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Bartholomew Roberts and his Pirate Crew 1718â"1723
By Aubrey Burl
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Aubrey Burl
All rights reserved.
Captain Howel Davis
'The pyrates off the coast of Guinea in Africa have taken goods to the value of £204,000'.
The Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer, 9 April 1720
Early in January, 1709 the winter in England was so bitter that the Thames turned to ice and Dean Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, ate gingerbread at one of the fairground stalls set up on the frozen river. A few weeks later but eight thousand miles away Robinson Crusoe was rescued.
'Crusoe' was not his real name. It was invented by Daniel Defoe ten years later when he wrote his first novel after forty impoverished years as a pamphleteer. 'Robinson Crusoe' was Alexander Selkirk and his rescuer was Captain Woodes Rogers, a privateer famous for his raids on the American possessions of England's enemy, Spain. It is a minor irony of history that it was Rogers who saw the start of the greatest reign of piracy the seas had known and it was Selkirk who almost saw its end which came only two months after his death on board a man-of-war pursuing Bartholomew Roberts.
Defoe had read Rogers' account of his privateering expedition, A Cruising Voyage Round the World, 1712, as the similarity of extracts from the two books show. Rogers, an experienced seaman and navigator had been commissioned by Bristol merchants to attack and plunder Spanish territories in the Pacific in retaliation for Spain's unremitting harrassment of British shipping. Despite mutiny, near-starvation and battles at sea in which he was twice wounded Rogers returned in 1711 with a rich cargo of some £170,000, a huge sum when a soldier maimed in the wars might receive a pension of £18 a year. Rogers also brought back Selkirk who had been marooned in 1704 for more than four years on Màs-a-Tierra, now renamed Isla Robinson Crusoe, the largest of the Juan Fernandez islands off the coast of Chile, after refusing to sail in an unseaworthy vessel. He was discovered only by accident when Woodes Rogers sent a boat ashore for fresh water.
Rogers had been so successful that on his return to England he was rich enough to rent the West Indian islands of the Bahamas, with the appointment as governor, for twenty-one years. But there was a problem. Piracy flourished there. It was a perfect time for pirates. Cargoes were plentiful, merchant ships were poorly armed, naval protection was slight and there was little chance of capture. Wherever there was trade whether on the American coast, in the West Indies or off Africa pirates lurked.
Although the war with Spain was officially over in 1713 skirmishes continued and the British Navy was occupied in the Mediterranean with few ships available for duties elsewhere. Yet trade was expanding. Chartered companies, The East India Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, the Royal African Company and scores of others prospered from the riches of virgin territories. New lands were acquired, new settlements established. Trading sloops and sailing galleys with auxiliary oars for calm weather travelled the long triangular route from Britain with cloth, hardware and weapons to Africa; from Africa across the Atlantic with slaves for the Americas; from America back to Britain with spices, rum, tea and, above all, money. Unprotected by the navy but bringing wealth to their employers the merchant captains, relied on the vastness of the oceans to save them from pirates. In vessels with inadequate armament and with unenthusiastic crews they were defenceless. Pirates thrived on such easy pickings. As the colonies and commerce increased so did piracy. To the aphorism, 'Trade follows the flag' can be added, 'and piracy follows trade'.
In the colonies defence was often left to the private owner who had little incentive to resist pirates. To the contrary it was easier, safer and more profitable to trade with them. Life was hard, income was low and piratical goods were cheap. It was a time for the rich man and the business man but not for the poor.
In Britain there was wealth and luxury. The first English banknotes were issued in 1718. The streets of London offered the best shopping in Europe and everywhere tradesmen's signs hung, elaborate and brightly coloured. After the Great Fire of 1666 the heart of the city was being rebuilt. The elegant squares, Cavendish, Grosvenor, Hanover, were rising. The church of St Mary-le-Strand was finished in 1717. The nobility gamed for fortunes, duelled in their fashionable grey-powdered wigs, lace cravats, satin waistcoats and breeches. Merchants met in aromatic coffee-houses. The South Sea Company would soon tempt investors with its promise of swift gains.
