Bartholomew Roberts didn't start out wanting to be a pirate.
But not for nothing did the Welshman captured by a buccaneer crew in 1719 get the nickname "Black Bart" — or compile a record of plunder that ranks among history's greatest.
In just three years, the daring brigand took 470 prizes — including an extraordinary Brazilian treasure ship plucked from a fleet guarded by two powerful men-of-war. He roved from West Africa and the West Indies to Newfoundland, where 22 ships gave up without a shot in one of the Golden Age of Piracy's most celebrated feats of boldness and intimidation.
Capable, outspoken and flamboyant, the Crimson Pirate embraced a strict code of allegiance, too, exacting an often cruel revenge when any shipmate was harmed or taken.
That's why in 1720 — after six of his crew members had been seized in Hampton, tried and hanged, then trussed up in chains as a warning — his vow of vengeance threw the whole countryside from Old Point Comfort to Williamsburg into an uproar.
"When Black Bart said he was going to get you, he got you," historian John Quarstein says, describing the power of Roberts' fleet and his bent for settling scores.
"And when he got the governor of Martinique, he hung him from the yardarm of his own ship."
Roberts and his crew became the stuff of pirate legend when they sailed alone into the capital of Brazil, captured the richest of 42 treasure ships and eluded two powerful 72-gun guardships with ease.
Their phenomenal haul included 40,000 Portuguese gold coins worth at least $9 million today and a fortune in gems, sugar, tobacco and hides. They also captured a cache of jewelry made for Portugal's nobility, the richest of which was a diamond-studded cross intended for the king.
Fleeing to the infamous pirate refuge at Devil's Island, the crew soon parted ways, with most sailing to the West Indies under one of Roberts' lieutenants. There they meandered, relieving various ships of their goods until stopping the Virginia-bound West River Merchant.
Eager to retire with their loot, eight buccaneers coerced the vessel's captain into providing passage to the Chesapeake Bay. They reached the Virginia Capes in February 1720, with one band of pirates coming ashore on Hampton's Back River and another landing in the town itself.
"As soon as they came ashore their first care was to find a Tavern, where they might ease themselves of their Golden Luggage," the American Weekly Mercury in Philadelphia reported.
"For some time they lived very profusely treating all that came into their Company, and there being in the House English Women Servants, who had the good fortune by some Hidden Charms, to appear pleasing to these Picaroons, they set them Free, giving their Master 30 pounds."
With their new "wives" in tow, the freebooters lived lavishly, laying down hard cash in a region that seldom saw any other payment than tobacco. So within days they were jailed by Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood in Elizabeth City County as suspected pirates.
"In places like Charleston and Newport, all kinds of pirates are coming back from sea and settling into society with very little resistance," says Mark G. Hanna, a University of California-San Diego historian who studied colonial piracy at the College of William and Mary's Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.
"But when they come to Virginia, they're being hunted down and arrested very quickly. Any pirate who came to the Chesapeake to retire soon found out they'd made a mistake."
Tried in Hampton, the sea rovers claimed they had been forced into piracy. But two Portuguese captives forced to sail with them on the West River Merchant testified to their crimes.
The captain of the coerced vessel gave damning evidence, too, prompting the doomed yet defiant pirates to curse their accusers.
"Six of them appeared the most profligate Wretches I ever heard of," Spotswood later wrote.
"And (they) vow'd if they were again at liberty they would spare none alive that should fall into the hands."