The judge who presided over the trial of 18th century pirate Stede Bonnet described him as “a gentleman that have had the advantage of a liberal education, and being generally esteemed a Man of Letters.” In contrast to his colleagues, Bonnet had a much different path to a career in piracy.
David Cordingly, in his book Under the Black Flag, writes that a high percentage of pirates were former seamen in the merchant service or Royal Navy, or had served as privateers. Many volunteered to serve the pirates who captured their vessels, while others, knowing nothing other than sea life, turned to piracy once their naval service ended.
Bonnet, on the other hand, was the son of wealthy English land owner in Barbados. He lived comfortably, a well-educated man who loved to read. It was this background that led to his nickname, “The Gentleman’s Pirate.”
In the 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, the theory is posited that Bonnet turned to a life of high seas crime in 1717 as a result of marital issues with his wife of eight years, Mary Allamby, while other sources claim his wife had died by 1715. Either way, he had three children, which he left for his new life. The problem was that Bonnet had no sailing experience. But the man did not lack for confidence.
Cordingly writes that Bonnet purchased a 10-gun sloop which he named Revenge, hired 70 men, and simply became a pirate. He began attempting to terrorize the Virginia and Carolina coast, which he did with some success. Supposedly his men had little respect for him, which left him in a precarious situation, especially after a crushing defeat at the hands of a Spanish man o’ war that left half of his men swimming with the fishes.
Bonnet then sailed to the pirate haven of New Providence in the Bahamas to seek reprieve. There he met fearsome Captain Edward Teach, better known by his cognomen Blackbeard. Whether due to his men’s convincing or Blackbeard’s, Bonnet turned over command of his ship to Blackbeard. As of late 1717, Cordingly writes that the Boston News Letter reported that Bonnet had been seen onboard Blackbeard’s ship, walking along the deck in his morning gown, spending time reading through his library.
But this arrangement did not last long, as Bonnet had struck out on his own by the spring of 1718. He was soundly defeated yet again, leading to his men abandoning him in favor of working under Blackbeard. Bonnet was then pardoned by North Carolina governor Charles Eden, with terms of the pardon requiring that he not return to piracy. Eden commissioned Bonnet as a privateer, a sailor who served in an anti-piracy or naval capacity. But Bonnet could not leave his criminal ways behind him.
It what would be a fateful move, Bonnet assumed the alias “Captain Thomas,” and with a crew, at least in part, consisting of men marooned by Blackbeard, began plundering and murdering along the Atlantic coast. After finding that Blackbeard had robbed his original ship, Bonnet vowed revenge on Blackbeard with his renamed ship, Royal James.
He would never achieve that goal, instead meeting his demise when the governor of South Carolina sent out a crew of privateers under the captaincy of William Rhett in the fall of 1718 to put an end to the rampant piracy. Rhett met Bonnet along the North Carolina coast at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, culminating in the appropriately-named Battle of Cape Fear River. According to Angus Konstam’s 2006 work, Blackbeard, both Bonnet and Rhett ran their ships aground, continuing to battle for five to six hours while stuck in the sandbar. Eventually, the tide rose, freeing only Rhett’s ship. His ship’s rigging was repaired and he began firing directly on the deck of Bonnet’s ship. Bonnet’s men soon surrendered, his ship boarded, and all taken into custody.
Bonnet’s trial was held in Charleston, S.C. Lindley Butler explains that Bonnet attempted an escape, setting sail out of the Charleston Harbor with his sailing master, David Herriot, and two slaves. Winds kept him from leaving the harbor. William Rhett was once again sent out in search of Bonnet, forcing him to surrender after killing Herriot and wounding the two slaves.
Butler states that Bonnet represented himself in court, to no avail. Cordingly writes that while both piracy and murder both carried death penalties, that a charge of murder offered defendants little chance of hope. The judge sentenced Bonnet to death, stating that while total murder counts were unknown, evidence suggested that the body count was at least 18. He, along with 31 of his surviving 34 crew members were hanged on display in the Charleston Harbor. His December 1718 hanging was seen as a great advancement in the war on piracy in the Americas.
Bonnet’s career had lasted only a year-and-a-half, but he has certainly made his mark on history. Within those 18 months, he left an easy existence on a beautiful island for a life in which he was disrespected, twice had his command snatched from him, and ultimately captured and executed in public when he got stuck in the sand.
It seems that the gravity of his situation hit him near the end, as upon his sentencing, Captain Charles Johnson (whose real identity is a mystery) describes the scene as such: “His piteous behavior under sentence very much affected the people of the Province, particularly the women.”
Maybe poor old Stede Bonnet was made more for the high life, and not so much the high seas life.