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Stede Bonnet and the Golden Age of Piracy: Part Two

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The following is a guest post by Danielle Herring, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the School of Information at Florida State University. She has previously written The Hands that Spun the American Revolution.

This blog article continues the story of Stede Bonnet, “the gentleman pirate,” from The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and other Pirates held in the Law Library of Congress digital collections. When we last left Stede Bonnet, he had taken up piracy again in 1718 after being pardoned by King George I and then marooned by Blackbeard with his crew. Using an alias for himself and his sloop, he attacked 11 ships in two months.

Already suffering from previous attacks and blockades by other pirates, the governor of South Carolina, Robert Johnson, was determined to respond. With a provincial naval force and two armed sloops, Henry and the Sea Nymph, commanded by Colonel William Rhett, Governor Johnson was determined to hunt down Stede Bonnet and any other pirates that plagued his coast. The armed ships commanded by Rhett caught up to Bonnet’s sloop and two captured ships in September of 1718 in the Cape Fear River. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. iv)

An intense battle raged for six hours between Bonnet and Colonel Rhett, ending with the surrender of Bonnet and his surviving crew. Rhett returned with Bonnet and his crew as prisoners to Charleston, South Carolina, to stand trial. The document reveals that while awaiting trial, Bonnet briefly escaped on October 24, before being recaptured Colonel Rhett on November 6, 1718. The trials for 35 surviving members of his crew began in October of 1718. Bonnet’s trial began in November of 1718. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. vi)

An image of the page that begins the trial of Major Stede Bonnet and other pirates (names listed) who were all condemned for piracy.
Title page of The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and Other Pirates 1719. London. //

From the trial document, it is revealed that instead of one trial, there was a series of individual trials of crew members held in rapid succession. Stede Bonnet was arraigned and tried separately from his crew. The legal setting for piracy trials and other maritime legal disputes in South Carolina was the Admiralty Court, a separate court from other courts in the colony, where civil and criminal cases relating to maritime law were adjudicated. At the time of the trial of Stede Bonnet and his crew, the judge of this court was Nicholas Trott, known for shaping the legal definition of piracy. The document The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet became a foundational document in legal proceedings about piracy, defining piracy as: “[A] Robbery committed upon the Sea, and a Pirate is a Sea-Thief.” (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 3)

The prosecutor was Attorney General Richard Allein, representing the King’s interests in legal affairs at sea. In the trial transcript, there were 23 jurors listed who heard the prosecution’s case. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 7) The preface indicates considerable research had been done in regard to previous and current laws related to the crime of piracy. The thoroughness of the research and the investigation of the crimes Stede Bonnet was accused of is indicative of how aware the prosecution was of the scrutiny they would face from their own government in the administration of this trial.

The transcript shows that the indictments of Stede Bonnet and his crew were presented to the jury first. Collectively, there were nine indictments and two separate charges for each stolen ship. Stede Bonnet and his crew were charged with feloniously and piratically taking the sloop Francis and the sloop Fortune, including the theft of all the goods the ships were carrying. Transcripts show that the jury endorsed all of the indictments as Billa vera. In 18th-century law, endorsing an indictment as a Billa vera, meaning ‘a true bill’, indicated that the jury found the indictments presented by the prosecution to be supported by sufficient evidence. The transcripts of the trial were provided in sequential order in the document, with Bonnet’s crew standing trial first. The majority of the crew pleaded not guilty to the charges. Only three of the Stede Bonnet’s crew pleaded guilty –James Wilson, Daniel Perry, and John Levit. Unlike modern trials, defendants were not provided with attorneys and were expected to make their own cases.  On November 6, 1718, the trial of Bonnet’s crew concluded. Four were found not guilty and released –Thomas Nichols, Rowland Sharp, John or Jonathan Clarke, and Thomas Gerrard. However, 29 of Bonnet’s crew were found guilty. The transcripts include the sentencing of these men:

The sentence that the law hath appointed to pass upon you for your offences, and which this court doth therefore award is, that you the said Robert Tucker, Edward Robinson, Neal Paterson, William Scot, Job Bayley, John-William Smith, Thomas Carman, John Thomas, William Morrison, William Livers alias Evis, Samuel Booth, William Hewet, John Levit, William Eddy alias Nedy, Alexander Annand, George Ross, George Dunkin, John Ridge, Matthew King, Daniel Perry, Henry Virgin, James Robbins, James Mullet alias Millet, Thomas Price, John Lopez, Zachariah Long, James Wilson, John Brierly, and Robert Boyd, shall go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you shall be severally hanged by the neck, till you are severally dead. And the God of infinite mercy be merciful to every one of your souls. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 36)

By the time Stede Bonnet’s crew had been tried and sentenced, his trial was just beginning. He faced the same judge and prosecutor as his crew. Like his crew, Bonnet was also charged with the taking of Francis and Fortune as well as the goods both ships were carrying. He was tried first for taking the sloop Francis and the goods on board the ship, a charge to which he pleaded not guilty. Twelve jurors were sworn in, their names listed in the trial transcript. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 1)

The prosecution named Stede Bonnet as the ringleader to all of the piracy that they had already convicted his crew of committing. The prosecution made the claim that Bonnet had also drawn others into a life of piracy, namely men who were less educated and living in impoverished conditions, who had now been executed for following him in committing piracy.

A witness to previous piracy committed by Bonnet was called to testify by the prosecution, Ignatius Pell, one of his former crew who had agreed to give testimony for the prosecution in return for clemency. (Butler, p. 67) Ignatius Pell’s testimony places Bonnet at the scene of the crime. However, Pell also claimed that though Stede Bonnet was called captain by his crew, it was their ship’s quartermaster who held the most power amongst them and was the one responsible for removing and distributing goods stolen from the ship.

Then the two captains of the sloops Stede Bonnet had been charged with taking were also questioned by the prosecution. As his own advocate, Bonnet also had the opportunity to question the witnesses brought to testify for the prosecution and make arguments against their testimony. Captain Manwareing of the sloop Francis first provided testimony of witnessing Bonnet removing goods from his sloop. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 13)

Cross-examined by Bonnet, the captain was questioned as to whether or not he heard Bonnet giving the order to remove goods from Francis. Captain Manwareing countered by stating that even though he had not heard Bonnet give any orders, he strongly believed that Stede Bonnet had been the one responsible for his losses at sea. Manwareing’s emotional testimony of his great financial losses and its impact on his family as a result of the piracy committed against him seemed to stop any further questioning from Bonnet. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 13)

The prosecution called additional witnesses who had heard Stede Bonnet give the orders to take the ship and its goods. In addition to cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses, Stede Bonnet was permitted to call witnesses for his own defense. A witness brought by Bonnet, a man named James King, claimed that Bonnet had a privateering commission, but the judge and prosecution remained unconvinced. The trial transcript contains Bonnet’s own statements in defense against the charges. Bonnet claimed that he never gave orders to attack any of the vessels he was charged with taking and pinned the blame squarely on his crew and on Blackbeard for any piracy he was accused of committing, even claiming to be asleep at the time of the taking of Francis. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 40)

In spite of his efforts to defend himself, the jury was unconvinced. Found guilty of the first charge, and facing yet another trial with the same likely outcome, Bonnet changed his plea to guilty to the second charge. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 41) At the sentencing on November 12, 1718, Judge Trott made a fiery speech that seemed to be part sermon and part admonishment for Bonnet’s previous acts of piracy before taking Francis and Fortune, the misuse of his advantages of welath and education, and for receiving a pardon only to return to piracy shortly after. Like his crew, he was sentenced to death by hanging.

That you, the said Stede Bonnet, shall go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck till you are dead. And the God of infinite Mercy be merciful on your soul. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, 43)

Historical accounts of Stede Bonnet’s reaction to the verdict was one of shock. (Cordingly, p. 19) He attempted to have his sentence commuted, writing a letter to the governor after he was sentenced. No pardon was granted this time. The trial transcript confirms his execution on December 10, 1718, containing the note: “On Wednesday December the 10th, 1718, the said Major Stede Bonnet was executed at the White-Point near Charles-Town, according to the above Sentence.” (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. 43)

Stede Bonnet and his crew were executed on White Point, which was a public landmark, and made the corpses of the pirates highly visible to any incoming boats. In 1943, Charleston’s historical commission placed a marker on White Point documenting the execution of Stede Bonnet, his crew, and other pirates.

A rectangular stone with the square inscription: near this spot in the autumn of 1719 Stede Bonnet, notororious "Gentleman Pirate" and twenty nine of his men, captured by Colonel William Rhett, met their just deserts after a trial and charge, famous in American history, by Chief Justice Nicholas Trott. Later nineteen of Richard Worley's crew, caputured by governor Robert Johnson, were also found guilty and hanged. All were buried off White Point Gardens in the marsh beyond low water mark.
White Point Garden Pirate Monument in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by flickr user Wally Gobetz, May 1, 2013. User Under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The trial and execution of Stede Bonnet and his crew, along with the death of Blackbeard and other mass executions of pirate crews during the same time period marked the end of the Golden Age of Piracy. However, privateering returned as a profitable business again during the American Revolution, privateers making up much of the colonial resistance by sea. (Butler, p. 13)

After the Revolution ended, the same cycle of privateers turning pirate resumed as before, and concern with piracy was reflected in new laws. In 1790, an act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States was passed by Congress (1 Stat. 112). This act included anti-piracy laws, showing that crimes at sea continued to plague the new nation.

If you would like to know more about Stede Bonnet, the Golden Age of Piracy, or 18th-century piracy in the Americas, you may wish to consult these selected resources:

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