The Gentleman Pirate

How Stede Bonnet went from wealthy landowner to villain on the sea

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When Blackbeard docked his fleet in North Carolina, Bonnet went ashore and returned to find that Blackbeard had stripped and abandoned the Revenge and marooned some 25 crewmembers on a small island. Bonnet took his ship back, picked up the men, and resumed his piratical pursuits, this time with the goal of punishing Blackbeard. Unfortunately, Blackbeard had a head start, so Bonnet had to content himself with seizing merchant vessels. His skills had improved since he had first embarked, and by abusing his crew, killing prisoners and threatening civilians, Bonnet eventually gained a fearsome reputation of his own.

As word spread about the Gentleman Pirate, the governor of South Carolina commissioned Colonel William Rhett to capture him. In August of 1718, Rhett cornered Bonnet at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and after a violent firefight he managed to arrest the pirates. Though the hotheaded Bonnet declared he would blow up himself and the ship before he would surrender, his men overruled him and gave themselves up as prisoners. In custody, Bonnet tried to take advantage of his upper-class background in appealing to the governor for mercy and blaming everything on Blackbeard. His trial dragged out long after his men had been hanged, and the trial transcript is "one of the most valuable historical records we have about Bonnet and Blackbeard," says David Moore. Finally convicted of piracy, Stede Bonnet was hanged on December 10, 1718, after less than two years of adventure on the high seas.

Bonnet's execution came a month after Blackbeard had met his own bloody end in battle with the British Royal Navy. By the 1720s, the golden age of piracy was over. Captain Bartholomew Roberts, a contemporary of Blackbeard and Bonnet, declared "a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto," and, as it turned out, that's exactly what happened to most pirates. Though Bonnet's career was beset with misfortune and his life not always merry, he likely had more fun plundering ships than he would have had at home on his quiet plantation. Whatever his motives for becoming the Gentleman Pirate, Stede Bonnet's name would not live on today had he simply been a gentleman.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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