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‘Black Bart’ – the Most Successful Pirate of Them All

‘Black Bart’ – the Most Successful Pirate of Them All

Three centuries ago, a Welsh seaman turned to piracy. Within a year he’d become the most successful pirate of his era – a time we now call ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’. During his brief but spectacular career he captured over two hundred ships – more than all his pirate contemporaries combined.

His reign of terror finally ended off the West African coast in February 1722, when he was killed in a sea battle with a British warship. His passing, and the mass trial and hanging of his crew that followed, marked the real end of the ‘Golden Age’.

Nowadays pirates like Blackbeard are better remembered than this young Welshman, as either their notoriety or their wild appearance has captured the public imagination. Now, though, three hundred years after he first hoisted the black flag, it’s time to redress the balance, and highlight the life of Bartholomew Roberts, or ‘Black Bart’ – the most successful pirate of them all.

British historian Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore joins Dan to chat about this Russian royal family.

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From law-abiding to law-breaking

Born in the small village of Little Newcastle in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, during the early 1680s, John Robert turned to the sea for a living and for more than three decades, he kept on the right side of the law. Then, in May 1719, all this changed.

He was the second mate of a slave ship when it was captured by pirates off the West African coast. Our Welshman decided to join them, and to throw others off his trail he changed his name to Bartholomew Roberts. He was already an experienced mariner, so two months later, when the pirate captain, Howell Davis, was killed, the crew elected Roberts as their leader.

A few weeks later he captured his first prize – a Dutch slave ship – and from that moment on he was set for his life of crime.

Bahia to Benin

Keeping one step ahead of any pursuers, he crossed the Atlantic and put in to the Brazilian port of Bahia (now Salvador). The Portuguese treasure fleet was in harbour, and in a daring coup de main, Roberts captured a treasure ship and sailed it out of the harbour. The ship’s cargo was worth millions in today’s money, but Roberts wasn’t able to keep hold of it.

While Roberts was out hunting for victims, the prize crew in the Portuguese galleon sailed off into the sunset, leaving him with nothing. Undeterred, Roberts started all over again, and for the next year he combed the waters of the West Indies, before ranging as far north as Newfoundland in search of prizes.

The fishing grounds of Newfoundland and the Grand Banks proved to be a lucrative hunting ground for Bartholomew Roberts, who captured dozens of prizes during his piratical cruise there (Courtesy of The Stratford Archives).

As he went, he kept turning the biggest and best of these into his flagship. Each time, he gave these ships the same name – the Royal Fortune.

Once more, to avoid the warships sent to hunt him down, Roberts crossed the Atlantic, and by the summer of 1721 he was off the coast of Senegal. He then worked his way down the West African coast, capturing dozens of slave ships as he went.

In August he captured the Royal African Company’s ship Onslow, which became the fourth and last Royal Fortune. By the start of 1722 he was off the slaving port of Whydah (now Ouidah in Benin). Roberts captured 11 slave ships at Whydah, but it was there that his luck finally run out.

Black Bart’s last hoorah

Captain Chaloner Ogle (1681–1750), commander of the 50-gun frigate HMS Swallow. (Courtesy of The Stratford Archives)

On 5 February the frigate HMS Swallow appeared and lured out Roberts’ consort ship, the Great Ranger. The pirates thought the newcomer was just another slave ship, but once out of sight of land the Swallow’s commander, Captain Ogle, turned around and captured the pirate ship. He then returned to Whydah, and Bartholomew Roberts sailed out to give battle.

It was the morning of 10 February 1722 when the two ships fought their duel. The Royal Fortune and the Swallow were evenly matched in terms of size and number of guns, but Ogle’s men had the edge when it came to professionalism and training.

Suddenly, the Swallow spun about and fired a broadside at point-blank range. Grapeshot scythed along the decks of the pirate ship, and Bartholomew Roberts was cut down. The pirate captain had put on his finest clothes for the battle, including a rich crimson suit, a hat with a red feather in it, and a priceless gold cross and chain – so everyone saw what happened to him.

With that the fight went out of the remaining pirates, but Swallow kept on firing, eventually capturing the battered pirate ship.

