|17 May 1682 – 10 February 1722(aged 39)|
Bartholomew Roberts at Ouidah with his ship and captured merchantmen in the background.
|Nickname||Black Bart (Welsh: Barti Ddu)|
|Place of birth||Casnewydd Bach, Pembrokeshire, Wales|
|Place of death||At sea off Cape Lopez, Gabon|
|Base of operations||Off the coast of the Americas and West Africa|
|Commands||Royal Rover, Good Fortune, Royal Fortune, Ranger, Little Ranger|
|Wealth||470 vessels; Equiv. US $34.1 million today; #5, Forbes top-earning pirates|
Bartholomew Roberts (17 May 1682 – 10 February 1722), born John Roberts, was a Welsh pirate who raided ships off the Americas and West Africa between 1719 and 1722. He was the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy, as measured by vessels captured, taking over 470 prizes in his career. He is also known as Black Bart (Welsh: Barti Ddu), but this name was never used in his lifetime, and also risks confusion with Black Bart of the American West.
Early life 
Bartholomew Roberts was born in 1682 in Casnewydd-Bach, or Little Newcastle, between Fishguard and Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Wales. His name was originally John Roberts, and his father was most likely George Roberts. It's not clear why Roberts changed his name from John to Bartholomew, but pirates often adopted aliases, and he may have chosen that name after the well-known buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp. He is thought to have gone to sea when he was 13 in 1695 but there is no further record of him until 1718, when he was mate of a Barbados sloop.
In 1719 he was third mate on the slave ship Princess, under Captain Abraham Plumb. In early June that year the Princess was anchored at Anomabu, then spelled Annamaboa, which is situated along the Gold Coast of West Africa (present-day Ghana), when she was captured by pirates. The pirates were in two vessels, the Royal Rover and the Royal James, and were led by captain Howell Davis. Davis, like Roberts, was a Welshman, originally from Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. Several of the crew of the Princess were forced to join the pirates, including Roberts.
Davis quickly discovered Roberts' abilities as a navigator and took to consulting him. He was also able to confide to Roberts information in Welsh, thereby keeping it hidden from the rest of the crew. Roberts is said to have been reluctant to become a pirate at first, but soon came to see the advantages of this new lifestyle. Captain Charles Johnson reports him as saying:
In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour. In this, plenty and 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.—A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (1724), p.213–214
Life as a pirate 
Commander or common man? 
It is easy to understand the lure of piracy; in the merchant navy, Roberts' wage was less than £3 per month and he had no chance of promotion to captaincy.
A few weeks later the Royal James had to be abandoned because of worm damage. The Royal Rover headed for the island of Príncipe. Davis hoisted the flags of a British man-of-war, and was allowed to enter the harbour. After a few days Davis invited the governor to lunch on board his ship, intending to hold him hostage for a ransom. As Davis had to send boats to collect the governor, he was invited to call at the fort for a glass of wine first. The Portuguese had by now discovered that their visitors were pirates, and on the way to the fort Davis' party was ambushed and Davis himself shot dead.
A new captain now had to be elected. Davis' crew was divided into "Lords" and "Commons", and it was the "Lords" who had the right to propose a name to the remainder of the crew. Within six weeks of his capture, Roberts was elected captain. This was an unusual move since he was openly against his even being on board the vessel, and was probably due to his navigational abilities and his demeanor, which history reflects was outspoken and opinionated.
He accepted of the Honour, saying, that since he had dipp'd his Hands in Muddy Water, and must be a Pyrate, it was better being a Commander than a common Man.—A General History of the ... Pyrates (1724), p.162
His first act as captain was to lead the crew back to Príncipe to avenge the death of Captain Davis. Roberts and his crew sprang onto the island in the darkness of night, killed a large portion of the male population, and stole all items of value that they could carry away. Soon afterwards he captured a Dutch Guineaman, then two days later a British ship called the Experiment. While the ship took on water and provisions at Anamboe, a vote was taken on whether the next voyage should be to the East Indies or to Brazil. The vote was for Brazil.
The combination of bravery and success that marked this adventure cemented most of the crew's loyalty to Roberts. They concluded that he was "pistol proof" and that they had much to gain by staying with him.
