Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate, is one of the more
interesting buccaneers in the history of the Carolinas during
the Golden Age. He was certainly one of the highest ranking socially and the most educated. He also was one of the least likely and least qualified men (or women) ever to pursue his craft on the high seas.
Bonnet served in the Colonial Militia during Queen Anne’s War with Spain, attaining the rank of Major. After the completion of his service (in his middle age), he retired to the family’s sugar plantation in Barbados, where he pursued a life of social prominence and leisure in Bridgetown. Suddenly (probably sometime in 1717), to the utter astonishment of his friends and neighbors, he renounced plantation life, purchased a sloop, and launched his new career as a pirate.
A number of explanations have been advanced for Bonnet’s abrupt and dramatic change in lifestyle. Some feel that as a former active military man, he had become bored with the unexciting routine of plantation living. Many more asserted that he had fallen victim to a sudden mental breakdown. Others felt he was escaping from his nagging shrew of a wife. Finally, some combined the last two theories to conclude that his wife’s perpetual nagging had brought about a mental breakdown.
In any event he immediately achieved a unique position in the annals of piracy by buying his sloop instead of capturing or stealing it. He equipped his vessel with ten guns, renamed her the Revenge, and hired an experienced quartermaster, Israel Morton. Morton, in turn, heavily recruited within the local taverns and eventually hired a crew of seventy seamen which marked yet another first in pirate history, since crew members traditionally worked for contractual shares of any captured treasure rather than wages.
Above the Revenge Bonnet flew his own “Jolly Roger”, which was known as the “Pirate’s Scale”. It featured a skull and crossed bones, with a dagger on one side and a heart on the other, supposedly representing the balance between life and death. He completed the equipping of the sloop by bringing his extensive personal library on board ship again distinguishing himself from the buccaneer norm.
Bonnet and his crew set sail for Virginia and the Carolinas, where they initially succeeded in capturing a number of prizes. As time passed, however, the gulf between the Captain and his crew continued to expand. In addition to the personal peculiarities noted above, Stede Bonnet always dressed in a gentlemanly (some might even say foppish) manner, rarely drank, and suffered from reoccurring bouts of seasickness. Morale was bordering on mutiny when Bonnet met up with his piratical mirror image, the infamous Blackbeard. Blackbeard developed an amused (if short-lived) liking for Bonnet and a sincere fondness for his sloop the Revenge. They immediately entered into some sort of partnership, which may well have prevented Bonnet’s death at the hands of his own crew. Blackbeard shrewdly convinced Bonnet that a gentleman of his social prominence should not be involved with the actual sailing of a ship, invited him aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, and replaced him behind the wheel of his sloop with a trusted member of his own crew. Bonnet spent most of his time on Blackbeard’s flagship in his dressing gown reading books from his library.
Bonnet was with Blackbeard during the blockade of Charles Town (Charleston, S.C.), and returned with him to North Carolina following the payment of the ransom for the return of captured Charlestonians. Upon reaching Topsail/Beaufort Inlet (North Carolina), Blackbeard (as discussed in Part II) decided to reduce the size of his fleet and crews. After grounding two of his ships, he sent Bonnet on a diversionary errand, removed anything of value from the Revenge, marooned Bonnet’s remaining crew on a sandbar, and made off with the undivided ransom.
Upon his return, Bonnet reclaimed his sloop, rescued his crew from the sandbar, and set off in pursuit of Blackbeard. Fortunately for him, he was unable to apprehend Blackbeard, who would undoubtedly have dispatched him with ease, and spent the next three months capturing ships off the Delaware Bay Virginia coast area. (At Blackbeard’s suggestion he had applied for a royal pardon. So, he changed his name to Thomas and the name of the Revenge to the Royal James in order to protect the application process.)
In September, 1718, Bonnet landed in a small cove at the edge of Southport, NC (directly across Moore Street from the development known as Bonnet’s Landing) to affect a number of major repairs to his sloop. This decision proved to be his undoing.
