Like Paulsgrave Williams, Stede Bonnet was an unlikely pirate.
The scion of an influential family of Barbados sugar planters,
Bonnet had a wife, children, and estate on that island. A
landlubber, he didn't know how to operate a ship. And yet, in April
1717, Bonnet left Barbados under cover of darkness in the
Revenge, an armed sloop he had had built at a local yard, and
crewed with sympathizers. His piracy career would be troubled.
Bonnet was born on Barbados in 1688, the great-grandson of
one of the island's first English settlers. While he inherited a 400
acre estate, his life was not without tragedy. Orphaned as a child,
his firstborn son died in infancy, after which he is said to have
developed "a disorder of the mind" caused "by some discomforts
he found in a married state."
Motivated perhaps by a desire to restore the Stuarts to the British
throne, Bonnet ordered the construction of the Revenge in late
1716, probably telling authorities he intended to use it as a
privateer. Instead he slipped away in the middle of the night and
made straight for the North American coast.
Under the alias "Captain Edwards," Bonnet plundered vessels near the entrance to Charleston Harbor in August,
but his captaincy was already failing. As told in The Republic of Pirates, Bonnet foolishly engaged a Spanish
warship; half the crew was killed or wounded, including Bonnet himself, who was confined to his cabin with his
injuries. Somehow the Revenge's crew managed to escape their larger, less agile opponent, and set sail for the
one place they knew they would find sanctuary: the pirate republic at Nassau.
There they told their story to Benjamin Hornigold and other leading pirates who resolved to give them refuge, but
also to make use of their vessel. Blackbeard was placed in charge of the Revenge, while Bonnet remained
confined in his cabin, which he had equipped with an extensive library. Occasionally Bonnet - who had been a
major in the local militia on Barbados - would stroll about the decks in his night gown.
Bonnet didn't regain command of his vessel until two months later, when Blackbeard captured a French slaver
and made into his new flagship, the Queen Anne's Revenge. He remained under Blackbeard's close supervision
through the fall and winter, during which time the expanding fleet swept up the Antilles, burning towns and
shipping, ducked the naval frigates pursuing them, and continued plundering vessels in the Gulf of Mexico and the
Central American coast. In late March Bonnet was allowed to operate independently, but he quickly got himself in
trouble again in an engagement with the Protestant Caesar, an armed Boson merchantmen. His men sought
Blackbeard, found him at Turneffe atoll, and then voted to replace Bonnet with one of Blackbeard's officers.
Bonnet was placed under house arrest on the Queen Anne's Revenge, and was said to be "ashamed to see the
face of any English man again."
In June 1718, however, Blackbeard double-crossed many of his crewmen, leaving them stranded on an island in
Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Bonnet, tricked into sailing up to Bath, N.C. to take a pardon offered by the King,
rescued the crew and took control of the Revenge, which Blackbeard had abandoned. At this stage he had a
clean record -- the pardon absolved him of his prior crimes -- and he apparently intended to sail to the Danish
island of St Thomas and obtain a privateering commission to attack Spanish shipping. But he was unable to
control his crew, who decided to secure vital supplies by returning to piracy. He was again a wanted man when, in
September, South Carolinian pirate hunters surprised him at anchor behind Cape Fear, N.C. He was captured
after a prolonged battle.
While awaiting trial in Charleston, Bonnet escaped from the guard house with the assistance of merchant
smuggler Richard Tookerman. Shortly thereafter, a large mob attempted to free the rest of Bonnet's men. The
rising failed, and the pirates were brought to trial and executed. Bonnet was recaptured shortly thereafter and,
though found guilty, received several stays of execution as the result of pleas from city merchants. Bonnet's
friends were influential, but not enough to save him. The "gentleman pirate" was hanged at White Point in
Charleston on December 18, 1718.
Bonnet, from an early 18th century engraving made
by an artist who had never seen him.
|The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man who Brought
them Down by Colin Woodard. The Official Homepage. (c) 2008 Colin Woodard.