Black Bart Roberts

“In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour; in this, plenty of satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto” – Captain Bartholomew Roberts

Original Flag of Bartholomew Roberts

Black Bart, aka Bartholomew Roberts
(May 17, 1682 - February 10, 1722)

Known as the Great Pyrate Roberts, Black Bart was certainly the most impressive pirate to have sailed the seas. He is rumored to have captured more than 400 ships and to have hauled in more than £50 million of booty in just a two and a half year career of piracy. If that’s not fame enough, he is also the pirate first credited with forcing people to walk to the plank.

Black Bart was born in Wales as John Roberts, the son of a farmer. John had an older brother who would eventually inherit their father’s farm, so John took to the sea as a cabin boy. During the War of Spanish Succession, John served in the Royal Navy. At the war’s end, he found himself, like thousands of other men, out of work. The Royal Navy had no need to keep so many men on the payroll.

Roberts was an able seaman and in 1718 he was signed on as the first mate of the Terrible, captained by John Williams. While sailing to West Africa, the Terrible was accosted by the pirate ship Pearl, captained by Edward England. The majority of the crew aboard Roberts’ vessel were retained, even though they now sailed as a prize of the Pearl. Captain England collected enough prizes and brought together enough pirate ships that he was elevated to Commodore. At a gathering of senior officers, wherein they were trying to decide which heading to take, Roberts spoke his mind. He let it be known that he was an honest man and wanted to return to an honest life. Captain England let the honest men go their way and made his journey to the Indian Ocean. Roberts returned to England.

Upon returning home, Roberts found work in the Merchant Navy as a third mate aboard a slave ship called Princess of London. In November 1718, his vessel set sail for the African coast along with Royall Hynde and Morris. In June of 1719, while off the coast of Ghana, Roberts et al were taken by the legendary pirate Howell Davis, aboard the Royal James. Davies pressed Roberts into work aboard his vessel. Upon going on the account, John Roberts changed his name to Bartholomew Roberts.

After his capture of the three slave trading vessels, Captain Davies set a course for Principe Island. Along the way he took a Dutch vessel and abandoned the Royal James in favor of the new prize. Once the pirates reached their destination, Captain Davies presented himself to the Portuguese governor as though he were a pirate hunter. He even seized a French vessel that came into harbor under the false pretense that the vessel had been trading with pirates. The day before Davies and crew raised anchor, Davies was ambushed. He had five bullets put in his back and he had his throat cut. The pirate crew exacted their revenge by burning the fort and cannoning the town.

Even though he'd been with the pirate crew for a scant six weeks, the men elected Bartholomew Roberts as captain. According to legend, upon being elected Roberts said “that since [I have] dipped [my] hands in muddy water, and must be a pirate, it [is] better being a commander than a common man.”

Black Bart Roberts

Black Bart set sail for Brazil. Upon his arrival in September 1719, he found a convoy of 42 Portuguese traders escorted by two 70 gun men-of-war waiting for him. He did what any right-minded pirate would do and schemed a way to plunder the traders. Roberts sailed the Rover into the midst of the traders, acting as if he belonged. Once properly mingled, he moved alongside the heaviest laden vessel he could spy. Without blowing his cover, he sent his men aboard the trader to bring the captain back to the Rover. The captain came peaceably and was treated well. Roberts asked for and received information from the captain, and then used him to capture the richest ship in the fleet. Roberts had the captain hail the vessel, which was larger and more powerful than Rover, and ask for permission to board. The pirates lost their cool, however, and fearing that their cover was blown they gave the vessel a potent broadside, then grappled and boarded her. The men quickly plundered the ship as the two men-of-war came towards the battle. Roberts wanted desperately to sail away with the prize ship, but she was a slow mover. Seeing his opportunity escape him, he brought the Rover bearing down on the first man-of-war. He was going to fight for his loot. The man-of-war saw the brazen brigand approach and turned back to the harbor, where the other man-of-war was still trying to put to sea. Black Bart and his pirates had all the time they needed to sail away with the prize as the Portuguese sailors stood in awe of the bold crime.

The pirates set a course for Devil’s Islands, in the river of Surinam, on the coast of Guiana. There they captured a sloop. While seeking provisions for them all, a vessel was spotted that Roberts thought would be loaded with their needs. He took forty men and the sloop and gave chase, leaving Walter Kennedy in charge of Rover and the Portuguese prize. The sloop chased the brigantine for many days, with the crew wearying from lack of food or water. Eventually, in weakness from malnourishment, they surrendered the chase and went to find Kennedy and the loot. Kennedy was gone though. He had robbed Black Bart of everything except for the sloop.

