Once upon a time in West Wales, there lived a young lad called John Roberts.
John made little impact on his village home of ‘Little Newcastle’ in the first eleven years he spent growing up there during the late sixteen hundreds. However, when the young boy left to work on a royal naval ship, he soon escalated to remarkable fame. Held in utmost regard by all that cruised the dark side of the seven seas, John Robert’s legacy grew to be more extraordinary than anyone in his small home county of Pembrokeshire could have imagined.
It all began when one day, His Majesty’s royal ship, on which young John was aboard, was struck by fearsome pirates out at sea. The captain among them was none other than a Howell Davies of Milford Haven, a notorious sailor among thieves who had once lived not more than twenty miles from John Robert’s own home in Pembrokeshire.
Although not eager to join the pirates like some of his Royal Naval shipmates, John did succumb rather than be killed by his attackers.
As a Welsh speaker, Roberts proved useful and trustworthy to Captain Davis and in no time he became a right-hand man to the ship’s leader. John’s navigational skills proved to be exceptional and he sailed with Howell as a pirate for some years. Later on, at the time of Captain Davis’ death, John’s story really starts to flourish.
Immediately voted in as the new captain in place of Davis by the crew, John Roberts evolves. He takes on the name Bartholomew Roberts and is today recognised as having captured over four hundred ships during the course of his short pirate career. The once quiet boy from Wales, of only marginal means, is now the most powerful man on the water. Respected, sharp and eloquent, Bartholomew Roberts is arguably the greatest pirate who ever lived.
We get a sense that Roberts’ persona was clever and kind to his fellow crew so long as they daren’t betray him. Roberts was a ‘firm but fair’ leader, though his decisions in battle on the water were often brutal and dispassionately ruthless, no doubt in order to sustain his fearsome reputation which would precede him wherever he sailed.
It’s widely thought that Bartholomew’s men valued him in high esteem,
he is said to have drawn up the first ever pirate code where by every man on board should have equal share of all bounty.
This included all members of his crew, from ex naval officers to those otherwise destined to be traded as slaves. He ran a tight ship which insisted on reasonable lights-out times and didn’t tolerate drunken disorderly behaviour.
Women also faired better following invasion by one of Roberts’ ships. He ruled that women should never fall victim to attack by any of his men.
Some sources say Bartholomew Roberts was the creator of the the first pirate flag, a precursor for the well known skull and cross bones. Not just creative in business and house rules, but in his dress; for every pirate you see wearing elaborate robes and ruffled fabrics in today’s modern adaptation of a pirate, is based on him. Roberts was never without ornate dress and neither would he dream of going into battle without the accompanying sound of violins and strings playing to bring passionate ferocity to the fight. “A merry life but a short one” was his carefree moto and outlook on life. Some of these personality traits have led to historians questioning Roberts’ presumed gender and his appetite for female company.
Later, after his death, which occurred thanks to a single pistol shot while Roberts was in his mid thirties, the pirate is written about and referenced by a new name. In Welsh he is called ‘Barti Ddu’ (ddu is pronounced ‘thee’), or in English ‘Black Bart’ (a direct translation).
Just like his nickname, much of what we know about Barti Ddu is attributed to him after his time, it’s difficult to know what is fact and what is narrative designed to make him seem more formidable, more this way, or more that by his peers.
What we do know is that pirates aren’t role models for today’s moral values. We know that John Roberts wasn’t a stand up guy by modern standards, but the essence of his personality, his ability to come out of himself and turn his life around after being dealt a luckless hand, along with his implication of basic equal rights among his crew, centuries before anyone below the male aristocracy could vote, if accurate, is certainly intriguing if nothing else.
You can listen to the full version of “The Ballad of Barti Ddu” a song written for us by Daisy B and used in our radio advert here.