From A Gallery or Eccentrics, by Morris Bishop, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1928; pp. 116-146.
CAPTAIN BARTHOLOMEW ROBERTS
THE study of the lives of malefactors, so popular an exercise in our day, is not wholly commended by the judicious. Sin has been the punishment of mankind for Eve’s presumption; and Cain and Commodus and Sawney Bean the Scottish Cannibal should be as odious to history as they were execrable to their contemporaries. An outright and arrant rogue has nothing in him to detain the philosopher, no more than has an outright and arrant professor of virtue. The men whom we are here scrutinizing, these originals and extravagants, were all possessed of contrary demons, and not one but two or many. “Je sens deux hommes en moi,” cried Pascal,1 and indeed there were several, and all of them great men, and each of them furious against his fellow-lodgers. How much more than to any saint steadfast in godliness are we drawn to Paul, with his “For that which I do, I allow not; for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I.” And, to draw a little example from these great things, we cannot be concerned with evildoers, however eminent, in whom dwelt evil alone; but pertinent to our study are examples of Vice struggling with another and more creditable passion. If, for instance, we scan the histories of the buccaneers, filibusters, and pirates, we find our attention drawn most to those in whom the piratical fury contended with simple domestic virtues, with a 116 laudable piety, or with a taste for dramatic composition.
The life and exploits of Captain Bartholomew Roberts are set down at explicit length in Captain Charles Johnson’s “History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates.”2 This Captain Roberts made a great noise in the world in his day, for the mad valor displayed by himself and his men in their depredations. Yet it would appear that he embraced the pirate life with reluctance, and that his principles and bent of character were those of a worthy burgher, a suburban churchwarden. He was a foe to dicing and gaming, to Sabbath-breaking, and even to indulgence in wines, rums, and brandies, that solace of the most God-fearing of his day.
A sailor by trade, Roberts sailed from London as chief mate of the Princess, Captain Plumb commander, in November 1718. They made Guinea in the February following, and were loading slaves for the West Indies in Anamabo (in what is now the Gold Coast) when they were taken by Captain Howel Davis and his gentlemen in the Rover. This Captain Davis was a bold fellow, and full of stratagems. He had not long before captured Gambia Castle with but eight companions, by a device of the greatest audacity. Disguising the Rover as an honest slaver, he had cast anchor beneath the fort, and had rowed ashore with the master and the doctor, dressed as gentlemen, and with a boat’s crew of six. “The Governor told them he would slave them to the full value of their cargo, and ask’d them if they had any European liquor on board. They answered, a little for their own use; however, a hamper 117 of it should be at his service. The Governor then very civilly invited them to dine with him.” Davis then sent for the hamper of liquor, at the same time providing instructions for his men. He bade his boat’s crew enter into conversation with the sentries in the guard-room, and to start up at once and secure the arms when he should fire a pistol through the Governor’s window. Returning to the Governor’s rooms, he found dinner not yet ready; but the Governor proposed to pass the time by making a bowl of punch. “Davis on a sudden drew out a pistol and clapp’d it to the Governor’s breast, telling him he must surrender the fort, and all the riches in it, or he was a dead man. The Governor, being no ways prepared for such an attack, promis’d to be very passive, and do all they desir’d; therefore they shut the door, took down all the arms that hung in the hall, and loaded them. Davis fired his pistol through the window, upon which his men without executed their part of the scheme, like heroes, in an instant; getting betwixt the soldiers and their arms, all with their pistols cock’d in their hands, while one of them carried the arms out. When this was done they lock’d the soldiers into the guard room, and kept guard without.” They then struck the Union flag on the top of the castle, whereat the men on board sent on shore a reënforcement, and the castle was taken without the loss of a man. In this operation they took to the value of two thousand pounds sterling in bar gold, and many other rich effects.
Our Mr. Roberts, as an expert navigator, was impressed into the service of these rovers. “In the beginning,” says Captain Johnson, “he was very averse to this sort of life, and would certainly have escaped from 118 them, had a fair opportunity presented itself; yet afterwards he changed his principles, as many besides him have done upon another element, and perhaps for the same reason too, viz. preferment.” It was but six weeks before his conscience was put to a most dreadful test, for gallant Captain Davis was killed, and that in a very horrid and treacherous manner.
Davis came with the Rover to Princess Island (off the Cameroons) and announced himself to the Portuguese Governor as an English man-of-war in quest of pirates. The Governor received him very civilly, and Davis took on supplies, telling the Governor that the King of England would pay for whatever he should take. Davis then proposed a stratagem to his lords (as the principal pirates called themselves who advised the captain about operations, and “held certain priviledges which the common pirates were debarr’d from, such as walking the quarter-deck, using the great cabin, going ashore at pleasure, and treating with foreign powers, that is, with the captains of ships they made prize of.”) Davis suggested that the Governor, the chief men, and the friars be asked on board to an entertainment. They would then be clapped in irons and there kept until they paid a ransom of forty thousand pounds sterling. But a faithless Portuguese negro swam ashore in the night and discovered the project to the Governor.
The next day Davis and his lords went on shore, as out of respect, to bring the Governor on board. They were received with the usual civility, and “were desired to walk up to the Governor’ house, to take some refreshment. . . . They accepted without the least suspicion, but never returned again. An ambuscade was 119 laid, and, a signal being given, a whole volley was fired upon them; they every man dropped, except one; this one fled back, escaped into the boat, and got on board the ship. Davis was shot through the bowels, yet he rose again, and made a weak effort to get away; but his strength soon forsook him, and he dropp’d down dead. Just as he fell, he perceived he was followed, and drawing out his pistols, he fired them at his pursuers, thus, like a game cock, giving a dying blow, that he might not fall unrevenged.”
