Môr-leidr – the real terror of the seas
The following article on Welsh pirates first appeared in the 2005 issue of Mixed Moss, the literary journal of The Arthur Ransome Society:
Môr-leidr is the Welsh word for pirate. It literally means sea-robber or sea-thief.
Arthur Ransome created an impressive cast of pirate characters in his Swallows & Amazons series of books: those ruthless Amazon pirates, Captain Nancy and Mate Peggy; the retired pirate, Captain Flint, writing a book aboard his houseboat on the lake in the north; the Latin junkie she-pirate, Missee Lee; and the treasure-hunting Black Jake and crew of the Viper in Peter Duck.
It is a list that Wales, first-time host of the TARS IAGM this year, can rival in real-life. What the country lacks in actual Ransome connections that other regions have, it more than makes up for with its pirate pedigree. A pedigree that includes three of the most successful pirates from the golden age of piracy: ‘the Greatest of all the Brethren of the Coast’, ‘the Cavalier Prince of Pirates’ and ‘the last and most lethal pirate’, or ‘that Great Pyrate’.
Both Ransome and the Amazon pirates would have been aware of the last two of these, by name at least, from having read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The book only mentions three real pirates: the two Welshmen, Howell Davis and Bartholomew Roberts, and an Irishman called Edward England.
For such an avid reader as Ransome, it is likely that he knew more than just their names from A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson, one of Stevenson’s acknowledged source books. First published during the golden age of piracy in 1724, and considered a key text on piracy, it has chapters on both Davis and Roberts. The latter’s is the longest in the book because, as Johnson claimed, ‘he ravaged the Seas longer than the rest … having made more Noise in the World than some others’. While Johnson’s real identity remains a mystery, a popular candidate is Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, Titty’s reading choice on Wild Cat Island.
The other member of our Welsh triumvirate of pirates is Sir Henry Morgan. Like his countrymen, his exploits are recorded in a contemporary text from the period – Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America. First published in Dutch in 1678, it was translated into English in 1684. Morgan disagreed with some aspects of the way he was portrayed in the book and brought this country’s first ever successful libel action against its English publishers. Subsequent editions were revised and both publishers apologised.
The Greatest of all the Brethren of the Coast
In the mid-1600s, Britain tried to establish itself as a force in the West Indies and seize lucrative trade routes to the Caribbean coast of Central and South America, known as the Spanish main. To do so, it relied on privateers or buccaneers. Technically, privateers only operated in times of war to bolster a country’s navy. They carried letters of marque which effectively gave them permission to attack enemy ships. Buccaneers did not have the same authority to act but were usually tolerated because ship-owners and crown and government officials received a cut of the spoils from their raids.
Born in 1635 in south-east Wales, Henry Morgan is perhaps the best-known and most successful of the buccaneers. Intelligent and articulate, he was also enough of a rogue to exaggerate the threat of attack by Spain to secure himself letters of marque. He was daring and imaginative and confidently planned attacks with the skill of a military strategist: attacks that he carried out wearing a flamboyant wardrobe that included wigs, plumed hats, and a red bandana.
In 1667 Morgan was appointed Admiral-in-Chief of the Confederacy of Buccaneers. In 1668, the year the writer Exquemelin joined him, he was given a commission by the Governor of Jamaica to organise ‘the brethren of the coast’, as the buccaneers were known. His reputation ensured that men would serve under him and he made notable raids on Portobello in 1668 and Panama in 1671.
Morgan was, nonetheless, a brutal pirate in all but name. He plundered, sacked and looted the places he attacked and his men tortured prisoners to discover where treasure was hidden. Spain put sustained pressure on Britain to bring him to account which, after Panama, proved impossible to ignore without risking a war Britain could ill afford.
Morgan was shipped home in 1672 where he was féted and welcomed as a hero. By the time his trial took place in 1673, Morgan had sufficient support to secure a verdict of not proven. That same year, he was knighted.
Sir Henry Morgan returned to Jamaica in 1675 and remained on the island until his death. During this time, he served as both Lieutenant-Governor and Governor, although the shortest term as the latter was for a matter of days in 1675 and the longest only ran for a year from May 1680.
When he died in 1688, he was given a State Funeral with a 22-gun salute before being laid to rest in Port Royal cemetery. True to form, he did not stay there for long. In 1692, Port Royal was devastated by an earthquake and tidal wave and Sir Henry Morgan’s body was claimed by the sea.
The Cavalier Prince of Pirates
Howell Davis came from just outside Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, in south-west Wales. He crewed on the slaver ship, the Cadogan of Bristol, which was captured off Sierra Leone by Edward England and his pirate crew.
It was normal for ordinary sailors to put on a show of resistance when ‘invited’ to join pirate crews. They hoped that, if captured and/or tried for piracy, they could claim that they were forced men and be shown some leniency.
The short and stocky Welshman’s defiant declaration that ‘he would sooner be shot to Death than sign the Pyrates’ Articles’ went far beyond any show of resistance. It was all the more impressive given that he had witnessed the pirates kill his Captain.