Unbeknownst to Bonnet/Thomas, South Carolina Governor Johnson had dispatched Colonel Rhett, 150 seamen, and two sloops, the James and the Sea Nymph, to capture pirates operating in the region and bring them to justice. Many feel that Rhett was seeking more notorious prey such as Captain Charles Vane when he and his crew happened upon Bonnet/Thomas. After unsuccessfully attempting to escape, Bonnet surrendered to Rhett on September 27, and he and his crew were taken to Charleston for trial.
While his crew was placed under guard, Bonnet, being a gentleman, was afforded more freedom as befitted his social status. As a man of letters, he sent the South Carolina Governor what most regard as one of the most elegant and, at the same time, one of the most self-effacing pleas for mercy ever penned. (The following is a reproduction of that letter taken from S.C. Hughes’ Carolina Pirates and Colonial Commerce 1670-1740.)
I Have presumed on the Confidence of your emminent Goodness to throw myself, after this manner at your Feet, to implore you’ll be graciously pleased to look upon me with tender Bowels of Pity and Compassion; and believe me to be the most miserable Man this Day breathing; That the Tears proceeding from my most sorrowful Soul may soften your Heart, and incline you to consider my
Dismal State, wholly, I must confess, unprepared to receive so soon the dreadful Execution you have been pleased to appoint me; and therefore beseech you to think me an Object of your Mercy.
For God’s Sake, good Sir, let the Oaths of three Christian Men weigh something with you, who are ready to depose, when you please to allow them the Liberty, the Compulsion I lay under in committing those Acts for which I am doomed to die.
I intreat you not to let me fall a Sacrifice to the Envy and ungodly Rage of some few Men, who, not being yet satisfied with Blood, feign to believe that I had the Happiness of a longer Life in this World, I should still employ it in a wicked Manner, which to remove that, and all other Doubts with your Honour, I heartily beseech you’ll permit me to live, and I’ll voluntarily put it ever out of my Power by separating all my Limbs from my Body, only reserving the use of my Tongue to call continually on, and pray to the Lord, my God, and mourn all my Days in Sackcloth and Ashes to work out confident Hopes of my Salvation, at that great and dreadful Day when all righteous Souls shall receive their just rewards: And to render your Honour a further Assurance of my being incapable to prejudice any of my Fellow-Christians, if I was so wickedly bent, I humbly beg you will, (as a Punishment of my Sins for my poor Soul’s Sake) indent me as a menial Servant to your Honour and this Government during my Life, and send me up to the farthest inland Garrison or settlement in the Country, or in any other ways you’ll be pleased to dispose of me; and likewise that you’ll receive the Willingness of my Friends to be bound for my good Behavior and Constant attendance to your Commands
I once more beg for the Lord’s Sake, dear Sir, that as you are a Christian, you will be as Charitable as to have Mercy and Compassion on my miserable Soul, but too newly awaked from an Habit of Sin to entertain so Confident Hopes and Assurances of its being received into the arms of Blessed Jesus, as is necessary to reconcile me to so speedly a Death; wherefore as my Life, Blood, Reputation of my family and future happy State lies entirely at your Disposal, I implore you to consider me with a Christain and Charitable Heart, and determine mercifully of me that I may ever acknowledge and esteem you next to God, my Saviour, and oblige me ever to pray that our heavenly Father will also forgive your Trespasses.
Now the God of Peace, that brought again from the Dead our Lord Jesus, that great Sheperd of the Sheep thru’ the Blood of the everlasting Covenant, make you Perfect in every good work to do his Will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his Sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be Glory forever and ever, is the hearty Prayer of
Most miserable &,
However, Bonnet was not willing to rely on the common belief that he would be shown mercy because of his former social position and background, or on his own written pleadings. Therefore, he and a member of his crew escaped, stole a small boat, and fled Charleston. The incensed Governor ordered Colonel Rhett to pursue the escapees and return them to justice. After twelve days Rhett did capture the two pirates, killing Bonnet’s companion in the process. Bonnet was tried, condemned to death (with no merciful intervention from the Governor), and hung a month after the execution of his crew (December 10, 1718). His body was allowed to remain hanging from the gallows for four days as a warning to any who might contemplate following in his footsteps. ...........end