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Major Stede Bonnet was perhaps one of the most unlikely pirates to have existed, known around the Caribbean as the 'Gentleman Pirate' due to his earlier life. He was probably not cut out for the life he led, even if he did become reasonably successful at it.
Stede Bonnet was probably born in England around 1680. It is likely he was born to an educated but not hugely wealthy family, as he became an officer in His Majesty's army and eventually attained the rank of Major. This was at a time when promotion could only be gained through filling 'dead men's shoes'1 or by purchasing a new rank. If he'd come from a wealthy family or had money of his own, it is likely he'd have bought his rank in a European-based regiment, so Bonnet probably was not rich. His stationing in the Caribbean meant that he was either ambitious or unlucky. In the 17th Century the Caribbean was a bad posting. Diseases like Yellow Fever were rampant and whole units were wiped out due to it. A poorer officer in the Caribbean could thus gain promotion much more rapidly than he would in Europe by filling the positions left by dead superiors. He could equally have been unlucky; many rich men would buy a high rank and join a European unit, and then have their luck turn against them and have the unit posted overseas. We do not exactly know what happened to Bonnet and how he ended up in Barbados, but we do know he retired from the army there.
Bonnet retired as a Major from the Kings Guard and became a sugar plantation owner in Barbados. He was an educated man and was well liked in society until some time around 1717, when he decided to abandon the well-respected role of plantation owner and run away to sea as a pirate2. Bonnet bought a small sloop with his own money and named it the Revenge, outfitted it with ten cannons and, even though he knew nothing of sailing, hired a crew of some 70 men3. He remained in Barbados harbour until one night, without anyone knowing, he slipped out to sea and headed north to patrol the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas. At first he was reasonably successful, capturing and plundering two ships which he burnt after capture. However, the crew soon started getting restless as they realised Bonnet's lack of seamanship would not result in huge rewards.
Before anything could happen with his crew, Bonnet sighted the pirate ship the Queen Anne's Revenge captained by the infamous Edward Teach - Blackbeard. The two captains agreed to work together until Blackbeard realised that Bonnet was no sailor. Teach convinced Bonnet that it would be much more productive for the pair if one of his own lieutenants took control of the Revenge. This really meant that Teach was just increasing the size of his fleet and Bonnet became a virtual prisoner on the Anne. Bonnet did not have much to do on Blackbeard's ship but was on board during Blackbeard's famous siege of Charleston. Eventually in 1718 the Governor of North Carolina, Charles Eden, issued a proclamation stating that any pirate could personally apply for a pardon. Blackbeard and Bonnet immediately left for Bath in North Carolina to receive their own pardons. Blackbeard beached the Anne and persuaded Bonnet to take a small dinghy into Bath. When the newly-pardoned Bonnet returned to the fleet he discovered that Blackbeard had abandoned the rotten Anne on the shoals and left Bonnet his old ship the Revenge. Meanwhile he had removed all the treasure from the Anne's hold and transferred it to another ship, the Adventure. Blackbeard had then sailed away, leaving Bonnet with nothing. Bonnet was furious at this treachery and swore revenge.
As a result, even though Bonnet had a new pardon and a Letter of Marque making him a legal privateer, able to prey on any Spanish ship he came across, he returned to piracy. His time with Blackbeard obviously made a difference, as he managed to capture around ten ships. Bonnet at this time was sailing under many different assumed names in a ship known as the Royal James, but things were starting to go wrong. The pirate Charles Vane had been causing problems through his preying on vessels near Charleston. The Governor of South Carolina decided to get rid of Vane so he outfitted two ships, the 8-gun, 70-men sloop called the Henry and the 8-gun, 60-men sloop the Sea Nymph. The two ships were commanded by Colonel William Rhett. Rhett sailed in search of Vane but was unsuccessful until late September 1718 when he discovered three pirate ships anchored in the Cape Fear river. A battle soon started and lasted for around five long hours, until eventually the pirates raised the white flag of surrender. Rhett boarded the ships, expecting to capture Vane, only to discover it was the Royal James along with two other ships all commanded by Bonnet. Bonnet and the crew were captured and transported to Charleston.
The End of Stede Bonnet
Piracy was a real problem in the early 1700s and all 34 captured pirates were put on trial on 28 October, 1718. The trial lasted for two weeks, and on 12 November Judge Nicholas Trot gave a long speech criticising that a moral and cultured man such as Bonnet should turn to piracy. He then proceeded to condemn 30 out of the 34 pirates to death, including Stede Bonnet. Bonnet launched an appeal while in prison and even managed to escape briefly while disguised as a woman, but it was all to no avail. Major Stede Bonnet was hanged until dead on 10 December, 1718.
What made such an educated, well-respected member of the Bridgetown, Barbados community become a pirate is unknown. Perhaps he was genuinely suffering from lunacy. Perhaps he did have a nagging wife to run from, or maybe it was just a mid-life crisis and a search for adventure. It is unlikely we will ever know for sure. What we can say is that while Major Stede Bonnet was not really cut out for the choices he made in life, the 'Gentleman Pirate' certainly left his mark for posterity.