In these six probationary weeks with Davis’s crew, Roberts seemed to have commended himself well to his companions. He was the sort of man who had been taught to do well whatever he might turn his hand to; perhaps he had learned also that no work is debasing if it is done with an honest and submissive heart. However it be, when valiant Captain Davis was lost and the council of lords was met over a bowl of punch, the name of Bartholomew Roberts was proposed as a candidate for the captaincy. Captain Johnson has preserved the nominating speech of my Lord Dennis: “It is my advice that, while we are sober, we pitch upon a man of courage, and skill’d in navigation; one who, by his council and bravery, seems best able to defend this commonwealth, and ward us from the dangers and tempests of an instable element, and the fatal consequence of anarchy; and such a one I take Roberts to be, a fellow, I think, in all respects worthy your esteem and favour.”
“This speech,” continues Captain Johnson, “was loudly applauded by all but Lord Sympson, who had secret expectations himself, and who, on this disappointment, grew sullen, and left them, swearing, ‘he 120 did not care who they chose Captain, so it was not a Papist.’ ”
What a parlous pass was this for an honest man, a respectable mate in the merchant service! Did he fear that a declination of the honor would be followed by a sentence of death by the insulted deliberative body? Were his scruples allayed by the stout Protestantism of Sympson? Did he perhaps feel that as Captain he might really do some good to the souls under his charge? Be it as it may, he accepted the post, saying that “since he had dipp’d his hands in muddy water, and must be a pirate, it was better being a commander than a common man.”
If this method of choice of a captain by election surprise any modern doubters of democracy, it must be recalled that the pirate ship were more truly republican than are any of our experiments in industrial self-government. All officers of the ship, quartermaster, sailing master, gunner, and chirurgeon, were elected. It is true that the captain not seldom became, in the fashion of elected dictators, a tyrant, introduced corruption into the ship’s polity, and filled the offices with his own creatures, never asking by your leave of his subjects. The power of recall possessed by the crew, which was commonly exercised by the shooting to the too-presumptuous captain, acted as a corrective to ambition, but was unfortunately very destructive of discipline. The crew “only permit him to be captain on condition that they may be captain over him; they separate to his use the great cabin, and sometimes vote him small parcels of plate and china; but then every man, as the humour takes him, will use the plate and china, intrude into his apartment, swear at him, seize 121 a part of his victuals and drink, if they like it, without his offering to find fault or contest it.”
In time of battle or chase, however, the captain’s power was complete. “He drubs, cuts, or even shoots any one who dares deny his command.” After the battle the aggrieved pirate had no redress except by impeachment of the captain by due process of pirate law.
A good example of this method of control, so contrary to modern seafaring practice, is contained in the narrative of the dangerous voyage and bold attempts of Captain Bartholomew Sharp.3 This expedition took place in 1679, in the time of the Buccaneers, who made a specious show of warring upon Spain with privateers’ commissions. The crew wearied of Captain Sharp, and elected in his place one John Watling, who had the esteem of being a stout seaman. Captain Sharp, now Sailor Sharp, gave over his command, and complaisantly signed his articles with the rest. And this continued until, in an effort to take the Spanish fort of Arica, Captain Watling was killed. All then were glad to cast their eyes upon their good old commander, but it was a great while before he would take any notice of his mates’ pleadings. At length, however, he acceded to their request and earnest petition. Thus by policy he gained what he would surely have lost, with his life, had he persisted in the traditions of the naval and merchant services.
Roberts himself enforced a better management than usual, and this was for two reasons. Firstly he was of a most magisterial carriage, and his sternness could 122 make those fear who did not love him. And “if any seemed to resent his usage, he told them they might go ashore and take satisfaction of him, if they thought fit, for he neither valu’d nor fear’d any of them.” His haughtiness provoked some disorders in his swaggering crew. Thus on one occasion Captain Roberts, having been insulted by one of the drunken pirates, “killed the fellow on the spot, which was resented by a great many others, but particularly by one Jones, a brisk active young man, who died lately in the Marshalsea, and was his Mess-mate. This Jones boldly cursed Roberts, and said, he ought to be served so himself. Roberts hearing Jones’s invective, ran to him with a sword, and ran him into the body; and Jones, notwithstanding his wound, seized the captain, threw him over a gun, and beat him handsomely. This adventure put the whole company into an uproar, and some taking part with the captain, and others against him, there had like to have ensued a general battle with one another, like my Lord Thomont’s cocks. However, the tumult was at length appeas’d by the mediation of the quartermaster; and as the majority of the company were of the opinion, that the dignity of the captain ought to be supported on board, that it was a post of honour, and therefore the person they thought fit to confer it on should not be violated by any single member. Therefore they sentenced Jones to undergo two lashes from every one of the company for his misdemeanour, which was executed upon him as soon he was well of his wound.”
Now the second reason for Roberts’s better management gives an evidence that he was a shrewd and wise governor. He established a sort of privy council of 123 half a dozen of the greatest bullies, those in whom ambition and envy would be most rife. “Yet even those, in the latter part of his reign, he had run counter to in every project that opposed his own opinion; for which, and because he grew reserved, and would not drink and roar at their rate, a cabal was formed to take away his captainship, which death did more effectually.”
