Three centuries ago, a Welsh seaman turned to piracy. Within a year he’d become the most successful pirate of his era – a time we now call ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’. During his brief but spectacular career he captured over two hundred ships – more than all his pirate contemporaries combined.
His reign of terror finally ended off the West African coast in February 1722, when he was killed in a sea battle with a British warship. His passing, and the mass trial and hanging of his crew that followed, marked the real end of the ‘Golden Age’.
Nowadays pirates like Blackbeard are better remembered than this young Welshman, as either their notoriety or their wild appearance has captured the public imagination. Now, though, three hundred years after he first hoisted the black flag, it’s time to redress the balance, and highlight the life of Bartholomew Roberts, or ‘Black Bart’ – the most successful pirate of them all.
From law-abiding to law-breaking
Born in the small village of Little Newcastle in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, during the early 1680s, John Robert turned to the sea for a living and for more than three decades, he kept on the right side of the law. Then, in May 1719, all this changed.
He was the second mate of a slave ship when it was captured by pirates off the West African coast. Our Welshman decided to join them, and to throw others off his trail he changed his name to Bartholomew Roberts. He was already an experienced mariner, so two months later, when the pirate captain, Howell Davis, was killed, the crew elected Roberts as their leader.
A few weeks later he captured his first prize – a Dutch slave ship – and from that moment on he was set for his life of crime.
Bahia to Benin
Keeping one step ahead of any pursuers, he crossed the Atlantic and put in to the Brazilian port of Bahia (now Salvador). The Portuguese treasure fleet was in harbour, and in a daring coup de main, Roberts captured a treasure ship and sailed it out of the harbour. The ship’s cargo was worth millions in today’s money, but Roberts wasn’t able to keep hold of it.
While Roberts was out hunting for victims, the prize crew in the Portuguese galleon sailed off into the sunset, leaving him with nothing. Undeterred, Roberts started all over again, and for the next year he combed the waters of the West Indies, before ranging as far north as Newfoundland in search of prizes.
As he went, he kept turning the biggest and best of these into his flagship. Each time, he gave these ships the same name – the Royal Fortune.
Once more, to avoid the warships sent to hunt him down, Roberts crossed the Atlantic, and by the summer of 1721 he was off the coast of Senegal. He then worked his way down the West African coast, capturing dozens of slave ships as he went.
In August he captured the Royal African Company’s ship Onslow, which became the fourth and last Royal Fortune. By the start of 1722 he was off the slaving port of Whydah (now Ouidah in Benin). Roberts captured 11 slave ships at Whydah, but it was there that his luck finally run out.
Black Bart’s last hoorah
On 5 February the frigate HMS Swallow appeared and lured out Roberts’ consort ship, the Great Ranger. The pirates thought the newcomer was just another slave ship, but once out of sight of land the Swallow’s commander, Captain Ogle, turned around and captured the pirate ship. He then returned to Whydah, and Bartholomew Roberts sailed out to give battle.
It was the morning of 10 February 1722 when the two ships fought their duel. The Royal Fortune and the Swallow were evenly matched in terms of size and number of guns, but Ogle’s men had the edge when it came to professionalism and training.
Suddenly, the Swallow spun about and fired a broadside at point-blank range. Grapeshot scythed along the decks of the pirate ship, and Bartholomew Roberts was cut down. The pirate captain had put on his finest clothes for the battle, including a rich crimson suit, a hat with a red feather in it, and a priceless gold cross and chain – so everyone saw what happened to him.
With that the fight went out of the remaining pirates, but Swallow kept on firing, eventually capturing the battered pirate ship.
The end of the Golden Age
Bartholomew Roberts was no more. Effectively, his death marked the end of the piratical reign of terror known as ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’. To make their point, the British authorities held a mass pirate trial in Cape Coast Castle.
Roberts’ 77 African crewmen were sold as slaves, while their European shipmates were either hanged, condemned to servitude in the nearby gold mines or shipped back to prison in London – or died of disease while languishing in their cells.
A few were acquitted, having proved they’d served Roberts against their will. Still, the mass hanging of 52 of Roberts’ crew served its purpose. It demonstrated to the world that piracy didn’t pay. But the image of this Welsh-born pirate, resplendent in his finery, sailing out to do battle for the last time, will remain one of the true icons of ‘The Golden Age’.
Angus Konstam is one of the world’s leading experts on piracy and is the author of over 80 books. A former naval officer and museum professional, he worked as a Curator of weapons in the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London, and as the Chief Curator Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida. He now works as a full-time author and historian. His latest book, The Pirate World, (February, 2019) is published by Osprey Publishing.
Top Image Credit: Bartholomew Roberts, shown off the west coast of Africa. Behind him is his flagship Royal Fortune, the fourth ship he gave that name to, accompanied by the smaller pirate ship Great Ranger, about to capture a fleet of slave ships anchored off Whydah. (Courtesy of The Stratford Archives)