But the times were uneasy. The king, George I from Germany, speaking no English, had been on the throne only since 1714, there had been a Jacobite rising the next year and there was a persistent dread of a second invasion.
For those without money there were greater fears. In London the poor existed within a few yards of prosperity but were a lifetime of deprivation from it. Unemployment brought starvation but with the naval war over there were hundreds of seamen without ships. Laws were harsh, prisons were pits of corruption and fever, there was a gallows near every town. No job meant the misery of the workhouse or, worse, transportation. The colonies needed labour and many penniless men, women and children were condemned to near-slavery on the plantations.
Poverty meant degradation, even death. Despite the risks many sailors were lured by the pleasures of piracy. It offered easy money. Instead of hard labour there were the sirens of drink, idleness, wealth and women. Woodes Rogers was warned that in the Bahamas he might find hundreds of pirates.
In April, 1718, he sailed from England in the Delicia, a thirty-gun, 460-ton merchantman that he had used on an earlier trip to Madagascar. With him was the Willing Mind of twenty guns, and two 20-metre long trading sloops, the Buck and the Samuel, two-masted vessels of 100 tons, fore-and-aft rigged, each with six guns on their upper decks. There was also a strong though temporary naval escort, the Milford, a 5th-rate man-of-war of 32 guns, and a pair of naval sloops, bigger and more heavily-armed than their civilian counterparts, the Rose and the Shark. With him Rogers carried a General Pardon for those pirates who cared to accept it.
... and we do hereby promise and declare that in case of any of the said Pirates shall, on or before 5 September, in the year of our Lord, 1718, surrender him or themselves, to one of our principal Secretaries of State in Great Britain or Ireland, or to any Governor or Deputy Governor of any of our Plantations beyond the seas; every such Pirate or Pirates so surrendering him or themselves, as aforesaid, shall have our gracious Pardon of and for such, his or their piracy or piracies, by him or them committed before the 5 of January next ensuing.
Rewards for taking:
pirate captain, £100
Lt, master, boatswain, carpenter, gunner, £40
inferior officer, £30
private man, £20
A pirate turning renegade and capturing or causing to be captured a pirate to receive £200.
Lord Treasurer or Commissioner of Treasury to pay accordingly.
Hampton Court, 5.9.17
Early in July Rogers reached New Providence. Over six hundred pirates loitered there, indifferent to his arrival. So content were they with their life, so profligate with their riches, that once when they had captured a merchantman laden with fine brocades they casually tore the fine cloths into strips to tie to the horns of goats to distinguish between the herds of different settlements. Rogers seemed no threat. They had already ignored one appeal and the new governor could not anticipate any better response to this. Events proved him right.
For a day his little fleet lay in the harbour at whose mouth an island created two entrances making any blockade difficult. Then a launch rowed by a motley of pirates whose silks went ill with their rough hands and unwholesome bodies came out with a message from the worst of the pirates, Charles Vane.
To His Excellency, the Governor of New Providence.
Your Excellency may please to understand that we are willing to accept His Majesty's most gracious Pardon on the following terms, viz:
That you suffer us to dispose of all our Goods now in our Possession. Likewise to act as we see fit with every Thing belonging to us, as His Majesty's Act of Grace specifies.
If your Excellency shall please to comply with this, we shall, with all Readiness, accept His Majesty's Act of Grace. If not, we are obliged to stand on our Defence. So conclude,
Your humble Servants, Charles Vane, and Company. P.S. We wait a speedy answer.
At this impertinence Rogers ordered the Rose and the Milford to block the harbour. The Rose's captain, Whitney, sent a lieutenant under a flag of true to talk with Vane. The officer reported that the pirates were drunk and were threatening to kill Rogers and all his force rather than give in. There was little to do except to attempt a blockade.
