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The Western Mail Monday, 24th August 2004

BARTI DDU THE WELSH PIRATE KING WHO RULES THE WAVES

Interview with the author by Ceri Jones

The life of a teetotal Welsh pirate believed to be the most successful freebooter of all time is to be retold in a new book.

            Bartholomew Roberts, better known as Barti Ddu, or Black Bart, may be less well-known than his counterparts Captain Kidd and Blackbeard, but the Welshman is believed to have amassed more booty than both of them.

            In his brief career, the pirate from Pembrokeshire, who preferred to drink tea than rum, captured over 400 ships and looted an estimated 50 million, while keeping the four most powerful nations on earth at bay.

            Now a Welsh author has come to rescue Barti Ddu from the shadows of history and has written a book about the last great man of the Golden Age of Piracy.

            Terry Breverton, who teaches at University of Wales Institute Cardiff, first came across Barti Ddu on holiday when he saw a plaque in his memory at a Pembroke tourist attraction.

            The battered inscription piqued his curiosity and the deeper he delved, the more he realises that here was a hero whose story needed to be told.

            He was certainly the bravest pirate who ever lived, said Terry Breverton yesterday. To me hes a typical Welsh anti-hero. I dont see him as a villain. He was trapped in a situation in life and did his best.

            Like another Welsh hero, Owain Glyndwr, he deserves a major film. He was the same sort of man. A very charismatic character. Only in his case he hadquite an austere charm. But he was quite remarkable for his time.

            Barti Ddu, so called because of his colouring and dark hair, was born to the son of a poor farmer in the tiny village of Little Newcastle near Fishguard in 1682.

            Like many of his countrymen living close to the coast, he went to sea at an early age. It was a time when the British Empire was being born, when not only the Royal Navy but also pirates and buccaneers rules the waves.

            Wales, along with the West Country, provided a rich seam of seafarers and pirates.

            After serving in the long War of Spanish Succession, in 1718 Barti was the third mate on the slave trader Princess, and unlikely to progress any further due to his background when it was captured by another pirate from Pembrokeshire, Hywel Davis from Milford Haven.

            Barti is said to have been reluctant at first to throw in his lot with the pirates, but his reputation as a navigator meant that they were keen for his services.  Six weeks after Barti joined the crew, the Milford haven man was killed and the pirates elected Barti Ddu, then 38, as their leader.

            To be honest, life on a pirate ship was a lot more convivial and attractive than working on a slaver, where life expectancy for the crew was only two or three years, said Mr. Breverton. Conditions were horrible for the crew as well as for the slaves. The punishment and conditions on Royal navy ships was also terrible. Thats why most crewmembers had to be press-ganged. Life on a pirate ship was far more preferable.

            There was a democracy. All ships officers were elected and could be deselected. A captain only had authority in battle.

            Over the course of the next few years Barti, who always wore a huge diamond cross belonging to the King of Portugal, and his multinational crew created mayhem for merchant fleets from America to Africa.

            The Atlantic Ocean was at this time the focus of a triangular slave trade, with ships bearing valuable cargoes ripe for pirate pickings. Soon Barti became known as The Great Pyrate, bringing transatlantic shipping to a standstill. By 1720, his reputation was such that the crews of over 20 ships abandoned them when he entered a harbour in Newfoundland.

He was a tall man and he does not seem to have had any interest in either women or men, said Mr. Breverton. He was always dressed in red, which could have been to disguise the blood in battle and show that he just did not care. He wore scarlet breeches, a red waistcoat and sported a hat with a scarlet flamingo plume. As well as being a Christian teetotaller, he only drank tea and did not believe in gambling.

One of the reasons his ship was so successful was that he was not on the razzle all the time like the rest of them. He got killed in the end because the rest of the crew was blind drunk and they were easily ambushed.

Bartis body was thrown overboard and in the great pirate trial that followed, 54 of his crew were hanged, 37 imprisoned and 70 African slaves who Bart had liberated were sold back into slavery.

Barti, who is still remembered today in his home village by a stone memorial, is believed never to have returned to Wales after leaving for sea. He could not go back to Wales. Not when the four greatest nations in the world were hunting him at the time, said Mr. Breverton. But I think in the end he welcomed death. He was getting more and more brave in his raiding attempts. He said A short life and a merry one shall be my motto and his life certainly was that.


BOOKWATCH USA

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Everyones heard of pirates Captain Kidd and Blackbeard but history buffs may be amazed to learn these famous pirates took only thirty ships between them, whereas Black Bart Roberts alone took more than 400 ships in a brief period of time. Terry Brevertons Black Bart Roberts is a must reading for anyone interested in pirates and American nautical history: first-hand accounts, court documents, and maps accompany a fascinating bit of piratical history on the high seas.


BLACK BART ROBERTS THE GREATEST PIRATE OF THEM ALL DAILY NEWS, TEXAS by Jerry Turner

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In todays world, John Roberts would be considered a scoundrel in each of his occupations. But most folks would think being a pirate a higher calling than being a mate on a slaving ship or blackbirder as they were called in the trade. Tall, dark John Roberts with his brooding look was just such a man when in 1719, he decided to trade his slave ship for the black flag of the pirates life. Roberts interesting and exciting life is told in Black Bart the Greatest Pirate of Them All written by Terry Breverton and published by Pelican Press (in the USA).

            Roberts lived at a time when England could force men to serve aboard her ships. Many men had been forced to sail on legal ships, but conditions and treatment were often so bad that when an opportunity arose to escape, they often chose the relatively easy life of pirates. Most of the ships captains seemed to be a cruel lot, so many were set adrift or killed by their crews. 

            After Roberts ship was taken over by pirates, he chose to wash his hands in muddy water and became a buccaneer. He quickly became a favourite of the pirate captain. When the captain was killed by Portuguese soldiers, Roberts was elected captain. Black Bart Roberts began his pirate career with a pledge to have a merry life and a short one. His appearance gave him the name of Black Bart.

            Dressed in red silk from head to toe, wearing a tremendous diamond cross, and ordering his musicians to play music on Sundays, Roberts became the most successful pirate of all time. He brought transatlantic shipping to a virtual standstill. Commanding multinational crews of freed slaves and senior pirates who called themselves The House of Lords, Roberts captured more than 400 ships during his three-year career.

            His success at plundering would eventually lead to his downfall. Although Roberts was a teetotaller, he allowed his men to drink and commit the usual sins associated with pirates. Roberts was probably asexual, since no mention of his sexual preferences was ever recorded. (One author claimed that Roberts was a homosexual!) Rich in booty gained by plundering, Roberts men became uncontrollable and drank when they should have been taking care of their business. When a royal ship caught up with Roberts vessel, the men were drunk or asleep, and were relatively easy prey. Roberts was killed in the attack.

            Breverton uses an impressive list of books to tell the story of Black Bart. If you like pirate stories and tales of the high seas, get a copy of Black Bart Roberts The Greatest Pirate of Them All.


Glyndŵr Publishing (Wales Books)