Cardiff: A safe haven for notorious pirates

August 12, 2011 1 Comment »

Decades before Cardiff became the Welsh capital, it was the capital of the global coal trade, handling a fifth of the world’s fuel through its port.

Dubbed “Coaltropolis”, the city’s Coal Exchange even hosted the signing of the world’s first million-pound cheque.

But according to a new history tour of the city, Cardiff’s original port was also renowned for its swashbuckling activities.

More than 500 years ago the city was infamous – as a stronghold for Britain’s most notorious pirates.

While its remote location and Welsh language helped provide a cloak of secrecy from the law, it was Cardiff’s aristocracy and public figures who provided a safe location for the pirates’ actions – by being complicit.

According to Blue Badge tour guide Bill O’Keefe, who co-runs the new Cardiff Walking Tour at Castle Welsh Crafts, passing ships faced the danger of being hauled into Cardiff’s port at Quay Street where their cargo would be stolen and sold at Cardiff Market.

The 41-year-old, of Canton, said: “Cardiff was pretty much a notorious pirate port, partly because the local aristocracy were all involved.”

One Welsh pirate, simply known as “Jones the Pirate”, was declared wanted in a letter to Cardiff officials, demanding why he had not been arrested yet.

Mr O’Keefe said: “Queen Elizabeth’s first minister wrote to Cardiff to ask what was going on. It became increasingly obvious these people could not be operating without assistance.”

Nicholas Herbert, of the wealthy Cardiff-based family, happened to be the father-in-law of the pirate, John Callis.

Mr O’Keefe added: “Callis was Britain’s most notorious pirate of the 1500s. In the 1570s he was the number one pirate in Britain because everyone was after him.”

When threatened with hanging, Callis named the mayor of Cardiff and the sheriff of Glamorgan as culpable accomplices.

Other clandestine trading included smuggling guns from Cardiff to Spain, Britain’s enemy in the late 1500s.

Piracy in Cardiff stopped when the Spanish Armada was coming and many Welsh pirates, such as Black Bart and Captain Howell Davies, moved to the Caribbean.

He said: “Bartholomew Roberts was the most successful pirate of all time – he was known as Black Bart. He was the most profitable pirate of all; he took around 400 ships.

“Captain Howell Davies, from Llanrumney, was a buccaneer. He would attack Spanish shipping and he became the governor of Jamaica. He called his estate in Jamaica Llanrumney.”

Such was the city’s enduring reputation for piracy and smuggling that Cardiff Rugby Club’s first kit in the 1870s was black emblazoned with a skull and crossbones.

It is hoped the tour, which also explores the building of the Roman fortress and their battles with the Celts, and the brutal power struggles between Norman invaders and Welsh princes, will give a boost to the Castle Quarter.

Mr O’Keefe said: “You could come to Cardiff for a weekend and never know about its coal history.

“Many cities would have gone into permanent decline but Cardiff has done the opposite and just blossomed with all guns blazing.”

The Cardiff Walking Tour runs twice daily, seven days a week at 11am and 2pm, costing £5 per person. To book, call 07849 067 449 or visit www.castlequartertour.co.uk

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One Comment

  1. Dafydd Tomos August 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Coaltropolis?! Coalopolis makes more sense and that word does appear in some articles in the 19th century. But it appears to have been mainly used by journalists who applied the not-particularly-catchy-nickname it to any large port exporting coal, including Newcastle.

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