John Roberts was born on 17th May 1682, son of George Roberts in Casnewydd-Bach, or Little Newcastle (between Fishguard and Haverfordwest) in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
John Roberts went to sea at the age of 13 in 1695, but there is little of no record of him until
- 1718 when we was mate of a Barbados sloop.
- 1719 he was third mate on the slave ship Princess of London under Captain Abraham Plumb…………
…….. and from here on the pirating story began. John later changed his name to Bartholomew, likely choosing this alias after the well known buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp.
- In early June of 1719 the Princess of London was anchored at Anomabu, then spelled Annamaboa, which is situated along the Gold coast of West Africa (Ghana), here the Princess was captured by pirates.
The pirates were in 2 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). several of the crew of the Princess of London were forced to join the pirates, including Roberts. Davis was pleased to have captured Roberts as his excellent navigational skills were second to none and Davis consulted and confided in Roberts conversing in welsh, thus keeping information secret from the rest of the crew. Roberts was initially a reluctant pirate but soon came to see the advantages of the circumstances he found himself in.
It was easy to understand the lure of piracy; in the merchant navy, Robert’s wage was less than £3 per month and he had no chance of promotion to captaincy
A few weeks later The Royal James was abandoned due to worm damage and the The Royal Rover headed for the Isle of Princes (Principe). Davis hoisted the British Man-of-war flags and was allowed to enter the harbour. Davis invited the governor to lunch on board his ship with the intent to hold him hostage. The Portuguese got wind of their visitors being pirates and the governor sent word for Davis to join him at the Fort for a glass of wine on the pretence that he would later go to the ship for lunch. On the way to the fort Davis’ party were ambushed and Captain Davis shot dead.
And so a new captain had to be elected. The crew were divided into Lords and Commons and it was the Lords who had the right to propose a name to the remainder of the crew. Roberts was elected, probably due to his navigational expertise and his outspoken and opinionated demeanour.
He accepted the honour saying “since I have dipped my hands in muddy water, I must be a pyrate, it is better being a commander than a common man”
His first act as captain was to lead the crew back to Principe to avenge the death of Captain Davis. Roberts and his crew sprang onto the island under the cover of the night sky killing a large portion of the male population and stole all items of value that they could carry away. Soon after he captured a Dutch Guineaman, then two days later and English ship called The Experiment. The combination of bravery and success cemented the crew’s loyalty to Roberts and they concluded he must be “pistol proof” and they had much to gain by sticking with him.
- Brazil and the Caribbean July 1719 – May 1720
Roberts and his crew crossed the Atlantic and stopped at the uninhabited island of Ferdinando to take on water and supplies. They spent about nine weeks off the coast of Brazil but encountered no ships, they were about to head off to the West Indies when they came across a fleet of 42 Portuguese ships in the Todos os Santos’ Bay. Two man-of-war ships of 70 guns each were to escort them to Lisbon, but 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, Roberts and his men boarded and captured the ship, which proved to contain 40,000 gold moidores and jewellery 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 Roberts and his men were finally able to return, they 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, 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 sip upon the open deck without lights.
- Each man shall keep his piece, cutlass and pistols at all time 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 draweth 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 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 favour only.
- If a member of the crew were to rape a woman he would be put to death or be marooned.
Captain Roberts encouraged prayer, drank a lot of tea instead of alcohol and forbade gambling and drinking. ‘Black Bart’ preferred to wear fancy gentleman’s clothes – A rich crimson waistcoat and breeches, a hat with a red feather and a diamond cross hanging round his neck (now I wonder where he got that from!)
- 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 pirate sloops. The Sea King quickly fled, and after sustaining considerable damage The Fortune broke off the engagement and was able to escape.
Roberts with twenty of his crew dying of their wounds headed for Dominica to repair the sloop. There were also two sloops from Martinique out searching for the pirates, and Roberts swore vengeance on 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 Martinique’s head)
- Newfoundland and the Caribbean June 1720 – April 1721
The Fortune now headed forwards towards Newfoundland. After capturing a number of ships around Cape Breton and the Newfoundland banks, Captain roberts raided the harbour of Ferryland, capturing a dozen vessels. On 21st 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 with our any resistance being offered. Roberts had captured 22 ships, but was angered by the cowardice of the captains who 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. Captain Roberts and his pirates left the harbour in June setting fire to all the remaining vessels. 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 new ship and her increased gun power, Roberts captured more vessels before heading south to the West Indies with the added company of the Montigny la Palisse’s sloop thus increasing their power and strength.
