Why did the golden age end
Around 1720: "Golden Age" of piracy: Reading sample: The Lord of the "Royal Fortune"
Cape Lopez, West Africa, February 10, 1722
The flat headland on the coast of today's Gabon borders a wide bay in the southwest. Three ships anchor off the bank. The largest is a frigate with 40 cannons: the "Royal Fortune", the flagship of Bartholomew Roberts, the most wanted pirate on the Atlantic. Probably no pirate has plundered as many slave transporters, freighters, sloops and fishing boats as Roberts: there are said to have been more than 400, from Newfoundland to Brazil, in the Caribbean, off Africa. And no pirate sails a more powerful ship in these years. The Welshman, almost 40 years old, is tall, good-looking - and a daredevil to the point of carefree. His team has been celebrating their last raids in this bay for several days. The "Little Ranger" lies deep in the water as a loot chamber full of gold, coins and jewels. At the same time, the crews have overhauled and cleaned their sailors. Because only a ship with a clean hull glides through the waves fast enough for a surprise attack. The smell of tar still wafts through the morning air. And of schnapps. The men draw rum from captured barrels. Quite a few are happily drunk. Roberts is sitting in his cabin at breakfast when a ship is reported to him *. Maybe a Portuguese or a Frenchman, but probably a friend Roberts had sent out to hunt a few days earlier. But then one of the pirates, a deserter from the British Navy, thinks he recognizes the sailor: It is the "Swallow" - a warship of the British Crown, on which he once served. The Royal Navy tracked them down.
Roberts curses his nervous men as cowards and black painters. Nevertheless, the leaders of his crew chase off, roar and shake sleepers awake, push staggering people forward; Boats with men row frantically through the bay. Others make the pirate ship ready to sail.
* Numerous contemporary sources, such as newspaper articles and court records, report on the life and deeds of Bartholomew Roberts. However, as precisely as some of the events have been passed down, there remain gaps in his biography that even modern research can hardly fill. GEOEPOCH has chosen the most plausible representation in each case in such cases.
At around 10.30 am, the "Royal Fortune" lifts her anchor and turns into the weak wind with more than 150 fighters on board. The frigate can take on the strongest merchant - but against a royal ship of the line like the "Swallow", a floating bulwark with plank-breaking 32-pound guns, it can hardly stand, especially not with a half-drunk crew. Roberts has a daring plan: he wants to run directly towards the "Swallow" with his three-master, pull past her with the light breeze behind her and accept a broadside in the process. He knows from the deserter that although the English sailor is strong at cruising against the wind, he sails comparatively slowly before the wind. If the "Royal Fortune" survives the first salvo, it has a good chance of escaping to sea with its freshly cleaned hull. The two sailors slide towards each other under creaking yards. A tense silence settles on the decks. Roberts is standing with his men, splendidly dressed in a bright crimson waistcoat and trousers, with a red feather on his tricorn hat on his head. There are four noble pistols in the silk sash. A few more meters. Then the hulls push themselves to almost the same height. A deafening crash: lead and iron hit the "Royal Fortune", shred wood, rigging, sails, murderous grapefruit loads fall, blood flows over the trembling deck. Roberts' men return the volley. Smoke obscures the view, muskets pop, pistols - then it's over. The mizzen mast of the "Royal Fortune" hangs shot over the quarterdeck. Wounded scream. But the robbery continues to sail. The Atlantic lies ahead, freedom.
What exactly will happen in the following minutes is unclear. Maybe the helmsman throws the rudder in a panic in the hail of bullets, maybe the wind turns. In any case, the "Royal Fortune" does not manage to stay on course: it ends up in the sailing shadow of the "Swallow" - and loses its thrust.
Now its size becomes a trap for the flagship. Once out of the wind, the heavy hull lies sluggishly on the water and needs time to pick up speed again. Time Roberts doesn't have. Desperate, the pirates watch as the "Swallow" slowly approaches them. Again the distance decreases meter by meter. In the meantime the warship is firing from its bow cannons at the damaged "Royal Fortune". Then the second broadside thunders over, bullets, splinters fly, smoke bites. One of the pirates sees Roberts kneeling by a cannon. He jumps over and yells at the captain: He should get up! Fight! Only then does the man notice the blood on the red clothes. Roberts had a bullet in his neck. While the shooting continues, followers grab their dead captain. As he once ordered, they throw him overboard in full gear, with weapons and pomp: Do not fall into the hands of the enemy, neither alive nor dead. The pirates are still firing back, fighting for their lives. More and more people are leaving their posts, helplessly looking for protection. Around 1.30 p.m. the main mast of the "Royal Fortune" broke. Half an hour later, the team surrendered and painted their flags. Some of the men, however, fear capture more than death, and push into the powder chamber with burning fuses to blow up the ship. Others, who prefer their lives, step in their way and wrestle them down. While boats are rowing from the "Swallow", a rain shower sets in and extinguishes the source of fire on the destroyed pirate frigate. With the death of Bartholomew Roberts, the "golden age" of piracy is drawing to a close: the epoch from the middle of the 17th to the early 18th century when pirates turned the Atlantic into a huge hunting ground. They were men of enormous greed and brutality, but also full of a thirst for freedom and a longing for a better life. Their courage was rooted in a spirit of adventure and a raucous spirit, but often arose out of sheer despair. Their names were whispered with fear and admiration on the lower decks of merchant ships, cursed in the merchants 'offices and captains' cabins.
Bartholomew Roberts was one of the greatest of them, perhaps the greatest of them all. His motto: "A short life - but a happy one!"
You can read the full text in the new edition of GEOEPOCHE "Piraten".
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