Strangely, this pirate was teetotal, drinking nothing stronger than tea. Amongst the more successful pirates, he managed to tame a pack of ravenous sea dogs into a team that looted or ransomed some 400 ships!
Born in Wales, he served 20 years as an honest seaman and was 2nd Officer aboard a slave ship when it was taken by a pirate vessel under the command of Howell Davis, one of his countrymen. He was impressed into service and learned pirating so well that when Davis was killed in action only six weeks later his shipmates elected him captain.
Black Bart, as he became known, was what pirates called ‘pistol proof’ but he was a skilled mariner and an excellent tactician but did not believe in the pirates’ creed of ‘hard liquor and soft women.’
Black Bart’s ‘uniform’ would have done justice in any opera with a damask waistcoat, breeches and silk stockings topped off by a tricorn hat with red plumes.
His greatest victory came early in his piratical career when he came upon a fleet of Portuguese armed vessels off Brazil and, sailing straight into the middle of the fleet, he selected the largest ship, the ‘Santiago Familia’ which carried 40 guns and 150 men, and headed towards her in his much smaller vessel. With a sudden broadside, he surprised the heavily laden treasure ship and captured her, losing only two of his men in the action, then sailed her out to sea before Portuguese men of war could react. The treasure ship’s cargo consisted of £5,000 worth of gold together with sugar, tobacco and hides.
According to one observer of the time, Robert’s men were ‘a parcel of furies’ and the governor of New England said, ‘one could not withhold admiration for their bravery and daring.’
Roberts sailed into Trepenny in Newfoundland with one ship, a sloop of 10 guns and 60 men, where there were 22 merchant ships, more than 1,200 men and 40 guns. He plundered and burnt many ships and took many prisoners. But he did not stop there – he took and plundered the entire port with his 60 men.
Towards the end of Black Bart’s three year career, he commanded three ships: ‘Royal Fortune’, ‘Great Ranger’ and ‘Little Ranger’, but his final defeat came at the hands of the British Navy where he was pursued by HMS ‘Swallow’ under Captain Chaloner Ogle with orders to destroy every pirate ship he met.
First to fall was ‘Great Ranger’ which the crew tried to blow up saying, ‘We will all go merrily to hell together.’ Next ‘Little Ranger’ was taken and finally, ‘Swallow’ caught ‘Royal Fortune’ by surprise along the African coast. Roberts headed his ship directly at ‘Swallow’ but, dressed in his finest outfit, he was killed by grapeshot before the manoeuvre could be completed.
54 of his men were hanged in England, most being unrepentant, the last meeting his doom on April 20th 1722. One prayed as he went to the gallows and told a fellow prisoner he was praying to go to heaven.
‘Heaven!’ shouted his shipmate, ‘No one heard of a pirate going there. Give me Hell, it’s a merrier place!’
by Terry Took © 2015
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.