The Most Infamous Pirate Who Ever Lived

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Life is better when some promises aren't kept

It isn’t long during the course of our lives before we find people don’t keep their promises. Words of great meaning are often tossed about with no meaning behind them. How often have you heard things like this said in your life?

  • “I love you.”
  • “I’ll always be there for you.”
  • “You can depend on me.”
  • “Anything you ever need.”

Once these promises are called upon, many times you’ll find them empty. The person who said these things is gone because the promise was too hard to keep.

One who is said to keep their word is held in high regard and respected. But, let’s turn this idea on its head for a second. Imagine the negative impact on the world if someone was malicious and always kept their word.

What if every threat issued by this person wasn’t “idle”? What if even the most outlandish promises and curses uttered by this person became true? How terrifying would this be? It might even make you reminisce of the empty words spoken by those undependable friends or loves of your past.

In the 1720's, the colony of Virginia was experiencing this bizarre situation with a monster who always kept his word. They hurriedly built watchtowers and panic spread throughout the land. Guns and cannons were gathered while the colonist stood alert.

Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts had made a promise to get them — the entire colony. His threats were never meaningless, and his promises were always kept. He was coming and they were terrified.

The Reluctant Pirate

Robert’s life is relatively unknown until he signed up as a mate on the ship called Princess according to Angus Konstam’s book Pirates: Predators of the Seas. The boat would be attacked and captured by the pirate Howell Davis. Robert’s Welsh background and sailing skills would help keep him alive.

According to The Richmond Observer, Roberts had been invited to join Howell’s crew. Although, “invited” might not exactly be the proper word. If he had refused, he might have been turned into fish food.

The future pirate would be adopted into Howell’s crew and his navigation skills would prove useful. Roberts’ ability to speak Howell’s native tongue likely won him a bit of favor as well.

They wouldn’t have much time to cement any kind of friendship though. Howell would soon be killed during an attempt to capture the governor of the island of Principe. After his death, the ship would hold an election. A group of “Lords” would elect candidates and the “Commons” would vote on them. Roberts would be elected and win according to The Pirates Own Book by Charles Ellms.

Roberts is reported to have replied to his appointment by saying, “That since he had dipped his hands in muddy water, and must be a pirate, it was better being a commander than a private man.”

Roberts would promise the crew to avenge the death of their previous well-esteemed captain. The crew would attack the Portuguese fort on the island and burn it, tossing their cannons into the ocean. They’d also burn some houses down in the town and set a ship on fire in the harbor. The crew would capture and loot a couple ships in local waters a few days after this as well.

Roberts was immediately found to be a man of his word.

The Business Of Piracy
Pixabay — Picture By Dimitrisvetsikas1969

According to Konstam’s book, Roberts quickly showed his bravado and skill. He moved his two-ship fleet into the convoy and blended in. He and his crew quietly captured a merchant ship close to them and asked the captain what the richest ship in the fleet was. The captain pointed out a ship with 150 men aboard and an arsenal of 40 canons, which was much bigger than the ships in Roberts’ small fleet.

The pirates managed to keep themselves undercover and attack their new target. They boarded the larger ship and found it loaded with 40,000 gold coins, jewelry, and items specifically for the king of Portugal. Roberts’ band would rob the ship without being discovered and make off to spend their loot.

Roberts’ second in command would later steal his second ship and some of the loot. In response, Roberts would put together a pirate code. Konstam actually has the original code Roberts and his crew formulated listed, which sounded surprisingly business-like for something of pirate origin.

  • Each man had an equal vote on “affairs of the moment” and had a right to equal share of fresh provisions acquired. Each man got a share of the loot, officers got a slightly higher share.
  • Each man is entitled to his share of loot and no more. Theft of another man’s property could result in death or being marooned.
  • No gambling aboard ship. No crewmember can strike another onboard. Arguments will be settled on shore by means of a dual.
  • The lights go out at eight at night. If anyone wants to stay up past those hours, they sit in darkness.
  • Weapons must be ready and clean at all times. Leaving the ship during time of battle would result in death.
  • No women or children allowed on board. If they’re found hidden on ship, the punishment is death.
  • Men who are injured in service shall be compensated with 800 pieces of eight from the common stock and “lesser hurts proportionately”.
  • Musicians are can rest on the Sabbath Day.