(Montigny la Palisse was a French pirate during the Post Spanish Succession Period and known to have partnered with Bartholomew Roberts when he pirated throughout the West Indies. He was known to have captained a sloop named the Sea King.)
Bart and a couple of his Caribbean gang
- September 1720 The Good Fortune was renamed The Royal Fortune having taken on repairs at the Island of Carriacou, they then headed for St. Christopher’s Island and entered Base Terra Road flying black flags and with their drummers and trumpeters playing. They sailed in among the ships of the Road, all of which promptly struck their flags which signifies surrender! The next landfall was at the island of St. Bartholomew (very apt) where the French governor allowed the pirates to remain for several weeks to carouse (definition – to drink alcohol and enjoy oneself in a loud and lively way).
- October 1720 They headed for St Lucia where they captured up to 15 French and English ships. Among the captured ships was the Greyhound whose chief mate was James Skyrme who joined the pirates, He later became Roberts consort as captain of The Ranger.
- Spring 1721 Robert’s shenanigans had almost brought seaborne trodden the West Indies to a standstill. The Royal Fortune and The Good Fortune set sail for West Africa. Thomas Antis captain of The Good Fortune parted company and left Robert’s in the dead of night to continue his pirating in the Caribbean.
- West Africa April 1721 – January 1722 By late april, Robert’s was at the Cape Verde Islands. The Royal Fortune needed repair 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 Senegal River. Captured two French ships on of 10 guns and one of 16 guns, gave chase, but were captured by Robert’s. Both ships successfully commandeered. One, the Comte de Toulouse was renamed the Ranger and captained by Thomas Sutton, while the other was named the Little Ranger and captained by James Skyrme .
- 12th June 1721 Roberts landed at Sierra Leone. (Robert’s was told that two naval vessels HMS Swallow and HMS Weymouth had left those waters at the end of April but would be returning by Christmas.)
- August 8th 1721 Robert’s captured 2 vessels at Point Cestos (River Cess in Liberia) one of these was the frigate Onslow transporting soldiers bound for Cape Coast Castle. The Onslow was converted to a pirate ship and yes was renamed the fourth Royal Fortune! Some of the soldiers wanted to join the ranks of the pirates for which they were allowed but only given a quarter share. During the next couple of months the pirates careened (def – turn a ship on it’s side for cleaning, caulking or repair) relaxing at Cape Lopez and the Island of Annobon.
- January 1722 They captured several vessels, then sailed into Ouidah harbour with black flags flying. All eleven ships in the harbours struck their colours.
February 1722 the fateful month
- Feb 5th, HMS Swallow commanded by Captain Chaloner Ogle came upon the three pirate ships, The Royal Fortune, The Ranger and The Little Ranger whilst they were 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 captained by James Skryme gave chase. Once out of earshot of the other ships, the Swallow opened her gun ports and engagement began. 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 colours and the surviving crew were captured.
- Feb 10th, The Swallow returned to Cape Lopez to find The Royal Fortune still there. On the previous day Robert’s 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 the approaching ship was The Ranger returning, but a deserter from The Swallow recognised her and informed Captain Roberts whilst he was having a congenial breakfast with Captain Hill the master of The Neptune; Roberts as usual before action dressed himself in his finest clothes. 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 grapeshot, (In artillery, a grapeshot is a type of shot that is not one solid element, but a mass of small metal balls or slugs packed tightly into a canvas bag) which struck him 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 – his body wrapped in a ships sail and weighted down was never found.
The battle continued for another two hours until The Royal Fortune’s mainmast fell and the pirates signalled for quarter. John Phillips tried to reach the magazine with a lighted match to blow up the ship but was prevented by two forced men. Only 3 pirates including Roberts had been killed in the battle. The remainder of the crew were imprisoned at Cape Coast Castle. The pirates were given the largest pirate trial and execution of the time on March 28th 1722
- 54 Hanged
- 37 received prison or hard time
- 70 African pirates were sold to slavery
- remainder acquitted
Roberts death shocked the pirate world as well as the British 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.
Captain Bartholomew Roberts captured a total of 456 vessels.
We are happy and proud to be the custodians of a narrowboat for his namesake and it’s been interesting and a pleasure to write this page for our blog. Chink ! Chink !! CHINK !!! me hearties. Here’s to Black Bart.
Thanks to ‘Google’ and ‘Wikipedia’ and information found on board nb: Black Bart