Post-Spanish Succession Period > Battle of Cape Lopez

Battle of Cape Lopez

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration

Background

The Battle of Cape Lopez was a decisive engagement off the coast of Gabon in West Africa in 1722 during the closing days of the Post Spanish Succession Period which saw the defeat of the famous pirate Bartholomew Roberts by the pirate hunter named Chaloner Ogle. During this battle a British Man-o-War under the command of Ogle managed to kill Roberts on the deck of his flagship which prompted the immediate surrender of Bartholomew Roberts' crew. The defeat of Bartholomew Roberts marked the end of one of the most prolific and profitable pirates to ever set out on a cruise.

At this point in his career Bartholomew Roberts was the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy and he was known to have captured over 400 ships ranging from small fishing boats to larger frigates and warships. The act that would finally get the pirate hunters on his tail was the infamous hanging of the Governor of Martinique in April of 1721 after he captured a French warship with fifty-two guns.

Following this Roberts went onto capture two more French warships off the coast of the mouth of the Senegal River. These were the sixteen-gun sloop-of-war Comte de Toulouse which was renamed the Ranger and a ten-gun brig which was renamed the Little Ranger. After seizing the French prizes the pirates sailed southeast towards modern day Gabon.

While on the way, off the coast of Pepper Coast Roberts sighted and captured the Royal Africa Company frigate Onslow which he renamed the Royal Fortune. The frigate mounted over forty guns and the crew consisted of about 250 men, black and white. Black Bart's luck was soon to run out though, as two Royal Navy men-of-war began patrolling the waters of West Africa, at about the same time, Roberts anchored in Cape Lopez for careening. The British vessels on patrol were the fourth-rates HMS Swallow and HMS Weymouth, both mounting fifty guns or more but only the Swallow under Captain Chaloner Ogle encountered Black Bart. When Captain Ogle sailed around the cape he sighted four vessels, three of them pirates and one a merchant ship the 'Neptune' belonging to a Captain Hill, which was illegally trading with the brigands. Ogle spotted a sandbar and quickly ordered his ship to turn out of the way, at the same time raising a Portuguese flag. By this time the pirates had spotted the Swallow so Roberts allowed Captain James Skyrm in the Ranger to capture what he thought was a fleeing merchant ship. Sensing an opportunity, Captain Ogle chose to let the pirate chase him for several hours until they were far away from the cape and land was no longer in sight. Ogle then turned about, raised the White Ensign and engaged Captain Skyrm, who still did not realize the Swallow was a Royal Navy frigate. After a relatively short action, the sloop was captured, made a prize, and ten pirates were killed. Ogle then patiently sailed back to Cape Lopez where he arrived five days later on February 10, 1722.

Battle

According to pirate legend Bartholomew Roberts was abroad the Royal Fortune eating a breakfast of salmagundi with Captain Hill of the captured Neptune ship when he received word from his crew that the Ranger was returning from pursuing a merchant ship. However, soon they learned that ship headed towards them was not the Ranger but the Swallow who was recognized by a member of the crew named Armstrong who had previously deserted its sister ship the Weymouth at the port of Madeira Islands.

Anticipating the upcoming battle, Roberts dressed in his usual fashion which included some of the finest clothing, a red damask waistcoat and a red feather in his hat along with his massive gemstone that hung around his neck. The crew of the Little Ranger was ordered to join the Royal Fortune in order to bolster the pirates defenses against the Royal Navy. At this point the Little Ranger was useless since it was being careened on its side and was eventually abandoned. Later one the pirates left Captain Hill would board the Little Ranger and seize the gold and other valuables aboard the ship before setting off towards Sao Tome and Principe.

Roberts came up with the plan for the Royal Fortune to sail directly past the Swallow and after make their escape to open sea. This would give the pirates valuable time as the Swallow would be forced to turn around in order to engage or chase Roberts. However, one fatal flaw in this plan was that sailing directly past the Swallow forced the Royal Fortune to take at least one punishing broadside before they would make their escape. Weighing his options, Roberts decided to push ahead. This entire engagement would happen during a tropical storm which would influence the outcome of the battle.

As soon as the Royal Fortune was off of the beam of the Swallow they fired a broadside into the pirates who promptly returned fire. The British were able to get a second broadside off which hit the deck where Bartholomew Roberts was standing. The pirates would get clear of the British and eventually left the Swallow behind them. However, at this point they sailed directly into the eye of the tropical storm ravaged the area and they were stranded for thirty minutes or so. This gave the Swallow time to catch up to the pirates and as soon as they were within range the pirate hunters fired their swivel guns which were loaded with grape shot.

Death of Bartholomew Roberts

These initial shots would kill three of the pirates including Roberts who had his throat torn open by the shrapnel. A piece of the grape shot that was no bigger than a penny cut through his throat and severed his spinal column and he died instantly on the deck of his ship. While the pirates initially thought he was taking a rest on a gun because of how he fell as soon as the smoke cleared they realized he was dead.

The remaining pirates were determined to avenge the death of Roberts and managed to slow the Royal Fortune and turn the ship around to face the British pirate hunters. According to some accounts of the battle the remaining pirates battled it out for the next three hours before a broadside from the British devastated the mast of the Royal Fortune. The colors of the ship would be struck by force and the surviving pirates were all arrested by the British authorities.

Aftermath

Following the battle Captain Ogle allowed the crew of Bartholomew Roberts to bury him at sea in all of his finest clothes including the massive diamond studded six sinch cross that he wore on a chain around his neck. Several sailors were wounded and in total 272 pirates of Bartholomew Roberts' crew were taken captive before being taken to Cape Coast Castle. Many of the pirates were wounded and died on their way to prison.

Eventually fifty-four of them were hung for piracy and another thirty-seven received lesser punishments as they were likely forced into becoming pirates. About seventy-five of the 272 pirates were black so the British sold them back into slavery. Seventeen of them went to the Marshalsea prison in London and another twenty became indentured servants for the Royal African Company.

Captain Chaloner Ogle was rewarded for his service and granted a knighthood and the title of admiral. He also would take several ounces of gold dust from the Ranger and the Royal Fortune. After his capture of Roberts and the two pirate ships Ogle intended to go back and capture the Little Ranger which was carrying the lions share of the pirates treasure. However, Captain Hill was able to escape with the ship and the gold.

Following this battle piracy in the Atlantic and the Golden Age of Piracy in general would taper off by 1730. Ogle would later go on to fight in the Battle of Cartagena de Indias during the War of Jenkins' Ear where he commanded a botched assault on the three Spanish forts located there. His failure would help lose the entire battle for the British.

Sources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources