Battle of Cape Lopez: Royal Navy Defeats, Kills Pirate Bartholomew Roberts

 
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Battle of Cape Lopez: Royal Navy Defeats, Kills Pirate Bartholomew Roberts

"Bartholomew Roberts with his ship and captured merchant ships in the background"
Copper engraving c. 1724 (Unless indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 10, 1722

Again, I bring you an historical tale from the "Golden Age of Piracy." Today I tell you of how one of the most successful buccaneer captains was brought to ground and killed by the Royal Navy, but not before making life miserable for British and French merchants from Brazil to Newfoundland, from Surinam in South America to the Gold Coast of Africa.

Bartholomew Roberts, Reluctant Pirate

He was born John Roberts on May 17, 1682 in the town of Little Newcastle (the Welsh version of the name needs to buy some vowels, so I won't use it), Pembrokeshire, Wales. It is believed he went to sea in 1695 at the age of 13, but no further mention of him occurs until 1718. One year later, in early June of 1719, Roberts was the third mate on the "Princess," a slave ship anchored in the harbor of Anomabu on the coast of Ghana. Two pirate vessels sailed into Anomabu's harbor and quickly captured the "Princess." The ships were commanded by Captain Howell Davis, who was Welsh like Roberts and hailed from the same neighborhood.

Several of the captive ship's sailors were impressed into the pirate crew, including Roberts. At first, Roberts resisted the lure of the pirate life. But when Davis discovered that his captive was a fine navigator and was a fellow Welshman, Roberts was persuaded. According to the 1724 book, "A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates" by Charles Johnson, Roberts reportedly said, "A short life and a merry one will be my motto."

Death of Captain Howell Davis, June 19, 1719
Death of Captain Howell Davis, June 19, 1719

Shortly afterwards, Captain Davis was ambushed and killed by the Portuguese on the island of Principe. In an unusual move, the pirate company voted Roberts to be the new captain. At first, Roberts was reluctant to be the new buccaneer leader. He was openly against his even being on board the vessel; it was probably due to his navigational abilities and his demeanor, which history reflects was outspoken and opinionated. According to Johnson, Roberts accepted the honor, saying that since he had "dipp'd [sic] his Hands in Muddy Water, and must be a Pyrate [sic], it was better being a Commander than a common Man."

[It should be pointed out that in most pirate bands of this time period, the captain's power was not absolute. The only times that a captain was obeyed without question was during battle and during the division of loot. In fact, many buccaneer groups were very democratic. If a captain did not live up to his job description, he could be ousted and a new captain elected.]

Bartholomew Roberts' first pirate flag (June 1719-March 1720)
Bartholomew Roberts' first pirate flag (June 1719-March 1720)

Roberts adopted a flag showing himself and Death holding an hourglass (see above). Over the next 2 ½ years, Roberts led his men on expeditions of plunder that ranged far a wide. He attacked merchant shipping near Surinam (Dutch Guiana), off the islands of Barbados and Martinique, even ranging as far as Newfoundland on the eastern Coast of Canada. At some point during his career he adopted the name "Bartholomew Roberts." It was common practice for corsairs to adopt aliases, perhaps not to embarrass one's family.

In February of 1720, the inhabitants of the islands of Barbados and Martinique each equipped ships to end the career of Roberts and his crew. After fighting two separate engagements – and barely surviving both, Roberts swore vengeance on the people of those two islands. While he refitted his ship, Roberts commissioned a new flag (see below), showing him standing on two skulls, one labeled ABH ("a Barbadian's Head") and the other marked AMH ("a Martiniquian Head"). By April of 1721, Roberts and his men were ravaging the western African coast from modern-day Sierra Leone to Liberia to Ghana to Benin.

Second pirate flag of Bartholomew Roberts (March 1720-February 1722)
Second pirate flag of Bartholomew Roberts (March 1720-February 1722)

Over the course of his short piratical career, Roberts captured more ships than any corsair leader of the "Golden Age." It is estimated that he acquired somewhere between 450 and 470 ships of all kinds. By early 1722, he was leading a small flotilla of ships including the "Royal Fortune" (the fourth vessel to bear this name under Roberts, formerly a British frigate) mounting 40 cannon, and the "Ranger" and "Little Ranger" (both formerly French ships – possibly sloops or brigs – one of 10 guns and the other carrying 16 cannon).

In early January of 1722 Roberts and his flotilla sailed into the harbor of Ouidah – a major slave depot – on the coast of Benin, with their black flags flying. All eleven ships in the harbor lowered their colors and surrendered to the buccaneers. Roberts sent a message to the captains of each ship, demanding a ransom of eight pounds of gold dust for each vessel and its cargo. When one of the captains refused to pay, Roberts ordered the slave ship set ablaze, with its "cargo" of 80 slaves still on board.

