Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts was the most successful pirate of the “Golden Age of Piracy,” which lasted roughly from 1700 to 1725.
In spite of his great success, he is relatively unknown in comparison with contemporaries such as Blackbeard, Charles Vane, or Anne Bonny.
Roberts was an officer on board the slave ship Princess in 1719 when his ship was captured by pirates under Welshman Howell Davis.
Perhaps because Roberts was also Welsh, he was one of a handful of men who were forced to join the pirates.
By all accounts, Roberts had no wish to join the pirates, but he had no choice.
He Quickly Rose in the Ranks
For a guy who didn’t want to be a pirate, he turned out to be a pretty good one.
He soon earned the respect of most of his shipmates, and when Davis was killed only six weeks or so after Roberts joined the crew, Roberts was named the captain.
He embraced the role, saying that if he had to be a pirate, it was better to be captain.
His first command was to attack the town where Davis had been killed, to avenge his former captain.
He Was Very Clever and Brazen
Roberts’ biggest score came when he happened upon a Portuguese treasure fleet anchored off of Brazil.
Pretending to be part of the convoy, he entered the bay and silently took one of the ships.
He asked the master which ship had the most loot.
He then sailed up to that ship, attacked and boarded it before anyone knew what was happening.
By the time the convoy escort – two massive Portuguese Men of War – caught on, Roberts was sailing away in his own ship and the treasure ship he had just taken.
It was a gutsy move, and it paid off.
Roberts Launched the Careers of Other Pirates
Roberts was indirectly responsible for beginning the careers of other pirate captains.
Not long after he captured the Portuguese treasure ship, one of his captains, Walter Kennedy, sailed off with it, infuriating Roberts and beginning a brief pirate career of his own.
About two years later, Thomas Anstis was persuaded by disgruntled crew members to set out on his own as well.
On one occasion, two ships full of would-be pirates sought him out, looking for advice. Roberts took a liking to them and gave them advice and weapons.
He Used Several Different Pirate Flags
Roberts is known to have used at least four different flags.
The one usually associated with him was black with a white skeleton and a pirate, holding an hourglass between them.
Another flag showed a pirate standing on two skulls. Beneath was written ABH and AMH, standing for “A Barbadian Head” and “A Martinico’s Head.” Roberts hated Martinique and Barbados as they had sent ships to catch him.
During his final battle, his flag had a skeleton and a man holding a flaming sword.
When he sailed to Africa, he had a black flag with a white skeleton.
The skeleton held crossbones in one hand and an hourglass in the other. Beside the skeleton were a spear and three red drops of blood.
He Had One of the Most Formidable Pirate Ships Ever
In 1721, Roberts captured the massive frigate Onslow. He changed her name to Royal Fortune (he named most of his ships the same thing) and mounted 40 cannons on her.
The new Royal Fortune was a nearly invincible pirate ship, and at the time only a well-armed navy vessel could hope to stand against her.
The Royal Fortune was as impressive a pirate ship as Sam Bellamy’s Whydah or Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge.
He Was the Most Successful Pirate of His Generation
In the three years between 1719 and 1722, Roberts captured and looted over 400 vessels, terrorizing merchant shipping from Newfoundland to Brazil and the Caribbean and the African coast.
No other pirate of his age comes close to that number of captured vessels.
He was successful in part because he thought big, usually commanding a fleet of anywhere from two to four pirate ships which could surround and catch victims.
He Was Cruel and Tough
In January of 1722, Roberts captured the Porcupine, a slave ship he had found at anchor.
The ship’s captain was on shore, so Roberts sent him a message, threatening to burn the ship if a ransom were not paid.
The captain refused, so Roberts burned the Porcupine…with some 80 slaves still shackled on board. Interestingly, his nickname “Black Bart” is attributed not to his cruelty but to his dark hair and complexion.
He Went Out With a Fight
Roberts was tough and fought to the end. In February of 1722, the Swallow, a Royal Navy Man of War, was closing in on the Royal Fortune, having already captured the Great Ranger, another one of Roberts’ ships.
Roberts could have run for it, but he decided to stand and fight. Roberts was killed in the first broadside, however, his throat torn out by grapeshot from one of the Swallow’s cannons.
His men followed his standing order and threw his body overboard.
Leaderless, the pirates soon surrendered; most of them were eventually hanged.
*This article was originally published at www.thoughtco.com