Major Stede BONNET, alias Captain Thomas, alias Edwards.
The history of this pirate is both interesting and unique. He was not brought up to the seafaring life; in fact, before he took to piracy, he had already retired from the Army, with the rank of Major. He owned substantial landed property in Barbadoes, lived in a fine house, was married, and much respected by the quality and gentry of that island. His turning pirate naturally greatly scandalized his neighbours, and they found it difficult at first to imagine whatever had caused this sudden and extraordinary resolution, particularly in a man of his position in Society. But when the cause at last came to be known, he was more pitied than blamed, for it was understood that the Major's mind had become unbalanced owing to the unbridled nagging of Mrs. Bonnet. Referring to this, the historian Captain Johnson writes as follows: "He was afterwards rather pitty'd than condemned, by those that were acquainted with him, believing that this Humour of going a-pyrating proceeded from a Disorder in his Mind, which had been but too visible in him, some Time before this wicked Undertaking; and which is said to have been occasioned by some Discomforts he found in a married State; be that as it will, the Major was but ill qualified for the Business, as not understanding maritime Affairs." Whatever the cause of the Major's "disorder of mind," the fact remains that at his own expense he fitted out a sloop armed with ten guns and a crew of seventy men. The fact that he honestly paid in cash for this ship is highly suspicious of a deranged mind, since no other pirate, to the writer's knowledge, ever showed such a nicety of feeling, but always stole the ship in which to embark "on the account." The Major, to satisfy the curious, gave out that he intended to trade between the islands, but one night, without a word of farewell to Mrs. Bonnet, he sailed out of harbour in the Revenge, as he called his ship, and began to cruise off the coast of Virginia. For a rank amateur, Bonnet met with wonderful success, as is shown by a list of the prizes he took and plundered in this first period of his piracy:
The Anne, of Glasgow (Captain Montgomery).
The Turbet, of Barbadoes, which, after plundering, he burnt, as he did all prizes from Barbadoes.
The Endeavour (Captain Scott).
The Young, of Leith.
The plunder out of these ships he sold at Gardiner Island, near New York.
Cruising next off the coast of Carolina, Bonnet took a brace of prizes, but began to have trouble with his unruly crew, who, seeing that their captain knew nothing whatever of sea affairs, took advantage of the fact and commenced to get out of hand. Unluckily for Bonnet, he at this time met with the famous Captain Teach, or Blackbeard, and the latter, quickly appreciating how matters stood, ordered the Major to come aboard his own ship, while he put his lieutenant, Richards, to command Bonnet's vessel. The poor Major was most depressed by this undignified change in his affairs, until Blackbeard lost his ship in Topsail Inlet, and finding himself at a disadvantage, promptly surrendered to the King's proclamation and allowed Bonnet to reassume command of his own sloop. But Major Bonnet had been suffering from qualms of conscience latterly, so he sailed to Bath Town in North Carolina, where he, too, surrendered to the Governor and received his certificate of pardon. Almost at once news came of war being declared between England and France with Spain, so Bonnet hurried back to Topsail, and was granted permission to take back his sloop and sail her to St. Thomas's Island, to receive a commission as a privateer from the French Governor of that island. But in the meanwhile Teach had robbed everything of any value out of Bonnet's ship, and had marooned seventeen of the crew on a sandy island, but these were rescued by the Major before they died of starvation. Just as the ship was ready to sail, a bumboat came alongside to sell apples and cider to the sloop's crew, and from these they got an interesting piece of news. They learnt that Teach, with a crew of eighteen men, was at that moment lying at anchor in Ocricock Inlet. The Major, longing to revenge the insult he had suffered from Blackbeard, and his crew remembering how he had left them to die on a desert island, went off in search of Teach, but failed to find him. Stede Bonnet having received his pardon in his own name, now called himself Captain Thomas and again took to piracy, and evidently had benefited by his apprenticeship with Blackbeard, for he was now most successful, taking many prizes off the coast of Virginia, and later in Delaware Bay.
Bonnet now sailed in a larger ship, the Royal James, so named from feelings of loyalty to the Crown. But she proved to be very leaky, and the pirates had to take her to the mouth of Cape Fear River for repairs. News of this being carried to the Council of South Carolina, arrangements were made to attempt to capture the pirate, and a Colonel William Rhet, at his own expense, fitted out two armed sloops, the Henry (eight guns and seventy men) and the Sea Nymph (eight guns and sixty men), both sailing under the direct command of the gallant Colonel. On September 25th, 1718, the sloops arrived at Cape Fear River, and there sure enough was the Royal James, with three sloops lying at anchor behind the bar. The pirate tried to escape by sailing out, but was followed by the Colonel's two vessels until all three ran aground within gunshot of each other. A brisk fight took place for five hours, when the Major struck his colours and surrendered. There was great public rejoicing in Charleston when, on October 3rd, Colonel Rhet sailed victoriously into the harbour with his prisoners. But next day Bonnet managed to escape out of prison and sailed to Swillivant's Island. The indefatigable Colonel Rhet again set out after the Major, and again caught him and brought him back to Charleston.
The trial of Stede Bonnet and his crew began on October 28th, 1718, at Charleston, and continued till November 12th, the Judge being Nicholas Trot. Bonnet was found guilty and condemned to be hanged. Judge Trot made a speech of overwhelming length to the condemned, full of Biblical quotations, to each of which the learned magistrate gave chapter and verse. In November, 1718, the gallant, if unfortunate, Major was hanged at White Point, Charleston.
Apart from the unusual cause for his turning pirate, Bonnet is interesting as being almost the only case known, otherwise than in books of romance, of a pirate making his prisoners walk the plank.
Taken from The Pirates' Who's Who:Giving Particulars Of The Lives and Deaths Of The Pirates And Buccaneers by Philip Gosse. Originally published by Burt Franklin of 235 East 44th St., New York 10017 in 1924 and in the public domain.