An orderly man, he had the true Englishman’s love of constitutional government. On being elected captain, he drew up a piratical Magna Charta, a constitution for his weal publique, which all his crew then signed. As this document should be of interest to all students of government and piratical and other politics, I shall here subjoin it.
I. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment, and an equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized; which he may use at pleasure, unless a scarcity make it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
II. Every man shall be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes.4 But if they defraud the company to the value of a dollar, in plate, jewels, or money, marooning is the punishment.5
III. No person to game at cards or dice for money.
IV. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night; if any of the crew, after that hour, 124 still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.6
V. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlash clean, and fit for service.7
VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man is found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he is to suffer death.
VII. To desert the ship, or their quarters in battle, is punished with death, or marooning.
VIII. No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be settled on shore, at sword and pistol.
IX. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living till each had shared 1000 l. If in order to do this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he is to have 800 dollars out of the publick stock, and for lesser hurts proportionably.
X. The Captain and Quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize; the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and a quarter.
XI. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath day, but the other six days and nights, none, without special favour.
Captain Johnson, confessing that the original copy of these articles is lost, suspects that there was a twelfth article, “containing something too horrid to be disclosed 125 to any, except such as were willing to be sharers in the iniquity of them.” However that be, it was required of all members of the crew that they sign their subscription, and take an oath of fidelity in the articles on Captain Roberts’s Bible.
Such a constitution as this was customary among the pirates, when they set forth upon the grand account. Captain Johnson gives several such, differing from the one just quoted chiefly in that less emphasis was put on regularity of life. Yet in every case it would appear that in making these pacts of impiety the oath of adherence was taken upon a Bible, except in the case of Captain John Phillip’s crew, which, for want of the Book, took their oath upon a hatchet.
Certain of the stipulations set down above suggest notes, glosses, and analogies. In Article II, the rules of marooning are more explicitly recorded in the articles of Captain Phillip’s crew: “If any man shall offer to run away or keep any secret from the company, he shall be marooned, with one bottle of powder, one bottle of water, one small arm, and shot.”
As for Article III, few were the captains so bold as to attempt to prevent gaming.8 It was the darling vice of these rakehelly men. It was almost the rule for a band of pirates to find, after a long and prosperous cruise, that all the spoils were in the hands of a certain few of their mates, more ready with the cards than with the cutlass. Captain Bartholomew Sharp cruised for two years in the South Seas and took many rich prizes, but when his ship returned around the Horn to the West Indies, a good share of his crew had gambled 126 away all their takings.9 Commander Captain Sawkins had preceded Captain Sharp in command of this famous piratical expedition; it had been his custom to throw the dice overboard, if he found them in use on Sunday. It is clear therefore that Captain Sawkins was a strict Sabbatarian, whereas our Captain Roberts’s provision was no doubt prompted by solicitude for his men’s welfare.
In Captain Johnson’s note to Article IV, we have his word that Captain Roberts, a sober man, was a foe to the drunkenness which was such an unfortunate aspect of pirate life. The Buccaneers of the seventeenth century, the predecessors of the subjects of our study, had besotted themselves chiefly with brandy, drinking it, says Esquemeling, as liberally as the Spaniards do water. “Sometimes they buy together a pipe of wine; this they stave at one end, and never cease drinking till ‘’tis out. . . . My own master would busy sometimes a pipe of wine, and placing it in the street, would force those that passed by to drink with him, threatening also to pistol them if they would not.”10 The dying declarations of pirates penitent upon the gallows bear witness to the evil wrought in them by strong drink. Thus John Rose Archer, executed in Boston on June 2, 1724: “One wickedness that has led me as much as any to all the rest, has been my brutish drunkenness. By strong drink I have been heated and hardened into the crimes that are now more bitter than death unto me.” Captain Misson alone, the most stern but the most lovable of pirate captains, enforced perfect sobriety. To tell 127 of his campaign against alcoholic excess and the taking in vain of the Lord’s name I must make a little digression.
This Captain Misson was a young man of Provence of an ancient family, whose gallant and roving temper had brought him upon the grand account, with a fine ship of his own, the Victoire. By observing the licentious lives of the Roman ecclesiastics, and by the arguments of philosophical friends, he had become a perfect Deist, and would often harangue the crew on problems of free-will and the nature of the Soul. He would argue also that every man was born free, and had as much right to what would support him as the air he respired. “A contrary way of arguing would be accusing the Deity with cruelty and injustice.” Though such doctrines smell strong of the faggot, Captain Misson was in practice a reverent man, as may be observed of many another Deist who defies God with his reason but not by his demeanor.
After making many fine prizes off the coast of North America, he shaped his course for Guinea, and there, off the Gold Coast, he took, after a fierce sea-battle, the Nieuwstadt of Amsterdam, a slaver. The survivors of the Dutch crew and seventeen slaves were taken prisoner. Captain Misson commanded that the unhappy blacks be set free, clothed out of the Dutch mariners’ chests, and divided into messes among the pirates. For, he told his men, the trading for those of our own species could never be agreeable to the eyes of divine justice, and that, however, these men might be distinguished from the Europeans by their color, customs or religious rites, they were the work of the same omnipotent Being, and endued with equal reason. This speech was received 128 with general applause, and the ship rang with “Vive le Capitaine Misson!”