Roberts and crew renamed their sloop Fortune and set sail for the West Indies, looking for a change in luck (the famous Articles of Shipboard Conduct they signed at the time are reprinted below). The men plundered their way to Barbados, collecting provisions, weapons, and meager wealth along the way. While sailing in the waters around Barbados a British galley was sent out to put a stop to Roberts. When Roberts spotted the galley, he immediately thought of plundering it and gave chase. After a day of pursuit, he pulled alongside the vessel and gave them a gun, expecting them to wilt. Instead, the Barbados vessel fired a broadside into the Fortune. Roberts quickly decided that fighting for the sake of fighting wasn’t a very good idea, so he fled. The Barbadian was so swift, though, that Roberts and crew had to hurl anything of any great weight, including their cannons, overboard just to lighten the load and make their getaway. The pirates escaped, but Roberts forever after bore a grudge against any ships from Barbados and was always more harsh with them than with others.

Black Bart Roberts

Roberts sailed his sloop to the island of Dominico. There, he traded fairly with the inhabitants and he gathered food, guns, and men. He didn’t stay long, which proved beneficial because the governor of Martinique had dispatched two sloops to defeat him. Unbeknownst to Roberts, he narrowly made it out of those waters.

By the end of June 1720, the Fortune was sailing along the Newfoundland coast. They sailed into the harbor of Trepassi with their drums beating trumpets blaring, and black flags flying. All twenty-two vessels in the harbor were immediately quit of men. The pirates went on a hideous rampage of plundering and demolition. To quote Captain Charles Johnson:

“It is impossible particularly to recount the destruction and havoc they made here, burning and sinking all the shipping, except a Bristol galley, and destroying the fisheries, and stages of the poor planters, without remorse or compunction… They are like mad men, that cast fire-brands, arrows, and death…”

In all, the pirates captured twenty-six sloop and more than 150 fishing boats. They destroyed structures and machinery all along the shore. It is in Newfoundland that Black Bart’s pirate crimes seem so terrible. The pirates stayed in the region for at least three weeks collecting provisions and plunder, and generally being criminals of the worst sort. When they left, the region around Trepassi was devastated, its waters filled with burned and sunken ships.

When the pirates finally took leave of Newfoundland, it was for the warmer waters of the Caribbean where they knew a specific trade route “in the latitude of Deseada” to stake out. When they arrived they realized that they were too late and their provisions were getting thin, so they set a course for St. Christophers. They were denied sustenance there, so they cannoned the town and burned two ships they passed as revenge. The pirates sailed to St. Bartholomew, where they were able to restock their needs and find their comforts.

Black Bart and crew sailed for Guinea next. Along the way they encountered a French ship sailing out of Martinique. The pirates stopped the vessel. After giving it an inspection, Roberts decided to trade ships. He kept all the loot on board the French vessel and brought all of the items they felt they needed for their voyage aboard it. They cast off the French crew in the Fortune, and made sail in their larger boat. They named the ship the Royal Fortune.

Their first voyage in their new vessel was a fool’s errand. They had attempted to cross the Atlantic to reach Africa, but hadn’t bothered to supply for a voyage of such magnitude. The result was their returning to the West Indies to refit. They reached Surinam and found their succor there. Alas, they then set sail for Barbados without properly outfitting their vessel with stores of food and water. The result was that they found themselves attacking vessels for mere food and drink rather than magnificent swag. After finding what they needed, the pirates chose to set sail for Martinique rather than their initial destination.

Roberts knew that it was customary for Dutch vessels to fly their jack as they sailed into the harbor at Martinique. The Dutch had a fair reputation there, and by hoisting their flag they set the town’s traders into their boats to row out and meet the for trade. Thus, when the Royal Fortune arrived, they flew the Dutch colors. More than twenty merchants rowed their vessels out to meet him, thinking him a Dutch trader. They were met with pistols and swords. Black Bart instructed them all to leave their money and then sent them all ashore on a single vessel. He set fire to the remaining twenty boats and sailed away with all their wealth.

Roberts was furious with the governors of Barbados and Martinique for their designs of defeating him. To show his fury, he had a new pirate flag made. The new flag was a black field with the likeness of Roberts himself standing, each foot upon the crown of a skull. Beneath the skulls were the letters A.B.H. and A.M.H., acronyms for A Barbadian’s Head and A Martinican’s Head.