Bartholomew Roberts was reputedly something of a smart dresser, and was reportedly wearing this elegant damascened coat when he was killed in battle off the coast of West Africa. (Courtesy of The Stratford Archives).

The end of the Golden Age

Bartholomew Roberts was no more. Effectively, his death marked the end of the piratical reign of terror known as ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’. To make their point, the British authorities held a mass pirate trial in Cape Coast Castle.

Roberts’ 77 African crewmen were sold as slaves, while their European shipmates were either hanged, condemned to servitude in the nearby gold mines or shipped back to prison in London – or died of disease while languishing in their cells.

A few were acquitted, having proved they’d served Roberts against their will. Still, the mass hanging of 52 of Roberts’ crew served its purpose. It demonstrated to the world that piracy didn’t pay. But the image of this Welsh-born pirate, resplendent in his finery, sailing out to do battle for the last time, will remain one of the true icons of ‘The Golden Age’.

Angus Konstam is one of the world’s leading experts on piracy and is the author of over 80 books. A former naval officer and museum professional, he worked as a Curator of weapons in the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London, and as the Chief Curator Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida. He now works as a full-time author and historian. His latest book, The Pirate World, (February, 2019) is published by Osprey Publishing.

Top Image Credit: Bartholomew Roberts, shown off the west coast of Africa. Behind him is his flagship Royal Fortune, the fourth ship he gave that name to, accompanied by the smaller pirate ship Great Ranger, about to capture a fleet of slave ships anchored off Whydah. (Courtesy of The Stratford Archives)


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The phenomenon of a female pirate is rare around the world, which makes Madame Zheng’s reputation as the world’s most successful pirate truly remarkable. At the same time, women in South China often operated the sampans that occupied the South China Sea—and pirate ships sometimes boasted a handful of women onboard.

This was a far cry from the situation in European and American waters, where even the presence of women onboard was considered bad luck. As a result, female seafarers in Western history have been few and far between. However, the two most famous female pirates of piracy’s Golden Age (1630-1730) include Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Both women caught the attention of the era’s major chronicler, Captain Charles Johnson, who positioned their names front and center on the title page of his epic A General History of the Pyrates.

This anthology, with lengthy biographies of the most famous pirates of the Golden Age, has defined piracy in the modern era and served as the model for many of the most famous pirates of both history and literature. Many of the central historical figures have found new life as the romanticized heroes and villains of popular culture: Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Jack Rackham (Calico Jack), and Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart). Since its first publication in 1724, the tome has received considerable attention from historians and literary authors alike. They continue to do so today, where popular culture abounds with pirates of both fact and fiction.

Yet, in China, Madame Zheng has been virtually absent from the historical record. Ironically, it is in the United States—and not China—where Madame Zheng’s legacy is most alive and well today. She is seen as a historical figure in her own right as a denizen of the pirate fanciers of internet popular culture and as the inspiration for Mistress Ching in the third Disney movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean at World’s End” (2007), where she was played by Takayo Fischer.


Famous pirate ships and their captains

The Golden Age of Piracy was a time when thousands of buccaneers, privateers, and pirates roamed the seas, plundering merchant ships and treasure ships.

Many of these pirates became very famous, including Black Bart Roberts, Captain William Kidd, and Blackbeard. Their names are synonymous with attacking and robbing ships at sea. But what about their seaworthy pirate ships? Many of the ships became as famous as the men who sailed them. Here are some of the most famous pirate ships in history.

Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was one of the most dreaded pirates in history. In November 1717, he captured the colossal French slaving ship La Concorde. He mounted 40 cannons on board La Concorde, and after the refit, he renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. Armed with a 40-cannon warship, Blackbeard ruled the waves of the eastern coast of North America and the Caribbean.

It is said that the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground in 1718 and was abandoned. Researchers found a sunken ship in the waters off North Carolina in 1996 that they believe to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Some of the salvaged items including an anchor and a bell are on display in local museums.

Bartholomew Roberts was better known as Black Bart. Over a three-year period, he was one of the most successful pirates of all time, looting and capturing hundreds of ships and sinking many more. Black Bart went through several different flagships during this period, and they all carried the same name – Royal Fortune. His largest flagship was a 40-cannon monstrosity manned by 157 men, and it could fight it out with any British Royal Navy ship of the time. Black Bart Roberts was aboard his Royal Fortune when he met his fate in February 1722 in a battle against the the Swallow, a British man-of-war vessel.