Brazil and the Caribbean July 1719 – May 1720 
Roberts and his crew crossed the Atlantic and watered and boot-topped their ship on the uninhabited island of Ferdinando. They then spent about nine weeks off the Brazilian coast, but saw no ships. They were about to leave for the West Indies when they encountered a fleet of 42 Portuguese ships in the Todos os Santos' Bay, waiting for two men-of-war of 70 guns each to escort them to Lisbon. Roberts took one of the vessels, and ordered her master to point out the richest ship in the fleet. He pointed out a ship of 40 guns and a crew of 170, which Roberts and his men boarded and captured. The ship proved to contain 40,000 gold moidores and jewelry including a cross set with diamonds, designed for the King of Portugal.
The Rover now headed for Devil's Island off the coast of Guiana to spend the booty. A few weeks later they headed for the River Surinam, where they captured a sloop. When a brigantine was sighted, Roberts took forty men to pursue it in the sloop, leaving Walter Kennedy in command of the Rover. The sloop became wind-bound for eight days, and when he was finally able to return, Roberts discovered that Kennedy had sailed off with the Rover and what remained of the loot. Roberts and his crew renamed their sloop the Fortune and agreed on new articles, now known as a pirate code, which they swore on a Bible to uphold:
- 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.
- 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.
- None shall game for money either with dice or cards.
- 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.
- Each man shall keep his piece, cutlass and pistols at all times clean and ready for action.
- 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.
- He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning.
- 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 draw the first blood shall be declared the victor.
- No man shall talk of breaking up their way of living till each has a share of 1,000. 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.
- 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.
- The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day only by right. On all other days by favor only.
In late February 1720 they were joined by the French pirate Montigny la Palisse in another sloop, the Sea King. The inhabitants of Barbados equipped two well-armed ships, the Summerset and the Philipa, to try to put an end to the pirate menace. On 26 February they encountered the two pirate sloops. The Sea King quickly fled, and after sustaining considerable damage the Fortune broke off the engagement and was able to escape. Roberts headed for Dominica to repair the sloop, with twenty of his crew dying of their wounds on the voyage. There were also two sloops from Martinique out searching for the pirates, and Roberts swore vengeance against the inhabitants of Barbados and Martinique. He had a new flag made with a drawing of himself standing upon 2 skulls, one labelled ABH (A Barbadian's Head) and the other AMH (A Martiniquian's Head)
Newfoundland and the Caribbean June 1720 – April 1721 
The Fortune now headed northwards towards Newfoundland. After raiding Canso, Nova Scotia and capturing a number of ships around Cape Breton and the Newfoundland banks, Roberts raided the harbour of Ferryland, capturing a dozen vessels. On 21 June he attacked the larger harbour of Trepassey, sailing in with black flags flying. All the ships in the harbour were abandoned by their panic-stricken captains and crews, and the pirates were masters of Trepassey without any resistance being offered. Roberts had captured 22 ships, but was angered by the cowardice of the captains who had fled their ships. Every morning when a gun was fired, the captains were forced to attend Roberts on board his ship; they were told that anyone who was absent would have his ship burnt. One brig from Bristol was taken over by the pirates to replace the sloop Fortune and fitted out with 16 guns. When the pirates left in late June, all the other vessels in the harbour were set on fire. During July, Roberts captured nine or ten French ships and commandeered one of them, fitting her with 26 cannons and changing her name to the Good Fortune. With this more powerful ship, the pirates captured many more vessels before heading south for the West Indies, accompanied by Montigny la Palisse's sloop, which had rejoined them.
In September 1720 the Good Fortune was careened and repaired at the island of Carriacou before being renamed the Royal Fortune, the first of several ships to be given this name by Roberts. In late September the Royal Fortune and the Fortune headed for the island of St. Christopher's, and entered Basse Terra Road flying black flags and with their drummers and trumpeters playing. They sailed in among the ships in the Road, all of which promptly struck their flags. The next landfall was at the island of St. Bartholomew, where the French governor allowed the pirates to remain for several weeks to carouse. By 25 October they were at sea again, off St. Lucia, where they captured up to 15 French and English ships in the next three days. Among the captured ships was the Greyhound, whose chief mate, James Skyrme, joined the pirates. He would later become captain of Roberts' consort, the Ranger.
