Monday, January 18, 2010

The Pirates Own Book: "Are Not We In Sport?"

I've talked about Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts before here at Triple P. Charles Ellms seems to be particularly fond of this man who arguably may have been the most successful pirate of the Golden Age. The chapter in The Pirates' Own Book on Black Bart is entitled The Life of Captain Roberts and, for the most part, it reads simply as a litany of prize taking. The usual inaccuracies and confusing details that pop up in Ellms' prose are all here but, interestingly, the lurid stuff is missing. Aside from boozing the gage fairly heavily, Roberts' pirates are a pretty straight-laced bunch.

Ellms tells the well known story of Roberts as a legitimate sailor who is captured by "the pirate Davis in November, 1719."

[Roberts] was at first very averse to that mode of life, and would certainly have deserted had an opportunity occurred. It happened to him, however, as to many upon another element, that preferment calmed his conscience and reconciled him to that which he formerly hated.

Davis is killed and a long passage ensues documenting Roberts' election to the post of Captain. The pirates, who Ellms referrs to as "Lords", are quite enthusiastic about Roberts and his potential as a leader and his election is unanimous.

What follows is page after page of ongoing prize taking. Roberts is said to have raided upwards of 400 ships in his three year career as Captain and it seems that Ellms doesn't miss a one. Starting in the Caribbean Roberts, despite his initial popularity, is betrayed and abandoned by some of his crew. He is left in a small, unprovisioned sloop and he and the men with him nearly die of thirst and hunger. Roberts manages to come out on top and, to avoid further treachery, writes out a code that all his men must agree to and sign. Ellms seems to find this idea dubious at best as he notes that Roberts pursues his course of action ...under the foolish supposition that any laws, oaths or regulations could bind those who had biden open defiance to all divine and human laws.

Despite Ellms' opinion the whole thing seems to work for Roberts and the prize taking continues on at a pace. Having done what they could in Caribbean the pirates headed up to Newfoundland where they went a little nuts burning and sinking twenty-two vessels. Once they were done at sea they hit the shore to pillage local homes. As Ellms puts it: Power in the hands of mean and ignorant men renders them wanton, insolent and cruel. They are literally like madmen who cast firebrands, arrows and death and say "Are not we in sport?"

The sport continued as Roberts and his crew made their way across the Atlantic to the rich hunting grounds off the coast of West Africa. Nothing slows down in the way of prizes and the crew seems to turn even more cruel in their handling of prisoners. The men are also huge drinkers and, when they find several vessels full of spirits they hit it hard: render their liquor so plentiful that it was esteemed a crime against Providence not to be continually drunk. And so it seems they are. Interestingly, Ellms has Roberts partaking of all this good wine when in fact the man never drank anything but tea.

The debauchery catches up - as it always does in Ellms Victorian world - and in 1722 Roberts' Royal Fortune meets HMS Swallow off Cape Lopez. Roberts is lured into a fight by the Royal Navy frigate and he is ready. Again from Ellms:

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 pair of pistols hanging at the end of a silk sling flung over his shoulders, according to the custom of the pirates. He is said to have given his orders with boldness and spirit.

All that boldness amounted to very little, however. Swallow swept Royal Fortune's deck with a broadside of grapeshot and Roberts fell dead of a wound to his neck. His men, still drunk, are either killed with him or captured and hanged.

At the end of the chapter, Ellms finally quotes Roberts himself. He has the pirate saying: In an honest service, there are commonly low wages and hard labor; in this - plenty, satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking? No - a merry life and a short one shall be my motto!

And so, indeed, it was.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! Die young and leave a good looking corpse, I guess... Errr... except for that big hole in your neck... Whoops. So much for that theory. Oh well, at least Roberts was a prolific and memorable pirate (mostly in a good way). Hope you are having a good MLK day, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! If nothing else, old Black Bart had a sense of style. He looked snappy when they tossed his body into the sea. And yes thank you, MLK Day kinda rocks. Sorry you had to work, though.