Curator of Naval History James Davey shares examples of real pirates who were far more characterful than those of fiction.
When we think of pirates, we are drawn to the swashbuckling figures of film and fiction: Long John Silver, Captain Hook and more recently, Captain Jack Sparrow. Plunder, peg-legs and parrots make up the stereotypical image, and this continues to be encouraged through any number of fancy-dress costumes and the annual peculiarity that is ‘talk like a pirate day’.
Historians have attempted to change public perceptions and undermine long-standing myths. We now know that pirates did not make enemies walk the plank, nor did they wear parrots on their shoulder. Perhaps most revealing is the reality that pirates did not bury their treasure – I mean, why would you?
Sometimes, though, you come across an individual who makes you think that the buccaneering figure of legend might just have something going for it after all. One such person is Bartholomew Roberts, also known as ‘Black Bart’, who sailed the high seas during the early 1700s. Born in Casnewydd-Bach, he was one of a number of pirates who spoke with a distinctive Welsh lilt rather than the west-country accent of legend (see also Henry Morgan and John Callis). Tall, dark and by all accounts handsome, he fits our idea of what a pirate ought to look like perfectly; if you can imagine a more mischievous version of Ioan Gruffudd then you’re halfway there…
Roberts began his seafaring life in a merchant ship, but soon realised that there was more money to be made in a less reputable trade. He was elected captain of a pirate ship just a few weeks after joining it, and set about raiding the Atlantic world. He was especially successful in the Caribbean and altogether is believed to have captured over 400 prizes. His career came to an end in 1722 when a Royal Navy ship attacked his vessel at Cape Lopez in West Africa. Unfortunately for Roberts, his crew were too drunk to put up much of a fight, and he was struck down by a round of grapeshot.
Roberts’ death, standing amongst an intoxicated (and, it would seem, a rather shambolic) crew on the deck of his ship, appears a fitting demise for someone who spent decades living by the sword. In fact, throughout his career he seems to have created many of the piratical stereotypes we are familiar with today. Roberts had a taste for fine and flamboyant clothing, wearing rich crimson damask waistcoats and a gold chain around his neck (usually completing the look with a sword and a pair of pistols). His ship had a black flag which depicted Roberts himself standing with a skeleton and holding an hour glass; a suitably chilling image to adorn a ship intent on violence. He even had a ‘pirate code’, which ensured that each crew member voted on the affairs of the ship, and that food and plunder were distributed equally. Weapons were to be kept clean and ready for action, while marooning, mutilation and death were just some of the punishments handed out to those who broke the rules.
Brave, daring and commanding, he was the model buccaneer. So, if ever anyone says to you that ‘real’ pirates were not as interesting as those we see on the silver screen, just mention the name of Bartholomew Roberts.