As night fell on Saturday, 13 January 1722, the two pirate ships pulled away from Whydah, taking the French prize with them, leaving the Porcupine blazing in their wake. Captain Ogle arrived in HMS Swallow twenty-four hours later.
Bartholomew Roberts had got away with it again. He had sailed into the very jaws of two of the most powerful British warships ever sent in pursuit of pirates, and yet had managed to pillage shipping along a 500-mile stretch of coast, leaving them twisting and turning in his wake, bewildered by the speed of his movement, and sailed away unharmed having taken a total of nineteen prizes. For all the simmering tensions within his own crew, he must have felt invincible. There was even a bonus. As they pulled out into open sea the pirates came across the Whydah, the small Royal African Company sloop which had escaped them two days before, enabling them to indulge once more their detestation of the company and its ships. They plundered it and Miss Nanny was again given license to set it alight. Watching the flames take hold, one of the Liverpool men asked James Philips, an Old Stander, the ‘reason of such wicked practice that served no purpose among them’. ‘It was for fun,’ Philips replied.
The Whydah’s crew was loaded on to a slaver called the Neptune, which happened to be passing, but which the pirates decided not to plunder. The pirates then made their way to Cape Lopez where they set about converting the French prize into their new second ship, naming it, like its predecessor, the Ranger.
The plan now was to make for Brazil in the hope of repeating the capture of the Sagrada Familia over two years before. Since Kennedy’s desertion with their gold Roberts’ rampages had been confined to waters which, though rich in prizes, rarely yielded the sort of spectacular haul that would enable a pirate to retire. And retirement was what Roberts now had in mind. They planned to raid off Brazil for eight months, ‘share 600 or 700 pounds a man, and then break up’, Roberts’ confidant George Wilson told a new recruit. It was increasingly rare in this period for pirates to survive to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. Shrewd operator that he was, Roberts sensed that he had pushed his luck for long enough, and was dreaming of a life of ease, free of the constant stress of having to keep control over an unruly crew of 250 men. He would probably have made the move earlier if the Good Fortune hadn’t deserted or the Puerto del Principe hadn’t been captured, which forced him to stay longer off Africa to build up his strength.
But Captain Ogle hadn’t finished with him yet. At Whydah he was told that Roberts was carrying substantial quantities of gold. If any extra incentive were needed he now had it, and he was determined not to let the pirates slip through his grasp. ‘I judged they must go to some place in the Bight [of Biafra] to clean and fit the French ship before they could think of cruising again,’ he wrote. There were only a limited number of places where this could be done. Ogle strengthened his crew with thirty recruits from the Porcupine and the French ship the pirates had seized. Then, on 19 January, he sailed out of Whydah planning to explore them one by one.
He went first to Princes Island, where he had buried so many of his men four months earlier. Finding no word of the pirates he hurried quickly away. He went next to the River Gabon, but, again, drew a blank. Then, as dawn broke on 5 February, he saw the outline of the three pirate ships, riding at anchor, framed against the headland of Cape Lopez.
He’d arrived just in time. The pirates had careened the Royal Fortune and had almost completed fitting out the new French ship. Two days later they’d have sailed for Brazil. But Ogle might be forgiven if at this moment he paused and drew breath. They’d loaded the new Ranger with 32 guns, giving Roberts 72 guns in total. The pirate crew now numbered 253 men, and Ogle believed it to be larger. Ships taken at the start of January had told him there were close to 300 men aboard the two pirate vessels, including ‘100 blacks, trained up’. Ogle had just 50 guns and a crew of no more than 250. He was confronting the most powerful, experienced pirate crew in the Atlantic and the outcome was by no means certain.
But, for once, Roberts’ luck deserted him. There was a sandbank between HMS Swallow and the three pirate ships. As Ogle approached from the north he was obliged to veer west, out into open sea, to avoid it. Seeing this, the pirates thought he had taken fright at the sight of them, and was trying to escape. They concluded that Swallow was a merchant ship, probably Portuguese and full of sugar.
Roberts now made a fateful decision. Sugar, of course, was one of the key ingredients of punch and they were running short. The men on the new Ranger, in particular, had had none for the past few days and this was adding to tension between the two crews. ‘There is sugar in the offing,’ he bellowed across to them. ‘Bring it in that we may have no more mumbling!’ He was handing the prize to the second ship. It was a sound piece of team management. But it meant that, from that moment, Roberts’ forces would be fatally divided.
