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Privateers & Pirates: Bartholomew Roberts

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Privateers & Pirates: Bartholomew Roberts

Bartholomew Roberts at Ouidah

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Bartholomew Roberts - Early Life:

The son of George Roberts of Little Newcastle, Wales, John Roberts was born May 17, 1682. Going to sea at 13, Roberts appears to have worked in the merchant service until 1719. For some reason during this time Roberts changed his name from John to Bartholomew. In 1718, Roberts served as a mate of a sloop trading around Barbados. The following year he signed on as third mate of the London-owed slaver Princess. Serving under Captain Abraham Plumb, Roberts traveled to Anomabu, Ghana in 1719. While off the coast of Africa, Princess was captured by the pirate vessels Royal Rover and Royal James led by Howell Davis.

Bartholomew Roberts - Pirate Career:

Coming aboard Princess, Davis forced several of Plumb's men, including Roberts to join his crew. A reluctant recruit, Roberts soon found favor when Davis learned that he was a skilled navigator. A fellow Welshman, Davis frequently conversed with Roberts in Welsh which allowed them to speak without the rest of the crew comprehending their discussion. After several weeks of cruising, Royal James had to be abandoned due to worm damage. Steering for Isle of Princes, Davis entered the harbor flying British colors. While repairing the ship, Davis began planning to capture the Portuguese governor.

Inviting the governor to dine aboard Royal Rover, Davis was in turn asked to the fort for a drink prior to the meal. Having discovered Davis' true identity, the Portuguese planned an ambush. As Davis' boat neared, they opened fire killing the pirate captain. Fleeing the harbor, the crew of Royal Rover was forced to elect a new captain. Though he had only been aboard for six weeks, Roberts was selected by the men to take command. Returning to the Isle of Princes after dark, Roberts and his men looted the town and killed the majority of the male population.

Though he had initially been an unwilling pirate, Roberts took to his new role as captain feeling that it was "Better being a commander than a common man." After capturing two ships, Royal Rover put into Anamboe for provisions. While in port, Roberts had his crew vote on the destination of their next voyage. Selecting Brazil, they crossed the Atlantic and anchored at Ferdinando to refit the ship. With this work completed, they spent nine fruitless weeks searching for shipping. Shortly before abandoning the hunt and moving north to the West Indies, Roberts located a fleet of 42 Portuguese merchant ships.

Entering Todos os Santos' Bay, Roberts captured one of the ships. Confronting its captain, he forced the man to point out the richest ship in the merchant fleet. Moving swiftly, Roberts' men swarmed aboard the indicated vessel and seized over 40,000 gold moidors as well as jewelry and other valuables. Departing the bay, they sailed north to Devil's Island to enjoy their loot. Several weeks later, Robert captured a sloop off the River Surinam. Shortly thereafter a brigantine was sighted. Eager for more plunder, Roberts and 40 men took the sloop to pursue it.

While they were gone, Roberts' subordinate, Walter Kennedy, and the rest of the crew sailed away with Rover and the treasure taken off Brazil. Irate, Roberts' drew up new, strict articles to govern his crew and made the men swear to them on a Bible. Renaming the sloop Fortune they proceeded to attack shipping around Barbados. In response to his actions, the merchants on the island fitted out two ships to seek and capture the pirates. On February 26, 1720, they found and engaged Roberts and a pirate sloop captained by Montigny la Palisse. While Roberts turned to fight, la Palisse fled.

In the ensuing battle, Fortune was badly damaged and 20 of Roberts' men were killed. Able to escape, he sailed for Dominica for repairs, evading pirate hunters from Martinique en route. Swearing vengeance on both islands, Roberts turned north and sailed to Newfoundland. After raiding the port of Ferryland, he entered the harbor of Trepassey and captured 22 ships. Commandeering a brig to replace his sloop, Roberts armed it with 16 guns and renamed it Fortune. Departing in June 1720, he quickly captured ten French ships and took one of them for his fleet. Naming it Good Fortune he armed it with 26 guns.

Returning to the Caribbean, Roberts put into Carriacou to careen Good Fortune. When this was completed he renamed the ship Royal Fortune and moved to attack St. Kitts. Entering Basse Terra Roads, he quickly captured all of the shipping in the harbor. After a brief stay on St. Bartholomew, Roberts' fleet began attacking shipping off St. Lucia and took 15 ships in three days. Among the prisoners was James Skyrme who became one of Roberts' captains. Through the spring of 1721, Roberts' and his men effectively stopped trade in the Windward Islands.

Bartholomew Roberts - Final Days:

After capturing and hanging the governor of Martinique in April 1721, Roberts set course for West Africa. On April 20, Thomas Anstis, the captain of Good Fortune, left Roberts during the night and returned to the West Indies. Pressing on, Roberts arrived at the Cape Verde Islands where he was forced to abandon Royal Fortune due to heavy leaking. Transferring to the sloop Sea King, he renamed the vessel Royal Fortune. Making landfall off Guinea in early June, Roberts quickly captured two French ships which he added to his fleet as Ranger and Little Ranger.

Operating off Sierra Leone later that summer, Roberts captured the British frigate Onslow. Taking possession, he made it his flagship with the name Royal Fortune. Following several months of successful plundering, Roberts attacked and occupied the port of Ouidah taking ten ships in the process. Moving to Cape Lopez, Roberts took time to careen and repair his ships. While there, the pirates were spotted by HMS Swallow, commanded by Captain Chaloner Ogle. Believing Swallow to be a merchant ship, Roberts sent James Skyrme and Ranger in pursuit. Leading the pirate vessel out of sight of Cape Lopez, Ogle turned and opened fire. Quickly defeating Skyrme, Ogle turned and set course for Cape Lopez.

Seeing Swallow approach on February 10, Roberts believed it to be Ranger returning from the hunt. Rallying his men, many of whom were drunk after capturing a ship the day before, Roberts sailed out in Royal Fortune to meet Ogle. Roberts plan was to pass Swallow and then fight in open water where escape would be easier. As the ships passed, Swallow opened fire. Royal Fortune's helmsman then erred allowing the British ship to unleash a second broadside. At that moment, Roberts was struck in the neck by grape shot and killed. His men managed to bury him at sea before being forced to surrender. Believed to have captured over 470 ships, Bartholomew Robert was one of the most successful pirates of all time. His death helped bring a close to the "Golden Age of Piracy."

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