During this time, Roberts caught the Governor of Martinique, who was sailing aboard a man-of-war. Robert's ship pulled up next to the man-of-war pretending to be a French merchant ship, and offered information on the location of Captain Roberts before suddenly attacking it, spraying the warship with cannon and small arms fire, after which the pirates boarded it and took it over using pistols and cutlasses. The Governor was caught and promptly hanged on the yardarm of the Royal Fortune.
By the spring of 1721, Roberts' depredations had almost brought seaborne trade in the West Indies to a standstill. The Royal Fortune and the Good Fortune therefore set sail for West Africa. On 18 April Thomas Anstis, the commander of the Good Fortune, left Roberts in the night and continued to raid shipping in the Caribbean. The Royal Fortune continued towards Africa.
West Africa April 1721 – January 1722 
By late April, Roberts was at the Cape Verde islands. The Royal Fortune was found to be leaky, and was abandoned here. The pirates transferred to the Sea King, which was renamed the Royal Fortune. The new Royal Fortune made landfall off the Guinea coast in early June, near the mouth of the Senegal River. Two French ships, one of 10 guns and one of 16 guns, gave chase, but were captured by Roberts. Both these ships were commandeered. One, the Comte de Toulouse, was renamed the Ranger, while the other was named the Little Ranger and used as a storeship. Thomas Sutton was made captain of the Ranger and James Skyrme captain of the Little Ranger.
Roberts now headed for Sierra Leone, arriving on 12 June. Here he was told that two Royal Navy ships, HMS Swallow and HMS Weymouth, had left at the end of April, planning to return before Christmas. On 8 August he captured two large ships at Point Cestos, now River Cess in Liberia. One of these was the frigate Onslow, transporting soldiers bound for Cape Coast (Cabo Corso) Castle. A number of the soldiers wished to join the pirates and were eventually accepted, but as landlubbers were given only a quarter share. The Onslow was converted to become the fourth Royal Fortune. In November and December the pirates careened their ships and relaxed at Cape Lopez and the island of Annobon. Sutton was replaced by Skyrme as captain of the Ranger. They captured several vessels in January 1722, then sailed into Ouidah harbour with black flags flying. All the eleven ships at anchor there immediately struck their colours.
Death in Battle, February 1722 
On 5 February HMS Swallow, commanded by Captain Chaloner Ogle, came upon the three pirate ships, the Royal Fortune, the Ranger and the Little Ranger careening at Cape Lopez. The Swallow veered away to avoid a shoal, making the pirates think that she was a fleeing merchant ship. The Ranger, commanded by James Skyrme, departed in pursuit. Once out of earshot of the other pirates, the Swallow opened her gun ports and opened fire. Ten pirates were killed and Skyrme had his leg taken off by a cannon ball, but refused to leave the deck. Eventually, the Ranger was forced to strike her colors and the surviving crew were captured.
On 10 February, the Swallow returned to Cape Lopez and found the Royal Fortune still there. On the previous day, Roberts had captured the Neptune, and many of his crew were drunk and unfit for duty just when he needed them most. At first, the pirates thought that the approaching ship was the Ranger returning, but a deserter from the Swallow recognized her and informed Roberts while he was breakfasting with Captain Hill, the master of the Neptune. As he usually did before action, he dressed himself in his finest clothes:
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 pairs of pistols slung over his shoulders ...—A General History of the ... Pyrates (1724), p.212
The pirates' plan was to sail past the Swallow, which meant exposing themselves to one broadside. Once past, they would have a good chance of escaping. However, the helmsman failed to keep the Royal Fortune on the right course, and the Swallow was able to approach to deliver a second broadside. Captain Roberts was killed by a grapeshot, which struck him in the throat while he stood on the deck. Before his body could be captured by Ogle, Roberts' wish to be buried at sea was fulfilled by his crew, who weighed his body down and threw it overboard after wrapping it in his ship's sail. It was never found.
Roberts' death shocked the pirate world, as well as the Royal Navy. The local merchants and civilians had thought him invincible, and some considered him a hero. Roberts' death was seen by many historians as the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.