Prelude to the Battle

Shortly after leaving Ouidah, Roberts' flotilla sailed for Cape Lopez on coast of modern-day Gabon. The pirates then began refitting and careening their ships. [Careening involved pulling a ship up on land and performing maintenance to the hull. Maintenance might include repairing damage caused by dry rot or cannon shot, tarring the exterior to reduce leakage, or removing fouling organisms such as barnacles to increase the ship's speed. Pirates would often careen their ships because they had no access to regular drydocks.] On February 5, a British man-of-war – the 50-gun frigate HMS "Swallow" commanded by Captain Chaloner Ogle – appeared off Cape Lopez. One of the drunken sailors spotted the vessel as it veered off to avoid a shoal, mistaking it for a merchant ship seeking to avoid capture.

Example of vessels careening
Example of vessels careening

The "Ranger" got underway in pursuit almost immediately. Once the two vessels were out of earshot of Cape Lopez, Captain Ogle ordered the "Swallow's" gunports opened. A broadside was unleashed on the "Ranger," killing ten men and removing the leg of its captain. After a short battle, the "Ranger" struck her colors. The British captured the remaining crew, and began sailing back to Cape Lopez.

Battle of Cape Lopez

Feeling they were safe from discovery, many of the pirates and Captain Roberts began to drink and carouse. The "Swallow" reappeared off Cape Lopez on February 10, 1722. In addition to the "Royal Fortune" and "Little Ranger," a third ship was present – the "Neptune," a merchant vessel trading with the corsairs (though one chronicler claims that Roberts and his men had captured the vessel). As Ogle's man-of-war approached, one of Roberts' crew – a deserter from the "Swallow" – recognized the ship and informed Roberts. In preparation for the upcoming fight, Roberts donned his best clothes (perhaps he had a premonition of death). According to Johnson, "Roberts himself made a gallant figure, at the time 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 his hand, and two pairs of pistols slung over his shoulders."

Realizing that he might not be able to overcome the British warship, Roberts ordered nearly all his men onto the "Royal Fortune" leaving a skeleton crew on the "Little Ranger." He further ordered "Little Ranger" and "Neptune" to get away from the fight. He then gave orders to his pilot and navigator, to steer a course that would take "Royal Fortune" close to the enemy vessel, but then head straight out to sea and avoid a fight. By doing this the "Swallow" would have to turn about to engage or chase the "Royal Fortune" which would give Roberts valuable time to flee. The plan however had one default, by sailing right past the British frigate, the "Royal Fortune" would be exposed to one of British ship's deadly broadsides.

Captain Roberts set out for his escape and issued the command for "Little Ranger" and the merchantman to leave. When "Royal Fortune" was off "Swallow's" beam, the British released a massive broadside which raked the pirate ship. At this point, the "Royal Fortune's" navigator made a error in the ship's course, which kept the vessel too close to the British frigate. The pirates opened fire and then an additional broadside from the "Swallow" raked the deck where Black Bart was commanding a gun (one chronicler says Roberts was straddling the gun, perhaps taunting the British). Grape shot passed through the captain's neck and he fell forward onto the gun. When the smoke had cleared away, Bartholomew Roberts was dead. Knowing Roberts' orders in case of his death in battle, his crew quickly buried him at sea to prevent his body from being captured by the British. His corpse was never recovered.

After disposing of their captain's body, the pirates determined to avenge their captain and chose to fight the British. They slowed their vessel and turned around to continue the engagement. According to some accounts the action lasted between two and three hours before the British sailors dismasted the pirate frigate and boarded it. After a sharp boarding action, the "Royal Fortune's" colors were struck by force and the remaining pirates were arrested. One pirate tried to set off the powder magazine, but was restrained by two impressed men. The battle of Cape Lopez was over.

Aftermath

Casualties were low on both side, no more than a dozen or so killed and wounded. However, nearly 272 buccaneers were taken prisoner. Fifty-two pirates were hanged for their deeds and thirty-seven were punished less severely. Of the 272 pirates, about seventy-five were black so the British sold them into slavery. Seventeen went to Marshalsea prison in London and twenty became indentured servants for the Royal African Company. Dozens of pirates escaped punishment as they were forced into a life with Roberts' pirates to begin with.

When word spread that Bartholomew Roberts was dead, it was like water on a fire as the "Golden Age of Piracy" began to finally fade away and end.

Footnote #1: Bartholomew Roberts is sometimes called "Black Bart." However, this nom de guerre was not used during his life time. He is described in Johnson's book as being black-haired and having a dark complexion.

Footnote #2: Bartholomew Roberts is one of nine famous pirates of history used as opponents in the computer game "Sid Meier's 'Pirates!'"

Cary Elwes in his disguise as 'the Dread Pirate Roberts' in 'The Princess Bride' (photo courtesy of Bing images)
Cary Elwes in his disguise as 'the Dread Pirate Roberts' in 'The Princess Bride' (photo courtesy of Bing images)

Footnote #3: In the 1987 film "The Princess Bride," one of the characters masquerades as "the Dread Pirate Roberts." This is obviously an oblique homage to Bartholomew Roberts.

Footnote #4: Captain Chaloner Ogle was knighted for his acts at the battle of Cape Lopez. He also became a rich man by "liberating" several ounces of the gold dust in Roberts' cabin. He was later appointed "Admiral of the White" and elected to Parliament, serving from 1746 until his death in 1750.

Admiral Sir Chaloner Ogle (1681-1750)
Admiral Sir Chaloner Ogle (1681-1750)

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