Pirates > Bartholomew Roberts
Bartholomew Roberts (17 May 1682 – 10 February 1722), also known by his original name John Roberts was one of the most successful pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy. In fact his death is considered the culmination of the entire era as no other notorious pirates emerged after him in this period. Some think he adopted the nickname Bartholomew in reference to the legendary buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp and in order to hide his true identity. He operated from 1719 to 1722, taking over ships off the coast of the Americas and Africa with impunity.
Given the nickname 'Black Bart', this was never used in his lifetime. While Samuel Bellamy takes the prize for most cargo stolen, Bartholomew Roberts captured the most vessels of any pirate at over 470.
Born in 1682 in Haverfordwest, Wales, John Roberts left home very early to join the Royal Navy. He is thought to have left at thirteen in 1695, but there is no further record of him until 1718 when he was a mate aboard a sloop. In 1719 he was made third made of a slave trading ship called the Princess for the Royal Africa Company under Captain Abraham Plumb.
One day, while they were anchored along the Gold Coast of Africa (near Ghana) the Princess was captured by pirates led by Howell Davis who commanded the Royal Rover and the Royal James. Roberts and several of his crew were forced to join the pirates however, Davis soon came to realize Robert's talent at navigating. Since Davis was also Welsh, they were able to communicate in secret and this allowed John Roberts to climb through the ranks.
Despite being conscripted into piracy, Roberts soon came to like the Pirates Culture. Considering the average sailor made only £3 per month in the Royal Navy or a merchant ship with no chance of being promoted to captain it wasn't hard to see the appeal. In fact Bartholomew Roberts is even quoted 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 Pyrates (1724), p. 213–214
A few weeks after Roberts joined the pirates, one of the ships the Royal James had to be destroyed due to worm damage. The Royal Rover continued on towards the Portuguese controlled island of Príncipe. Davis hoisted the flags of a British man-o-war, he was allowed to enter the harbor and after a few days requested the governor board his ship for lunch, intending to hold him for ransom. However, the governor had already figured out who Davis was and set a trap.
The governor requested Davis meet the governor at the fort for a glass of wine first and on their way to the fort the pirates were ambushed and killed, Davis included. With Davis dead and the pirates retreating, a new captain had to be elected. Within six weeks of joining the pirates Bartholomew Roberts was made captain, probably due to his navigational abilities and his attitude which was opinionated and outspoken. While reluctant to originally join the pirates, he is quoted with saying when he got elected:
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), 162
Bartholomew Roberts first action as captain was to lead his crew back to Principe to avenge the death of Captain Davis. In the dead of night Roberts and his crew charged onto the island killing a large proportion of the male population and stole virtually all items of value that they could carry away. Next they captured a few ships and when the ship next took on supplies, it was voted they would sail to Portuguese Brazil to rob them some more.
His acts of avenging Howell Davis along with his bravery and success made most of Davis crew extremely loyal to Roberts and they concluded he was "pistol proof".
Roberts and his crew sailed for nine weeks along the Brazilian coast, not spotting a single ship. They were about to leave to go back to the Caribbean when they encountered the Portuguese treasure fleet of forty-two ships anchored off the coast in Todos os Santos Bay. The ships were waiting for an armed man-of-war escort to sail the loot back to the Portuguese capital at Lisbon. This was about to be one of the biggest pirate scores in recorded history.
Roberts and his crew hoisted a Portuguese flag on the Royal Rover and sailed right into the middle of the flotilla. They proceeded to board one of the ships and take the officer hostage. He had them point out the richest ship in the fleet, which had forty guns and a crew of 170. Roberts and his men boarded the ship and sailed off into the sunset with 40,000 to 90,000 gold moidores and jewelry, including a cross with one of the largest diamonds ever mined headed for the king of Portugal.