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The battle continued for another two hours, until the Royal Fortune's mainmast fell and the pirates signalled for quarter. One member of the crew, John Philips, tried to reach the magazine with a lighted match to blow up the ship, but was prevented by two forced men. Only three pirates, including Roberts, had been killed in the battle. A total of 272 men had been captured by the Royal Navy. Of these, 75 were black, and these were sold into slavery. The remainder, apart from those who died on the voyage back, were taken to Cape Coast Castle. 54 were condemned to death, of whom 52 were hanged and two reprieved. Another twenty were allowed to sign indentures with the Royal African Company; Burl comments that they "exchanged an immediate death for a lingering one". Seventeen men were sent to the Marshalsea prison in London for trial, while over a third of the total were acquitted and released.
Of the captured pirates who gave their place of birth, 42% were from Cornwall, Devon and Somerset and another 19% from London. There were smaller numbers from northern England and from Wales, and another quarter from a variety of countries including Ireland, Scotland, the West Indies, the Netherlands and Greece. After problems with mutinous Irishmen early in his pirate career, Roberts was known to generally avoid recruiting Irishmen, to the extent that captured merchant sailors would sometimes affect an Irish accent to discourage Roberts from forcing them into his pirate crew.
Captain Chaloner Ogle was rewarded with a knighthood, the only British naval officer to be honoured specifically for his actions against pirates. He also profited financially, taking gold dust from Roberts' cabin, and eventually became an Admiral.
The defeat of Roberts and the subsequent eradication of piracy off the coast of Africa represented a turning point in the slave trade and even in the larger history of capitalism.—Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, Rediker (2004)
Personal characteristics 
Most of the information on Roberts comes from the book A General History of the Pyrates, published a few years after Roberts' death. The original 1724 title page credits one Captain Charles Johnson as the author. (The book is often printed under the byline of Daniel Defoe, on the assumption that "Charles Johnson" is a pseudonym, but there is no proof Defoe is the author, and the matter remains in dispute.) Johnson devotes more space to Roberts than to any of the other pirates in his book, describing him as:
... a tall black [i.e. dark complexioned] Man, near forty Years of Age ... of good natural Parts, and personal Bravery, tho' he apply'd them to such wicked Purposes, as made them of no Commendation, frequently drinking 'Damn to him who ever lived to wear a Halter'.—A General History of the ... Pyrates (1724), p.213
After his exploits in Newfoundland the Governor of New England commented that "one cannot with-hold admiration for his bravery and courage". He hated cowardice, and when the crews of 22 ships in Trepassey harbour fled without firing a shot he was angry at their failure to defend their ships.
Roberts was the archetypal pirate captain in his love of fine clothing and jewelry, but had some traits unusual in a pirate, notably a preference for drinking tea rather than rum. He is often described as a teetotaler and a Sabbatarian, but there is no proof of this. He certainly disliked drunkenness while at sea, yet it appears that he drank beer. Ironically, Roberts' final defeat was facilitated by the drunkenness of his crew. The Sabbatarian claim arises from the fact that musicians were not obliged to play on the Sabbath – this may merely have been intended to ensure the musicians a day's rest, as they were otherwise obliged to play whenever the crew demanded.
Black Bart was not as cruel to prisoners as some pirates such as Edward Low, but did not treat them as well as did Samuel Bellamy, Howell Davis or Edward England. Roberts sometimes gave cooperative captains and crews of captured ships gifts, such as pieces of jewelry or items of captured cargo. He would sometimes ill-use prisoners if he felt that the crew demanded it, but:
When he found that rigour was not expected from his people (for he often practised it to appease them), then he would give strangers to understand that it was pure inclination that induced him to a good treatment of them, and not any love or partiality to their persons; "For", says he, "there is none of you but will hang me, I know, whenever you can clinch me within your power."—A General History of the ... Pyrates (1724), p.183
In 1997, one author claimed that Bartholomew Roberts was a female transvestite. It was argued that Roberts' corpse was thrown overboard to conceal this fact. The book did not explain why, if Roberts were a woman, "she" would draw up articles that provided the death penalty for bringing a woman aboard in disguise, which would have led to "her" own death had "she" been discovered. Other than the disposal of Roberts' body, no evidence was produced to support the thesis, and it has not been accepted by the majority of nautical historians. It was fairly common for pirate captains to request that their bodies be dumped into the sea if they die in battle, so their corpses would not be desecrated and put on display by various navys. Whatever the truth of Roberts' gender, he could not possibly have been Anne Bonny in disguise, as some supporters of the thesis have claimed. Bonny was aboard Calico Jack Rackham's sloop, cruising off Jamaica in October 1720, at the same time that Roberts, on the Royal Fortune, was in the mid-Atlantic trying to reach the Cape Verde islands.
