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Stede Bonnet and the Golden Age of Piracy: Part One

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.

Depictions of Stede Bonnet the pirate captain have recurred across various media for over 100 years. Stede Bonnet, with a name and story seemingly invented for a film or fantastical novel, was, in fact, a real person. Not only was Stede Bonnet a real person, but a rare document, The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and other Pirates, held in the Library of Congress, reveals insights about the life and death of the man once known as “the Gentleman Pirate.” Published in 1719 in London, the The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet contains a preface documenting the crimes of piracy he was accused of committing; the eventual capture of Bonnet, his crew, and sloop, the Revenge; a court transcript of their trials; and an appendix of the prosecution’s witness statements.

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. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.law/llscd.201000158861859

Stede Bonnet was born in 1688 in Bridgetown, Barbados, to plantation owner Edward Bonnet, whose fortune was derived from the labor of people he enslaved on his plantation. Stede Bonnet would inherit this plantation after he was orphaned. At age 21, he married the daughter of another plantation owner, Mary Allamby. His status grew on the island, attaining the rank of Major in the local militia, he was also named justice of the peace in 1716. Stede Bonnet lived a privileged life as a plantation owner, along with his wife and their three children. What changed in the course of Stede Bonnet’s life in 1717 is still a topic of debate. Preparing legal papers that would allow his wife and two friends to manage his financial affairs in Barbados, he secretly purchased a sloop, armed it with ten guns, and hired a 70-man crew. Stede Bonnet had abandoned his family, status, and wealth for a life of piracy.

A black and white clipping of a man looking out to a ship with a pirate flag.

Engraving of Major Stede Bonnet from the book The History and lives of all the most notorious pirates, and their crews. London 1725. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b09541

The reason for Stede Bonnet’s decision to leave his life of privilege and become a pirate remains unknown. Some modern historians and writers have speculated that these reported marital difficulties, along with Stede Bonnet’s later association with Edward Teach (Cordingly, 18), the pirate known as Blackbeard, were an indication of Stede Bonnet’s sexual orientation being outside of the accepted norm for 18th-century society. Under British rule, homosexuality was criminalized in colonies like Barbados in the 18th century and in the centuries that followed. Some historians who study sexuality in this era have argued that same-gender relationships were less restricted on the sea than on land. Piracy would have given him more freedom and opportunity to pursue same-gender relationships. (Cordingly, p. 100), (Burg, p. 110)

Although Stede Bonnet came from wealth, his desire to become a pirate may have also been financially motivated. In the early 18th century, piracy could be extremely profitable to anyone willing to risk the perils of the trade. (Moats, p. 9-20) Piracy in the Caribbean, the West African coast and the Indian Ocean, and coastal regions of the eastern part of North America, was widespread from 1650 to 1726, an era that became known as the Golden Age of Piracy. Works like The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and Other Pirates were popular publications in their time, filled with sensationalized narratives of piracy as well as trial transcripts of individuals charged with piracy and related crimes.

Originally, colonists in North America viewed pirates as beneficial. Pirates also brought hard currency and exotic imports to coastal towns, and the benefit of this to the local economies of colonies meant the sources of the money and goods brought by the pirates were left uninvestigated. Governments also licensed ships as privateers during times of war. The Spanish War of Succession, also known as Queen Anne’s War, overlapped within the same era as the Golden Age of Piracy.

The line between privateering and piracy was a narrow one, and pirates were often former privateers. Privateering could be highly profitable, but it was only legal during times of war. When the war ended, the privateer’s licenses to attack enemy ships expired. Many privateers did not cease their activities with the end of a war and continued to attack and plunder vessels at sea, and these privateers were now regarded as pirates by the same governments who had previously licensed them. By 1713, the British government had deemed pirates enemies of the state. In retaliation, pirates resisted the government and began to take more aggressive actions against British colonists in the Americas. In spite of these anti-piracy laws and the American’s colonist’s newfound enmity toward pirates, piracy surged along the coastal Carolinas in the 1710s. As pirates became an increased nuisance to local shipping from the colony, locals complained to their government to take action.

Like the other pirates preying on ships in the Carolinas, Stede Bonnet also brought his ship, dubbed the Revenge, to the Carolina coasts after first plundering ships in Chesapeake Bay. The document The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet notes his first attack on ships in the Carolinas in August of 1717. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. iii)

Plundering two ships, Bonnet escaped into an inlet in North Carolina. Departing from the Carolinas, he headed to the Caribbean, where his vessel battled with a Spanish man-of-war ship, leaving the Revenge damaged and Bonnet injured. In the Bahamas, while recovering from the battle, he met the infamous pirate Blackbeard, eventually bringing him aboard the Revenge to assume command while he recuperated. By October of the same year, they had attacked 11 vessels in Delaware Bay, Blackbeard seizing a powerful warship he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. Bonnet and Blackbeard went their separate ways afterward until a chance encounter in March of 1718 off the central American Spanish Main. (Cordingly, p. 36)

A black and white clipping of a man with a tri-croner hat, sword, and beard. Ships and mountains appear in the background. The bottom says "Blackbeard the Pirate"

Blackbeard the Pirate, from the book General History of the Pirates. 1725. B. Cole. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b09722

The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet describes the return of Blackbeard and Bonnet to the Carolinas in June 1718, aboard together on Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Bonnet once more relinquished his command of the Revenge, adding the sloop to Blackbeard’s flotilla. Reaching Charleston, they blockaded the port, looting vessels, taking hostages, and ransoming them in exchange for valuable medicines. After the week-long blockade, Bonnet and Blackbeard sailed to a more isolated coastal area along North Carolina, the Revenge and another small sloop in the flotilla entering the inlet safely, but wrecking the Queen Anne’s Revenge and another ship in the flotilla, the Adventure. (The tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, p. iv)

In 1717, a “Proclamation for Suppressing of Pirates”  was issued by King George I, which included a pardon for piracy committed after the end of Queen Anne’s War. While in North Carolina in 1718, Bonnet received this royal pardon for piracy from the governor, Charles Eden. However, he learned soon after being pardoned that new warfare was brewing at sea. England had declared war on Spain again over territorial conflicts occurring between the countries, in what became known as the War of the Quadruple Alliance. (Gallay, p. 206)

He returned to the Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina only to find his sloop emptied of plundered goods and his crew marooned by Blackbeard. In order to recoup his losses in the chaos and plausible deniability in the face of a new international conflict, Stede Bonnet turned to piracy once more. Using the alias Captain Edwards, and renaming his sloop Royal James in an effort to obscure his true identity and keep his pardon, he attacked and plundered 11 ships within two months.

Part two that discusses the aftermath of these crimes and a list of resources will be published tomorrow.

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