Roberts and his crew next headed for Devil's Island off the coast of Surinam to enjoy their spoils and a few weeks later headed for the River Surinam where they captured a sloop. When another brig was sighted Roberts took 40 men to chase it, leaving Walter Kennedy in command of the Royal Rover. Roberts and his crew never ended up catching the brig and when they returned to the Royal Rover they discovered that Kennedy had absconded with the vessel and all of the treasure.
From this point on Bartholomew Roberts set forth his version of the pirate code which contained rules each pirate were to follow, and punishments if they did not. They renamed the sloop the Fortune and sailed on to continue.
In late February of 1720 Roberts and his crew were joined by a French pirate named Montigny la Palisse in his sloop the Sea King. In an act of defense and offense the residents of Barbados sent two well armed ships named the Summerset and the Philipa armed with pirate hunters in order to try and end Roberts and his crew. They met up on February 26th and engaged the Sea King and the Fortune. The Sea King quickly fled the battle and after sustaining considerable damage the Roberts and his crew fled as well. Twenty of the crew died of their wounds on their way to Dominica to repair the ship. Along the journey Roberts had to evade two ships send from Martinique as well and Roberts swore revenge against the two islands.
This is why Roberts second pirate flag had him standing on two skulls, one labelled ABH for "A Barbadian's Head" and the other AMH meaning "A Martiniquian's Head".
British North America
After Roberts repaired his ship and rebuilt his crew, he decided to take off on another adventure. Between June of 1720 and April of 1721, Roberts took the Fortune up the coast of North America planning on looting and raiding ships along the way. Sailing north, he raided Canso in the colony of Nova Scotia before capturing a few ships around Cape Breton and a dozen or so more at the harbor in Ferryland. On June 21st he attacked the harbor at Trepassey.
As he entered the harbor, Roberts raised the black flags and most of the merchants quickly abandoned their ships. Roberts was shocked at their cowardice and he captured all 22 ships in the harbor. Roberts was ashamed of the captains who so easily surrendered and force their humiliation each day he was there. Every morning when Roberts crew would fire a gun, the captains were forced to meet Roberts on his ship. Any captain that did not show up would have his ship burnt and sunk to the bottom of the harbor.
Roberts crew stole one brig in order to replace the Good Fortune. The brig was fitted with 16 cannons and when the pirates left the harbor in late June they lit every ship on fire before sailing away. During July of 1721, Roberts and his crew captured 9 or 10 French ships and upgraded his ship the Good Fortune once again. This ship was fitted with 26 cannons and with a more powerful ship Roberts headed back towards the Caribbean, aided by pirate Montigny la Palisse's sloop.
In September of 1720, Roberts and the crew of the Good Fortune careened and repaired their ship on the island of Carriacou. Here the ship was renamed the Royal Fortune. In late September Roberts took the Royal Fortune and the Fortune and headed for the island of Saint Kitts. Upon entering the Basse Terra Road, Bartholomew Roberts raised all of his pirate flags and ordered the drummers and trumpeters to play. Upon the sight of Roberts and his fleet blockading the port, all the ships in the harbor struck their flags and surrendered.
After the successful capture of the ships in St. Kitts, Roberts next sailed to the French colony of Saint Barthelemy. It was there Roberts sold his goods and got permission from the French governor to stay for several weeks. However, by October 25th they were at sea again, plundering at will. Off the coast of Saint Lucia the pirates captured 15 French and English ships over the next three days. One of the captured ships was the Greyhound, whose first mate James Skyrme joined the pirates.
It was during this time that Roberts captured the Governor of Martinique who was sailing on a heavily armed French warship at the time. Roberts pretended to be a passing by French merchant ship with information on himself, and when the ships got close enough he let loose a brutal salvo of broadside attacks and musket volleys. Taking the ship by surprise the pirates boarded and took it over using many different pirate weapons. Once the Governor was caught Roberts showed him why there was a skull of a Martiniquian on his pirate flag. He promptly hung the guy off the yardarm of the Royal Fortune.