Pirate Sam Bellamy seized the Whydah, a large British slave trade vessel, in February of 1717. The pirate and his plundering crew were able to mount 28 cannons on her and for a brief time they terrorized the shipping lanes of the Atlantic. The pirate ship Whydah did not last long, however. She was caught in a terrible storm off Cape Cod in April 1717, barely two months after Bellamy first captured her.

In 1984, searchers discovered the wreck of the Whydah and thousands of artifacts were recovered, including the ship’s bell. A museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts has an exhibit that displays many of the artifacts from the pirate ship.

Bartholomew Roberts with his ship and captured merchant ships in the background

Stede Bonnet became a pirate from a most unlikely background. He lived in Barbados with his wife and family and was a wealthy plantation owner. At about the age of 30, he suddenly decided to become a pirate. In the history of ‘The Golden Age of Piracy,’ he is probably the only pirate ever to buy his own ship.

In 1717, at his cost, he outfitted a ten-gun square rigger he called The Revenge. He told the officials he was going to get a privateering license instead, he immediately began raiding as soon as he left the harbor.

Bonnet and The Revenge met up with Blackbeard after losing a battle. Blackbeard then used the Revenge for a while as Bonnet “took a rest.” Bonnet was later captured in battle after being betrayed by Blackbeard, and he was executed on 10 December 1718.

Print engraving of Stede Bonnet in Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates

Captain William Kidd was a legend among privateers and seafarers. In 1689, he had seized a large French flagship while sailing in this capacity and he later married a wealthy heiress. In 1696, he persuaded some rich friends to fund one of these privateering expeditions. He outfitted his ship, The Adventure Galley, a 34-gun behemoth, and went into the business of hunting French vessels and pirates.

However, he had a bad luck, and his crew compelled him to turn pirate not long after they had set sail. Later, in his mighty pirate ship, he returned to New York and turned himself in, hoping to clear his name, but he was hanged anyway.

In 1694, the King of Spain had the English ship Charles II under his command. On board was an officer by the name of Henry Avery. After months of poor treatment, the sailors on board were ready to mutiny and Avery was willing to lead them. Captain Avery and his fellow mutineers commandeered the Charles II on 7 May 1694 and renamed her Fancy. Avery and his crew then became notorious pirates. They mostly sailed the Indian Ocean searching for plunder, and they soon struck gold. In July 1695, they captured the Ganj-i-Sawai, the ship carrying the treasure of the Grand Moghul of India. It was one of the largest scores ever made by a pirate during this ‘golden age’ of piracy. Avery sailed the Fancy back to the Caribbean where most of the pirate’s treasure was sold. Avery then disappeared from history, but the pirate and his flagship did not fade from popular legend.

When the Gambia Castle sailed for Africa in 1721, George Lowther was a second mate on board. The Gambia Castle was a mid-sized English Man-of-War, and she was carrying a garrison of soldiers to a fortress on the African coast. When they arrived, the soldiers were not at all satisfied with their provisions and accommodations. Lowther no longer had the approval of his captain and persuaded the dejected garrison to enlist with him in taking over the ship. They commandeered the Gambia Castle, renamed her Delivery, and embarked on beginning their pirate’s career.

William Kidd, privateer, pirate. 18th-century portrait by Sir James Thornhill.

Lowther had a relatively long career as a pirate and ultimately swapped the Delivery for a more seaworthy ship.

Not long afterward, Lowther lost his ship and was marooned on a deserted island where he eventually passed away.


Mrs. Cheng: The Most Successful Pirate in History

History's most successful — and feared — pirate fleets shared some key attributes. They were well-oiled operations that enforced strict rules, despite the lawlessness of their profession. Crucially, a lot of them were helmed by intelligent leaders who played politics, exercised diplomacy as needed and earned the respect of their peers.

One exceptionally skilled fleet commander terrorized the South China Sea in the early 19th century. At the height of her power, she directed a vast coalition of several thousand pirates, the largest pirate crew ever assembled. Then, having made history in spectacular fashion, she retired from piracy and lived to a ripe old age.

