Historical Notes: A pirate captain's life is merry but short

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The Independent Culture
WHILE CAPTAIN Kidd and Blackbeard have lived on in literature, film and myth, Bartholomew Roberts, the most successful of all pirate captains of the Golden Age, has faded in their wake. He achieved an extraordinary record in three years, capturing or sinking some 400 ships, 300-odd ships more than his closest rival.

While most accounts show Blackbeard to be an archetypal pirate - bearded, brawny, drunken and lecherous - Roberts was an oddity. The average age of a pirate was in the low twenties. Roberts was close on 40. In spite of his crew's drinking, he remained teetotal. And in an age when navigation was an art of lethal inaccuracy, Roberts appeared across the globe, mastering his ship from West Africa to Brazil, from the trade heavy waters of the Carib-bean to the fishing grounds of Newfoundland.

The articles of his ship were recorded by Captain Charles Johnson, where he is revealed as a democrat (one man, one vote), a health insurer ($800 for a limb lost in service), a man fond of music (fiddlers took Sunday off) and a Captain intolerant of crews smuggling women or boys aboard (death).

On one of his last prizes, he made a consolidated effort to woo a clergyman aboard his ship. Though the man refused, he did file a protest that Roberts relieved him of a prayer book and the crew stole his favourite corkscrew.

There were, however, many things that Roberts did share with the brethren of the coast; namely a fondness for gold and an aversion to the British Navy. The two walked hand in hand - the more Roberts interrupted trade, the more interested His Majesty's Navy became in him. England was, of course, dependant on its trading routes, most particularly on the slaving triangle between West Africa, the Caribbean and England.

They showed little concern during Roberts's initial forays at the edge of England's colonies, mainly because his one great prize was Portuguese and not English. In an afternoon, he sailed amid an armada of 42 merchant ships and seized the richest among them, taking 90,000 gold moidores, a diamond cross intended for the King of Portugal and a cargo of sugar and tobacco. Most of the time, his prizes were more modest. Not all islands would trade with pirates, so they often relied on their prey for the most basic necessities: sails, livestock, freshwater.

With such success came a growing fleet and inflated numbers of crew. By the time Roberts met with the British Navy his force numbered four ships and several hundred men. On his last tour of the Gold Coast, his usual order seemed to be missing. A captured ship burned at sea with a packed hold of slaves aboard. A village, in modern-day Nigeria, was reduced to ashes and scattered with corpses - so violent an incident that Roberts's name and nature were passed along in oral histories of the Ibo until they were recorded by anthropologists in the 1920s.

In the end, Roberts's vast and unruly crew were no match for the organisation of the British Navy. Though two large ships of the line were sent after him, one lost 240 of her 280 men to fevers and abandoned the chase. Instead, His Majesty's Swallow faced Roberts's Royal Fortune, during an afternoon thunderstorm in the Bight of Benin. A sudden change in wind left Roberts's ship a sitting duck for the superior force of His Majesty's guns. The fight was conceded. Usually at a pirate trial, only the Captain or a ringleader would be singled out for hanging. In this case 52 were hanged, a statement that echoed all the way to the Caribbean and effectively put an end to the disturbance of trade through piracy. Roberts's motto, "A merry life and a short one", applied not only to himself, but to his crew and his kind. History has been no less forgiving of one of its more extraordinary characters.

Nicholas Griffin is the author of `The Requiem Shark' (Little, Brown, 24 June, pounds 16.99)