“All this while the greatest decorum and regularity was observed on board the Victoire; but the Dutch prisoners’ example began to lead them into swearing and drunkenness, which the captain remarking, thought it best to nip those vices in the bud. . . . He told [the Dutch], that before he had the misfortune of having them on board, his ears were never grated with hearing the name of the great Creator prophaned, though he, to his sorrow, had often since heard his men guilty of that sin. . . . That if they had a just idea of that great Being, they would never mention Him, but they would immediately reflect on His purity and their own vileness. . . . And before the Dutch were on board, his men were men, but he found that by their beastly pattern they were degenerated into brutes, by drowning that only faculty, which distinguishes between man and beast, reason. . . .” After more admonishment in this tenor, he pronounced, “that the first whom he caught either with an oath in his mouth or liquor in his head, should be brought to the gears, whipped and pickled for an example to the rest of the nation.”11 After this speech “the Dutch grew continent, in fear of punishment, and the French in fear of being reproached by their good Captain, for they never mention him without this epithet.”
This good Captain Misson later settled on the island of Johanna, of Madagascar. He married the sister of the Queen, and with his men set up a model commonwealth, 129 of which you may read in Captain Johnson’s sprightly pages.
But we were speaking of those articles of Captain Roberts’s, and we were got to Article VI. On this head of wantonness the pirates were not commonly so nice, though indeed we read in the articles of Captain Phillips’s crew that “If at any time you meet with a prudent woman, that man that offers to meddle with her, without her consent, shall suffer present death.” No doubt Captain Roberts’s liking for sobriety and decent behavior caused the insertion of this article, but also as a careful commander he could not permit the introduction to his ship of any women, those dangerous instruments of division and quarrel. Perhaps he remembered Mary Read and Anne Bonny, the female pirates who had fought so fiercely and courageously in the West Indies some three years before, but whose presence in a fo’c’sle was the banisher of harmony and the doom of what is today called “team play.”
Article IX, which suggests the indemnities for wounds sustained in the public service, may call for further elucidation. This early form of accident insurance, or of workmen’s compensation in industrial accidents, had been developed by the Buccaneers a half century before, and this article merely ratified the common custom. Esquemeling gives a set of benefits in detail: “for the loss of a right arm, 600 pieces, of eight, or six slaves; for the left arm, 500 pieces of eight, or five slaves; or a right leg, 500 pieces of eight, or five slaves for the left leg, 400 pieces of eight, or four slaves; for an eye, 100 pieces of eight, or one slave; for a finger, the same as for the eye, all which sums are taken out of the common stock of what is gotten by 130 their piracy, and a very exact and equal dividend is made of the remainder.”
And as for the final article, that the musicians should have rest on the Sabbath day, this was a lucky thing for them, for the musicians had a hard lot of it on a pirate ship. The merry men were fond of music; Captain John Smith’s crew landed boldly in the Orkney Islands, attacked a gentleman’s house, and carried off a quantity of plate and a bagpiper to play before them. And in the trials of the men taken on Captain Roberts’s ship, we read of the acquittal of William Church, Phil Haak, James White, and Nich. Brattle, who served as music on board the pirate, having been forced from the merchant ships they belonged to; “and they had, during this confinement, an uneasy life of it, having sometimes their fiddles and often their heads broke, only for excusing themselves or saying they were tired when any fellow took it in his head to demand a tune.”
Let us now make a review of Captain Roberts’s professional career. I shall, however, make no close examination of the glorious battles fought by the Ranger and the Royal Fortune, the victories won, the hardships suffered. It is the soul of Captain Roberts which shall hold us, as an example of the evil effects of piratical enterprise on character.
After Captain Roberts’s election, he properly revenged upon the Portuguese of Prince’s Island the murder of his predecessor, and then, after taking certain prizes, headed for Brazil. There they made a notable capture. Sighting a fleet of 42 sail of Portuguese ships, bound for Lisbon, Roberts fell in with them, passing for one of the convoy, and all of a sudden 131 made a surprise attack and carried off his prize under the nose of two men-of-war. They proceeded to Devil’s Island, off Surinam, “where they found the civilest reception imaginable, not only from the Governor and factory, but their wives, who exchanged wares and drove a considerable trade with them.” Thence to Barbadoes, where a Bristol galley was fitted out to capture him, and came very near doing so. They then coasted north to Newfoundland, and entered the harbor of Trepassy with black colors flying, drums beating, and trumpets sounding. There were two and twenty ships in the harbor, and these the pirates sank or burned. They took many prizes in these waters, among which was the ship Samuel, of London. J. F. Jameson, in his Documents on Privateering and Piracy12 quotes an extract from the Boston News-Letter of August 22, 1720, which gives a vivid account, by the victims, of piratical procedure:
“The first thing the Pirates did, was to strip both Passengers and Seamen of all their Money and Cloths which they had on board, with a loaded Pistol held to every ones breast ready to shoot him down, who did not immediately give an account of both, and resign them up. The next thing they did was, with madness and rage to tare up the Hatches, enter the Hould like a parcel of Furies, where with Axes, Cutlashes, etc., they cut, tore, and broke upon Trunks, Boxes, Cases and Bales, and when any of the Goods came upon Deck which they did not like to carry with them aboard their Ship, instead of tossing them into the Hould again they threw them over-board into the Sea. The usual method they had to open Chests was by shooting a brace 132 of Bullets with a Pistol into the Key-hole to force them open. The Pirates carryed away from Capt. Carry’s Ship aboard their own 40 barrels of Powder, two great Guns, his Cables, etc., and to the value of about nine or ten Thousand Pounds Sterling worth of the Choicest Goods he had on board. There was nothing heard among the Pirates all the while, but Cursing, Swearing, Dam’ing, and Blaspheming to the greatest degree imaginable, and often saying they would not go to Hope Point in the River of Thames to be hung up in Gibbets a sun-drying as Kidd and Bradish’s Company did, for if it should chance that they should be Attacked by any Superiour power or force, which they could not master, they would immediately put fire with one of their Pistols to their Powder, and go all merrily to Hell together!” Captain Johnson gives an example of their blaspheming: they told Captain Cary “that they should accept of no Act of Grace; that the K—— and P——t might be damned with their Acts of Grace for them.”