Some people have tried to downplay the incident because it was a brutal display of the power of Bartholomew Roberts. He proved he did not respect the authority of any of the royal governors and would kill them on sight if found. The hanging of the Martinique Governor can be corroborated with public records as a Florimond Hurault de Montigny was reported to be the Governor of Martinique from 1717 to October 1720 where he is listed as deceased. Some dates list this as late as April of 1721.
Regardless, by the spring of 1721, Roberts and his piracy had nearly halted trade in the Caribbean, much like Charles Vane had done a few years previously. Therefore Roberts decided to try his hand with piracy off the coast of West Africa for a change. In the middle of the night on April 18th however, Thomas Anstis the captain of the Good Fortune deserted Roberts and the rest of the fleet in the middle of the night. This left Roberts alone on the Royal Fortune to plunder West Africa.
By late April of 1721 Roberts was sailing near the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. The Royal Fortune was becoming leaky and unreliable. Therefore the pirates including Roberts transferred over to the Sea King which they renamed the Royal Fortune. They ended up making landfall in early June off the Guinea coast at the mouth of the Senegal River.
Upon seeing the pirates anchored in the river, two French ships tried to chase and capture Roberts but they were instead captured. Roberts and his crew commandeered both ships, one with 10 guns and the other with 16. They renamed the larger one Ranger from Comte de Toulouse, which Thomas Sutton took command of and named the smaller one Little Ranger, which was to be used as a store ship for their loot and goods. James Skyrme was to captain the Little Ranger.
With two new captured ships in his fleet, Roberts headed for Sierra Leone. He and his fleet arrived there on June 12th, 1721 and ascertained that two Royal Navy ships the HMS Swallow and the HMS Weymouth had already left in April and would return by Christmas. The Swallow was captained by Chaloner Ogle and would end up sealing Roberts fate the next time he encountered it.
On August 8th, Roberts and his crew captured two large ships at Point Cestos. One of the ships was a frigate named Onslow that was transporting soldiers to Cape Coast Castle. When the ship was captured a large percentage of the soldiers wished to join the pirates as fighters. However with them not being sea trained they only received a quarter share.
Roberts eventually converted the Onslow to be the fourth Royal Fortune and in November and December of 1721 the pirates decided to relax and careen their ships at the island of Annobon off the coast of Cape Lopez. Thomas Sutton was replaced by James Skyrme for the Ranger as well. After finishing repairing and bolstering their vessels, Roberts and his crew headed out for a few more pirating adventures.
In January of 1722, Roberts and his crew captured several ships along the coast, eventually sailing into Ouidah harbor. Sailing in with the black flags flying, all eleven ships in the harbor surrendered immediately just like in Newfoundland previously. It was around this time that Chaloner Ogle and his crew of the HMS Swallow were returning to the coast of Africa in order to combat Roberts and the pirate threat.
By the 1720's the Royal Navy and pirate hunter had begun chasing and catching pirates in earnest. However Bartholomew Roberts had started his career after the Kings Pardon (1718) and therefore had no intentions of surrendering or stopping.
On February 5th, 1722, the HMS Swallow which was commanded by pirate hunter named Captain Chaloner Ogle found Roberts and his three pirate ships, the Royal Fortune, the Ranger and the Little Ranger anchored at Cape Lopez. As the Swallow turned to avoid a shoal, the pirates thought it was a merchant ship and the Ranger captained by James Skyrme gave chase.
As soon as the Royal Navy was out of sight of the other pirates they opened fire and gave the Ranger a devastating broadside attack which killed ten pirates and took Skyrme's leg off. Eventually the pirates surrendered and were captured.
On February 10th, the Swallow returned to Cape Lopez to surprisingly find the Royal Fortune still anchored. The day before Roberts and his crew had captured the Neptune and most of the crew was still celebrating and drunk when the Swallow approached. At first the crew thought it was the Ranger returning, however a deserter from the Royal Navy recognized the ship and informed Roberts who was having breakfast with Captain Hill of the Neptune. As Roberts usually did, he prepared himself for battle.
