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, from an early 18th century engraving made
by an artist who had never seen him.
Troubled In Life
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.
Meeting The Nassau Pirates
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.
The Hanging Of The Gentleman Pirate
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.