From the Banks they stood for the West Indies, and thence for the Cape Verde Islands. Somewhere hereabouts they were deserted by their consort, the Good Fortune, to which I shall again refer. Roberts got to leeward of his port and was obliged to go back westward with the trade wind. They steered for Surinam, which was 700 leagues distant, and they had but one hogshead of water for the ship’s company of 124! Many of them died of thirst on this dreadful journey, but Providence at length brought the most of them safe to their destination.
From Surinam they came to Martinique, the Governor of which made an effort to take the ship prisoner. These purposes of the governors of Barbadoes and 133 Martinique so enraged Roberts “that he ordered a new jack to be made, which they ever after hoisted, with his own figure portrayed standing upon two skulls, and under them the letters ABH and AMH, signifying a Barbadian’s and a Martinican’s Head.” At the mizzen peak they flew a flag with a Death on it, “with an hour-glass in one hand and cross-bones in the other, a dart by it, and underneath a heart dropping three drops of blood.”
They cleaned ship on Hispaniola (Haiti) and headed again for Guinea, “where they thought to buy gold-dust very cheap.” They came to Sierra Leone in June 1721, and were received with salutes of guns and much affability by the lawless English merchants of that place. Somewhere hereabouts they exchanged their old French ship for the Onslow, a fine frigate-built vessel belonging to the Royal African Company. In the port of Whydah they took eleven sail, which they ransomed for eight pounds of gold dust apiece, and as some of the Portuguese owners asked receipts, these were given in due form; “but being signed by two waggish fellows, viz., Sutton and Sympson, they subscribed the names of Aaron Whifflingpin and Sim. Tugmutton.”
But in these waters were two British men-of-war of fifty guns each, the Swallow and the Weymouth, whose chiefest purpose was the taking of pirates. Roberts had now three ships, the Royal Fortune (the former Onslow), and the big and little Ranger. The Swallow heaving in sight, Robert took her to be a merchantman, and foolishly sent the big Ranger alone to bring her in. The Swallow’s commander, Lieutenant Sun, fell in with this delusion of the pirates, and pretended to escape till he had drawn the Ranger far from her 134 convoy. “Alas, all turned sour in an instant.” The Swallow hauled up her ports, brought down the pirates’ topmast, and forced her to surrender. In the engagement ten pirates were killed and twenty wounded, but none of the King’s men were touched. While the Swallow’s boat was coming to fetch the prisoners, a frightful blast of smoke poured out of the great cabin; for half a dozen of the most desperate had drawn themselves around what powder was left them, and had fired a pistol into it; but no great damage was done. One of these furious fellows, William Main, was disfigured by the blast, having been blown across the deck. The Lieutenant asked him the reason for the explosion. “By G—,” says he, “they are all mad and bewitched, for I have lost a good hat by it.”
It was several days before the Swallow could return to the Royal Fortune. The pirates, all unsuspecting, took the man-of-war for a prize until she hauled up her ports and hoisted her proper colors. Roberts then “slipped his cable, got under sail, and ordered his men to arms, without any shew of timidity, dropping a first-rate oath, ‘that it was a Bite,’ but at the same time resolved, like a gallant rogue, to get clear or die.” His resolution was to pass close to the Swallow with all sails out, and chance her broadside; their speed might perhaps unsettle the gunners’ aim; if they should be disabled, as was probable, by this bold stroke, they would run ashore, and leave every one to shift for himself among the negroes; “or, failing in these devices, to board, and blow up together, for he saw that the greatest part of his men were drunk, passively courageous, and unfit for service.
“Roberts himself made a gallant figure, at the time 135 of the engagement, being dressed in a rich crimson damask waistcoat and breeches, a red feather in his hat, a gold chain round his neck, with a diamond cross hanging to it, a sword in hand, and two pairs of pistols hanging at the end of a silk sling, slung over his shoulders, according to the fashion of the pirates. He is said to have given his orders with boldness and spirit; coming, according to what he had purposed, close to the man of war, he received her fire, and then hoisted his black flag and returned it, shooting away from her with all the sail he could pack; . . . but he was taken aback with his sails, and the Swallow came a second time very nigh to him. He had now, perhaps, finished the fight very desperately, if Death, who took a swift passage in a grape shot, had not interposed, and struck him directly on the throat. He settled himself on the tackles of a gun; which one Stephenson, from the helm, observing, ran to his assistance, and not perceiving him wounded, swore at him, and bid him stand up, and fight like a man. But when he found his mistake, and that his captain was certainly dead, he gushed into tears, and wished the next shot might be his portion. They presently threw him overboard, with his arms and ornaments on, according to the repeated request he made in his lifetime.” And thus he fulfilled a favorite toast of his: “D—n to him who ever lived to wear a halter.”