"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
Death in Battle
Roberts plan was to sail directly past the enemy ship, take one broadside but eventually escape to open ocean. However Roberts' helmsman failed to keep the ship on the right course and the Swallow was able to get off two successful broadsides. Roberts was killed by grapeshot which ripped open his neck and killed him instantly. The pirates threw his body overboard as he requested so they could not put his body on display. They wrapped him in one of the ships sails, weighted it down and tossed it off the side. His body has never been recovered.
Roberts death shocked the entire world and most modern historians consider his death the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. However, despite the death of Bartholomew Roberts the battle continued for several more hours until the mainmast of the Royal Fortune was destroyed. The pirates then surrendered and asked for quarter. When the smoke had cleared and the weapons laid down, it was found only three pirates including Roberts were killed and the rest were taken into custody. One crew member named John Philips tried to explode a gunpowder magazine intending to blow up the ship but was restrained by other crew members.
The Royal Navy ended up capturing 272 pirates, 65 of them being freed black slaves. The black pirates were sold back into slavery and the rest were taken to Cape Coast Castle. Of the remainder who did not die in custody, 54 were sentenced to hang. 52 were actually hung and twenty of Roberts crew was allowed to become indentured servants for the Royal African Company. Over one third of Robert's crew were acquitted and released. Captain Chaloner Ogle was rewarded with a knighthood for his slaying of Roberts, and he also profited financially by stealing gold dust from his cabin. Ogle went on to become Admiral of the Fleet for the British Royal Navy.
The death of Bartholomew Roberts really signaled the end of the golden age of piracy. He was the final pirate captain that was able to ruthlessly control the high seas and brazenly defy the imperial powers of the time. While piracy and smuggling would persist throughout the rest of the 18th and even into the 19th centuries it would face a slow death as the various Locations were rooted out by the empires and pirates were vigorously sentenced and executed. It would never reach the heights of Bartholomew Roberts who commanded a fleet of warships.
In the end Bartholomew Roberts was the last in a long ling of unbroken brigands and pirates that started with the privateering era in the 15th century following the discovery of the New World for the Spanish Empire by Christopher Columbus. While these privateers proved the Spanish could not solely control the New World these privateers would lead directly into the full-scale war of the buccaneering era. This era saw the rise of various different colonies for many different empires and brought significant diversity and competition to the region.
The buccaneers eventually retired but the trade of piracy lived on during the pirate round and just simply relocated to a different area of the world for a time being. It was only a brief interlude as soon the Post Spanish Succession Period which saw the explosion of outlaw piracy that culminated with the quick death of Bartholomew Roberts.
The pirate code of Bartholomew Roberts would be recovered because of the speedy end to the naval battle and the death of their captain. The documents did not have a chance to be destroyed and were later used in the trial against the pirates as proof of their collusion. This is the reason why most pirates destroyed their codes and any and all documents related to them as it would have all been used against them at trial.
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.
II. Every man shall be called fairly in turn by the list on board of prizes. But if they defraud the company to the value of even one dollar, they shall be marooned. If any man robs another, he shall have his nose and ears slit and be put ashore where he shall be sure to encounter hardships.
III. None shall game for money either with dice or cards.
IV. The lights and candles shall 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.
V. Each man shall keep his piece, cutlass, and pistols at all times clean and ready for action.
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.
VII. He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning.
VIII. None shall strike another on board the ship, but every man's quarrel shall be ended on shore by sword or pistol.
IX. 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.
X. The captain and 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.
XI. The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day.
Thus, this lends to the mystery and lack of understanding of the true history of pirates because we only have brief glimpses as to what their private and mysterious lives were all about. The lack of historical documentation about the pirates will always be a hinderance to anyone trying to studying them.