Bartholomew Roberts' late flag - ABH referring to A Barbadian's Head and AMH referring to A Martinican's Head

While in Dominico, Roberts took a Dutch brigantine. The pirates careened their vessels for cleaning and fitting. They renamed the brigantine the Good Fortune. When the ships were fit, they sailed for their familiar haunt “in the latitude of Deseada.” Here they plundered aplenty, but it wasn’t the type of plunder they really wanted. The crew was becoming ungovernable, with each man thinking himself a captain. Roberts set a course for Africa.

On the way to Africa, Black Bart was accosted by a drunken pirate on the Royal Fortune. In the heat of the moment, the captain killed the sailor. This was greatly resented by a large part of his crew. One of the pirates, named Jones, said that perhaps the captain needed killing too. Roberts heard this and dove at the man, running him through with his sword. The pirate threw the captain over a cannon and began throttling him. The crew intervened, even though they were divided both for and against the captain. The quartermaster stepped in and cooled the ruffians. He explained that the position of captain, by it nature of being an elected post, was not to have treatment served upon him without the consent of all, therefore Jones was in the wrong. He was allowed to heal from his sword wound and then received two lashes from every member of the crew. In April 1721, not long after Jones received his punishment, he colluded with Captain Antsis, who was captaining the Good Fortune, and along with some of the crew they departed one night in the brigantine. Any pirates aboard their stolen ship who had a disagreement with their theft were thrown overboard. Roberts took the news of the missing ship and crew without regret or astonishment, whereas his crew took the news oppositely.

When Roberts reached Africa he took two French vessels off Senegal. The one named Ranger was made his consort. In June of 1721, Roberts learned that the two men-of-war that had been patrolling these waters had departed until Christmas. He let his men get their fill of drinking and whoring, and in August they began to plunder the entire west coast of Africa. As they went they made a prize of a frigate named Onslow. Captain Roberts traded his Royal Fortune for the Onslow, and then renamed the Onslow as the Royal Fortune. When they took the Onslow it had an English chaplain aboard. Confronted with a man of the cloth, the pirates offered him to join their crew. He respectfully declined. The pirates were so taken with the man’s demeanor that they said they wouldn’t take his belongings and returned any object to him that he claimed was his. The pirates sailed on to Old Calabar in October, and there rested to careen and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

The native people of Calabar knew the pirates for what they were and refused to make trade with them. This greatly upset the pirates, because they didn’t have enough provisions to last there without trading. To remedy their anger, the pirates burned the villages of the natives. When the villains were done preparing their ships they set sail immediately. After loading up on supplies at Cape Lopez and Annanoba, they began plundering the African coast again.

In January of 1722 they spied a ship named King Solomon. The pirates loaded some of their number into a longboat with muskets and sword to go take the prize. The crew of King Solomon was easily twice the number of men in the longboats, yet they surrendered without a fight. Later the same day, they plundered another ship. However, Roberts was sailing too close to shore and he set the coastal people on alert. On January 16, the Swallow weighed anchor to bring an end to the pirates.

Roberts had brought his three vessels into Cape Lopez Bay, where they would have been overlooked by Swallow had it not been for one of the pirate ships firing a cannon. At the sound of the shot, the Swallow sailed into the bay and came in full view of the pirates. However, she was in a bad position for any sort of a fight and so sailed into open waters again. Taking this as a sign of fear, the Ranger gave chase. The Swallow sailed far enough from Roberts’ remaining two ships that the reports of the cannons could not be overheard by the pirates still at anchor. The Ranger drew alongside their prey and prepared to board, but just then the Swallow ran out her guns and stood firm for a fight. The pirates were expecting a scared Portuguese trader, but instead they got a furious British avenger. The pirates divided over the proper course of action to take, and in their inaction they were made prisoners of the Swallow.

The Swallow returned to the bay where the remaining pirates were staying. They found Roberts and his crew of miscreants having a party with another vessel. There was much liquor, much revelry, and not enough concern for their own necks. The Swallow backed off for the night and planned a dawn raid. On the morning of February 10, 1722, they swept in, finding Roberts at breakfast and his crew either hung-over or asleep with boozy dreams. The pirates dismissed the Swallow as being of no consequence, until it was so close upon them that recognition for what its true nature was unmistakable. Roberts found himself without enough time to devise a stratagem, and his half-baked plan was to pass close to his predator, receiving their broadside unanswered, so that they could sail past to the open seas. As the Royal Fortune executed their plan, Roberts was caught in a blast of grapeshot. One of the pellets landed a fatal blow upon his throat, thus bringing his life to an end. The pirates of the Royal Fortune surrendered, but not until they threw the remains of Captain Roberts overboard, as was his wish should he die in battle. The Swallow took the pirates prisoner and shipped them to England, where they faced the grandest pirate trials in English history.

