Major Stede Bonnet (1688-1718) was known as the Gentleman Pirate. Most of the men associated with the Golden Age of Piracy were reluctant pirates. They were desperate but skilled sailors and brawlers who either could not find honest work or who were driven to piracy by the inhuman conditions on board merchant or navy ships at the time. Some, like "Black Bart" Roberts, were captured by pirates, forced to join, and then found the life to their liking. Bonnet is the exception: he was a wealthy planter in Barbados who decided to outfit a pirate ship and set sail for riches and adventure. It is for this reason that he is often referred to as "the Gentleman Pirate."
Stede Bonnet was born in 1688 to a family of wealthy English landowners on the island of Barbados. His father died when Stede was only six years old, and he inherited the family estates. He married a local girl, Mary Allamby, in 1709. They had four children, of which three survived to adulthood. Bonnet served as a major in the Barbados militia, but it is doubtful that he had much training or experience. Sometime in early 1717, Bonnet decided to abandon his life on Barbados completely and turn to a life of piracy. Why he did is unknown for certain, but Captain Charles Johnson, a contemporary, claimed that Bonnet found “some discomforts in a married state” and that his “disorder of mind” was well known to the citizens of Barbados.
Bonnet purchased a seaworthy ten-gun sloop, named her the Revenge, and set sail. He apparently implied to local authorities that he was planning on serving as a privateer or even a pirate-hunter while he equipped his vessel. He hired a crew of 70 men, making it clear to them that they would be pirates, and found himself some skilled officers to run the ship, as he himself had no knowledge of sailing or pirating. He had a comfortable cabin, which he filled with his favorite books. His crew thought him eccentric and had little respect for him.
Piracy Along the Eastern Seaboard
Bonnet jumped into piracy with both feet, quickly attacking and taking several prizes along the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas to New York in summer of 1717. He turned most of them loose after plundering them but burned a ship from Barbados because he didn't want news of his new career to reach his home. Sometime in August or September, they sighted a mighty Spanish man-of-war and Bonnet ordered an attack. The pirates were driven off, their ship was badly beaten and half of the crew dead. Bonnet himself was badly injured.
Collaboration with Blackbeard
Not long afterward, Bonnet met Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, who was just then setting out as a pirate captain in his own right after having served for some time under the legendary pirate Benjamin Hornigold. Bonnet's men begged the capable Blackbeard to take over the Revenge from the unstable Bonnet. Blackbeard was only too happy to oblige, as the Revenge was a good ship. He kept Bonnet on board as a guest, which seemed to suit the still-recovering Bonnet just fine. According to the captain of a ship plundered by the pirates, Bonnet would walk the deck in his nightgown, reading books and muttering to himself.
The Protestant Caesar
Sometime in spring of 1718, Bonnet struck out on his own again. By then Blackbeard had acquired the mighty ship Queen Anne's Revenge and didn't really need Bonnet anymore. On March 28, 1718, Bonnet once again bit off more than he could chew, attacking a well-armed merchantman named the Protestant Caesar off the coast of Honduras. Again, he lost the battle and his crew was extremely restless. When the encountered Blackbeard again soon after, Bonnet's men and officers begged him to take command. Blackbeard obliged, putting a loyal man named Richards in charge of the Revenge and "inviting" Bonnet to stay on board the Queen Anne's Revenge.
Split with Blackbeard
In June of 1718, the Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground off the coast of North Carolina. Bonnet was sent with a handful of men to the town of Bath to try and arrange a pardon for the pirates if they would give up their thievery. He was successful, but when he returned he found that Blackbeard had double-crossed him, sailing off with some of the men and all of the loot. He had marooned the remainder of the men nearby, but Bonnet rescued them. Bonnet swore revenge, but never again saw Blackbeard (which was probably just as well for Bonnet).
Captain Thomas Alias
Bonnet rescued the men and set sail once again in the Revenge. He had no treasure or even food, so they needed to return to piracy. He wished to preserve his pardon, however, so he changed the name of the Revenge to the Royal James and referred to himself as Captain Thomas to his victims. He still didn't know anything about sailing and the de facto commander was quartermaster Robert Tucker. From July to September of 1718 was the high point of Bonnet's piratical career, as he captured several vessels off of the Atlantic seaboard.
Capture, Trial, and Execution
Bonnet's luck ran out on September 27, 1718. A patrol of pirate bounty hunters under the command of Colonel William Rhett (who was actually looking for Charles Vane) spotted Bonnet in the Cape Fear River inlet with two of his prizes. Bonnet tried to fight his way out, but Rhett managed to corner the pirates and capture them after a five-hour battle. Bonnet and his crew were sent to Charleston, where they were put on trial for piracy. They were all found guilty. 22 pirates were hanged on November 8, 1718, and more were hanged on November 13. Bonnet appealed to the governor for clemency and there was some discussion of sending him to England, but in the end, he, too, was hanged on December 10, 1718.
Legacy of Stede Bonnet
Stede Bonnet's story is a sad one. He must have been a very unhappy man indeed on his prosperous Barbados plantation in order to chuck it all for the life of a pirate. Part of his inexplicable decision was leaving his family behind. After he set sail in 1717, they never saw one another again. Was Bonnet lured by the supposedly "romantic" life of the pirates? Was he nagged into it by his wife? Or was it all due to the "disorder of mind" that so many of his Barbados contemporaries noted in him? It's impossible to tell, but his eloquent plea for compassion to the governor seems to imply genuine regret and contrition.
Bonnet wasn't much of a pirate. When they were working with others, such as Blackbeard or Robert Tucker, his crews managed to capture some genuine prizes, but Bonnet's solo commands were marked by failure and poor decision making, such as attacking a fully armed Spanish man-o-war. He did not have a lasting impact on commerce or trade.
The pirate flag usually attributed to Stede Bonnet is black with a white skull in the center. Below the skull is a horizontal bone, and on either side of the skull are a dagger and a heart. It is not known for certain that this is Bonnet's flag, although he is known to have flown one in battle.
Bonnet is remembered today by pirate historians and aficionados mostly for two reasons. First of all, he is associated with the legendary Blackbeard and is a part of that pirate's larger story. Second, Bonnet was born wealthy, and as such is one of the extremely few pirates who deliberately chose that lifestyle. He had many options in his life, yet he chose piracy.
- Cordingly, David. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996
- Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.
- Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2009