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Pirates were men who came up the hard way. Often from the lowest strata of society, pirates generally turned to their profession when they had no other choice, and nothing else to lose.
Except for one.
Stede Bonnet began life as part of a very successful family. The Bonnet clan was many and influential. Stede was born in 1688, christened at Christ Church Parish, and received an excellent education. When his father died, he in inherited a plantation of over 400 acres at the age of 16.
He married well and sired three sons and a daughter. During the War of Spanish Succession, when other pirates-to-be were fighting upon the high seas and learning their piratical trade, Bonnet wan enlisted in his local militia, read to deter any local slave revolts. There is no record of him taking part in any actual fighting.
And yet, in the spring of 1717, he decided give it all up to become a pirate.
Why on earth would such a successful man, with every outward trapping of success and happiness, run away from everything he knew to become a wanted criminal, taking part in crimes that carried an automatic death penalty?
Charles Johnson, author of The Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724, says that Stede’s nagging wife drove him to it. In an era when divorce was not possible, it seems that this could actually have been a reason. Yet I also wonder if it could have been issues of homosexuality. This lifestyle “crime” was also punishable by the death penalty at the time, and it’s just possible that, having done his duty by his family and his wife, Bonnet just wanted to be himself, whatever the cost.
His unusual decision brought about unusual preparations. Most pirates simply stole their ships, starting out small and gradually capturing larger and larger vessels until they had whatever they wanted. Bonnet took a different tack. He simply had a ship built. To the shipbuilders and any casual inquirers he gave out that he was building a privateer. He named his ship Revenge, which is either a statement about his relationship with his wife, or a complete lack of imagination. “Revenge” was simply the most common name for a pirate ship.
He hired a pirate crew, offering wages rather than the traditional “shares of plunder.” I wonder what the advertisement said? “Wanted, pirate crew: excellent wages, no commission”? In any event, he left his home island in the dead of night.
Stede knew nothing about ships, sailing, or the sea, and depended entirely on his (hired) officers to actually sail and manage the ship. He had filled his cabin with a vast numbers of books, and spent his days reading. This did not earn him the respect of his men.
Despite these problem, Stede’s ship (if not Bonnet himself) had some early successes, capturing ships as far north as New York. He became so sure of himself that he eventually commanded his men to attack a Spanish Man-o-War. Bonnet, his crew, and his ship were all badly damaged. Shaken and hurt, Bonnet ordered his ship to the pirate port of Nassau.
It was here he met Blackbeard. Utterly out of his depth as a pirate captain, wounded and in pain, Bonnet ceded control over his ship to the more experienced pirate. Blackbeard took the Revenge on a spree that captured ships from Delaware to Martinique. Observers said that Stede Bonnet did no more than wander the deck in a nightshirt and a velvet dressing gown, book in hand.
Eventually Blackbeard used his new command to capture a far larger vessel. The French ship La Concorde was quickly re-fitted as a pirate ship and re-named the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
For a time, Bonnet and Blackbeard parted company. Bonnet discovered that, if he hailed a passing ship and asked for assistance or an exchange of supplies, that he could get that ship’s captain aboard the Revenge, hold him hostage, and steal whatever he wanted. It wasn’t real pirating, but at last his upper-class background was coming in handy.
This did not endear him to his crew, and when Bonnet and Blackbeard met again, most of the Revenge’s pirates deserted to join Blackbeard. Stede expected support from his former “friend,” but Blackbeard put a commander of his own choice aboard the Revenge and made it part of his growing pirate fleet. Bonnet was once again reduced to a passenger aboard his own ship. Pardons for pirates were being offered by the King of England, and Bonnet began to dream of accepting one.
Blackbeard, wanting to test the waters of royal pardons, sent Bonnet on to the authorities to see what his reception would be. Bonnet was successful, but when he returned to the rendezvous point, pardon in hand, he discovered that Blackbeard had sunk the Queen Anne’s Revenge, marooned many of his crew, and taken off with all the treasure.
At this point, Stede Bonnet seems to have lost it. He ditched his pardon and went back to pirating, this time in earnest.
He did, however, make some effort to maintain the pardon he had bought so dearly. He renamed the Revenge the Royal James, and began calling himself “Captain Thomas” as an alias. He found out that Blackbeard was hanging out near Oracoke inlet, and took off in that direction, plundering vessels as he went.
He never saw Blackbeard again, but he had at last begun to act like a pirate captain. He seized two small vessels and brought them with him, as his ship was beginning to leak. In August of 1718, Bonnet split up his plunder and shared it out, the first time he had done this. He commanded the sailors of his two captured sloops to clean and repair the Royal James. This took nearly two months, and involved cannibalizing one of the captured ships.
Once Bonnet’s presence in the area was known, Colonel William Rhett was dispatched to capture him. The ensuing engagement was named The Battle of Cape Fear. When Rhett caught up to him, Bonnet moved all his men to the Royal James, and attacked Rhett’s two ships. All three ran aground in river’s narrow channels, and for six hours the pirates and the navy battered each other with musket and small-arms fire.
The pirates fought bravely, taunting the navy sailors and keeping up a steady barrage, as Bonnet walked the deck, pistol in hand, commanding them to stand firm. But the battle was ultimately determined by the tide. The navy ships floated free first, cannons could at last be brought to bear, and the pirate were taken captive.
This presented a problem for the town of Charlestown. Pirates were scum, and were held in the common jail until trail. Bonnet was a gentleman. He ended up being held at the provost martial’s house, while letters from the general public poured in, demanding his release, and the female population wrote love letters. For a time, the civil unrest caused by the arrest of the “Gentleman Pirate” threatened to overthrow the colony’s government.
Bonnet eventually escaped in the dead of night, with a couple of companions, and headed off into a nearby swamp with a small boat. They ran aground, and were re-captured. Civil unrest in the colony rose to a fever-pitch.
On November 10th, 1718, Bonnet’s trial began. His men had already been convicted and sentenced to hang. Bonnet tried to defend himself by claiming to have no authority over his crew, by calling character witnesses; by saying he was asleep during the attacks. Nothing worked. He was sentenced to hang.
At this point, Bonnet did lose it. He wrote to the Governor, begging for clemency, and even offering to submit to having his arms and legs cut off, to ensure that he would never pirate again. Many people were moved to pity by a man utterly deranged by terror. His sentence was delayed seven times, but ultimately, on December 10th, 1718, the worst pirate ever was put to death.