When Roberts was gone, all the spirit went out of the crew; many deserted their quarters, and they allowed themselves to be captured with hardly a show of resistance. They were manacled and shackled and placed in the man-of-war’s gun-room. Even there they were impudently merry in the true custom of pirates, 136 observing, of their thin commons, that they fell away so fast that they should not have weight left to hang them. “Sutton used to be very profane; he happening to be in the same irons with another prisoner who was more serious than ordinary, and read and prayed often as became his condition, this man Sutton used to swear at, and ask him, what he proposed by such noise and devotion? ‘Heaven,’ says the other, ‘I hope,’ ‘Heaven, you fool,’ says Sutton, ‘did you ever hear of any pirates going thither? Give me H—ll, it’s a merrier place; I’ll give Roberts a salute of 13 guns at my entrance.’ And when he found such ludicrous expressions had no effect on him, he made a formal complaint, and requested that the officer would remove this man, or take his prayer book away, as a common disturber.”
The men were tried before a court of commissioners, merchants, and naval men at Cape Corso Castle, on the Guinea Coast. Fifty-two were there executed, 20 condemned to servitude, 2 respited, 17 delivered to the Marshalsea in London for further trial, and 74 acquitted as being forced men or for other reasons. Many of the condemned made an edifying end, but a number of them “walked to the gallows without a tear in token of sorrow for their past offences, or shewing so much concern as a man would express at travelling a bad road; nay, Sampson, at seeing a woman that he knew, and ‘he had lain with that B—h three times, and now she was come to see him hang’d.’ ” These furious words recall the last speech of Dennis Macarty, one of Captain Augur’s men, executed at Providence in the Bahamas in 1718. Says he, “Some friends of mine have often said that I should die in my shoes, but I will make them liars,” and so kicked them off and was hoist. 137 Another of this same band, on being bidden to repent of his wickedness, replied, ‘Yes, I do heartily repent. I repent I had not done more mischief, and that we did not cut the throats of them that took us; and I am extremely sorry that you aren’t all hanged as well as we.” So with this wry jest he was swung off to hell.
Let us now leave these coarse fellows and concern ourselves with Captain Roberts. Here was a man of good parts and, as appeared in the event, a courageous and resourceful commander, who had come to a good billet in the merchant service. He was a man of forty, of an exemplary record, so far as is known, when his ship was taken and he was impressed into the pirate service. We have his word that his enlistment was against his will; and it may well be that when he was elected Captain he accepted the post out of prudent regard for the electors, men sensitive to reflections upon their calling. He was even a religious man; he kept his Bible with him, and as well a certain godly habit of speech. When cleaning ship in Hispaniola, he was visited in the social way by Porter and Tuckerman, two novice pirates. Roberts was won by them, gave them powder, arms, and other necessaries, spent two or three merry nights with them, and on parting said that he “hoped the L—— would prosper their handiworks.” Again, when they took the Onslow off Guinea, they found a clergyman upon her, and he and his men were for keeping the cleric, alleging that they wanted a chaplain on board. “They offered him a share to take on with them, promising he should do nothing for his money but make punch and say prayers.” The parson however, having no relish for this sort of life, nor, as we may regret, sufficient hardihood to turn these sinners 138 from their way of life, Roberts set him free with all his possessions, keeping of the Church’s property only three prayer-books and a cork-screw. Roberts might even have emulated that French buccaneer who shot one of his men in church for irreverence at Mass,13 or Captain Condent, that stalwart Protestant pirate, who, on taking a priest, would make him say Mass at the mainmast, and would afterwards get on his back and ride him about the decks, or else load and drive him like a beast.
The post of chaplain aboard a pirate, though irregular, was not unexampled. Dr. Blackbourne was said to have had such a cure of souls in his younger days. He later returned to England, where his natural parts were soon rewarded by ecclesiastical eminence. When Sir Charles Wager heard of his promotion to the see of York, “What,” said he, “my friend Dr. Blackbourne made archbishop of York! I ought to have been preferred to it before him, as I was the elder buccaneer of the two!”14 Horace Walpole thus qualifies the reverend gentleman: “Blackbourne, the jolly old Archbishop of York, who had all the manners of a man of quality, though he had been a Buccaneer; and was a clergyman; but he retained nothing of his first profession except his seraglio.”15
We may well marvel what demon lurked in the spirit of our sedate merchantman’s officer, to turn him in sober middle age to the maddest of sea-rovers. What power, that could make his men follow him with apostolic 139 zeal? Roger Ball, who was taken on the Ranger, “raved on the bravery of Roberts, saying he should shortly be released as soon as they should meet him, which procured him a lashing down upon the fo’c’sle, which he resisting with all his force, caused him to be used with the more violence, so that he was tied down with so much severity that, his flesh being sore and tender, he died next day of a mortification.” And we have already r3ead how Roberts’s death broke the courage of his men.
