May 17, 2007

The Story of Black Bart the Pirate

"A merry life and a short one shall be my motto." -- Bartholomew Roberts

Black Bart was born John Roberts, on May 17th, 1682, in the village of Casnewydd-Bach, in Wales. At some point he changed his name to Bartholomew, but he was never called Black Bart during his lifetime. He went to sea at the age of 13, and apparently served as an honest seaman until 1719. The ship he was serving on, The Princess of London, was captured at that time by pirates led by Howell Davis. Roberts was forced to join the pirate crew, and did so reluctantly.

Just six weeks later, when Davis was ambushed and killed, the pirates elected Roberts as their new captain. This was a remarkable honor, considering that he had only been with the crew for six weeks, and had been reluctant about joining to start with. Roberts considered the offer, and agreed, saying that "since he had dipp'd his Hands in Muddy Watre, and must be a Pyrate, it was better being a Commander than a Common Man."

Roberts maintained the respect of his crew. He was a skilled navigator, and he respected the wishes of his crew. He was said to be confident and outspoken, and was a handsome man who cut a dashing figure. Before a battle, he would dress in his finest clothes -- a scarlet damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather for his cap, a diamond cross on a gold chain hanging from his neck, and equipped with two pairs of pistols and a sword.

Robert's ship was run as relatively a democratic enterprise. A list of articles was sworn to by Roberts and his men, including the following tenets:

  • Each man got one vote on any enterprise concerning the general welfare.
  • Any attempt to defraud the ship's company would get the offender marooned.
  • Any attempt to rob a shipmate would result in a slit nose and ears.
  • All candles and lights were to be out by 8 p.m. If the men wished to drink beyond that time, they could do so in the dark.
  • No gambling with dice or cards was allowed on ship.
  • Pistols, saber, and cutlass were to be kept clean and ready for use at all times.
  • There was to be no fighting between the crew on ship -- differences were to be settled by duel, on dry land.
  • Desertion during battle would be punished by death or marooning.
  • Anyone crippled by loss of a limb would be paid a pension of 80% of a share. Lesser losses would be paid proportionately.
  • Musicians were not required to work on the Sabbath. (On all other days, they were required to perform at the request of any member of the crew.)

Black Bart was killed by cannon grapeshot while battling the HMS Swallow. His men buried him at sea before his body could be seized by the enemy. Only 3 pirates, including Roberts, died in battle that day, but 272 were taken captive. Roughly a third were acquitted and released -- the rest were either sold into slavery, sentenced to death, or sent to London for further trial. It was the largest trial of pirates in history, and pretty much the end of the golden age of piracy.

Illustration: Bartholomew Roberts, Artist Unknown, Public Domain

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