It was cannonfire from the burning ship that roused the fleet next night. She came flaming out of the darkness with guns firing erratically like a sputtering grenade, slicing into the rigging of the Rose. The naval vessels cut their cables and ran to sea pursued by mocking, undirected shots. Rogers watched helplessly. Flames lit the harbour and by their light he could see Vane's vessel, black flag at the mizzen, sailing out through the dangerous narrows of the eastern channel. Then, as the fire reached her magazine, the fireship exploded in a blast that flared across the New Providence and left the Delicia rocking and tossing at her anchorage.
Vane had escaped accompanied by rebellious pirates including 'Calico Jack' Rackam, who was later to depose him. Only a drift of smoke remained of his fireship. Rogers sent the Buck and Samuel after him but the pirate eluded them only to be shipwrecked later, saved, recognised and sentenced to death on Jamaica in 1719. Johnson recorded that he 'betray'd the Coward when at the Gallows, and died in Agonies equal to his Villainies'.
With Vane gone Rogers acted decisively. He sent a second copy of the Pardon ashore hoping that the pirate had taken all the irredeemable criminals with him. It was a hope that seemed justified when he landed next day. He was met by men who said they would accept the Pardon. Most of them had pistols or curving cutlasses, they were filthy and the town of Nassau behind them was no more prepossessing with its rough shacks, tents and taverns. Raw hides rotted and stank at the waterside. Sailors said that when the wind blew offshore ships could smell New Providence before it came into view. Rogers had the Pardon read out and chose a dwelling larger and less dirty than the rest for his headquarters.
The Milford left for duties on the North American coast. Whitney of the Rose also was impatient to depart. So was the Shark but Rogers could not spare them until his worst problems were solved. Law had to be established on the island and the fortifications had to be strengthened in case the pirates returned. Vane was still free but Whitney refused to pursue him. The perversity of naval captains in foreign places where they could make money was widespread and of them Whitney was to become notorious. Only a few months later in January 1719 Rogers was to write to his friend Sir Richard Steele, dramatist and editor of the Spectator, complaining about the captain.
'Captain Whitney, Commander of H.M. Ship, the Rose man of war, being one of the three that saw me into this place, and left me in an utmost danger so long ago - he also pretends to have a knowledge of you, and several of my friends in London; but he has behaved so ill that I design to forget him as much as I can; and if he is acquainted with you, and sees you in London before me, I desire he might know his character from the several accounts I have sent hence, with what gives from other parts, may serve to convince all his friends that he is not the man he may appear to be at home'.
Whitney continued to follow his own interests.
Rogers' third problem was his greatest. There was Spanish territory all around him and Spain allowed no country to trade with her colonies. To prevent smuggling there were coastguard vessels, costagardas, whose suspicions were intense and whose methods unpleasant. Paradoxically, it was a system that encouraged piracy. Spanish merchants with their monopoly charged high prices. To the colonists pirates who sold stolen goods cheaply were welcome guests. Pirates and costagardas fought each other ferociously but both were menaces to honest British, French or Dutch trading ships.
By September Woodes Rogers was worried. Provisions were scarce and money scarcer. Only a trading expedition could obtain supplies but the nearest island, Hispaniola, was Spanish. There was no choice. Two ships had to be sent and if they met a costagarda they would have to fight. Lacking honest men Rogers manned the Buck and the Samuel with ex-pirates, filled the holds with goods for barter and hoped that the gamble would succeed. Captain Brisk of the Buck was pessimistic. In seaworthy vessels with few law-abiding seamen to oppose them he predicted that the crews would mutiny.
Yet as they sailed from New Providence, setting their sails southwards towards Hispaniola, there was no unease. In those peaceable waters with light winds and a clear sky it was good to be at sea, passing little islands, most of them barren with rock-littered hills but some brightly green, thickly wooded above the bleachingly white beaches that encircled them. With breezes against them the hands were busy and the ships reached Hispaniola safely, anchoring offshore, unloading the cargo, waiting for the inhabitants to creep down to the trees where the goods were hidden. While some of the men hurried casks and bundles across the sand others pretended to be filling water-barrels to fool any costagarda that might appear before nightfall. But it was not the Spaniards that ruined the enterprise.