He was not a cruel man. Only one act of wantonness is recorded, and in that case the blame may not clearly be charged against him. I refer to the burning of the Porcupine in Whydah roads, with some eighty slaves, shackled two and two together, left upon her to choose between death by fire and by water. But from the account it seems that this barbarity is to be attributed to the haste of the men he sent to disembark the negroes. We read of nothing in his life to compare with the frantic deeds of Lolonois, in Esquemeling’s record, who with his cutlass cut open the breast of a Spaniard, “and pulling out his heart, began to bite and gnaw it with his teeth, like a ravenous wolf, saying to the rest, ‘I will serve you all alike, if you she me no another way.’ ” Of a similar ravening temper was Captain Low, who had a Portuguese captain’s lips cut off and broiled before his face; and Captain Condent’s gunner tore out, broiled, and ate the heart of a faithless comrade. But we may be sure that such unnatural rogues would have received short shrift on the Royal Fortune.
Did remorse stir Roberts’s bosom as he reflected upon his way of lie? He confessed as much; he had 140 “shed, as he used to tell the freshmen, as many crocodile tears as they did now, but time and good company had wore it off.” The student of human vagaries may recognize in these words as much regret as scorn of his earlier self, for the tears had sprung from the secret fountains of virtue, and in his later character he was obliged to mock at them only to persuade himself that his wickedness was admirable to honest fellows. He had his version of his reason for embracing the piratical career; “he frankly own’d, it was to get rid of the disagreeable superiority of some masters he was acquainted with, and the love of novelty and change that maritime peregrinations had accustom’d him to. ‘In an honest service,’ said he, ‘there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not ballance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choaking? No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.’ ” Thus he preached himself into an approbation of what he first abhorred, and a scorn of what had once been his pride. So in our commercial world a man who has been discharged his position righteously condemns his old employ, and fins virtue in his shaking off of it.
In one thing he kept always a memory of his old principles and a tender regard for the consciences of others. He would never force men into pirate service, however great his need of a carpenter or surgeon or other artist. To some he gave discharges at their mere wish. When the Onslow was taken, he called the men aft and asked “who was willing to go, for he would force nobody?” as was deposed in the trial. But most 141 of the sailors voluntarily joined, as did a troop of soldiers, passengers on the ship, “whose ears being constantly tickled with the feats and gallantry of those fellows, likewise offered themselves. But here the pirates were at a stand, they entertained so contemptible a notion of land men, that they put ’em off with refusals for some time, till at length being weary’d with solicitations, and pitying a parcel of stout fellows, who, they said, were going to starve upon a little canky and plantane, they accepted them, and allowed them a quarter share out of charity.”
Stern as he was with his men, Roberts possessed one quality which must be counted in his favor, I mean love of fun. Of this I have already given some examples; it would certainly appear that life on the Royal Fortune was full of jollity. When, for example, he took the Flushing, a Dutch ship, his men teased the skipper by “taking some fine sausages he had on board, of his wife’s making, and stringing them in a ludicrous manner round their necks, till they had sufficiently shew’d their contempt of them, and then they threw them into the sea. Others chopp’d the heads of the fowls off, to be dressed for their supper, and courteously invited the landlord, provided he would find liquor. It was a melancholy request to the man, but it must be comply’d with, and he was obliged, as they grew drunk, to sit quietly and hear them sing French and Spanish songs out of his Dutch prayer book, with other prophaneness, that he (though a Dutch man) stood amazed at.”
Pirates, perhaps from the whimsicality of their way of lie, were always humorists, and that from the most ancient times. Captain Johnson, in his learned introduction, 142 tells of the Mediterranean pirates of classical days. When hey took a ship they would enquire of their captives their names and countries, and if any said he was a Roman they would fall upon their knees, “as if in a fright at the greatness of his name, and begged pardon for what they had done, and imploring his mercy, they used to perform the offices of servants about his person. And when they found they had deceived him into a belief of their being sincere, they hung out the ladder of the ship and coming with a great show of courtesy, told him he had his liberty, desiring him to walk out of the ship, and this in the middle of the sea. And when they observed him in surprise, as was natural, they used to throw him overboard with mighty shouts of laughter.” And their cruelty, as our author explains in another place, was often subordinate to their desire for a good jest; “they almost as often murdered a man from the excess of good humor as out of passion and resentment.” The pirates were fond of games, and in one of them, called “the sweat,” their humor was exactly that displayed in fraternity initiations in our institutions of learning. “They stick up lighted candles circularly round the mizon-mast, between decks, within which the patients one at a time enter. Without the candles the pirates post themselves, as many as can stand, forming another circle, and armed with pen-knives, tucks, forks, compasses, etc., and as he runs round and round, the musick playing at the same time, they prick him with those instruments. This usually lasts for ten or twelve minutes, which is as long as the miserable man can support himself.”
A parcel of Captain Roberts’s men abandoned him 143 off Cape Verde in the brigantine Good Fortune, and, under Captain Anstis, went pirating on their own account. After taking plenty of good prizes, they determined to petition His Majesty for a pardon, and while awaiting the royal pleasure, they settled down quietly on an island off Cuba, and there they passed their time in dancing and other diversion. They would amuse themselves by appointing a mock Court of Judicature to try one another for piracy; and Captain Johnson had from a witness an account of their laughable doings. I shall make some extracts which will, I hope, inspire some to review the full minutes of these proceedings. “The judge got up in a tree, and had a dirty tarpaulin hung over his shoulders; this was done by way of robe, with a thrum cap on is head, and a large pair of spectacles upon his nose. . . . The criminals were brought out, making a thousand sour faces; and one who acted as Attorney-General opened the charge against them. . . .
