Criminals & Outlaws

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Stealing the Past

Stealing the Past

My Life as an International Art Thief
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Black Flag of the North

Black Flag of the North

Bartholomew Roberts, King of the Atlantic Pirates
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Chapter One: Drawn to the Sea

In Pembrokeshire, in the wet and windy southwest corner of Wales, there stood in the last decades of the seventeenth century a small, impoverished village of a few houses with the unexpectedly grand name of Castell Newydd Bach, or Little Newcastle. Home to Welsh-speaking cattle herders of the green hills not far from the growing village of Haverford West, and six miles to the south, the port of Milford Haven on its estuary leading to the Irish Sea, it was the unremarkable birthplace of a baby boy on May 17, 1682.
That small, squalling bundle occasioned little more in its anxious parents than gratitude both mother and child had survived the rigours of the birth and gloomy awareness that by the dreadful standards of mortality of the late seventeenth century the child stood a 50 percent chance of not living past the age of three, and even less of reaching adulthood. The parents need not have worried: their lusty-lunged little son, christened John Robert or Roberts, would not only survive, but grow to strapping six-foot manhood and on faraway seas become the most feared and successful — if the word is appropriate — open-ocean pirate of the age. And it would be in what later became Canadian waters that he seized the tools that would have him appear out of the north in this role as uncrowned but de facto king of the Atlantic pirates.
In a brief, incandescent career that lasted from 1718 to 1722, he would take over 450 ships and bring West Indian and African trade virtually to a standstill before dying in a hail of Royal Navy gunfire.
Yet there was little in the boy’s background to suggest, not an obscure life in the little houses and rain-soaked hills of Little Newcastle, but an eventual bloody career as a criminal terror of the seas. His father, who had been listed as such in the Pembrokeshire Hearth Tax Lists of 1670, was most probably known as George Robert — the change in spelling to Roberts, a common Welsh name, would come later.1 His mother’s name is unknown.
The little village was fervently religious in the manner of the rural Welsh, possibly adhering to the Calvinist rigour of the small Baptist community that had established itself in South Wales in the 1640s. That faith had to struggle to survive in the face of various Acts of Parliament intended to enforce the superiority of the Church of England. The villagers clung doggedly to their abstemious faith, the one small chapel “of the very meanest fashion” a centrepiece of the tiny community, and while English was increasingly the dominant language along the more populous coast to the south, the spare, devout lives of the Little Newcastle people were spent in a grimly surviving Welsh culture. It was not to say that the Robert family were struggling paupers: there was at least home ownership that allowed them to be considered akin to the English yeomen class. As historian Richard Sanders has expressed it, it was a status of “middle class, but in the context of a backward, rural society that was poor even by the standards of late 17th Century Britain.”2
It was not an auspicious entry for the newest member of the Robert family, but the boy’s later career as an otherwise ruthless high-seas pirate would always be marked by a puritanical personal restraint and religiosity that had its roots in the dim, fervent world of rural faith in which he was raised.
The nature of life for the poor Welsh was only marginally different from it had been in the Middle Ages: subsistence farming and animal husbandry tied to the ebb and flow of the seasons, and now marked by a reticence and suspicion of the non-Welsh who increasingly were settling the Pembrokeshire coast.
There is an image of the South Welsh that persists from that age: a short, stocky people of swarthy, almost Mediterranean appearance — the “Silures” of the Romans — keeping to their valleys and uplands in ever more heightened suspicion of the English since the great Civil War, when the Welsh had remained largely Royalist, sustained by their nonetheless Nonconformist faith and the unfathomable intricacies of their ancient language: a musical, poetic, darkly serious people with a deep historical sense of loss, and an enduring resilience in the face of hardship, want, and their suspicions of the tan-haired strangers on the coast. It was a close, emotional, tribal culture akin to that of Scots Highland clans or the wild countrymen of Ireland, and to a lad of modest means it was also characterized by an outdoor life of physical harshness that would go a long way to prepare a youth for the rigours of the sea.
The influence of religion in the shaping of young Roberts — for such we may begin to call him — is markedly similar to the preparation of another extraordinary seafarer who would emerge decades later, and go on to greater notice, albeit of a markedly different and admired kind: Pacific navigator James Cook. Cook spent much of his formative youth in the company of Yorkshire Quakers, and it was noted of him during his later remarkable voyages of discovery that he was never known to have succumbed to the allure of rum — unlike almost anyone who sailed with him — nor did he share in the sexual contact with Pacific island women when his crews did, virtually to a man. Roberts would be marked by the same restraint, even as he led crews of hardened men characterized by almost no restraint at all. For Roberts as for Cook, there would be no drunken revels or sexual profligacy, and if both men came to this remarkable restraint due to the strong role religion played in their lives, it would give them incalculable strength through social distance in their leadership of the rough-hewn men they led. That one bound himself by a sense of duty to the legalities of society and the other set himself at war with those legalities does not mask that they approached the tricky business of leading men in harsh pursuits from the same place. One would die respected and honoured, and destined for an admiral’s flag and a knighthood, had he lived; the other died reviled as a criminal, and destined to the shame of the gibbet had he lived to be captured. But both men had the qualities of which leadership is made, in remarkably similar ways.

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Black Donnellys

Black Donnellys

The outrageous tale of Canada's deadliest feud
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