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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Black Bart

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.

John Roberts, alias - Black Bart.

Where it all started
Black Bart - Barti Ddu.

'You’ll be back with your tail between your legs,' yelled George Roberts, as his teenage son walked down the road. The boy, named John, had finally rebelled against his religious father and left home. He ignored his father’s shouts and kept walking. Three days later, the tired and hungry youth came over the brow of a hill. Below him the sea sparkled in the sunshine. A harbour bustling with life and filled with the rigging of tall ships beckoned him. It was, the busiest port in Wales. Ships from here sailed across the seas to exciting places. Cargoes of copper, pitch and coal filled the holds. Stacks of slate and lead covered the quays. Barrels of salt and bales of wool filled the warehouses. Oakum lay in bundles, ready for loading. Strange sounds and smells intoxicated John. He picked his way along the quay, clambering over mooring ropes, unsure what to do. He felt faint with hunger. Captain Price watched as John wandering past his ship.

'Look out, boy!' cried the captain. John looked up and jumped aside. A sling loaded with casks landed heavily on the dock beside him. The captain ran down the gangplank onto the quay. 'Are you all right, boy?' he asked. He got no answer. John stumbled forward and fainted in his arms. The ship was at sea when John awoke.

'What’s your name boy?' asked the crew.

'Bartholomew,' lied John, remembering the name of a famous buccaneer. The crew called him Bart; a name he would use for the rest of his life. A sailor’s life suited Bart. He learned to run the rigging, splice and knot ropes and grew into a strong, confident seaman, able to navigate as well as any captain. Coal and pitch were not the only cargoes that offered profit. There was a cargo that promised richer rewards: slaves.

Years later, in 1719, the slave ship ‘Princess’ was anchored on the Gold Coast, loading its sad cargo. The third mate, Bart Roberts watched two vessels come into the bay. He saw the gun ports open. 'Pirates, they’re going to attack!' he cried. The captain of the Princess knew they were no match for the attackers and surrendered. The crew of the slave ship were at the mercy of their captors.

'Who are you?' called the pirate captain pushing Bart with the point of his sword.

'Bart Roberts. I’m third mate,' replied Bart. He felt the plank bend under his weight and looked down at the sea beneath his feet.

'Can you navigate?' demanded the pirate captain.

'As well as any man,' answered Bart.

'I need a navigator Mr. Roberts. Join us in a life of profit and plunder or finish your walk along the plank to Davy Jones locker. Make your choice.'

'Profit and plunder you say. Then I’m your man,' cried Bart and joined the cutthroat pirate crew. Bart enjoyed life with the pirates and quickly became a popular member of the crew. Six weeks later the pirate captain was killed in an attack on a Portuguese island and the crew needed a new leader.

'Bart, you can navigate. We want you as our captain,' chorused the crew.

'Shipmates, I have dipped my hands in muddy water and must be a pirate but it’s better to be a commander than a common man,' answered Bart. The crew cheered their new captain.

'We will return and avenge the death of our shipmates,' ordered Bart.

Bartholomew Roberts at Ouidah with his ship and captured merchantmen in the background.
Black Bart

Bart returned with his crew to the island and took their revenge.

'Run up the colours,' ordered Bart.

The skull and crossbones, Bart’s new flag, unfurled for the first time.

'Kill them all,' cried Bart. The attack proved his ruthless cunning and bravery. The crew became devoted to their new captain and named him Black Bart. The pirates captured more ships and sailed to Brazil where their fleet began to plunder the coast and raid shipping.

'Mr Kennedy, your cutlass is sharp. You have done well today,' said Black Bart, after one of the attacks.

'I want you to take command of the captured ship. You know what to do with the crew!'

'Aye Captain. A pirate’s life or a watery grave,' replied the pirate Kennedy. The following morning, at first light, the pirates looked for the captured prize but Kennedy had deserted his comrades and the captured ship, together with its treasure, had gone. Black Bart flew into a rage.

'The scurvy dog. He’s stolen our treasure. Is there no honour among shipmates?' he cried. He gathered all the pirates together. 'Each man will swear, holding a bible, to twelve rules he agrees to live by,' ordered Black Bart. 'Any man that breaks his solemn pledge will answer to all of us,' he cried when the oath was made.

The rules protected every pirate’s rights to a share in the treasure and were popular with the pirate crew. The fleet moved north to Barbados and the attacks became bolder. French pirates joined Bart and captured slaves became enthusiastic pirates.

'The coast of North America, that’s the place for treasure. We sail tonight,' ordered Black Bart.

Honest sailors shook with terror when they saw the black flags on the pirate ships. Many surrendered without a fight. Black Bart became fabulously wealthy. He dressed in fine clothes and jewellery taken from captured ships.

The fleet returned south to the Caribbean where their attacks brought trade to a virtual stop. In one month alone they captured ten ships. From the Caribbean the pirates then sailed east to Africa. More shipping was captured including a troop ship, taking soldiers to the Cape Coast. Faced with walking the plank many of the soldiers chose to become pirates and joined Black Bart’s gang of cutthroats. The pirates attacked the African port of Ouidah, capturing eleven ships.

On the 10th February 1722, the pirates spotted another prize.

'Bring us about and run out the guns,' ordered Black Bart. Then, he went below for breakfast and to dress, ready for the battle.

'Captain, the ship has turned into the wind. She’s not running away. She’s coming towards us,' yelled the pirate first mate. Black Bart dressed carefully and went on deck. The pirates cheered their leader. He made a gallant figure dressed in a rich crimson waistcoat and white breeches. There was a red feather in his hat, a gold chain round his neck with a diamond cross hanging from it. His sword was in his hand and two pairs of pistols hung from his belt. Black Bart watched the approaching ship through his telescope.

'That’s no merchantman. It’s a man of war,' he cried. The British warship, HMS Swallow, commanded by Captain Ogle, turned to starboard and fired a broadside at Black Bart’s ship. Cannon balls tore through the pirate ship's hull.

Black Bart staggered and fell. A huge wooden splinter had ripped his throat open. He was dead. The pirates threw their leader overboard and fought on valiantly for another two hours until they struck their colours and surrendered to Captain Ogle.

Roberts' first flag shows himself and Death holding an hourglass.
Black Bart's first pirate flag

272 men were captured including 72 black pirates who were sold back into slavery. Many of the rest were condemned to death and some were indentured to the Royal African Company to serve out their days. Captain Ogle was knighted; the only British officer to be honoured for an action against pirates. He retired a wealthy man with the rank of Admiral; his fortune in gold plundered from Black Bart’s cabin. Walter Kennedy, the deserter, returned to Britain and opened a brothel in London but was exposed as a pirate and hanged at Execution Dock in 1721.

During his short, three-year career as a pirate captain, Black Bart captured an estimated 475 ships, far more than any other pirate. It was the ‘golden age’ of swashbuckling buccaneers and Black Bart was one of the most feared of them all.

The pirate rules Black Bart made his men swear to obey.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. None shall game for money either with dice or cards.

4. 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 sit upon the open deck without lights.

5. Each man shall keep his piece, cutlass and pistols at all times clean and ready for action.

6. 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.

7. He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning.

8. 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 walk ten paces, 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.

9. 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 the common stock and for lesser hurts proportionately.

10. 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.

11. The musicians shall have rest on the Sabbath Day only by right. On all other days by favour only.

12. If a member of the crew were to rape a woman he would be put to death or be marooned.


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