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BLACK BART (Gentleman-pirate).

John Roberts was an assistant captain on the English ship Princess, which carried black slaves from Africa to the New World. In June 1719, after loading slaves at the Guinean port of Anambu, the Princess was preparing to leave for Barbados when pirates attacked the ship. The captain of the pirate ship was Howell Davis. Like John, he was from Wales, and they quickly found common ground: the pirate offered his compatriot the position of first mate on his ship.
John Roberts was 36 years old and deliberately accepted the offer to “…finally rid himself of the arrogant superiority of his superiors…”, as he noted in his diary. He was older than Davis, and in their partnership, the adventurous spirit of one’s youth complemented the professionalism and maturity of the other. These leadership qualities were quickly recognized by the team. To escape the past, John changed his name to Bartholomew. A dark, statuesque man with thick, curly black hair, he immediately earned the nickname ‘Black Bart’.
He recorded his appointment “…if I have dipped my hands in the troubled waters of piracy, it is better to be a commander here than a mere sailor…”.

After the Portuguese governor’s soldiers shot the pirate delegation and killed Captain Davis, the crew unanimously elected Black Bart as their leader, even though he had been with the pirates for less than two months. His reputation was absolute, and the new captain’s orders were obeyed without question.
The first thing Black Bart did was to pay his debt to the island’s governor. The pirates burned and leveled the buildings of the garrison, killed all the soldiers, destroyed the fort, and threw the cannons into the sea. At sea, they robbed a Danish merchant ship and captured an English ship, whose crew all went over to them. After replenishing their water and food supplies, the pirates set sail for the Atlantic in two ships and within a month were off the coast of Brazil.

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Pirates were the first to invent democracy. The ship belonged to the crew, the captain, and all the officers were elected by majority vote, and the booty was divided equally according to rank. Discipline was strict and offenders were severely punished, up to and including death. Any pirate could leave the game by accumulating a certain amount of money, and this was a condition of freedom. The captain had absolute power during an attack and had the right to kill a coward, but after a failed attack he could be criticized by the majority and removed from his position. The second officer after the captain was the quartermaster. He was responsible for the crew’s actions during boarding, enforced the captain’s orders, settled all disputes, and was responsible for the fair distribution of booty.

As a professional seaman, Black Bart realized that the scourge of the fleet was anarchy, which often ended in mutiny. Magellan had the mutiny, Drake had the conspiracy, and mutineers had their heads chopped off. So Black Bart imposed rules on his ships and demanded unquestioning obedience. Here are some of them:

1.Everyone has one vote and an equal share in the distribution of food and drink.

2.Anyone who cheats his mates out of a share will be sent to a desert island.

3.It is forbidden to play cards or dice for money on board.

4.Candles must be extinguished by 8 pm. Anyone wishing to take a strong drink after this hour must do so on the open deck.

5.Weapons must be kept perfectly clean and ready for use.

6.Children and women are not allowed on board. Anyone who breaks this rule will be put to death.

7.Desertion during battle is punishable by death.

8.The captain and the quartermaster receive two shares, the bosun and the gunners one and a half shares, the officers one and a quarter shares, and the sailors one share.

9.The musicians may rest on Saturday; on the other days and nights, they must be ready for duty.
Similar rules, with slight variations, existed among other pirates.

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In the coastal waters of Brazil, Black Bart circled for a long time, and one day fortune smiled on the pirates. At ‘All Saints Bay’, they spotted a caravan. Forty-two Portuguese ships, laden with colonial riches, were waiting for two military frigates to escort them across the Atlantic. In the darkness of the Brazilian night, the pirates silently sneaked up in their boats and climbed onto one of the ships. Black Bart told the captain to point out the richest ship in the convoy or be killed on the spot. The Portuguese had no choice but to comply and pointed to a 40-gun galleon.
The galleon had a crew of 150 men, sailors, and soldiers. But Black Bart was undeterred by the superiority of the enemy. The pirates’ weapon was cunning, and that very night they brought their ship and boarded the galleon.
In the confusion and panic that ensued on all the ships in the caravan, the pirates managed to slip out of the harbor, taking the captured galleon with them. Its hold was full of sacks of sugar, tobacco, and animal skins, and its chests rang with gold moydors. The pirates also found 240,000 silver coins. Among the jewels found was a golden cross set with diamonds – a gift to the King of Portugal. From then on, the cross belonged to Black Bart.

In November 1719, on Devil’s Island off the coast of Venezuela, pirates who had sold some of their cargo to the locals were spending their time drinking. One day they spotted a sail on the horizon, and Black Bart and 40 pirates set off in pursuit in his light brigantine. He left the treasure galleon and the flagship in the care of his mate Kennedy. The latter was jealous and did not hesitate to seize his chance. After inciting the crew, he fled, capturing both ships and their treasures.
The pursued ship was lost in the fog, and when the pirates returned, they found that their comrades had escaped, taking a Portuguese galleon with them.

