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Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts
The Down and Dirty on Black Bart
||West Indies, Atlantic Ocean, African Coast
||Rover/merchant ship; Royal Fortune/frigate; commanded a squadron of four ships
|Date of Birth/Location
||1722/in battle off Cape Lopez, West Africa
|Claim to Fame
||Probably most successful pirate during the Golden Age of Pirates in the early 18th century
Bartholomew Roberts may have been the closest any real pirate has come to the popular myth. He chose the profession and was astoundingly successful during the “Golden Age” of pirates—the early 18th century. He accumulated amazing wealth—more than many of the better known pirates of the day, including Blackbeard, Edward Low and Charles Vane. By the time he died in 1722, he had supposedly taking as many as 400 vessels. The only aspect of his career that doesn’t seem to approach the lofty expectations of myth was the length of his piratical career: four years.
Roberts was unique in several ways:
- He chose the piratical life. He was not unemployed or financially strapped.
- He abstained from drinking in excess and discouraged gambling on his ships.
His first pirate command was a result of happenstance, not design. Born in Wales, he joined the English merchant navy. His navigational and ship skills developed quickly, prompting his promotion to second mate. When he set sail for the west coast of Africa in 1719 to transport a cargo of slave to the West Indies, fate intervened: His ship, the Rover¸ was attacked and captured by pirates. Roberts joined the pirate crew.
The pirate captain, in turned out, was a fellow Welshman, but killed four weeks later in action. Roberts was elected the new pirate captain by the crew.
Roberts apparently picked up the ways of pirates as quickly as he did navigation and seamanship. He was ruthless as he plundered. Torture, physical violence, and cruelty were common among pirates, but they served a purpose. They were, in essence, tools of the trade, used to intimidate merchant captains and sailors into giving up quickly. This worked to the pirates’ advantage since an intimidated crew was more likely to avoid a fight, allowing the pirates to seize prizes quickly with minimum risk and sparingly use of precious resources.
A consequence of this violence, however, was an almost casual approach to human life. Roberts’s tactics were “swift and savage” according to pirate historian David Cordingly. “Roberts had no qualms about resorting to torture and murder to achieve his ends.”
For example, during one raid along the African coast, a captain resisted Roberts’s attempt to capture his ship and cargo, which included about 80 black salves. This infuriated Roberts and his crew, so they burned the ship. The slaves, however, were chained in pairs, and the pirates did not release them before setting fire to the ship. The slaves either burned alive or jumped into the ocean and eaten by sharks.
By 1721, Roberts commanded a squadron of four vessels. The flagship was the Royal Fortune, a 42-gun French frigate. The other ships included a 32-gun brig (the Sea King), a small 16-gun vessel called the Ranger. Roberts commanded more than 500 men at the time.
Like most pirates and pirate captains, Roberts took advantage of opportunities as they emerged. He moved his command six times over three years. His first command was the 30-gun ship Rover. He eventually captured at least three ships, changing theirs name to the Royal Fortune or, more simply, Fortune.
Roberts most successful raid may have taken place off the coast of Brazil. Historian David Cordingly compares it to the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, a privateer in service to England but who also laid early groundwork for pirating in the West Indies. Roberts stumbled across a fleet of 42 Portugese merchant ships, the story goes. Rather than take on the entire fleet, he identified a ship he thought could give him loot as well as information. He boldly boarded the merchant ship and coerced the ship’s captain to tell him which ship in the flotilla carried the most treasure. Roberts discovered that most of the gold was on a heavily armed 40-gun merchant ship. So, Roberts set out to capture and plunder it. The merchant ship tried resisted, but Roberts fired a broadside effective enough for his pirate crew to board their target. He captured the ship, and the cargo included a huge cache’ of wealth including gold, diamonds, valuable gem stones, sugar, skins, and tobacco.
The end for Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts came off the African coast on February 10, 1722. An English 50-gun, two decker called the HMS Swallow, and another English warship, HMS Weymouth, were ordered to pursue and capture Roberts by the Governor of the West Indies, the legendary privateer Woods Rogers.
After chasing Roberts and his squadron of pirate vessels out of the Bahamas and West Indies, the English caught up with Roberts on the west coast of Africa. Roberts mistakenly believed the English ships had moved on, and was anchored in Cape Lopez entertaining other merchant ship captains.
When the Swallow was seen near Cape Lopez, Roberts sent the smaller Ranger in pursuit, believing the warship was a merchant ship and possible prize. The commander of the Swallow pulled one of naval history’s most cunning maneuvers—he slowed the Swallow down to give the appearance it was a slower merchant vessel. By the time the Ranger’s captain and crew recognized her for what she was, it was too late. The Swallow captured the Ranger after a 90-minute fight that disabled the Ranger.
Once captured, the English squadron set their sites on the Royal Fortune, still anchored peacefully in the harbor. In a battle that lasted three hours, the Royal Fortune finally surrendered. Bartholomew Roberts, however, was killed during the battle and his body thrown overboard. Remarkably, just three pirates were killed and ten wounded during the action—152 surrendered (of which 52 were black). The British did not suffer a single casualty.