Monday, November 2, 2009

Pathetic Pirates: The Gentleman Pirate

When I think of pathetic pirates - and as we've seen there have been plenty - today's is the one who comes to mind first. He didn't necessarily start the trend but he sure did it up big. Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate. As you'll see, gentleman and pirate just don't mix no matter what those romance authors would have you believe.

Bonnet was an officer in the King's Army. By 1717 he was retired and settled down on his spacious Barbados plantation, a wealthy society man with all the outward signs of a perfect life. The story goes that all was not joyous in paradise, though. Evidently Stede was a henpecked husband who some say was driven crazy by the constant nagging of his wife. Others say he was just plane crazy. What ever the reason, Bonnet purchased a sloop of ten guns, hired 70 men and snuck out of his house one evening never to return. His ship sailed from Barbados in 1717 under a black flag.

Bonnet was completely incapable as a seaman and constantly seasick once his ship got out into the Caribbean. Despite this, he managed to take prizes and sell the goods in and around Long Island, Virginia and the Carolinas. At some point in early 1718 Bonnet's ship Revenge met up with Edward Teach's Queen Anne's Revenge and the Captain's agreed to work the Carolina coast together. Blackbeard, probably seeing that Bonnet was no sailor, put one of his own men in charge of Revenge and made Stede a virtual prisoner aboard Queen Anne's Revenge. Prizes were taken by the truckload but Stede never saw a cent out of them. Eventually Teach, either bored or fed up, put Bonnet back on his own ship and sailed away.

Bonnet's men were tired of him too and most deserted when Revenge put in to Charleston. Stede decided to take the pardon for pirates being offered by the King of England at the time but he wasn't done with the sea. He had it in for Edward Teach now. The Governor Johnson of Carolina suggested Bonnet make his way to St. Thomas Island where privateer commissions were being handed out against Spain. Bonnet agreed, rounded up more likely crewmen, and changed not only his ship's name to Royal James but his name to Captain Thomas. He was back at sea in short order. Instead of seeking a commission, though, Bonnet went in search of Blackbeard.

Royal James took six or seven prizes in the fall of 1718 but she never ran into Queen Anne's Revenge. In late October, Bonnet took his ship up the Cape Fear River and anchored there for repairs. The people of Charleston, on hearing that a pirate was on their shores, went into a panic. They had only recently been held virtual hostages by Teach and they weren't going through that again! On November 4th the Governor sent William Rhett to Cape Fear with two armed British sloops, Henry and Sea Nymph.

Characteristically for Bonnet, the engagement went worse than badly. The tide was heading out as Rhett entered the river and all three sloops foundered on sandbars. Henry and Royal James fired broadsides but Henry regained the water first. Royal James was overcome and her people taken to Charleston as prisoners.

A few days later Bonnet and his first lieutenant managed to escape but they were quickly recaptured. When the judge asked Bonnet at his trial why he had turned pirate, Bonnet refused to answer. The judge sentenced he and 30 of his men to hang. He died clutching a nosegay as a sign of repentance. Stede Bonnet, gentleman pirate - pathetic to the very end.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Perhaps the "worst pirate EVER"??? I guess time will tell. I'm betting you'll come up with someone even more pathetic though...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! You gotta feel a little sorry for ol' Stede Bonnet. Even his name was pathetic.