“Attorn.-Gen.: An’t pleasure your lordship and you gentlemen of the jury, here is a fellow before you that is a sad dog, a sad, sad dog; and I humbly hope your Lordship will order him to be hanged out of the way immediately. . . . He has committed worse villainies than all these, for we shall prove that he has been guilty of drinking small beer; and your lordship knows that never was a sober fellow but what was a rogue. My lord, I should have spoke much finer than I do now, but that, as your Lordship knows, our rum is all out, and how should a man speak good law that has not drunk a dram? However, I hope your Lordship will order the fellow to be hanged.
“Judge: Heark’ee me, Sirrah, you lousy, pitiful, ill-looked 144 dog; what have you to say why you should not be tucked up immediately and set a-sun-drying, like a scarecrow?” . . .
“Pris.: But I hope your Lordship will hear some reason.
“Judge: D’ye hear how the scoundrel prates? What have we to do with reason? I’d have you know, scoundrel, we don’t sit here to reason; we go according to Law. Is our dinner ready?
“Attorn.-Gen.: Yes, my Lord.
Judge: Then heark’ee, you rascal at the bar, hear me, Sirrah, hear me. You must suffer for three reasons: first, because it is not fit I should sit here as judge and nobody be hanged; secondly, you must be hanged because I am hungry; for know, Sirrah, that ’tis a custom that whenever the judge’s dinner is ready before the trial is over, the prisoner is to be hanged of course. There’s Law for you, ye dog!”
But the best example of pirate humors is to be found in the account of Captain Bellamy, whose ship, the Whidaw, was lured upon the coast of Cape Cod and wrecked near Wellfleet in 1717, drowning all hands but seven. You may read of this notorious wreck in the Rev. Cotton Mather’s journals and in other documents of the time.16 One of the brisk lads on the Whidaw was a stroller, or strolling-player, who after various turns of fortune, had joined company with these “marine heroes, the scourge of tyrants and avarice, and the brave asserters of liberty.” This waggish fellow found idle days at sea wearisome to one of his temper, and felt that stir of dramatic composition so frequently to be 145 noted among actors retired from the stage. He made a play which was acted on the quarter-deck to great applause, as passengers today beguile their leisure with a Ship’s Concert.17 Of this play, called “The Royal Pirate,” but two lines are extant; yet they are lines which exerted a power scarcely to be matched in the whole history of the drama. “Alexander the Great, environed by his guards, was examining a Pirate who was brought before him. Said Alexander:
Know’st thou that Death attends thy mighty crimes,
And thou shall’st hang tomorrow morn betimes!”
Thereat the gunner, who was drunk, “swore ‘by G-d he’d try that,’ and running into the gun room, where he left three companions over a bowl of rum punch as drunk as himself, told them, ‘They were going to hang honest Jack Spinkes, and if they suffered it, they should all be hanged one after another, but, by G-d, they should not hang him, for he’d clear the decks,’ and taking grenade with a lighted match, followed by his comrades with their cutlass, he set fire to the fuse and threw it among the actors.” In the mellay Alexander had his left arm cut off, and Jack Spinkes his leg broke. After the uproar was quieted Alexander was mollified for the loss of his arm by obtaining the death of him who had cut it off. “The gunner and two surviving comrades were that night clapped into irons, and the next day at a court martial not only acquitted but applauded for their zest. Alexander and his enemies were reconciled and the play forbade any more to be acted.” 146
This unhappy stroller was killed not long after in an engagement with a French troopship off Newfoundland. He died, no doubt, without regret, for although his play had never come to its final curtain, it had been paid the highest compliment an audience ahs ever rendered to verisimilitude.
I think that this is enough about pirates.
1 So says Lemaître. I cannot find the original quotation.
2 Recently reprinted by Dodd, Mead and Co., N. Y.
3 By Basil Ringrose, Gent. It is included in The Bucaniers of America, 1704, II, 102.
4 All who went on board a prize were allowed, above their proper share, a shift of clothes. Not rarely the grandees on the prizes were stripped naked to watch the pirates strutting it in their satins and laces.
5 If the robbery was only between themselves, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere where he was sure to encounter hardships. — Note by Captain Johnson.
6 This Roberts believed would give a check to their debauches, for he was a sober man himself; but he found at length that all his endeavours to put an end to this debauch proved ineffectual. — Note by Captain Johnson.
7 In this they were extravagantly nice, endeavouring to outdo one another in the beauty and richness of their arms, giving sometimes at an auction made at the mast 30 or 40 £ a pair for pistols. These were slung in time of service with different coloured ribbands over their shoulders, in a way peculiar to these fellows, in which they took great delight. — Note by Captain Johnson.
8 The provision appears in the articles of Captain George Lowther and his crew.
9 See Basil Ringrose’s relation of their journey, in The History of the Bucaniers of America, London, 1704.
10 The Bucaniers of America, London, 1704, Vol. I.
11 “Whipped and pickled”: No doubt the punishment mentioned by Esquemeling in which the back is thoroughly lashed and the wounds anointed with lemon-juice, salt, and pepper.
12 New York, 1923.
13 Masefield: On the Spanish Main, London, 1906.
14 Gentleman’s Magazine (1777), 376.
15 Memoirs of the Reign of King George II (1847), I, 87. Granger’s Biographical Dictionary scouts this story, but Walpole asserts that he knew the old gentleman well.
16 The wreck was still visible in 1863. See Thoreau: Cape Cod and Mary R. Bangs: Old Cape Cod (Boston, 1920).
17 The fanciful might surmise that the proceeds went to the Destitute Pirates’ Fund.