For the escaped Kennedy, his treachery was not in vain. Pickpocketing in London, he was captured by soldiers recruiting men for warships. Kennedy ended up in the West Indies, where he joined Davis’s pirates. After stealing both of Black Bart’s ships, he disposed of the galleon, taking all its valuable cargo, and sailed north on the stolen Royal Hunter. Off the Bahamas, his pirates captured the New York ship ‘Eagle’ with a cargo of rum, and after waiting for the drunken crew to fall asleep in an alcoholic stupor, Kennedy and 48 of his accomplices fled on the captured ship with the money and valuables, determined to return to Ireland. Kennedy was a poor navigator and in May his ship ran aground in a storm off the coast of Scotland. The crew escaped, but pirates will be pirates. They hid in taverns and brandished knives. They were all arrested at the English border, tried, and hanged in Edinburgh. Kennedy himself escaped and made his way to London, where he resumed his old ways of pickpocketing. He lasted another year, was caught stealing, identified as a pirate, and hanged.

Black Bart was not too upset by his assistant’s betrayal, and a week later, in January 1720, he seized a merchant brig off the island of Tobago and, over the next two months, three more ships near Barbados and Martinique. The governors of these islands launched a hunt for the pirate, and in response, he threatened to hang them both. But the places were getting dangerous, and Black Bart decided to disappear for a while. He took his small fleet far north to Canada. There was no one waiting for him.
In the waters off Newfoundland, they plundered and drowned everyone they caught. In June, Black Bart attacked his rich prey. There were 22 merchant ships anchored in Tripassi Bay, and the pirates pounced on them. The crews jumped into lifeboats and fled for their lives. Black Bart had only one hundred pirates, but they robbed, burned, and drowned all the ships with a total crew of one thousand two hundred sailors! Black Bart was first in the attack, with his saber in hand, and the pirates looking at his captain, were falling into a bloody frenzy. After the massacre in the bay, Black Bart made his new flagship a captured 26-gun French ship, which he named the ‘Royal Luck’. The victims of this raid were 40 large ships, not counting the small craft, of which there were hundreds.
On their way back to the warm waters of the Caribbean, they captured and sank 15 more English and French ships. So much treasure was taken that Black Bart hid some of it in a remote part of the Cayman Islands. He knew the islands were notorious for giant crocodiles that attacked people. Now the reptiles were guarding his gold. In the autumn, Black Bart was circling near the island of Martinique, where war had been declared against him and where he swore revenge. He attacked and captured the 42-gun frigate of the island’s governor. As promised, he hanged the governor on the mast of his ship. The pirate made the frigate his flagship and renamed the prize ‘Royal Luck’.
Warships sent to capture the pirate were changing course when they saw the sails of his fleet. No one wanted to die. The newspapers wrote about the pirate, calling him the Admiral of the Caribbean. And Black Bart himself was tired of the West Indies. He decided to go to Africa.

In April 1721, his ships were in the waters of the African continent. There the pirate captured several slave ships, including a 40-gun frigate belonging to the Anglo-African Company. Black Bart wasted no time in repairing the worn-out ships, replacing them with fresher ones. He made the captured frigate his flagship, again renaming it ‘Royal Luck’. His second ship was the ‘Great Hunter’. In June, the pirates spent time with local beauties in a secluded cove off the coast of Sierra Leone. Here, Black Bart learned that he was being pursued by two 50-gun English naval vessels. To cover his tracks, he sailed south, robbing and drowning any witnesses who might have told the English about him. During this adventure, the pirates captured the French frigate ‘Onslow’ and Black Bart made it his new flagship, arming it with 40 cannons and renaming the ship ‘Royal Luck’. Seamen are superstitious, and Black Bart continued to name each of his next flagships with the same name. He was more successful at piracy than anyone before him, capturing a dozen ships a month.

At the end of October, Black Bart’s ships appeared in the Bay of Calabar and seized three slave ships from Bristol. The pirates intended to sell the booty and replenish their supplies, but the local chiefs, unwilling to deal with pirates who would not buy slaves from them, raised two thousand troops against the foreigners. This infuriated Black Bart, and his thugs started a beating. The local army fled in panic, and the pirates burned every building in the village before retreating to their ships and leaving the bay. They moved along the coast, selling their booty in small ports. In early January 1722, they captured several ships carrying slaves in the waters of the Ivory Coast, and Black Bart decided to sail to the port of Whydah to sell the live goods. The port was a popular destination for Portuguese trading ships, and the captains’ coffers were always full of gold coins. A bloody story happened there.

