“Black Bart” survived less than four short years as a pirate, but in that time he gained fame as one of the most daring captains and ruthless adversaries on the sea. A man of contradictions, he led his men in positive and negative pursuits by setting the example. Highly successful, pious, and ruthless, he encompassed all that a pirate could be.
Born John Roberts in 1682, he left his birthplace of Haverfordwest, Wales at an early age to go to sea as a member of the Royal Navy. In 1718, he entered employment on the Princess, a ship used in the slave trade. The Golden Age of Piracy was nearing its end by 1719, when famed pirate Howell Davis captured the Princess. Third mate John Roberts, age 37, was "encouraged" to join Howell's crew where he applied his advanced navigational skills. A few weeks after Roberts joined the crew, Davis was killed during an attack. The crew elected Roberts captain and he became known to his crew as “Black Barti,” due in part to his dark hair and complexion. He soon was known on the high seas as “Barti Ddu,” and "Black Bart." Black Bart began his pirate career with a frenzy. His raids were legendary even among the most feared buccaneers. He did not hesitate to attack - with great success - ships and gunboats larger than his own. Many fleets succumbed to his expertise and over the course of nearly four years he amassed great wealth from more than 400 ships.
As a result of his activities, the shipping trade suffered greatly and some historians claim that Roberts brought travel nearly to a halt for a time. Even during periods of accelerated law and order, most officials refused to challenge the gunboats belonging to Black Bart.
Through his early conquests, Bartholomew Roberts built a fleet of three ships: "Fortune," a brigantine named "Good Fortune," and the man-of-war "Royal Fortune." Other acquisitions and trades would follow.
At times, Black Bart was particularly cruel. During one takeover of a 52-gun warship, he hung the Governor of Martinique from his own ship and then tortured and killed the Governor’s French crew before taking the ship as his own. Another instance of his mercilessness was the burning of a slave ship with the human cargo inside, simply because the captain refused to pay a ransom. His reign of terror continued from one coastline to the next. He ambushed and pillaged fleets from Canada to Africa and throughout the Caribbean. His crew swelled to more than 500 men as he cut a masterful and deadly swath across the waters and in ports.
As a pirate, Black Bart exhibited some unusual personal traits. He dressed well, even in battle, reportedly wearing a crimson waistcoat, breeches, and matching plumed hat. He wore jewelry, specifically a gold cross once destined for the King of Portugal, and he neither drank nor smoked and encouraged his men to abstain as well. He enjoyed classical music and kept musicians on board for entertainment, who according to his “pirate charter,” were allowed to rest on the night of the sabbath day only, and could only rest on any other day, during the day or night, with special permission. This charter exhibited his contradictions further for example, by banning gambling and stealing from the ship or fellow crew. He also reportedly sought a clergyman for the ship and refused to attack on Sundays. However his beliefs never prevented him from robbing, killing, and torturing which demonstrates the complexity of pirate life.
Luck ran out for Roberts in February 1722. Captain Chaloner Ogle of the Royal Navy's warship HMS Swallow ordered a broadside attack. He was wily in the maneuver, masking his gunboat as a merchant ship on which Roberts could prey. A spray of grapeshot struck Black Bart fatally in the throat. Per his instructions, crew members threw the body overboard before it could be retrieved by Ogle. The remaining crew ceased resisting; 70 were returned to slavery, 54 were hung, 37 were imprisoned, and the remaining crew were released following one of the largest pirate trials in recorded history.