In the year 1721 the fine frigate ship Onslow, Captain Gee, Commander, bound for Cape Coast Castle, was riding off Caetos, on the African Coast, having called there for water and other necessities. Suddenly a pirate ship bore down, sent an armed boat to board her, and by force took possession of the ship.
The Captain pirate was Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most audacious and destructive sea robbers who ever hoisted the black flag. He himself went on board the Onslow, called the crew aft, inquired who amongst them was willing to join him, saying also he would force no man. The greater part of the crew volunteered, and amongst them John Stephenson, a Whitby man, then about 40 years of age. A clergyman on his way to cape Coast Castle was on board the Onslow, and the pirates proposed to keep him, saying they wanted a chaplain; they offered him a share of their plunder, the only conditions being that he should say prayers and make punch, but the good man had no mind for such a life and was therefore allowed to depart.
The Onslow, being a much finer ship than the one Roberts then had, he took her under his command, giving his own vessel to Captain Gee; he mounted her with 40 guns, changed her name to the Royal Fortune, and in company with the Ranger, another ship he manned with his comrades, sailed towards old Calabar.
This Roberts was a powerful man, tall, dark, and of undaunted spirit; he had been second mate of a London vessel, which being on the coast, of Africa taking in slaves for the West Indies, was captured by a noted pirate named Howell Davies, Roberts did not willingly enter upon a piratical career, but having once begun it, grew to like it. After a time Davis was killed by the Portuguese, and Roberts was elected captain in his stead; he accepted the Office, saying that since he had dipped his hands in muddy water and must be a pirate it was better to be a pirate than a common man.
It is surprising to read of the freedom with which these brutal outlaws could keep the coasts and seas of some parts of the world in terror, capturing forts and defying ships of war. On one occasion they fell in with a fleet of forty two Portuguese ships, richly laden and bound for Lisbon; they boldly steered for a vessel of 40 guns, poured a broadside into her, grappled and boarded her, while the rest of the fleet had not the courage to render their companion any assistance. The spoil taken at this take was immense - sugar, tobacco, 40,000 gold moidores, besides chains and trinkets of value, including a cross set with diamonds, designed for the King of Portugal.
Of this wild and criminal set Stephenson became comrade; he sailed beneath the pirates' flag and shared in their depredations. Off Cape Appolonia they took a ship called the King Solomon. The wind and the current not permitting them to come alongside, they sent the longboat with sufficient number of men to take her, Stephenson being one that volunteered to go. They rowed swiftly towards the ship; the Captain prepared to receive them; as they drew near he hailed them, and they replied in one word - "Defiance". As they passed under the ships stern the Captain fired a musket; they replied with a volley; and made haste to get on board. The Captain appealed to his men to defend the ship, saying it would be a disgrace to be taken by half their own number.The boatswain said "No," laid down his arms and cried for quarter; the rest of the crew did likewise and the ship was captured.
The easy way in which Roberts made captures of ships in number more than 400, can only be accounted for by the cowardice of their crews, or by the prevalence of a secret admiration of the pirate and an ambition to serve under him. It may be noticed in extenuation that many of those vessels were slavers; what moral sense the men had must have lost its edge; nor would it seem to them that stealing black men, subjecting them to the horrors of the middle passage, and consigning them to a life of bondage was any better than plundering the slave catchers themselves. Between the black flag of the pirate and the black flag of the slave ship There was not much room for preference.
At length the audacity of Roberts led him to accept the challenge of an English man-of-war. After a severe action his companion vessel was captured by the Frigate swallow. The pirate had ten men killed and two hundred wounded. The Captain, although he had lost a leg in the action, would not suffer himself to be removed from the deck, but fought on his stump till the action was over, whilst his crew distained to manifest any fear.
On the 10th of February, 1722, The Swallow encountered Roberts himself in his own vessel, the Royal Fortune. The pirate Captain made a gallant figure at the time of the engagement, he was dressed in a rich crimson Damask waistcoat and breeches, with a red feather in his hat, and a gold chain around his neck, with a diamond cross hanging to it. In his hand he carried his sword, and at the ends of a silk scarf, slung over his shoulders, hung two pairs of pistols, according to a fashion among pirates. He gave his orders with undaunted spirit; he brought his ship close to the man-of-war, at the same time hoisting his black flag, which had on it a skeleton, holding an hourglass in one hand and cross and bones on the other; a dart was also pictured and underneath a dripping heart. .He received the Swallows fire, which he returned in good earnest. How the fight would have ended if no no misfortune had happened to Roberts cannot be said; however, after the action began a grapeshot struck him in the throat; he settled himself on the tacklings of a gun. Stephenson, who was at the helm, seeing this, ran to him, and then, not perceiving that he was wounded, bid him stand up and fight like a man; but, when he found that his arms and ornaments, according to a wish they had heard him express.
The pirates did not long resist after their bold leader was slain; soon after, their main mast was shot by the board and they were forced to yield. Their ship, the Royal Fortune, carried 40 guns and 175 men. There was found in hergold dust to the value of two thousand pounds; her flag, which had gone over with the mainmast, was afterwards recovered by the man-of-war.
The trial of the pirates took place at Cape Coast Castle, on the African coast, on the 28th March, 1722, when 52 of them were condemned to death, John Stephenson being one of them, and they were executed, according to their sentence, without the gates of Cape Coast Castle and within the flood marks. Some of them carried an air of bravado to the end,; others conducted themselves in a more becoming manner and, although we are told they were destitute of ministers or fit persons to assist them with spiritual advice, they were yet always employing their time to the good purpose, and behaved with a great deal of seeing devotion and penitence; of that smaller company John Stephenson was one.