On 11 January, Black Bart appeared in the bay, where he found eleven ships anchored. Seeing the pirate flags, the crews surrendered without a fight. According to the harbor records, the pirates’ success was because the ships had only been left on watch and the captains and their sailors were ashore that day, busy buying slaves and doing paperwork. Black Bart realized that the money had already gone to the officials ashore. So he wasted no time in searching the ships’ holds, but sent an ultimatum to the captains, demanding 8 pounds in gold from each and threatening to burn their ships. All paid. Except Captain Fletcher, who refused the ultimatum. Black Bart decided to punish the stubborn man and ordered his ship burned. The pirates climbed aboard and found eighty slaves chained together. Without wasting time trying to free the slaves, they simply set fire to the ship as they had been ordered. Fleeing the fire, the survivors jumped overboard and many were eaten by sharks in the water. Those slaves who were chained to the deck were burned alive.

Off the coast of the Slave Coast, at the mouth of the Gabon River, lies Parrots Island. Merchant ships were sheltered here from storms, and pirates sometimes visited here to rob them. In early February 1722, the island’s bay was greeted by Black Bart’s fleet. His ships, the ‘Royal Luck’, the ‘Great Hunter’, and the ‘Small Hunter’, were carrying a large cargo of rum from their latest booty, and the pirates spent their time partying with the local girls, who always attracted to the free treats like bees to honey.
On this day, Black Bart was on a pleasant errand. He was visited by an old friend, the commander of the British ship ‘Neptune’, Captain Hill. Over lunch and conversation, they reminisced about the old days when the guards saw a sail on the horizon. Believing it to be another ‘sugar Portuguese’, of which they had captured a dozen in recent days, Black Bart sent his ‘Great Hunter’ in pursuit.

The pirates ran into the warships of Captain Chalone Ogle. When Captain Ogle saw the pirate flag and the masts of the ships in the bay, he realized that he had hit wild game. He decided to cheat by pretending to flee the pursuit. He led the pirates over the horizon so that he could fire his cannon at them, far away from the Black Bart’s telescopes. The cannonballs broke the ‘Great Hunter’s’ mast. A dozen pirates were killed and wounded, and the rest raised the white flag. Some tried to blow up the ship by firing at the powder keg. But the small explosion only burned them, a barrel of gunpowder was not enough. At first, Captain Ogle wanted to sink the captured ship, but then he had an idea. For two days, his sailors repaired the damaged parts of the captured trophy, and then they set sail for Parrots Island.

Through the telescope, Black Bart watched the return of his ‘Great Hunter’. He mistook several ships coming alongside for prey. The ships sailed into the bay. The drunken pirates aboard the ‘Royal Fortune’ shouted as they greeted their returning comrades. Captain Ogle’s ship was close by the time Black Bart realized he had been tricked. But it was too late to do anything about it: most of his crew had gone ashore to drink. The pirate had only minutes. He came on deck in his finest clothes, with a diamond cross on his chest and a saber in his hand. The cannons of Captain Ogle’s ship fired a volley, and Black Bart’s chest was ripped open by shrapnel. The pirates threw his body into the water, as he had wished. Overwhelmed by the death of their idol, they surrendered to the victor.

John Roberts, nicknamed “Black Bart”, disliked strong drinks and drank only tea, a rarity among pirates. He was a dandy, liked to dress well, and knew from the first day of his piracy that his new life would not last long. Not wanting to end his life on the gallows, he stepped out under the cannon fire of Captain Ogle’s ship.
Of the two hundred pirates who surrendered, 152 were tried and 54 were hanged. Fifty-two of the pirates were slaves and were returned to slavery. Many died in prison before they could be tried. Black Bart plundered 400 ships during his three-year pirate career and goes down in history as the most successful pirate of the golden age of Caribbean piracy. Two thousand pounds of gold (one ton) was found on one of his three ships alone, and it was the gold of the crew.

EPILOGUE. “I CHOOSE THE SHORT LIFE…”
Today, pirates still rob, kidnap, and kill in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Instead of telescopes, they have night-vision binoculars, and instead of boarding hooks and sabers, they have machine guns and portable rocket launchers. By encouraging privateers, kings irritated their vassals with the winds of freedom. And they were becoming pirates. So as long as there is inequality that breeds envy and hatred, there will be pirates, both on land and sea. This remains the most dangerous of all for kings, presidents, and dictators.
Anticipating his end, Black Bart left a note: “There is little pay for honest work, but there is much hard labor in it. And in this life, there is much freedom and pleasure. Who would trade that for slave labor? I choose a short life, but full of pleasure!

Or was he wrong?

Published inPirates

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