The vagaries of history have left us little more than the name Robert Crow, a Manx man whose pirate career, led ultimately to capture and execution, but despite this short criminal career he has certainly left his mark as the only Manx pirate. He certainly features within the roughly contemporary history of the Golden Age of Piracy (Johnson 1724), is mentioned amongst other Manx Worthies (Moore 1901), and later histories (Quine 1911). Despite this the name of Robert Crow is now largely forgotten.
Indeed, as one might expect preciously little is really known about Crow until his rise to notoriety as a member of the crew of, the now infamous, Captain Bartholomew Roberts, or ‘Black Bart’. Born John Roberts (1682-1722) in Casnewydd-Bach (Pembrokeshire, South Wales), the Welsh pirate went on to be the most successful pirates during what was known as the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730), taking some 470 vessels in short three year career. Like many mariners Roberts’ life at sea began at the age of 13, but he first came to attention when the ship he was serving on, the slave ship Princess, was captured by pirates of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1719. Howell Davis, the captain of the pirate ship pressed Roberts’, and other members of the Princess’ crew, into service on his ship, Royal Rover. Like many captured crew,
In the beginning he was very averse to this sort of life, and would certainly have escaped from them had a fair opportunity presented itself; yet afterwards he changed his principles, as many besides him have done upon another element, and perhaps for the same reason too, viz., preferment; and what he did not like as a private man he could reconcile to his conscience as a commander (Pyle 1891: 276).
As a skilful sailor, and fellow Welshman, Roberts’ became a close confidant of Davis, and when Davis was killed shortly afterwards he was elected captain in his own right. Roberts’ Pirate Law, an oath sworn by all those joining his ranks, created a vision of a utopian and egalitarian pirate society and did much to augment the myth of the gentleman pirate, something that added to his notoriety amongst later romance writers. Roberts’ raided the Atlantic trade routes from West Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and as far north as Nova Scotia.
It was while pirating the coastline of the West Indies in July 1720 that Bartholomew Roberts captured the British sloop, Happy Return, a ship on which the Manx sailor, Robert Crow was serving. Crow’s position on the Happy Return remains unclear, with later sources stylising his as Manx merchant captain, and master mariner. Following the capture of the ship on which he served, Crow was almost certainly ‘pressed’ into joining the pirate crew. Unfortunately, Crow then disappears form the records, only to reappear two years later, as a member of the crew on Roberts’ ship, the Royal Fortune, when it was captured at Cape Lopez (Gabon) on the 10th February, 1721-2 by HMS Swallow.
The details of the capture on well documented, on the 5th February 1722, Captain Chaloner Ogle (HMS Swallow) was policing the coast of West Africa near Cape Lopez, when he came across Roberts’ three ships Royal Fortune, Ranger, and Little Ranger. Believing HMS Swallow to be a fleeing merchant ship the Ranger, under Captain James Syrme, chased her down, but before they realised their grave error Ogle opened fire on the pirate ship killing ten of the crew, injuring Skyrme and disabling the ship. Skyrme was forced to surrender his ship. Following the victory, HMS Swallow returned to Cape Lopez where the Royal Fortune was still at anchor. Having captured a merchant ship the previous day many of the crew were so drunk they were unable to man their posts, and during a botched attempt to flee the scene Captain Bartholomew Roberts was killed by grapeshot and the ship and her crew captured.
The following year the captured crew, including Robert Crow, were put on trial before a commission appointed by the Crown. The defendants were charged with that,
For that on the 10th of February last, in a Ship we were possess’d of called the Royal Fortune; of 40 Guns, ye did maintain a hostile Defence and Reistance for some Hour’s, against his Majesty’s Ship the Swallow, nigh Cape Lopez Bay, on the Southern Coast of Africa.
That this Fight and insolent Resistance against the King’s Ship, was made, not only without Pretence of Authority, more than that of your own private depraved Wills, but was done also under a black Flag, flagrantly by that, denoting your Selves common Robbers and Traitors, Opposers and Violators of the Laws.
And lastly, that in this Reistance, ye were all of you Volunteers, and did, as such, contribute your utmost Efforts, for disabling and distressing the aforesaid King’s Ship, and deterring his Majesty’s Servants therein, from their Duty (Johnson 1724: 291).
To these charges the defendants pleaded ‘not guilty’. The case for the prosecution was laid out, and in response the defendants pleaded that they were “forc’d Men” and “had not fired a Gun in this Resistance against the Swallow, and that what little Assistance they did give on this Occasion, was to the sails and Rigging, to comply with the arbitrary Commands of Roberts” (Johnson 1724: 291). Giving evidence in the case of Robert Crow, Harry Glasby a prisoner, reported that he may have been forced at first, but that he had soon adopted the pirate lifestyle (Leeson 2009: 141). As one of the longest serving members of Roberts’ crew Crow was probably regarded as a voluntary pirate, and consequently condemned to death. On 10th April 1722, Crow was executed, as was the custom of the time, between high and low tide marks, outside the gates of the infamous Cape Corso Castle (Cape Coast Castle), a British fort on the west coast of Africa (Ghana).
Later writers have done much to perpetuate the romance of the pirate lifestyle; indeed Bartholomew Roberts rose to notoriety as one of the pirate captains in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1914), and more recently has featured in Gore Verbinski Pirates of the Caribbean series. Perhaps partly influenced by this romance authors, and indeed the vagaries of the law case against him, the Manx Worthies stylised Crow as an innocent who simply “served under his captor” (Moore 1901). While more recently Robert Crow himself has been restyled as the “the cruellest pirate on the seven seas” in Morgan Noble’s Peter Keller and the Legend of the Red Sail (2009: 19). Whether he was the lovable rogue of romantic literature, or a cruel criminal, requires further historical investigation.
Johnson, Charles. 1724. A general history of the Pyrates, from their first rise and settlement in the Island of Providence, to the present time….T Warner: London.
Leeson, PT. 2009. The invisible hook: the hidden economics of pirates. Princeton University Press: Princeton.
Moore, Arthur William. 1901. Manx Worthies, or Biographies of Notable Manx Men and Women. S. K. Broadbent & Company: Douglas.
Noble, Morgan. 2009. Peter Keller and the Legend of the Red Sail. Morgan Noble: unknown.
Pyle, Howard (ed.). 1891. The Buccaneers and Marooners of America, being an account of the famous adventures and daring deeds of certain notorious freebooters of the Spanish Main. T Fisher Unwin: London.
Quine, John. 1911. The Isle of Man. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. 1914 . Treasure Island. Harper & Brothers: New York.