Stede Bonnet (1688 – 1718)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

A former planter turned brigand, Stede Bonnet was a second generation Barbadian who sailed throughout the Caribbean and the North Atlantic committing piracy. His leadership and management styles were atypical for a buccaneer. He was known as the “Gentleman Pirate.”  More than once, he docked at a spot in the Cape Fear Inlet to careen periodically his Revenge.  It was here that he was initially captured and then transferred to Charleston, South Carolina to be prosecuted.

Bonnet’s piracy had a most unusual beginning. Most pirates became captains after they had captured a vessel or after they emerged as a leader among an existing crew.  Bonnet, however, abandoned his family—wife and three children (two boys and one girl)—and embarked on an adventure that he soon regretted.  He purchased his vessel, the Revenge, and six cannons to arm it, and he recruited and employed a crew and paid them a salary. 

Bonnet and his crew first sailed up and down what is now the Atlantic seaboard of the United States.  After six months of looting, he careened the Revenge at a hideout in the Cape Fear Inlet.  (Careening is turning a vessel on its side in order to clean or repair it; this was necessary maintenance).  

When the necessary repairs were made, Bonnet sailed back to Nassau and the Revenge and crew encountered a Spanish Man of War.  In the subsequent conflict, Bonnet was hurt and the crew sailed a crippled ship back to the port. There, Bonnet met Benjamin Hornigold and Blackbeard and agreed to let the latter, an observant manipulator, command the Revenge while he recovered. Blackbeard noticed that the Revenge crew lacked respect for Bonnet, their captain. 

After Bonnet and his crew had mended their wounds and tended the ship, they once again plundered trade on the high seas, but they soon suffered an inglorious defeat. Humiliated, Bonnet and the Revenge sailed to Belize. There they saw Blackbeard and his Queen Anne’s Revenge.  Bonnet’s crew complained about their leader’s “personality weaknesses and poor seamanship,” writes historian Lindley Butler.  

In a few days, Blackbeard tricked Bonnet and assumed command of the Revenge.  A crew of 400 men and 3 ships raided the high seas and sailed to Beaufort for a respite. Sailing into the Beaufort Inlet, two boats were grounded on sandbars. Questions remain whether the grounding of the boats was accidental or intentional. Either way, while a somewhat regretful Bonnet sought a pardon from the Royal Governor of North Carolina, Charles Eden, Blackbeard seized the opportunity to escape in a Spanish ship with the loot.  Only five men remained on Bonnet’s Revenge

A pardoned Bonnet sought revenge. Under aliases such as Captain Edwards and Captain Thomas, he and an assembled crew of forty sailed after Blackbeard. After learning that Blackbeard had fled Ocracoke, Bonnet turned his attention to raiding the Atlantic seaboard. He captured several large vessels and divided the treasure equally among his crew.

Meanwhile, Colonel William Rhett of Charleston, South Carolina, searched for pirates who had harassed the beleaguered port and plundered its shipping.  Rhett found Bonnet and crew careening their boat in the Cape Fear Inlet.  After a six-hour battle, Bonnet was captured and transported to Charleston. 

There, Bonnet escaped jail, but a few days later, he and a few other pirates were captured at Sullivan’s Island and returned to jail. The judge dismissed Bonnet’s defense and the Gentleman Pirate was sentenced to death. 

On December 10, 1718, Bonnet swung from a Charleston gallows. Some in the crowd reportedly felt pity as the once proud man, with drooping head, walked up to the gallows, with shackled hands holding a bouquet. 

After Bonnet’s death, North Carolina captains participated in inter-Atlantic trade without pirates’ plundering.