Edward England gave the Cadogan back to its former chief Mate, making him her captain and giving ‘him a written Paper sealed up, with Orders to open it when he should come into a certain Latitude, and at the Peril of his Life follow the Orders therein set down’.
Davis lacked the crew’s support to carry out Captain England’s orders and the Cadogan sailed for Barbados, where the crew handed him over to authorities. Davis was imprisoned for three months and labelled a pirate upon his release. Unable to find honest crew work, he went to the former pirate rendevous of Providence. But pirates there had recently surrendered under an Act of Grace to Captain Woodes Rogers.
Davis was allowed to join the crew of one of Rogers’ sloops. Still annoyed that he would forever be seen as a pirate, despite not having committed any acts of piracy, he plotted with other crew members, themselves former pirates, to take the Buck. They seized the sloop without any loss of life and Davis was unanimously elected Captain because he was deemed ‘pistol-proof’.
Davis was easy-going and popular but pirate ships were democratically run. A captain only remained in charge, if he was perceived as lucky and successful. Davis quickly captured and plundered a French ship near Hispaniola, satisfying his crew that he was both. Then an even bigger prize came into view and, despite having only 35 hands, Davis decided to attack her, much to the reluctance of his men. In doing so, he displayed the audacity and tenacity that led him to be called ‘the cavalier prince of pirates’.
Davis used all his Welsh cunning and had the newly-captured French ship sail with them, ordering her crew to come up on deck in white shirts to look like pirates. He reasoned that this show of force would bring about the new target’s surrender, which is exactly what happened.
Despite this early success and more that followed, prizes were too few and far between. Davis headed across the Atlantic to the west coast of Africa.
He sailed into the Cape Verde islands, in early 1719, flying the English flag. The Islanders assumed that he was an English privateer and ‘Davis making a good appearance, was caressed by the Governor and inhabitants, and no Diversion was wanting which the Portuguese could shew, or Money could purchase’.
Davis went from there to the coast of Gambia. He knew it well from his days as an honest seaman and decided to attack the garrisoned Gambia castle. Any objections his men voiced were quickly quashed for ‘they began now to conceive so high an Opinion of his Conduct, as well as Courage, that they thought nothing impossible to him…’ Davis tricked the Governor into thinking that the pirates were merchants. Invited to dine at the fort, he pulled a surprise attack. The Governor surrendered and the fort was first plundered and then disarmed.
When he sailed in to Anamaboe, he met three slaver ships, one of which was the Princess, which had a fellow Pembrokeshire man on board. Just as Davis had served on a ship captured by pirates, John Robert(s) would himself, in turn, be captured. He would succeed Davis as captain and arguably become the most successful pirate of all time.
Davis sailed to Principe where he used his previous ploy of hoisting English flags and pretending to be a merchant trader. The Governor was similarly receptive but this time Davis never got to see his plan through. A man escaped, swam ashore in the night and warned the Governor. When Davis went to collect him the following day, his party was ambushed and only two men made it back to the ship alive. Davis was not one of them.
Despite being shot five times, he was determined to die a pirate’s death, so ‘drawing out his Pistols, [he] fired them at his Pursuers: Thus like a game Cock, giving a dying Blow, that he might not fall unrevenged.’
The last and most lethal pirate
John Robert(s) was born in the hamlet of Little Newcastle, Pembrokeshire. A stone on the village green today marks the birthplace of the man who became the feared pirate, Black Bart or Barti Ddu, and literally stopped shipping.
At the time of Davis’ death, John Robert(s) had only been with the pirates for about six weeks. However willing or unwilling he had been to ‘go on the account’, he obviously impressed them in this short time. Roberts was in his late thirties and an experienced sailor. His captain had quickly taken to him, seeking his advice on navigation matters and leaving Roberts in charge of one of the ships at Principe.
When avenging their captain’s death, Roberts advised the pirates to bombard the fort from their position in Principe harbour. He argued that, with the fort’s guns trained on the harbour mouth, they would easily be defeated if they tried to escape. They listened and left a devastated fort and town behind them.
Once out at sea again, the pirates needed to choose a new captain. Davis had surrounded himself with trusted advisors from among the most experienced pirates. Going against the usual democracy enjoyed on a pirate ship, these men were known as the House of Lords and had special privileges which the rest of the crew did not.
One of these Lords, Dennis, proposed Roberts as captain and suggested that ‘while we are sober, we pitch upon a Man of Courage, and skill’d in Navigation, one, who by his Counsel and Bravery seems best able to defend this Commonwealth, … ; and such a one I take Roberts to be. A Fellow! I think, in all Respects, worthy your Esteem and Favour.’
Put to a vote, Roberts was confirmed as the choice of Lords and ordinary pirates alike. He accepted the captaincy somewhat ungraciously by saying ‘that since he had dipp’d his Hands in muddy Water, and must be a Pyrate, it was better being a Commander than a common Man.’ He also warned his crew that he neither feared nor valued any of them.