Mrs. Cheng, aka Ching Shih

Who was this seafaring outlaw? Well, in contemporary, English-language books and websites, she's often called "Ching Shih." But that wasn't her real name. "Ching Shih" was the invention of "an early nineteenth century author who was endeavoring to render a Chinese text into English," says Dian Murray, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and authority on China's pirate past.

"The lady pirate in question is most commonly referred to in the official Chinese sources simply as 'Mrs. Cheng' or 'Mrs. Zheng,'" Murray says via email. Those spellings came from two different romanization systems that are used to convert Mandarin Chinese characters into Latin letters. For consistency's sake, we'll use the name "Mrs. Cheng" in the remainder of this article.

Cheng's early life is poorly documented. We do know that she worked at a Cantonese brothel before she married one Cheng I in the year 1801 or so. (She was likely in her twenties at the time.)

A notorious pirate, Cheng I was the product of a changing seascape. From 1771 to 1802, Vietnam was embroiled in the Tay Son Rebellion, a peasant-led uprising against the Lê Dynasty. Lacking a strong naval force, the rebels contracted small-time pirates to fight and loot on their behalf. In exchange, the plunderers received weapons, vessels and, best of all, safe harbors.

Such allowances created an environment where organized, large-scale piracy could flourish — even after the rebellion was put down. In 1802, the South China Sea played host to roughly 50,000 pirates.

Red Flag, Black Flag

By 1804, Cheng I and his cunning wife had united five numerous fleets into one gigantic confederation made up of 70,000 men and 400 junks (large sailing vessels). The coalition was broken up into half a dozen semi-autonomous squadrons whose leaders were answerable to the Chengs. Each unit bore the name of a colored flag: There was a Red Flag Fleet, a Black Flag Fleet and so on.

One of sailors in this mighty criminal syndicate was Chang Pao, a teenager who'd been captured by Cheng I. "After recognizing his potential for leadership, Cheng I initiated Chang Pao into the pirate ranks by means of a homosexual liaison," Murray says.

Soon enough, Cheng I put the youth in command of his own junk and even adopted him as his own child.

But it was Mrs. Cheng who held the confederation together after Cheng I's abrupt death in November 1807. Taking charge of the enterprise, she implemented a new code of conduct. Under these rules, pirates in her fleets would get decapitated if they stole goods from a communal fund that was meant to benefit everyone. Likewise, raping a captive woman was punishable by execution.

The rules were co-authored by Chang Pao, who'd assumed a powerful new role within the outfit. "[Mrs. Cheng] realized that she needed a lieutenant to help her command the 300 junks and 20,000-40,000 men of what had previously been her husband's Red Flag Fleet," says Murray. Chang Pao took the job, becoming Mrs. Cheng's lover and later her second spouse.

Going Out on Top

For years, Mrs. Cheng maintained good relationships with the leaders of every fleet in the coalition. She ran a tight ship (so to speak) and oversaw everything from monetary transactions to religious ceremonies.

On her watch, the pirate alliance expanded like crazy. Of the 270 government-owned ships stationed at Tien-Pai, 266 fell under her control. By demanding regular patronage from sailing merchants, Mrs. Cheng's sailors profited off Canton's lucrative salt trade. As a matter of fact, the outlaws extracted so much revenue across their domain that Mrs. Cheng found it necessary to establish a network of land-based financial offices.

Her strategic mind was well-suited to warfare. Mrs. Cheng's fleets regularly embarrassed the navies of southern China. They grew notorious for kidnapping Chinese officials, blockading rivers and routing just about anybody who opposed their will. But that was to change.

In 1809, China's increasingly agitated government borrowed well-armed vessels from the British East India Company and the Portuguese Navy. At the same time, it also offered amnesty to pirates who surrendered.

"The offer was tempting to the leader of the Black Flag Fleet, who then forced a confrontation with the Red Flag Fleet," Murray says. While negotiating with the government, he turned over the captives from that inter-squadron battle as a gesture of goodwill. Before long, other units were defecting from Mrs. Cheng's confederation.

