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The fearsome pirate who loved tea

While rum is synonymous with pirates, once there lived a flamboyant plunderer of the seas famous in tea lore

The packaging of Black Barts Brew by Adagio.
The packaging of Black Barts Brew by Adagio.

It’s a breezy sort of time in Puducherry. I stopped to enjoy the view of the sea this afternoon. The boats on the horizon reminded me of the story of a pirate who loved tea.

Bartholomew Roberts, or Black Bart, occupies a place in both, the pirate hall of fame and tea lore. It was his preferred beverage—our claim to its “cool” factor, I would say. For, Roberts was not only a “successful” pirate, he was quite a personality—flamboyant (think crimson waistcoat, red feather in hat) and charismatic by all accounts.

Born John Roberts in May 1682 in Wales, he became a sailor at 13, working his way up to becoming the second mate in a slave ship. When he was 37, his ship was captured by pirates off the coast of Ghana. He had to become a pirate.

It doesn’t seem to have taken him long to take to a life of piracy, though. Within six weeks, the ship’s captain was shot dead in an ambush and Roberts was voted captain in his place. He also took the name Bartholomew.

I don’t know if it’s odd that he drank tea. In Roberts’ time, tea had arrived in England but it was an item of luxury, an upper-class indulgence. Growing up, Roberts may have realised its social significance. He may have also been sold on tea’s advertising—an ad from the time describes tea’s virtues as “making the body active and lusty”, being “good for colds, dropsies, and scurveys” and “vanquishing heavy dreams, easing the brain and strengthening memory”.

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Roberts lived during the peak of the transatlantic slave trade, when slave ships carried Africans to the Caribbean Islands and North America. In the Caribbean, slaves were made to work on the new colonial sugar-cane plantations. Eventually, sugar played a part in further promoting tea.

It may be incorrect to say Roberts chose tea over rum since rum wasn’t yet part of the pirate stereotype. In The Rum Historian on the Got Rum? website, Marco Pierini says the preferred tipples were brandy and wine, with rum a distant third. Fermented from molasses, rum followed from the sugar-cane plantations. The popular notion of rum as a pirate’s tipple came after Roberts’ time.

So which tea could Roberts have enjoyed? Remember, this was still the early 1700s, well before the Indian plantation industry. Roberts’ tea was likely Chinese. He would have had two options—green tea, known as singlo, and bohea, a semi-fermented tea from the Wuyi mountains. It’s anybody’s guess which one he preferred.

Just three short years after he became a pirate, though, Roberts was shot dead by a British warship. His crew had been hungover from earlier celebrations. He himself was likely drinking tea with his breakfast at the time.

US-based Adagio Tea (; they ship internationally) has a Pirate Black Barts Brew, a strong black tea blended with caramel, currant and blackberry.

Also read | Chai for thieves and detectives

Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.

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