The Ranger was ‘on the heel’ when HMS Swallow appeared, meaning its contents had been shifted to one side, tilting it so its hull could be scrubbed. Its crew quickly righted it and, while they were doing this, Roberts took the precaution of sending across twenty of his most loyal men to bolster its crew, including his boatswain, William Main, and John Walden – ‘Miss Nanny’. He had no faith at all that, having taken the prize, the Ranger wouldn’t simply desert. He’d also been careful to make sure it was carrying none of the crew’s gold.
With the additional men aboard, the Ranger set off in pursuit of its prize. Seeing this Captain Ogle immediately realised the pirates’ mistake. He continued out to sea, making sure he went slowly enough not to lose sight of the Ranger. Aboard the pirate ship there was wild excitement, the pirates brandishing their cutlasses and ‘swearing every minute at the wind or sails to expedite so sweet a chase’, according to Captain Johnson. One man was dancing manically around the deck. Its captain, the Welshman James Skyrm, ‘in the hurry and warmth of his passion’ slashed with his cutlass at a couple of the forced men whom he felt were showing less enthusiasm than the rest.
Amidst the mayhem one man aboard, peering closely at the prize, began to suspect its true identity. William Guinneys, who had been forced from the Porcupine in Whydah, mentioned his suspicion to a crewmate standing next to him. But the man ‘bid him hold his tongue’. He too was a forced man and both knew HMS Swallow represented their best chance of being freed.
Around 10.30 a.m. Ogle judged they were out of earshot of the ships back at Cape Lopez and allowed the Ranger to come within gunshot. The pirates immediately opened fire with four chase guns, simultaneously hoisting their black flag and preparing to board. At this, Ogle swung HMS Swallow around, across the Ranger’s path, opened the lower gunports and delivered a broadside.
The effect was devastating. The Ranger was caught head on and the fire from HMS Swallow raked its decks from bow to stern, ripping through flesh and tearing off arms and legs. Stunned, the Ranger wheeled away. In the confusion, a young pirate, David Littlejohn, lowered the black flag, signalling surrender. But immediately William Main, the Royal Fortune’s boatswain, and another man rushed at him, pistols drawn, and forced him to raise it again. It was only with difficulty that other pirates persuaded them not to shoot him.
A chaotic pursuit now ensued, the two ships exchanging cannon fire at distance. Captain Skyrm, Main and other hard-liners were all for pulling alongside HMS Swallow, throwing out grappling hooks and making a desperate bid to board. But it was clear the bulk of the crew were reluctant. At 2 p.m. the poor steering of the pirates enabled Swallow to draw close again and deliver another devastating broadside. The Ranger’s main-mast came crashing down. On the deck men slithered around in their own blood. By now nine were dead and around fourteen wounded. Captain Skyrm’s leg had been blown off, as had Miss Nanny’s. Skyrm continued to hop back and forth across the deck, screaming dementedly at his men to continue fighting. But it was clear all was lost. At 3 p.m. the Ranger struck its colours and surrendered, the men throwing their black flags overboard so they could not be displayed in triumph over them on the gallows.
So often the hardened pirates among the crew had said they would blow themselves up and ‘go all merrily to Hell together’ rather than be captured. Now they were true to their word. Half a dozen of the most desperate gathered around the gunpowder they had left in the steerage, and fired a pistol into it. But it was too little to do anything other than leave them hideously burned.
HMS Swallow’s surgeon, John Atkins, heard the explosion as he was being rowed across to the Ranger to treat the wounded. Climbing aboard, he encountered a bizarre scene. The pirates were as dandily dressed as ever ‘with white shirts, watches, and a deal of silk vests’. Those unhurt remained ‘gay and brisk’. But the ship was awash with blood, and dead and hideously injured men lay all about, victims both of the battle and the explosion afterwards.
Captain Skyrm was still raging and refused to allow Atkins to dress the stump of his leg. Atkins turned instead to William Main, whom he identified as a boatswain by the silver whistle hanging at his waist. ‘I presume you are the boatswain of this ship,’ he said. ‘Then you presume wrong,’ replied Main, ‘for I am the boatswain of the Royal Fortune, Captain Roberts commander.’
‘Then Mr. Boatswain you will be hanged I believe,’ Atkins retorted. ‘That is as your honour pleases,’ said Main. Main told him there were still 120 men (a figure which excluded slaves) aboard the Royal Fortune – ‘as clever fellows as ever trod shoe leather: would I were with them!’ But he denied responsibility for the explosion. The blast had blown him into the water and he complained he had ‘lost a good hat by it’.