The trial of Harry Glasby

Roberts and crew had been spending time making general plunder in the Caribbean when, one night in the summer of 1721, pirate Harry Glasby and two others had snuck off with the intent of not returning. Harry was a rather sober pirate and so his absence was notable to members of the crew. The three men were tracked down and returned to the Royal Fortune. Their crime was a capital offence and a trial was held to determine their sentence.

The trial was held on board in the steerage. A bowl of punch was laid out, along with pipes and tobacco. The prisoners were brought forth and the articles of indictment were read against them. It was a very strong and clear case against the prisoners. Just as sentencing was about to begin, one of the judges interfered and suggested they all smoke another pipe. While the judges were drawing their smoke, the prisoners pleaded for mercy. The judges were holding strong until one of them, a pirate named Valentine Ashplant, stood and spoke on behalf of Glasby. Valentine is recorded as saying, “By God, Glasby shall not die. Damn me if he shall.” The judges opposed this appeal, so Ashplant rose again and gave the following speech:

“God damn ye gentlemen, I am ever so good a man as the best of you. Damn my soul if ever I turned my back to any man in my life, or ever will by God. Glasby is an honest fellow, notwithstanding this misfortune, and I love him – Devil damn me if I don’t. I hope he’ll live to repent of what he has done, but damn me if he must die, I will die along with him.”

He then drew a pair of pistols and handed one each to a couple of judges, dramatically offering himself to die with Glasby. The judges let Glasby live.

The other two men were sentenced to death. Their fate was that each got to choose four men from among to crew to be their executioners. They were tied to the mast and shot dead.

As a man, Roberts was a conundrum. He deemed himself a pious man who did not attack on the Sabbath day, and who held religious services on the vessels he commanded. He personally did not drink or gamble and he tried to prevent his men from doing the same. Roberts was also known to cut a dashing figure and wore elegant clothes and plumed hats. Despite all this, historians give him credit with devising cunning new tortures and for slaying the innocent in horrible acts of brutality. Of particular note was his actions against the men aboard the Porcupine. The captain was ashore and Roberts was trying to extort him. Roberts wanted desperately to burn the captain’s vessel out of villainy and he became so wanting that he burned the boat before all the men could be removed. Aboard were eighty African slaves who were shackled two-by-two. With the ship aflame, their options were to leap into the shark infested waters or to stay aboard the ship and burn to death. It is a horrible thought to imagine, but it was a cruelty that Roberts ordered.

At Roberts’s peak, he is said to have commanded between seven and twenty vessels. He was known as a scourge to all the Atlantic Ocean and not just the Caribbean. During his time at sea, Roberts and his crew were able to bring shipping in the Atlantic to a near standstill. He is known, too, for having a diverse crew of many nationalities and even freed slaves. His senior pirates dubbed themselves “The House of Lords.”

Black Bart's Articles of Shipboard Conduct

ARTICLE I. Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment. He shall have an equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized, and shall use them at pleasure unless a scarcity may make it necessary for the common good that a retrenchment may be voted.

ARTICLE II. Every man shall be called fairly in turn by the list on board of prizes, because over and above their proper share, they are allowed a shift of clothes. But if they defraud the company to the value of even one dollar in plate, jewels or money, they shall be marooned. If any man rob another he shall have his nose and ears slit, and be put ashore where he shall be sure to encounter hardships.

ARTICLE III. None shall game for money either with dice or cards.

ARTICLE IV. The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night, and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour they shall sit upon the open deck without lights.

ARTICLE V. Each man shall keep his piece, cutlass and pistols at all times clean and ready for action.

ARTICLE VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man shall be found seducing any of the latter sex and carrying her to sea in disguise he shall suffer death.

ARTICLE VII. He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning.

ARTICLE VIII. None shall strike another on board the ship, but every man's quarrel shall be ended on shore by sword or pistol in this manner. At the word of command from the quartermaster, each man being previously placed back to back, shall turn and fire immediately. If any man do not, the quartermaster shall knock the piece out of his hand. If both miss their aim they shall take to their cutlasses, and he that draweth first blood shall be declared the victor.

ARTICLE IX. No man shall talk of breaking up their way of living till each has a share of £l,000. Every man who shall become a cripple or lose a limb in the service shall have 800 pieces of eight from the common stock and for lesser hurts proportionately.

ARTICLE X. The captain and the quartermaster shall each receive two shares of a prize, the master gunner and boatswain, one and one half shares, all other officers one and one quarter, and private gentlemen of fortune one share each.

ARTICLE XI. The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day only by right. On all other days by favour only.

© Copyright 2005-2007 High Adventure Design, All Rights Reserved