Sunday, May 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Black Bart!

Today is the birthday of Bartholomew Roberts, arguably the most successful pirate of the Golden Age.

Born John Roberts in Wales in 1682, Bart was an honest hardworking seaman until 1719, when the ship he was third mate of (the Princess) was captured by pirates off the Gold Coast of Africa. He was pressganged into piracy, and by all accounts, he was reluctant at first. But his Captain, Howell Davis, found him to have excellent navigation skills, and being that Davis was also Welsh, he could communicate sensitive information to Roberts in their native tongue. So Roberts became a close confidant and soon reoriented his life philosophy. Captain Charles Johnson quotes Black Bart 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.

At the island of Princess off the African coast, Captain Davis flew the flag of an English merchantman, and invited the governor on board for tea, hoping to hold him for ransom. But the Portuguese found him out and lured him into a trap and shot him. Bart Roberts was elected captain by the crew and he ordered a raid on Princess to avenge Davis. Roberts and his men killed almost all the male inhabitants and took as much booty as they could carry.

After this, the crew voted to go to Brazil. So they sailed across the Atlantic and became successful Caribbean pirates. In his career, Bart Roberts captured almost 500 ships! Roberts also instituted a version of the Articles of Agreement (the "Pirate Code") that forbade rape, instituted a kind of medical insurance for crewmen, and prohibited gambling and fighting on board. All disputes were to be settled by duels on land.

On February 10, 1722, the H.M.S. Swallow engaged Roberts' ship the Royal Fortune at Cape Lopez off Equitorial Guinea. Roberts and his crew had just plundered the Neptune and his crew were still drunk with success (and alcohol). Bartholomew Roberts was killed in the battle, shocking many who thought him invincible: three years is very long for a pirate's career. Some historians cite Roberts' death as the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

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