She could read the writing on the wall. Blackbeard and other career pirates who kept plundering until the bitter end usually met horrible deaths, whether on the high seas or at the gallows. Mrs. Cheng decided to go a different route.

On April 8, 1810 — after an earlier round of peace talks failed — she took a delegation of 17 pirate wives and children to the governor-general's office in Canton. Inside, Mrs. Cheng brokered a favorable amnesty deal. "[Chang Pao] was allowed to retain between 20-30 of his vessels for use in the salt trade and received an appointment in the Chinese water forces," Murray tells us. Most of the pirates who'd served under her were granted pardons as well.

Chang Pao passed away in 1822 at 36. He was survived by his brilliant wife, who died peacefully in 1844 at the age of 69.

Mistress Ching, a character in Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" who commands an enormous fleet, was reportedly inspired by Mrs. Cheng.


Sir Henry Morgan, 1635-1688

Quietly backed by England, Captain Morgan made a name for himself by successfully leading a Jamaican fleet that disrupted Spain’s power in the Caribbean. While it is rumored that he might have terrorized as many as four hundred ships during his career, his most impressive accomplishment was raiding affluent Panama City with thirty ships and 1,200 men, yielding vast riches. Although he was arrested and taken to England after his great plunder, he was knighted by the king and released to hold the title of deputy governor in Jamaica, where he lived out the rest of his life as a plantation owner.


Black Bart Roberts: The Greatest Pirate of Them All

This was a very interesting and easy to read book telling the story of Black Bart Roberts, originally John Roberts, a merchant sailor from Pembrokeshire, and his legendary three year reign across the high seas, taking over 400 vessels (making him the most successful pirate in history). In the first two chapters Breverton details the background to the pirate world of the time including the story of Howell Davis who forced Roberts to join him thus introducing him to the pirate life.

Breverton manag This was a very interesting and easy to read book telling the story of Black Bart Roberts, originally John Roberts, a merchant sailor from Pembrokeshire, and his legendary three year reign across the high seas, taking over 400 vessels (making him the most successful pirate in history). In the first two chapters Breverton details the background to the pirate world of the time including the story of Howell Davis who forced Roberts to join him thus introducing him to the pirate life.

Breverton manages to get a lot of information into this book without bombarding or over-whelming the reader and keeping the story interesting and readable. Breverton also links the real story and characters with those from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, giving the reader something to relate to and bringing the book to life. A very good and enjoyable read, and it's good to know us Welsh rocked on the water as well as on land. . more


5. Peter Easton (English, 1570 – 1620)

Interesting fact about Peter Easton is that he is not well-known as other pirate captains on this list, despite all of his success. Captain Easton was a servant of the English Crown, who turned to piracy. He was best known as pirate captain who was never defeated by anyone commissioned to hunt him down.

His vast and powerful fleet counted 40 ships and over 1500 men in the height of his power. Peter's most significant victory came in 1610 in Newfoundland against Sir Richard Whitbourne's fleet as he defeated 30 ships. He also captured many prize ships including famous Spanish ship "San Sebastian".


Black Bart: The most infamous pirate ever?

THERE are many infamous pirates throughout history, with Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, probably being the most well known.

However, over 300 years ago a Welsh seaman turned to piracy. Within a year he’d become the most successful pirate of his era – a time which is commonly referred to as The Golden Age of Piracy.

Born in the small village of Little Newcastle in Pembrokeshire during the early 1680s, John Robert turned to the sea for a living and for more than three decades, he kept on the right side of the law. Then, in May 1719, all this changed.

He was the second mate of a slave ship when it was captured by pirates off the West African coast. Our Welshman decided to join them, and to throw others off his trail he changed his name to Bartholomew Roberts.

He was already an experienced mariner, so two months later, when the pirate captain Howell Davis was killed, the crew elected Roberts as their leader.

A few weeks later he captured his first prize – a Dutch slave ship – and from that moment on he was set for his life of crime.

Keeping one step ahead of any pursuers, he crossed the Atlantic and put into the Brazilian port of Bahia (now Salvador). The Portuguese treasure fleet was in harbour, and in a daring coup de main, Roberts captured a treasure ship and sailed it out of the harbour.

