Raise the Black: Jack Rackham
September 2, 2020
Talk Like a Pirate Day Update!
September 19, 2020

Raise the Black: Stede Bonnet

This is a preview for a character to be featured in the Blood & Plunder: Raise the Black kickstarter on October 6. you can check out Raise the Black here!

Known deservedly and derisively by some historians as a dilettante pirate, Major Stede Bonnet is certainly the best-known amateur in the history of piracy. A Barbados planter, Bonnet for reasons unconfirmed but speculated to have been to escape his wife, built a sloop, mounted it with ten guns, named it Revenge, recruited a crew, and in 1717 at the age of nearly twenty-nine set sail. 

His original intention may have been to “fish” Spanish wrecks for silver, which he attempted unsuccessfully, but in any case, he soon hoisted the black flag and joined the villainous brethren under various aliases, including Captain Edwards and Captain Thomas. He had little apparent maritime experience and his experience in arms as far as is known was limited to his service as an officer in the Barbados militia.

Although Bonnet is reported to have taken several prizes prior, his first recorded prize was just off the coast of Charlestown, South Carolina in August 1717, a merchant brigantine from Boston. Claimed by some historians to have blockaded Charlestown, South Carolina, the blockade was little more than common cruising for prey, although it had the effect of alarming the city and restricting sailings, the inevitable actions anytime a pirate appeared off any shore. The Revenge and its estimated eighty-man crew captured a second prize, a sloop from Barbados, just off the river bar then sailed to North Carolina where the pirates careened.

Soon headed south with a clean bottom, Bonnet and the Revenge engaged a small Spanish man-of-war, almost certainly mistaking it for a common merchantman. The Revenge managed to escape, but only after many of its crew were killed or wounded, including her captain, said to have been seriously injured. Not long afterward, Bonnet and his crew rendezvoused by accident with Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, who soon relieved the gentleman pirate of command, leaving him to “walk about in his Morning Gown, and then to his Books, of which he has a good Library on Board,” at least according to the Boston News-Letter

Bonnet remained with Blackbeard for more than six months, and was thereby complicit in many of the sea crimes of the pirate with the beribboned beard, including the actual blockade Charlestown in which a captured ship with wealthy Carolinians aboard was held for a ransom of medical supplies.

But Bonnet’s bad luck and forced subservience did not last forever. He finally got his sloop back after Blackbeard lost his Queen Anne’s Revenge when it ran aground at North Carolina in June 1718, and with fifty pirates the former Barbadian planter and present gentleman pirate put to sea once more in command. Renaming his sloop the Royal James, he at first considered sailing to the Danish colony at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to seek a privateering commission against the Spanish, but changed his mind and cruised off Virginia instead, capturing several merchant vessels. Once more he sailed to the Carolinas to careen, and this time it would be his undoing.

In September 1718 word came to Charlestown that a pirate with two captured sloops was careening at the Cape Fear River. Colonel William Rhett, an experienced pirate hunter, immediately volunteered his services. Commissioned by the governor to capture to capture the pirates, Rhett set sail in command of two armed local sloops, the Sea-Nymph of eight guns and sixty men and the Henry of eight guns and seventy volunteers. Intelligence from plundered vessels indicated that Charles Vane was in the area and was therefore the likely pirate careening. But Vane had already escaped, and Rhett would soon find his quarry to be Stede Bonnet instead.

As the two sloops worked their way up the river, both ran aground. When Bonnet received word that there were two sloops in the river he sent three canoes to capture them, but they soon discovered they had “caught a Tartar”—the sloops were pirate hunters, not merchant vessels—and so they retreated. Bonnet soon set sail, and by now the pirate hunters were afloat as well. He hoped for a running fight in which he might escape, but with his enemy edging in on the Royal James on both quarters to board, Bonnet realized he was tactically at a disadvantage, so he tried to slip in close to the shore. But he ran aground—and thankfully for him so did both of the pirate hunters. The Henry with Rhett aboard was able to engage, but due to her list her deck was exposed to fire. The Sea-Nymph had run aground almost out-of-range and no position to engage. 

For five hours the Henry and Royal James fought aground until the Henry floated free, at which point “they stood for the Pirate to give the finishing stroke, and designed to go directly aboard him, which he prevented by sending a flag of truce.” Jailed in Charlestown with his crew, Bonnet soon escaped but was recaptured and, along with most of his crew, tried for piracy. Bonnet’s defense was that he his crew had forced him into piracy, and that the only captured ships he was associated with were those captured by Blackbeard when Bonnet was with him. The jury saw through this weak defense and convicted him. He was hanged on December 10, 1718.

Pirate chronicler Charles Johnson in his early eighteenth century history romanticized and partly excused Stede Bonnet as a man who in Barbados had been “generally esteemed and honored before he broke out into open acts of Piracy, so he was afterward rather pitied than condemned by those who were acquainted with him, believing that this humor of going a-pirating proceeded from a disorder of the mind which had been too visible in him some time before this wicked undertaking, and which is said to have been occasioned by some discomforts he found in the married state.”

Or perhaps Johnson was simply taking the opportunity to make a marriage joke. But no matter: Stede Bonnet’s exception to the rule of who pirates were not only proved it but broke it, and left the history of piracy far more colorful, tragic ending notwithstanding.