Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts was the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy, taking over 470 “prizes” in a career spanning just three years from 1719 to 1722. Three years is a pretty decent innings for an eighteenth-century pirate, and Roberts amassed a fortune equivalent to roughly $52 million in today’s money.
Born in Wales in 1682, Roberts is thought to have first gone to sea at the age of 13. In 1719 he was third mate of the slave ship Princess when it was captured by pirate and fellow Welshman, Howell Davis. Roberts was pressed into service as a pirate and, though reluctant at first, he soon understood the advantages of the pirate life, observing: “In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour. In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power … No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.”
The freedom and autonomy of a pirate’s life appealed to many, and piracy was often an equal opportunity employer with such famous and fearsome piratical women as Mary Read and Anne Bonny (the latter callously emasculated her lover, the dread pirate Calico Jack, just before his hanging by saying: “Had you fought like a man, you wouldn’t have to die like a dog.” She avoided execution herself by pleading “with her belly” — an old common law plea for mercy on the ground that she was pregnant). It’s also worth noting on the topic of equal opportunity that, at a time when the Atlantic slave trade was in full swing, Roberts’ crew upon his death had 65 free black men serving who were then promptly captured and sold into slavery by His Majesty’s Royal Navy.
Roberts was in many ways an archetypal pirate. He loved fine clothing and jewellery and also relieving merchantmen of fine clothing and jewellery. He would dress in his finery before every battle.
Roberts also differed from the pirate mould in a major way in that he did not partake of rum with any great gusto, instead preferring tea, which he would often drink with the toast “Damn him who ever lived to wear a Halter”, meaning shame on the man who was captured alive and hung. Ironically, his death was caused by his crew being too drunk to fight properly, “with a yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”.