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Stede Bonnet: new evidence for his embarkation into piracy


Despite its many shortcomings, those researching the Golden Age pirates are sometimes forced to rely on The General History of the Pyrates (1724) for lack of alternatives. We do so reluctantly because there are plenty of erroneous or embelished passages in this benchmark history, which was written while some of the pirates were still alive. However, many sections of this book have been proven entirely accurate by corroborating evidence; indeed, the author of the General History clearly had priviledged access to official colonial and military documents when preparing his manuscript, as he often lifted from them word-for-word. In the absence of outside conformation, smetimes researchers have gone on a gut feeling, whether something "fits" with the rest of what we know about a particular pirates.

The "gentleman pirate" Stede Bonnet offers a case in point. Trial records, letters from colonial officials, and parish records from Barbados confirm many aspects of his life story, including his birth and marriage in Barbados, his priviledged background, incompetence as a mariner and pirate, and the shame and misgivings he had about his dual failures as planter and pirate. But one colorful story from the General History has eluded confirmation: Bonnet's covert departure from Barbados to begin his piracy career.

It's a story, aspects of which can now be confirmed.

The General History claims that Bonnet "fitted out a sloop with ten guns and 70 men, entirely at his own expense, and in the night-time sailed from Barbados." From the context of other events in his career, it appears to have taken place in the spring of 1717.

In September, I had the opportunity to revisit the British National Archives outside London and, in the letters of Captain Benjamin Candler of the HMS Winchelsea, found the following intelligence. "There is also or has been lately over on the [North American] Coast, a pirate sloop from Barbados commanded by one Major Bonnet, who has an Estate on that island," Candler wrote his superiors in London in the summer of 1717. "The sloop is his own. This advice I had from a letter from thence, that in April last [1717] he ran away out of Carlisle Bay in the night and had aboard 126 men and 6 guns... and ammunition enough."

The account confirms that Bonnet built the Revenge, snuck her out of port in the spring of 1717 when she was fully fitted with men and weapons -- even more men than previously thought.

-- Colin Woodard

(Jump to The Republic of Pirates website.)


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