December 10th, 2019 marks the 301st anniversary of the hanging of “The Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet and his crew who were all captured during “the battle of the sandbars” in the Cape Fear River off of Southport NC!
Our image of the stereotype pirate is of something far away from that of a “gentleman” but one pirate stands out as just that.
Raised in a wealthy English family and given extensive education, Stede Bonnet was the most unlikely pirate of them all. Leaving his home country to take his wife and family abroad, Bonnet settled into a comfortable gentry life in Barbados. As a sugar plantation owner and man of means, his family quickly rose in the island’s high society. He even served their military with rank as an army major! No one grew the least suspicious when this man who knew nothing of life at sea began building a ship. Not just any vessel, it was a fast, sturdy craft that showed six small cannon. Bonnet explained that his ship was for trading and that he worried about pirates. He named her Revenge.
Generally speaking, most pirates do not pay to have their ships built. The usual course finds a new captain taking it by force, by mutiny or just normal theft. And none ever used their own money to personally hire men. They were, after all, pirates. As it turns out, Bonnet needed to pay a crew to go with him. He knew nothing about sailing! Even less about hiring sailors. The seventy men he recruited with high society silver were destitute souls dredged from the lowest taverns of Barbados.
Finally, preparations were done. On a moonless night, Bonnet’s Revenge slipped silently out to sea, his wife and family disappearing in her wake. Stede Bonnet was under way to his first cutthroat act off the shores of Virginia.
That pirate life began with a bang. Near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, Revenge took four unarmed ships. After looting them all, one from Barbados was abandoned and burned. It was a pattern Bonnet would follow the rest of his short career. Every vessel from Barbados captured would be looted, its passengers and crew marooned and the ship burned. He wanted no word of the deeds reaching his home.
For a time, Revenge sailed the American coast winning greater plunder. In fear of England’s justice on his family, Bonnet never used his given name. With his educated manner and gentry ways while looting the ships, victims came to call him “The Gentleman Pirate”. His crew came to a different title. Even though their take of treasure was good, resentment over taking orders from a land lubber like Bonnet grew. The winds of Bonnet’s success were about to change.
On course to Nassau, Revenge was surprised and nearly destroyed by a Spanish Man-of-War. Bonnet himself was seriously injured. Revenge barely escaped and put to port for repairs and a new crew. It was here that in 1717 Bonnet met William Teach, the infamous Blackbeard. Teach waisted no time in exploiting Bonnet’s injuries and weaknesses as a leader. His own men took charge of Bonnet’s rearmed ship while her wounded captain was held under “guest arrest” in Blackbeard’s vessel. Bonnet’s remaining men needed no urging to change captains.
Under Blackbeard’s flag, Bonnet’s crew plundered the American coast while he road out the adventure below deck. They joined Blackbeard for the immensely profitable blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. It was a week long siege that ended with all pirates on the run and the grounding of their ships on sandbars in North Carolina.
With English war ships closing in and their own ships disabled, a desperate Teach released Bonnet to plead for amnesty from the Governor in the near-by city of Bath. He promised Bonnet a full portion of treasure and the return of the Revenge if the Gentleman Pirate could get them all amnesty. Bonnet was eager to go, after weeks below deck, his health was failing.
Taking a small boat and few sailors, The Gentleman Pirate pleaded their case to North Carolina’s Governor. Speaking for the entire crew, he swore off the pirate’s life forever. Whether it was Bonnet’s persuasive speech, elevated demeanor or the promise of near-by treasure, history will never say but whatever the reason, every pirate that raided Charleston was given full pardon!
An overjoyed gentleman ex-pirate hurried back to the sandbar. Instead of a hero’s welcome, Bonnet was greeted with the faces of the few remaining injured crew and the emptied hulks of their ships. True to his reputation, Blackbeard had double crossed them all! He used the time Bonnet was away to gather all the treasure into smaller boats and escaped without a trace.
Enraged, Bonnet swore unyielding revenge. Rigging the remains of his ship, he set out after the treacherous Teach but never caught up. Bonnet threw his papers of amnesty to the waves and quickly returned to the pirate’s way. It was a short trip.
At the mouth of the Cape Fear River, off the coast of a modest town called Southport in North Carolina, Bonnet was captured in his final battle. Near a stream just outside that town is a small metal plaque that reads:
“BONNET’S CREEK…Stede Bonnet, the ‘Gentleman Pirate’, used the mouth of this creek as a hideout for his vessel, The Royal James formerly called Revenge. Here on September 26, 1718, the great battle of the Sand Bars was fought between the pirates and the men sent to capture them under the command of Col. William Rhett aboard the Henry and Sea Nymph. After a twenty-four hour battle there were nineteen men killed, twenty-three wounded, and Bonnet, with the remains of his pirate crew, surrendered. On November 8, 1718, twenty-nine pirates were hanged in Charleston, S.C.”
Weeks later, Bonnet climbed those same executioner’s steps holding a cluster of flowers in his manacled hands to join his crew at the swinging end of “old stretch”. He was a full pirate at last.