Atkins turned next to a pirate called Roger Ball, whom he could see from his hideous burns had been close to the seat of the explosion. Ball was sitting in a corner ‘with a look as sullen as winter … bearing his pain without the least complaint’. He told him a pirate called John Morris had fired the pistol into the powder, but that ‘if he had not done it, I would’. Like Skyrm, Ball refused to allow Atkins to dress him. As evening fell he entered ‘a kind of delirium, and raved on the bravery of Roberts, saying, he should shortly be released, as soon as they should meet him’. Ogle’s men strapped him down upon the forecastle and he screamed and strained at the ropes all night, despite his appalling injuries. He died the following day.
There were over a hundred men still alive on board, including twenty-three slaves and sixteen Frenchmen, taken when the new Ranger was seized at Whydah and still being held prisoner. It was decided to leave the wounded pirates aboard, along with the Frenchman and a skeleton crew from HMS Swallow, and to dispatch the Ranger to Princes Island. The remaining pirates, numbering around sixty, were stripped naked and shackled below decks on HMS Swallow, along with the slaves. Ogle’s men spent a couple of days getting the Ranger in a fit state to sail. Then, on 7 February, the two ships parted company, Swallow heading back towards Cape Lopez where Ogle knew Roberts would be awaiting the return of his consort. Two days later, on 9 February, Captain Ogle caught sight of the Royal Fortune and the abandoned old Ranger, still riding at anchor just where he had left them.
Dusk was falling and Ogle, now confident of victory, decided to postpone his attack until the following day. The pirates had not spotted him. And he was delighted to note there were now three sails in the bay. This meant Roberts and his men had seized a prize, and would, at that moment, be plundering its liquor store.
In fact the vessel riding at anchor alongside the two pirate ships was the Neptune under Captain Thomas Hill – the same ship the pirates had encountered as they left Whydah, and onto which they had loaded the crew of the Whydah sloop. Its presence at Cape Lopez is suspicious. Hill was on his way to the port of Cabinda further south and later claimed he had simply put in to get water. But the pirates had not robbed Hill the first time they encountered him and it’s likely they had reached an arrangement. Hill may have been bringing them supplies. Either way, as Ogle suspected, they were enjoying a party and when dawn broke on 10 February most of the pirates were either still drunk or nursing ferocious hangovers.
This was the scenario that Roberts had always dreaded – an encounter with a powerful naval vessel when his crew was the worse for drink. They were in such a state that they didn’t see HMS Swallow initially as it began its approach that morning. They were ‘very easy in the bay’, recalled John Atkins, ‘and stayed so long that we doubted whether they would stir for us’.
Roberts was in his cabin when the cry of ‘Sail ahoy!’ finally came. With him was Captain Hill from the Neptune and they were enjoying a breakfast of weak beer and salmagundi – a pirate speciality that included chunks of meat, pickled herrings, hard-boiled eggs and vegetables. In their befuddled state his men again failed to identify HMS Swallow. Some thought it was Portuguese, others a French slaver. But most believed it was the returning Ranger. Roberts, unconcerned, continued his breakfast. His men were debating how many guns they should fire as a salute to their returning consort when suddenly a look of horror passed across the face of David Armstrong, the deserter from HMS Swallow whom they had taken at Axim six months previously. Armstrong had recognised his old ship. He dashed down to Roberts’ cabin.
It was probably at this moment, as Armstrong frantically gabbled the news, that Roberts realised he was going to die – if not that morning then on the gallows in the next few weeks. But if he felt fear he didn’t show it. Perhaps to displace his own tension, he cursed the trembling Armstrong for cowardice and, taking leave of Captain Hill, went up on deck. Hill took the opportunity to slip back quietly to his own ship.
Looking through his telescope Roberts saw it was flying French colours, which was clearly a ruse. He ordered his men to battle stations. Many were terrified. At least one would spend the battle hiding in the ‘heads’ – the enclosed toilets at the front of the ship – and Roberts almost came to blows with others. But he himself kept his composure. If this was the end then he was determined to go out in style. He went below and 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’, according to Johnson. He put on his sword and slung four pistols over his shoulders on a silk sling, in ‘the fashion of the pirates’. Then he went up on deck.
The strategy he devised was characteristically bold. Armstrong told him HMS Swallow sailed best ‘upon a wind’, that is, with the wind coming from the side. With the wind directly behind them the Royal Fortune might be able to outrun it. The wind at that moment was blowing from the south, in the face of the approaching man-of-war. Roberts decided to sail straight towards Ogle’s ship, exchange broadsides, and then shoot out into open sea and try and make a run for it with the wind behind him. If badly damaged the ship would ground itself on the headland ‘and everyone to shift for himself among the Negroes’. If the worst came to the worst they would come alongside and blow both ships up. Roberts knew it was a desperate gamble. And he knew most of his men were drunk and unfit for service – ‘passively courageous’, in Johnson’s words. But he had little option.