The ship’s cargo was worth millions in today’s money, but Roberts wasn’t able to keep hold of it.

While Roberts was out hunting for victims, the prize crew in the Portuguese galleon sailed off into the sunset, leaving him with nothing.

Undeterred, Roberts started all over again, and for the next year he combed the waters of the West Indies, before ranging as far north as Newfoundland in search of prizes.

As he went, he kept turning the biggest and best of these into his flagship. Each time, he gave these ships the same name – the Royal Fortune.

Once more, to avoid the warships sent to hunt him down, Roberts crossed the Atlantic, and by the summer of 1721 he was off the coast of Senegal. He then worked his way down the West African coast, capturing dozens of slave ships as he went.

In August he captured the Royal African Company’s ship Onslow, which became the fourth and last Royal Fortune. By the start of 1722 he was off the slaving port of Whydah (now Ouidah in Benin). Roberts captured 11 slave ships at Whydah, but it was there that his luck finally run out.

On February 5th the frigate HMS Swallow appeared and lured out Roberts’ consort ship, the Great Ranger. The pirates thought the newcomer was just another slave ship, but once out of sight of land the Swallow’s commander, Captain Ogle, turned around and captured the pirate ship.

He then returned to Whydah, and Bartholomew Roberts sailed out to give battle.

It was the morning of February 10th 1722 when the two ships fought their duel.

The Royal Fortune and the Swallow were evenly matched in terms of size and number of guns, but Ogle’s men had the edge when it came to professionalism and training.

Suddenly, the Swallow spun about and fired a broadside at point-blank range. Grapeshot scythed along the decks of the pirate ship, and Bartholomew Roberts was cut down.

The pirate captain had put on his finest clothes for the battle, including a rich crimson suit, a hat with a red feather in it, and a priceless gold cross and chain – so everyone saw what happened to him.

The battle continued for another two hours until Royal Fortune’s mainmast fell and the pirates signaled for quarter. One member of the crew, John Philips, tried to reach the magazine with a lighted match to blow up the ship, but was prevented by two men.

Only three pirates had been killed in the battle, including Roberts. A total of 272 men had been captured by the Royal Navy. Of these, 65 were former African slaves that Roberts had emancipated, and they were sold into slavery.

Of the captured pirates who told their place of birth, 42% were from Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset, and another 19% from London. There were smaller numbers from northern England and from Wales, and another quarter from a variety of countries including Ireland, Scotland, the West Indies, the Netherlands, and Greece.

Most of the information on Roberts comes from the book A General History of the Pyrates, published a few years after Roberts’ death.

The original 1724 title page credits one Captain Charles Johnson as the author. The book is often printed under the byline of Daniel Defoe on the assumption that “Charles Johnson” is a pseudonym, but there is no proof that Defoe is the author, and the matter remains in dispute.

So the next time you stare out at the Welsh beaches, think of Black Bart, and his infamous pirates life.


Which job had the legendary pirate Black Bart on board the slave ship Princess, before he became pirate?

The Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722) was born John Roberts and was only after his time, known as "Black Bart". He plundered ships from America and West Africa in the period 1719-1722. Black Bart was the most successful pirate in the pirates' golden age, measured in terms of vessels caught. It amounted to more than 470 trophies in the pirate's career. Roberts was third mate aboard the slave ship Princess, when they were attacked by pirates, and he was forced to join them. Coercion soon turned to benevolence, when he discovered the benefits of the new lifestyle. He died in combat and was buried at sea according to his own wish.

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Early in his piratical career, Black Sam Bellamy fell in with captain Benjamin Hornigold and his first mate Blackbeard of the Marianne. In 1716, Hornigold&rsquos refusal to attack English ships led his crew to vote him out as captain, and kick him and Blackbeard off the ship. Bellamy, who had none of Hornigold&rsquos compunctions about preying on English vessels, was elected captain in his stead.

Black Sam&rsquos biggest haul was the Whydah Gally, which he overtook on its maiden voyage after a three day chase, and captured it with a rich haul of gold, ivory, indigo, and other high value goods. Upgrading the Whydah Gally with extra cannon and turning it into his flagship, Bellamy then fell upon the shipping lanes to the Carolinas and New England, and feasted.


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