Led by Howel Davis, Walter Kennedy, William Magness and Christopher Moody, the pirates waited until Brisk and his men were asleep and then overpowered them. There was no struggle, no killing, just a change of command that gave the mutineers two fine sloops. After some half-hearted threats to murder Brisk the pirates settled down to enjoy their regained freedom.
Most were English or Welsh. It was said that there were British, French and Spanish pirates but never a Dutchman because Holland supplied fisheries where unemployed men could work whereas in England men begged. It was a fact that pirates were always reluctant to attack a Dutch ship because of their reputation for fierce and prolonged resistance.
Next day the sloops followed the coast, close to the shore, until they came upon a creek in which a ship, French from her lines, lay at anchor. The pirates fired a shot across her and as the sloops closed on her the crew scrambled into a jolly-boat and rowed frantically to the beach. It was a relief. With only six light guns the pirates could fight no large merchantman but this vessel, taken so simply, was an ideal capture. Soon a working-party was aboard and the three ships were under way, hugging the northern shore.
Only the southern side of Hispaniola had settlements. The north had nothing but forbidding forests and wild cattle, an excellent, uninhabited coastline for pirates. Nearby was the Windward Passage between the island and Cuba. Through it ships passed using the prevailing winds to Jamaica, returning the same way, battling against the contrary winds on the journey to the American colonies and Britain. A pirate could lie in wait, picking off vessels as he chose with only the peril of a costagarda to deter him.
The ships sailed in to Privateer Bay, named from the tortuous channel that led to a concealed anchorage behind the hills, almost invisible from the sea and a traditional hiding place for pirates. In its protection the mutineers looted their prize. Putting guards over their prisoners they lolled on the decks with bottles and flagons. It was time to elect a captain.
They wanted a man who, in their own words, was pistol-proof and not afraid to look a cannon in the mouth, one who knew the sea, not boastful or vainglorious, who would keep his promises and, most important of all, one who was lucky. In Howel Davis, a short, dark-haired Welshman, they had their man, already respected for his daring and his cunning. Without dissent he was declared their leader.
Captain Brisk, his two mates, the boatswain of the Buck and two unfit seamen were put into Captain Porter's Samuel sloop. Porter who appeared to be a truly reformed pirate was also released. But of his crew of thirty-six only seventeen with families in New Providence were freed. The rest were compelled to stay. Men were needed to sail the ships. Amongst them was Archibald Murray, a young surgeon.
Excerpted from Black Barty by Aubrey Burl. Copyright © 2013 Aubrey Burl. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Plates,
Part One: The Early Days of the Pirates,
1 Captain Howel Davis, July 1718–February 1719,
2 The raid at Sierra Leone, March 1719,
3 The Capture of Captain Snelgrave, March–June 1719,
Part Two: The Great Days of the Pirates,
4 Captain Bartholomew Roberts, June 6–August 1719,
5 The Treasure-Ship of Bahia, August–December 1719,
6 Trials in Virginia, Edinburgh and London, December, 1719–July 1721,
7 The Articles of the Pirates, December 1719–February 1729,
8 A Fight at Sea, February 26–June, 1720,
9 Pickings in Newfoundland, June–July 1720,
10 Fortunes in the West Indies, August–November 1720,
11 Misfortunes for the Navy, November, 1720–April 1721,
12 Deserters and Disasters, April, 1721–May 1724,
13 Pleasures in Africa, April 1721–January 1722,
14 The Swallow meets the Royal Fortune, October 1721–February 1722.,
Part Three The Last Days of the Pirates,
15 Cape Coast Castle, February 1722–June 1723,
Appendix A: Pirates at Cape Coast Castle,
Appendix B: Captain Charles Johnson and the General History....,
Public Records Office. References.,
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