By mid-morning a thunderstorm was breaking around them. In the wind and driving rain the pirate ship sped towards HMS Swallow. At 11 a.m. the two ships closed, raised their true colours, and exchanged broadsides. HMS Swallow was almost untouched. The Royal Fortune lost its mizzen-mast and suffered damage to its rigging. But it was still sailing and was soon half a gunshot beyond HMS Swallow and heading out into open sea. Just for a moment it looked as if Roberts might have got away with it. But then the crew’s night of revelry took its toll. One man simply passed out on the deck having fired his gun. Many others were little better and the pirates’ steering was erratic. By now the storm was gaining in strength. One clap of thunder ‘seemed like the rattling of 10,000 small arms within three yards of our heads’, John Atkins later recalled, and the simultaneous bolt of lightening split the top of HMS Swallow’s main-mast. But, with the wind swirling around unpredictably, the warship was soon gaining ground once more on the Royal Fortune. At half past one, it came close enough to deliver another broadside. As the smoke cleared the men on HMS Swallow saw the pirate’s main-mast come crashing down. Shortly afterwards the pirates signalled surrender.
As on the Ranger, the crew of the Royal Fortune immediately divided between those who felt they might stand some chance of acquittal at trial and those who knew only the gallows awaited them. James Philips, one of the Old Standers, went down to the powder room with a lighted match, swearing ‘let’s all go to Hell together’. But there he encountered a sentry – Stephen Thomas – placed by Henry Glasby. Philips ‘throwed [me] against the ladder at the hatchway, wounding [my] hand as [we] were struggling about the match,’ Thomas later recalled. At that moment Glasby appeared and, together, they were able to subdue him.
Shortly afterwards HMS Swallow’s long boat arrived, commanded by Lieutenant Isaac Sun. Recalling the attempt to blow up the Ranger, Ogle had opted to keep his ship at a distance. Working with Glasby, whose ‘good character’ he’d been informed of beforehand, Sun quickly secured control of the Royal Fortune. But there was one final moment of farce as crewman Joseph Mansfield, the former highwayman, suddenly burst from the hold, blind drunk. ‘He came up vapouring with a cutlass to know who would go on board the prize,’ Glasby later recalled. ‘It was sometime before [we] could persuade him of the truth of [our] condition.’
By 7 p.m. the entire crew was secured below decks on HMS Swallow, side by side with their colleagues from the Ranger. The pirates had suffered three dead and ten injured in this second battle, while HMS Swallow hadn’t suffered a single casualty in either engagement. ‘Discipline is an excellent path to victory,’ Atkins commented in his memoir. ‘The pirates, though singly fellows of courage’, lacked ‘a tie of order, some director to unite that force’. Defeat and capture would always ‘be the fate of such rabble’, he concluded. Naval discipline had won out over pirate bravado. But it was a harsh verdict on Roberts’ leadership. This pirate crew, more than any other, had possessed a ‘director’ and ‘a tie of order’. The problem was the pirates themselves, and their reluctance to submit themselves to his will.
But Roberts himself was the one man Atkins was never able to speak to. As the Royal Fortune had sailed towards HMS Swallow that morning Roberts had taken his place close to the wheel ready to direct operations. But as the smoke cleared after the first broadside the helmsman, John Stephenson, had noticed him apparently resting on the tackles of a gun. He ran over and swore at his captain to get up and fight like a man. But Roberts’ throat had been ripped out by grapeshot. The greatest of all pirates, the ‘Admiral of the Leeward Islands’, the scourge of three continents, was dead.
At that moment they were within just a few miles of the spot where they had seized the Expectation back at the end of July 1719. Since then Roberts had taken around 400 ships – a figure which dwarfs that of any of his contemporaries. He had travelled around 35,000 miles. And he’d held together a larger crew for a longer period of time than any other pirate captain. But in the end he had lost his long battle with the anarchy of pirate life. For all the tensions within the crew Roberts was revered by his men and, although the battle raged on for three more hours, his death knocked the fight out of them. Ogle was in no doubt that, if he had been alive, Roberts would have blown up the Royal Fortune with everyone aboard rather than allow it to be taken.
Many times Roberts had sworn, ‘Damnation to him who ever lived to wear a halter!’ He, at least, had escaped hanging. He had left strict instructions that if he was killed at sea his body should be thrown overboard to prevent its being hung in chains. Stevenson wept over him for a time, as the pirates gathered round. And then they fulfilled their captain’s last wish, heaving his body over the rail and consigning it to the deep, still dressed in all its finery.