Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - Nonfiction
On 17 May 1682, a son is born to a Welsh family. His name is John Robert(s) and he has a fifty percent possibility of reaching his third birthday. If he survives until then, his chances of attaining adulthood are even less; against all odds, John lives into his late thirties. Between the recording of his birth and 1718, no record has been found to explain his formative years and how he goes from working on land to being Second or Third Mate of a slave ship. Somehow, he gains navigational skills, fighting tactics, and nautical expertise – all of which prove instrumental in launching him on a path his parents never foresee the day he comes into this world.
Two fateful days mark the beginning and end of John’s final years. In 1718, off the West African coast, the slaver on which he works is taken by pirates. Their captain, Howell Davis, is a fellow Welshman; this common bond connects the two men in spite of John’s initial rebuffs to join in the sweet trade. Yet the day eventually comes when John decides “a merry and short life” is better than his current one. Taking the name “Bartholomew,” he embarks on a career in piracy. Six weeks after meeting the pirates, they elect him captain after Davis’s demise. Although atypical of many of his mates – he abstains from drink and wenching – he possesses traits and skills necessary to lead and succeed. Pillaging more than 450 ships also brings him notoriety, which garners the attention of authorities and forces the pirates to look elsewhere for plunder several times. His career ends where it begins: off the coast of Africa at the hands of the British Royal Navy.
Suthren opens his account with what is and isn’t known about this legendary pirate. He also explores what may have influenced Roberts’ upbringing, as well as possibilities of how he came to be an accomplished mariner. Before delving into particulars about his piratical career, the author devotes three chapters to necessary background information on piracy (especially between 1680 and the 1720s), the slave trade and slave ships, and pirates in Canada – the place where Roberts went from ordinary to unparalleled. Along the way readers meet a variety of other pirates, including Walter Kennedy, Peter Easton, Sheila NaGeira, Edward Low, and Eric Cobham and Maria Lindsey. Also mentioned is pirate hunter Sir Henry Mainwaring, although without any hint of his piratical past. While the majority of passages quoted within the narrative come from other historians, Suthren does include one extant letter from Roberts to the highest ranking soldier on St. Christopher (St. Kitts today), who dared to fire on the pirates. Contrary to what the book says, Roberts is not the first captain to implement a code of conduct to govern his men. These articles derive from a legal document used by buccaneers, a sample of which appears in Alexandre Exquemelin’s The Buccaneers of America (1678).
In addition to several period maps and two illustrations, the book has a bibliography and index. Endnotes provide source citations, although none is provided for one curious reference in the text to pirates blackening their faces so they appear more threatening. At times, Suthren shares how twists of fate lead men on differing paths. James Cook possessed similar traits and skills with Roberts and both were shaped by the time they spent in Canadian waters. Black Flag of the North provides a good overview of the period, while succinctly entertaining readers with the meteoric rise and fall of the man often referred to as “King of the Pirates.”
Review Copyrighted ©2018 Cindy Vallar
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