ball the uncomfortable way — namely, with the neck — and promptly slumped over onto a cannon stone dead.

Roberts’ devoted crew was grief-stricken at the sight and, demoralized, would soon surrender to the Swallow. Their captain, however, had always fancied a burial at sea, so after weighing him down, his body was cast overboard by the crew, and the world was now rid of its most prominent pirate son.