As Konstam points out in his book, the terms of his contract were much more generous than what normal naval sailors received. So, it wasn’t a wonder why Roberts might be tempted to leave his hand in “muddy waters”. A wounded sailor was also compensated for his injuries, which is also an unheard-of benefit at those times.

As a whole, Roberts was a strange pirate. Many sources describe him as being a “teetotaler” who preferred tea over alcohol on board. He also appeared to be a surprisingly good sailor who could coordinate the action of multiple ships. Many sources also report he liked to dress in fine clothes and “made a gallant figure” according to author Charles Ellms.

He also had a strange respect for the Sabbath Day, despite the murderous nature you’ll be accustomed within the next section.

The Unknown Becomes Infamous
Bartholomew Roberts with his ship and captured merchant ships in the background, 1724 by Benjamin Cole

Roberts would attack the harbor of Trepassi in Newfoundland, coming into port with drums beating and cannons firing, according to Ellms. All the sailors abandoned their ships in the harbor, which Roberts captured and effectively took over the port.

Roberts would travel from the Caribbean, to Africa, and to North America avoiding naval fleets and plundering wherever he went. One of his most infamous feats would occur when he’d make another promise come true and get revenge on the governor of Martinique.

“When Black Bart said he was going to get you, he got you. And when he got the governor of Martinique, he hung him from the yardarm of his own ship.”
— Historian John Quarstein as quoted in the

On a trip to St. Kitts and Martinique, on which Konstam reports Roberts would take 100 ships, the pirate would find a 52-cannon warship. Roberts would brazenly attack and take this ship and find the governor of Martinique who dared to put a bounty on his head.

Roberts would hang the governor on his own ship, torturing and killing most of the crew, and taking the warship as his own flagship. This would be one of the many stunning acts that would shock and terrify many in the Golden Age of Piracy, which Roberts was a part of. The Richmond Observer reports that Roberts amassed a haul that equaled $32 million in present times and captured over 400 ships in the span of only 3 years.

The End Of The Terror

In 1720, a few of Roberts’ crew had decided they would retire in the Virginia colony, which turned out to be a bad idea. They didn’t exactly try and blend in, throwing money around lavishly and making a spectacle of themselves. It was obvious to everyone that they were former pirates.

According to the Daily Press, Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood would order them arrested and tried. A number also came forward to testify against the former pirates. The pirates brazenly cursed the governor and the colony as they stood on the gallows.

A sailor coming into port later would bring a message from Roberts himself. He had heard of the trial and was coming with a fleet and 112 cannons to teach the colony a lesson. The colony had heard of Roberts’ exploits and knew him as a man who kept his promises, so panic spread throughout the area.

In 1722, however, Roberts would be stopped before he could put a plan in motion to punish the colony. A British warship would find Roberts’ fleet off the coast of Africa. The Swallow, commanded by Challoner Ogle, would charge towards Roberts’ unaware ship.

The crew, who was still drunk from the night before, thought the British vessel was another ship with Roberts’ pirate fleet and sat idle. Once the Swallow was noticed, it was too late to run. Roberts only option would be to attempt a risky escape — the crew was in no shape to fight. They’d try and sail past the warship and hope the possible broadside of cannon fire wouldn’t cause too much damage.

Roberts would be dressed in his finest clothes, adorned in gold and diamonds with his pistols hanging from a piece of silk around his shoulders, according to Ellms. It might be imagined he’d stick out like a sore thumb. Whether the British clearly saw him or not couldn’t be known, but Roberts would be hit in the throat with grapeshot from a cannon and instantly die early in the engagement.

The rest of the pirate fleet would be captured, and punishment handed out to the crews who followed Roberts. Likely the world breathed a sigh of relief as word spread of his passing. In ThoughtCo.’s biography of Roberts, they mention that commerce came to a dead halt wherever he operated. If you think about it, the loss of over 400 ships in of 3 years must have been like a man-made catastrophe of sorts.

According to the article in the Daily Press, Alexander Spotswood would still be afraid years after Roberts’ death. He’d only travel to England on the largest of warships. After all, Roberts had made a promise and they always seemed to come true.

Think of this when you reflect on those who let you down with empty words in the future. Unfulfilled promises of wonderful things will always beat an unending litany of threats and curses which are always fulfilled. You may have lackluster friends and loves, but you luckily don’t have a Bartholomew Roberts in your life.

Life is better when some promises aren’t kept.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

Bucks County, PA

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