Soon after leaving Cape Lopez, where the pirates had regrouped, Roberts took his first prize. It was a good omen. But with other pirates operating off the coast of Africa, Roberts decided to cross the Atlantic to Brazil. After three weeks sailing, they arrived exactly where Roberts had wanted, convincing the crew that he was not only lucky but a highly skilled navigator. His reputation was growing.
In the weeks that followed their arrival, however, they failed to run into any other ships that they could attack and plunder. Much to his annoyance, after discussion with the Lords, Roberts conceded defeat and headed north.
When they anchored in the Bay of All Saints, they ran into a Portuguese flotilla guarded by men-of-war. It was seemingly unattainable wealth but Roberts said that he had a plan and they would attack. At night, they sailed without lights between the ships and came alongside one. Some pirates boarded and brought back her captain who told them that the real prize in the fleet was the Sagrado Familia in the harbour mouth. Using his prisoner, Roberts tricked the Sagrado Familia into believing that a message was being delivered from her captain. This positioned him close enough to board, subdue the crew and take the ship.
Towing the heavily-laden Sagrado Familia out to sea, the pirates were about to enjoy more good fortune. The man-of-war in pursuit heaved to and waited for another, which was some distance away, to catch up to her. This gave Roberts time to escape with his magnificent prize. The attack was widely reported and Roberts’ reputation as a bold and daring pirate captain was firmly established among his own men.
It was about this time that John Robert(s) changed his name change and started to become known as Bartholomew Roberts, possibly out of respect for Bartholomew Sharp, a famous pirate of the day. He was also known as Black Bart (or Barti Ddu in Welsh) and it would be interesting to know if this inspired the character of Black Jake in Peter Duck.
The swarthy Welshman also started wearing a red silk outfit, plumed hat and huge diamond cross plundered from the Sagrado Familia. French sailors and pirates are rumoured to have called him Le Joli Rouge (the pretty red), which is one theory behind the origin of the Jolly Roger.
Black Bart had not one, but two, flags. One shows him and a skeleton holding an hourglass, underneath which a heart drips blood. The skeleton holds a burning arrow in its other hand. The other flag was designed by Roberts and shows him holding a flaming sword and an hourglass while standing astride two skulls. The letters ABH and AMH beside them stand for ‘A Barbadian’s head’ and ‘A Martinican’s head’.
His hate campaign against these two islands followed attacks by ships under letter of marque from Barbados, during which Roberts lost half his men. While anchored off Dominica and recovering from this attack, news reached him that sloops from Martinique were searching for the remaining pirates. He swore vengeance on both governors and, in 1721, he captured a ship carrying the Governor of Martinique and hanged him from the yard-arm.
Roberts was an unusual pirate captain. He wrote ahead to inform victims that he was on his way, gave receipts for booty plundered and lambasted victims for the lack of resistance they put up. Known for his tea-drinking, he was teetotal and observed the sabbath. His articles prevented card and dice gambling or entertaining women aboard ship. Lights out was at eight o’clock to dissuade lengthy drinking and carousing sessions. It didn’t work. Roberts found it increasingly difficult to control the crew, especially the hardened drinkers that he had inherited in Davis’ House of Lords.
If success is measured by sheer number of ships captured and plundered, then Bartholomew Roberts was the most successful pirate of all time. During his three years as captain, he plundered between 400-500 ships. This success rate was largely due to a decision to attack ships at anchor, a strategy that he first used to great effect in Newfoundland in 1720.
For most of his time as captain, Black Bart stayed one step ahead of those chasing him, usually because they were doing it half-heartedly. When he headed back across the Atlantic for the last time in 1721, his luck was beginning to turn. Despite continued success, his crew grew ever more restless and hard to control.
The ship that eventually caught up with Roberts off Cape Lopez, where he had first been made pirate captain, was a namesake of one that won a war against fictional pirates on the lake in the north. Her name was HMS Swallow.
Her captain, Chaloner Ogle, also benefitted from some luck in his war against piracy. John Jessup escaped and deserted Roberts’ crew, was picked up on the Gabon coast and taken to HMS Swallow at Cape Coast Castle, where he turned informer. He had been with the pirates under Howell Davis and, after a couple of near misses, eventually led Captain Ogle to Cape Lopez.
HMS Swallow attacked in the morning of February 10, 1722. Most of the crew were still drunk. Black Bart, dressed in his striking red outfit, stood on the deck of the Royal Fortune and faced the oncoming ship. The man who said ‘a short life and a merry one shall be my motto’ made an easy target and he was shot in the neck. One of his crew, seeing him slump forward over a cannon, implored him to ‘stand up and fight like a man’. But Roberts’ death had been instantaneous and that of the golden age of piracy was soon to follow.
© Kathryn Eastman, 2005 – 2010. Not to be reproduced without prior permission.