The Pirate of the Atlantic - The Story behind Captain Black Bart

Bartholomew Roberts (17 May 1682 – 10 February 1722)

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Born in Wales, John Roberts a.k.a. Captain Black Bart was a pirate who raided ships off the Americas and West Africa between 1719 and 1722. Roberts changed his name from John to Bartholomew as pirates often used aliases. He was the most successful pirate in the Golden Age of Piracy, taking over 400 prizes in his career.

In 1719, Roberts was second mate on a slave ship when it was captured by two pirate vessels; both led by captain Howell Davis- a Welshman alike. Roberts and many other of the crew were forced to join the pirates. Captain Davis quickly discovered Roberts' navigation abilities and took to him. He was also able to confide information to Roberts in Welsh, thereby keeping it hidden from the rest of the crew. Roberts soon came to see the advantages of this new lifestyle.

"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." - Captain Bartholomew Roberts

A few weeks after his capture, one of the pirate ships was abandoned due to worm damage. The other ship headed for the island of Príncipe under disguise as a British man-of-war ship. After a few days, the Portuguese discovered that their visitors were pirates and ambushed Davis' party, shooting Captain Davis dead. Within six weeks of his capture, Roberts was elected captain. This was unusual, but historians believe he was elected for his navigational abilities and his outspoken and opinionated personality.

Roberts' first job as captain was to avenge the death of Captain Davis. Roberts and his crew landed on the island at night, killed a large portion of the population, and stole all items of value that they could carry. Soon afterwards, he captured a Dutch ship, and two days later a British ship. With their new ships and loot, they voted to take their next voyage to Brazil.

Captain Roberts' bravery and success established a loyal pirate crew, concluding that he was "pistol proof" and that they had much to gain by staying with him.

Roberts and his crew went on to cross the Atlantic, capturing the richest ship in a fleet of 42 Portuguese ships containing 40,000 moidores and jewellery designed for the King of Portugal. He next headed for Devil's Island off the coast of Guiana to spend the booty. A few weeks later Roberts and 40 of his men captured a warship and took it to chase a sailing vessel, while leaving a trusted mate in charge of his pirate ship. His trusted mate sailed off with his ship and what remained of the loot. Roberts and his crew renamed their warship 'Fortune' and agreed on a pirate code. 

Later, Roberts joined forces with a French pirate warship and continued to conquer and reap riches. In an attempt to end the pirate menace, two well-armed ships from Barbados attacked Roberts along with his French allies. The French pirates quickly fled and Fortune sustained considerable damage and escaped. Roberts headed for Dominica to repair the ship, with twenty of his crew dying of their wounds. There were also ships from Martinique searching for the pirates, and Roberts swore vengeance. 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).

Next, they headed north towards Newfoundland, raiding Nova Scotia, and capturing a number of ships around Cape Breton and the Newfoundland banks. Roberts raided and captured a dozen vessels at the harbour of Ferryland. Then he attacked the larger harbour of Trepassey, where he discovered 22 merchant ships and 150 fishing ships, all of which were abandoned by their panic-stricken captains and crews. Roberts captured all of the ships, but was angered by the cowardice of the captains who had fled their ships. When the pirates left, all the other vessels in the harbour were set on fire.

After this, Roberts captured nine or ten French ships and navigated one of them, fitting her with 26 cannons and changing her name to Good Fortune. With this more powerful ship, the pirates captured many more vessels before heading south for the West Indies, accompanied by the French warship, which had rejoined them.

In September 1720, Good Fortune was renamed Royal Fortune- the first of several ships to be given this name by Roberts. Roberts a.k.a Captain Black Bart  went on to strike the waters off St. Lucia and caught the Governor of Martinique. Black Bart got his vengeance and hanged the Governor on the yardarm of his own ship, which the pirates converted into the new Royal Fortune.

By the spring of 1721, Roberts had almost brought seaborne trade to a standstill before heading to West Africa. He and his team captured more ships and slaves off the coasts of Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cape Lopez and Ouidah, all the while replacing Royal Fortune with each next bigger and better ship.

On February the 5th,1722, Captain Chaloner Ogle of HMS Swallow came upon the pirate ships Royal Fortune careening at Cape Lopez. Swallow veered away, making the pirates think that she was a fleeing merchant ship. On February 10th, Swallow returned to Cape Lopez and found Royal Fortune still there. On the previous day, Black Bart had captured a ship, 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 one of their own returning, but a deserter from Swallow recognized it and informed Black Bart while he was eating breakfast. 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 ..."

Captain Black Bart Roberts was killed by grapeshot from a cannon while he stood on the deck. Before his body could be captured, Roberts's wish to be buried at sea was fulfilled by his crew. His crew wrapped him up in ship's sail cloth and threw his body overboard. It was never found.

Interesting Facts:

  • In the novel The Princess Bride and its film adaptation, protagonist Westley dons the mantle of the Dread Pirate Roberts, a mythical figure inspired by Bartholomew Roberts.
  • In an episode of South Park, the Casa Bonita restaurant in Lakewood, Colorado, features an attraction called "Black Bart's Cave", named for Roberts.
  • Roberts may be the inspiration for the "Lord Bartholomew" in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.
  • Roberts appears as a non-player character in the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End video game, voiced by Fred Tatasciore.
  • A fictionalised version of Roberts appears as the primary antagonist of the 2013 video game Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, voiced by Oliver Milburn. 
Reference: Bartholomew Roberts | Wikipedia | the free encyclopedia