Popular culture 
Bartholomew Roberts is one of four pirate captains mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. In it, Long John Silver says that the surgeon who amputated his leg was one of Roberts' men:
It was a master surgeon, him that ampytated me - out of college and all - Latin by the bucket, and what not; but he was hanged like a dog, and sun-dried like the rest, at Corso Castle. That was Roberts' men, that was, and comed of changing names of their ships - Royal Fortune and so on.—Robert Louis Stevensen, Treasure Island
Historical novels with Bartholomew Roberts as the main character include The Devil's Captain by Philip Shea (1992), The Requiem Shark by Nicholas Griffin (1999) and The Devil's Captain by Frank Sherry (2000).
A number of novels and poems featuring Bartholomew Roberts have been published in Welsh, notably a ballad by I. D. Hooson, for which a vocal score was later composed by Alun Hoddinott, and a novel by T. Llew Jones.
In the 2007 film, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Bartholomew Roberts is mentioned as being one of the pirates who founded the Brethren Court's Pirate Code, along with Henry Morgan. This was probably included as a nod to Bartholomew Roberts' famous pirate code, which he and his crew swore to uphold.
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- Woolsey, Matt (September 19, 2008). "Top-Earning Pirates". Forbes.com. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved February 5, 2013.
- Rediker p. 33.
- Breverton p. 172
- Sanders, p. 18. "Black Bart" was coined as the title of a 20th-century poem by the Welsh poet I. D. Hooson, who apparently picked that name because Johnson described Roberts as having a "black" complexion.
- Yount p.74
- Burl p. 55
- Yount p.64
- Sanders, p. 18.
- Richards p. 20
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- Famous Welsh
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- Yount p. 78
- "Boot-topping" was similar to careening, except that only the upper part of the hull was cleaned.
- Johnson pp. 172-3
- Richards pp. 31-2
- Yount p. 79
- Burl pp. 122-6
- Dan Conlin. (2009). Pirates of the Atlantic: Robbery, murder and mayhem off the Canadian East Coast. Formac
- Burl pp. 133-143
- Richards pp. 47-8
- Richards p. 50
- True Caribbean Pirates: History Channel special on the Golden Age of Piracy
- Richards p. 59
- Burl pp. 207-8
- Richards pp. 62-3
- Burl pp. 211-13
- Burl p. 215
- Burl pp. 218-9
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- Burl pp. 254-5
- Burl pp. 263-4
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- Rediker p. 143
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- Johnson p. 183
- Gabriel Kuhn & Tyler Austin, ed. (1997). Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger.
- Breverton p. 64
- Stevenson p. 88
- The Everything Pirates Book: A Swashbuckling History of Adventure, Page 228, Barbara Karg, Arjean Spaite, 2007
- Burl, Aubrey (2006) Black Barty: Bartholomew Roberts and his pirate crew 1718-1723. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-4312-2
- Cawthorne, Nigel (2005) Pirates: an Illustrated History. Capella. ISBN 1-84193-520-4
- Conlin, Dan (2009). Pirates of the Atlantic: Robbery, murder and mayhem off the Canadian East Coast. Formac
- Cordingly, David (1999) Life Among the Pirates: the Romance and the Reality. Abacus. ISBN 0-349-11314-9
- Johnson, Charles (1724). A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (1998 ed.). Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-85177-732-5.
- Rediker, Marcus (2004) Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-5025-3
- Richards, Stanley (1966) Black Bart. Christopher Davies.
- Sanders, Richard (2007), If a Pirate I Must Be ... The True Story of "Black Bart," King of the Caribbean Pirates. Aurum Press, Ltd. ISBN 1-60239-019-3
- Stevenson, Robert Louis (1994) Treasure Island Puffin Books. ISBN 0-14-036672-5
- Yount, Lisa (2002) Pirates. Lucent Books. ISBN 1-56006-955-4
- PiratesInfo.com biography
- Biography of Roberts
- Biography of Bartholomew Roberts
- BBC Article (Welsh)
- Famous Welsh Article