100 Heroes: Bartholomew Roberts

The gay man who wrote the pirate code.

100 Heroes: Bartholomew Roberts

Bartholomew Roberts was a Welsh pirate who raided ships off the Americas and West Africa between 1719 and 1722. He was the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy - as measured by vessels captured - taking over 400 prizes in his career.

He is also known as Black Bart, but this name has been allocated to him retrospectively and was never used in his lifetime.

Early life

He was born John Roberts in 1682 in Casnewydd-Bach, between Fishguard and Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

It's not clear why he changed his name from John to Bartholomew, but pirates often adopted aliases.

It's believed that Roberts first went to sea in 1695 - when he was 13.

By 1718, he was mate of a Barbados sloop.

The pirate life

In 1719, Roberts was second mate on the slave ship Princess under Captain Abraham Plumb. In early June that year, the Princess was anchored at Anomabu - on the Gold Coast of West Africa - when she was captured by pirates. The pirates were in two vessels, Royal Rover and Royal James, and were led by captain Howell Davis. Davis, like Roberts, was a Welshman, originally from Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. Roberts and several other of the crew of the Princess were forced to join the pirates.

Davis quickly discovered Roberts' abilities as a navigator and took to consulting him. He was also able to confide information to Roberts in Welsh, thereby keeping it hidden from the rest of the crew.

It's believed that Roberts embraced his new career as a pirate - he's quoted as saying: "A merry life and a short one shall be my motto."

The golden age

A few weeks after Roberts had joined the crew of Howell Davis, Davis was killed by Portuguese forces on the island of Príncipe.

The crew elected Roberts as captain - an unusual move as he had only been captured by them six weeks prior. It's believed that his navigational abilities and outgoing personality made him a popular choice.

From there, Roberts led an adventurous life - raiding ships and colonies, making and losing fortunes. He effectively commanded a fleet of pirate ships.

His fortunes ended in 1722 when he was killed in a battle with a British naval ship. Roberts was buried at sea.

In many ways, the death of Roberts signalled the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

The pirate code

While the rules followed by Roberts and his crew were probably fairly consistent across all pirate ships of the era, it is the copy held by Roberts that has survived and documents the pirate code.

I. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.

II. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share,) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter hardships.

III. No person to game at cards or dice for money.

IV. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o'clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck;

V. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.

VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death;

VII. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.

VIII. No striking one another on board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.

IX. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.

X. The Captain and Quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and quarter.

XI. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.

The men

By most accounts, the pirate life included plenty of man-on-man action and recognised partnerships between men.

Roberts is seen as one of the most famous gay pirates - particularly because of his relationship with George Wilson.

Wilson was a surgeon who was on a ship captured by Roberts and his crew. They were separated occasionally, but they were seen as being in a relationship together.

When Roberts was finally killed in battle, Wilson was captured along with most of the crew. It's believed that Wilson was able to bargain with authorities in order to escape execution.

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