On the 10th of February 1722, at Cape Lopez in what is now the West African state of Gabon a Captain Challoner Ogle of the Royal Navy engaged and defeated one of the worlds most notorious outlaws, Bartholomew Roberts.
Roberts had come a long way from his roots in the little Welsh town of Haverfordwest both figuratively and literally.
His journey so far had taken him across the Atlantic from the cool waters of Newfoundland to the blistering equatorial heat he and his crew now suffered. Years of constant running had taken its toll on the men and their vessels, 'The Royal Fortune' and 'The Ranger'. Piracy was losing its appeal, living 'on the run' was part of their occupation but now they were being hunted.
Just one year earlier Captain Teach had died and the Navy had the upper hand right across the Atlantic. Unlike Teach, the psychopathic template for a thousand one dimensional pirate characters, Roberts was a complex man. He was everything you'd expect from a cutthroat rogue but more. Sharp minded and apparently well read, disciplined and humane in outlook but ruthless when needed. Of course, this ruthlessness is well documented thanks to the Royal Navy. Biographers were scarce amongst pirates but there are enough fragments to piece together a better idea of the man than the naval account offers.
The British government saw Roberts as a major threat and not just to shipping. Disrupting vital trade links was bad enough but of all the freebooters to ever leave British shores there have only been a few with the potential for military and political organisation enough to pose a greater danger. The legendary Captain Morgan, the Pirate King, being the most notable. Bartholomew Roberts or 'Black Bart' as he has been referred to could have equaled Morgan. To the English crown this was unthinkable.
This was a time when the British were still struggling to maintain their North American and Caribbean possessions, problems that would ultimately express themselves in the American Revolutionary War. The British were desperate to secure their foothold in India and stability there was threatened by Raja Sulaiman. The global land-grab was heating up; Spain, France and Holland had explorers everywhere. Complex and fragile agreements between states were at risk.
The Swallow and the Weymouth, armed to the teeth!
Black Bart had to be stopped and to this end orders were issued to Captain Ogle. His brief was simple, to hunt down and stop Roberts. A measure of how dangerous the admiralty thought Roberts was is in the way they equipped Ogle. He set sail with two ships, the ‘Swallow ‘and the ‘Weymouth,’ both armed to the teeth, ‘The Swallow’ alone carried sixty guns! In addition to this, each ship had specially selected crewmen.
You would be forgiven for thinking Bart's reputation had been built up over a lifetime but far from it. Bartholomew Roberts had only been a pirate for about three years. In his brief career he had been accused of 'taking' four hundred trading ships, eleven in one day! Pirates would routinely attack settlements too, Roberts was no exception. It's claimed he assaulted a Newfoundland harbor destroying twenty-one ships then turning his guns on the town itself. He certainly earned his reputation.
However, there are a number of ways he differs from other pirate captains. It's said he was a 'tea-totaler' and very respectful to the clergy. The main difference is in his attitude to his crew and their prisoners. He wrote a contract to which all his crew subscribed. It stated among other things, that no women should be permitted on board, dice and gambling were not allowed, lights were put out at eight o'clock and musicians were exempt from playing on Sundays. This is very unusual and deserves a closer look.
Contra to popular belief pirates had no problem with having women on board. In fact, two of the most notorious pirates were female, Anne Bonnie and Mary Read. Historians now accept the Royal Navy even had some women serving aboard. When in port it was normal to have wives or 'girl friends' aboard since the Navy didn't want to risk the men absconding on shore leave. So why did Roberts insist otherwise, why no women on board? Could it have been a way of ensuring the safety of females found on plundered ships?
In 1719 Bartholomew Roberts was an upright honest gent. He sailed from London bound for Guinea as Second Mate on the Princess under the command of Captain Plumb. At Anamaboe (today Anamaboe is in Ghana) they were 'taken' by another infamous Welsh pirate, one Captain Howel Davis. It should be noted it was common for pirates to seek new crewmen amongst prisoners on the ships they plundered. First by persuasion then by force, if necessary. The threat of violence was always present. One way or another, Roberts agreed to sail with Davis on his ship, ‘The Rover’’.
In-fighting and mutiny were common place with pirates although Captain Davis was very well respected by his crew. Even so, finding a Welsh speaking, educated second mate must have been a boon. Here was an apparently trustworthy man with whom he could confide in without revealing plans to the other non-Welsh speaking company. However, Bart's service to Davis was cut short at just six weeks. Leading an attack on a Portuguese colony at Princes Island (Panaitan) off Guinea Davis was killed and the pirates thrown back.
The chain of command aboard a pirate ship differed from military and civilian vessels greatly. Each crewmember had the right to vote on how the ship was to be managed, its missions and exploits. In normal running the ships Quartermaster would command but deferred to the Captain on offensive and defensive operations. The crew appointed both positions. With Davis lost the 'Rover’s' crew elected Bart his replacement, their first action to seek revenge on the Portuguese at Princes Island.
Roberts proved an able and confident commander. He dispatched a troop of thirty men in the charge of his lieutenant, Walter Kennedy with orders to over-run the fort defenses under the cover of the ship's guns. This surprise attack terrified the Portuguese who ran from their positions allowing Kennedy to enter without a man lost. The crew felt this was insufficient revenge for the loss of Captain Davis and sought to burn the town to the ground. Roberts argued against this and persuaded the men to spare the rest of the colony. The first evidence he was not quite the cutthroat we are lead to believe, though his argument was selfish in nature. He put it to the crew that since the town's defenses were stronger than the fort's a balance had to be found between its worth and their losses in taking it. The crew eventually came to side with Bart but in the harbor there lay three ships, one French and two Portuguese. As a final insult to the colony they spared the French vessel and burnt the other two. The insult wasn't enough for Kennedy, he held a grudge over this all the while he sailed with Roberts.
They made a nuisance of themselves in that area for a while longer, seizing a Dutch ship, which once plundered, was returned to her captain. Shortly after that and still in sight of Cape Lopez they came upon the Experiment, an English ship commanded by Captain Cornet. It seems all of the Experiment's crew agreed to join with ‘The Rover’’ though we don't know what Cornet thought of this. Whatever happened they burned her before moving on across the Atlantic to Brazil where between luck and judgment they would hit the jackpot.
Youtube documentary on Black Bart