A Merry Life, But Short

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“In honest service, there are commonly low wages and hard labour; in this – plenty, satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power.  Who would not balance credit on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two on choking?  No, a merry life and a short one, that’s my motto.”

Bartholomew Roberts, Welsh Pirate, 1722

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John Roberts, born in 1682 in Pembrokeshire Wales, went to sea at the young age of thirteen. By 1719, the year his life changed, he was third mate on the slave ship, Princess, under Captain Abraham Plumb.  The Princess was anchored at Anomabu, along the Gold Coast of West Africa (Ghana), when she was captured by two pirate vessels, the Royal Rover and the Royal James, led by Captain Howell Davis, a fellow Welshman.  John Roberts was forced into piracy, but soon recognized the benefits of his new position. In the merchant navy, his wage was less than £3 per month.

John Roberts had several advantages.  Besides being confident, outspoken and opinionated, he was an excellent navigator and a natural leader.  He understood Welsh, which allowed Captain Davis to speak with him in confidence. As fate would have it, a captaincy would be his within six weeks of his capture, when Captain Davis was ambushed and fatally wounded during a layover on the island of Principe off the coast of West Africa.

John Roberts, duly elected as the new captain, changed his name from John to Bartholomew.  Bravery and success earned the loyalty of his crew. Unlike other pirates, he planned his attacks in detail, disliked drunkenness (preferring tea over beer) and maintained absolute discipline on his ships.

On February 5, 1722, he met destiny, swiftly, by a broadside of grape-shot on his deck, in the heat of battle with two Royal Navy ships.  Tall, dark-haired, he wore his legendary red damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a diamond and gold necklace and ornamented pistols and swords.  When he fell, his crew wrapped his body in a ship’s sail, weighing it down before assigning their captain to the sea.

Black Bart, as he became known years after his passing, was the most successful pirate of the 17th century taking over 470 prizes in his three-year career.  He was legendary and considered invincible. His death shocked the Royal Navy and the pirate world, marking a tipping point in history.  Many believe his passing signaled the end to the Golden Age of Piracy.

“The defeat of Roberts and the subsequent eradication of piracy off the coast of Africa represented a turning point in the slave trade and even in the larger history of capitalism.”

Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

24 thoughts on “A Merry Life, But Short

    • He got to me when I read that he preferred tea to beer. What I found interesting about Bartholomew was that he was not known for cruelty as were many of the pirates of his day. Some of the locals, including merchants, considered him a something of a hero. The other thing I found equally telling was that he was working on a slave ship, which to me was equally as horrific as being a pirate. Although I didn’t mention it in my post, he came up with a pirate “moral” code, which they all swore on a Bible to uphold. One of the books I have been meaning to read is “The Slave Ship” by Marcus Rediker, which gives more insight into this period. I have been waiting for the right moment, because it is a daunting read.

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      • I can see why he fascinated you ! A handsome intelligent rascal….yes, I think the slave ships and slave traders were much much worse than pirates

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      • This series has reminded me that history can be seen in different ways, from different perspectives. It tests our values of right and wrong, good and bad. I wonder what they will say about our generation a hundred years from now….hmmmm.

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    • Thank you! The more I read the more I realize I know very little about Pirates. But as Lloyd Alexander once said, “Keep reading. It’s one of the most marvelous adventures that anyone can have.”

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    • I agree – they were so young. They had to grow up very quickly – their journey was not for the fainthearted!!!

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  1. years ago I used to like swash bucklingpirate movies…arrrgh 🙂 I believe you’ve been passing on my tweets (on twitter) thank you so much, very kind of you!!!

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  2. wow what a story I am did not know anything about pirates until you posted, now days pirates are so different, I love tea and is true if you have a plan to attack it better not be drunk 😉

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    • I agree – tea keeps the sense alert and prepared. I am learning as I go along, too! History is bigger than I ever imagined. 🙂

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  3. Remember “Let’s Pretend” play as a child? 🙂

    Not an ocean in sight…….but we sure played pirate. Hiding the treasure, drawing the maps, walking the plank. And of course an old scarf tied around the head and a black patch over the eye.
    A thick piece of cardboard……an adult to cut it in shape of a knife…..crayons to color it silver.

    “I hear my mom calling for supper. 😦 Let’s meet back here tomorrow! I’ll bring my bottle cap collection and we can bury it as the treasure.”

    “Yeah! I gotta babysit my bratty little brother, but we can tie him up! See ya!”

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  4. We read of some very fascinating young pirates these days as well. They just don’t travel in ships–just fingers on keyboards.

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