Wednesday, December 22, 2010

History: Success And Failure

Bartholomew Roberts was certainly one of the most successful pirates of the Golden Age. At least as far as volume of ships and booty taken. He was an anomaly among his fellows as well: a religious individual who always had his Bible with him, he was also very fond of the wealth he accumulated on the high seas. On the day he died he was notoriously wearing a cloth-of-gold suit cut to the most fashionable lines, a huge tricorn hat of satin with crimson feathers and a thick gold chain from which was suspended a huge cross encrusted with rubies and diamonds. He shunned alcohol, but he had no qualms about shooting and slicing a merchantman’s crew. Most notably he was originally a prisoner aboard the pirate ship of Howell Davis. When Davis was killed through treachery on Sierra Leone, Roberts – probably very much to his surprise – was elected Captain and his first act was to cut a bloody swath through the African island to revenge Davis. A man of surprising contradictions indeed.

Roberts did not always stray from convention, though. He followed the habit of pirate captains of his day and established a set of Articles for the crew of his flagship, Royal Fortune. These were written down and sworn to – on the Captain’s Bible – some time in 1720. They are the most detailed set of Ship’s Articles extant and it is interesting to note that every crew member signed the document. So much for pirate illiteracy.

I Every Man has a Vote in Affairs of the moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions or strong Liquors at any time seized, and may use them at Pleasure unless scarcity make it necessary for the Good of all to vote a Retrenchment.

II Every Man to be called fairly in turn by List on board of prizes, because, over and above their proper Shares, they were on these Occasions allowed a Shift of Clothes. But if they defrauded the Company to the value of a dollar, in plate, jewels or money, Marooning was their punishment. If the Robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the Ears and Nose of him that were Guilty and set him on Shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere where he was sure to encounter Hardships.

III No Person to Game at cards or dice for Money.

IV The Lights to be put out at eight a-Clock at Night. If any of the crew, after that Hour, still remained inclined for Drinking, they were to do it on the open Deck.

V To Keep their Piece, Pistols and Cutlass clean and fit for service.

VI No Boy or Woman to be allowed among them. If any Man were found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to Sea disguised, he was to suffer Death.

VII To Desert the Ship or their Quarters in Battle, was punished with Death or Marooning.

VIII No striking one another on board, but every Man’s quarrels to be ended on shore at Sword or Pistol thus: the Quartermaster of the Ship, when the parties will not come to any Reconciliation, accompanies them on Shore with what assistance he thinks proper and turns the Disputants back to back, at so many Paces Distance. At the Word of Command, they turn and fire immediately or else the Piece is knocked out of their Hands. If both miss, they come to the Cutlasses and then he is declared Victor who draws the first blood.

IX No Man to talk of breaking up their Way of Living till each had a share of 1,000. If in order to this, any Man shall lose a Limb or become Lame in their Service, he was to have 800 pieces of eight out of the public Stock, and for lesser Hurts proportionably.

X The Captain and the 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.

XII The Musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights none without special Favor.

As history tells us, no amount of careful documentation or number of signatures could guarantee health or success. Roberts complained in his log of his men’s gambling and almost continuous drinking and the latter came back to bite them all. When Royal Fortune met the pirate hunting HMS Swallow in 1722, Roberts’ crew was so drunk to a man that they could not even run out their guns. Roberts was killed by grapeshot from Swallow’s cannon, and the crewmen that were not killed in the engagement were eventually tried and hanged.

Header: Engraving of Bartholomew Roberts from a 19th century copy of Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of Pyrates, from which these articles are quoted


Keith said...


Pauline said...

Ahoy, Le Loup and thankee. Ship's Articles are fascinating to me because it seems next to impossible to reasonably govern a ship full of pirates, even with the written word. Good stuff.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Roberts was a walking dichotomy, but I guess maybe he justified his actions by the many contradictions that seem to exist in the Bible. It seems like you can use it to justify just about anything, if you really want to.

Many of his ship's article do seem pretty difficult to enforce too... As they obviously were.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I agree with you. Its one thing to get initial buy-on, particularly when your men see you as a lucky Captain who can make them rich. Enforcing the "rules" is an entirely different thing.