Stede Bonnet – The Worst Pirate
Piracy was largely tolerated in Charles Towne (later renamed Charleston) in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Business owners welcomed those freewheeling marauders who poured gold and silver into the Holy City on their way up the coast. But in 1718, the casual attitude toward pirates changed after a rash of attacks on British ships going in and out of Charles Towne.
Stede Bonnet was born in 1688, to a wealthy plantation owner in Bridgeport, Barbados. He was privileged, educated, and well-mannered, with a penchant for reading–an unlikely candidate for piracy, for sure. After retiring from the Royal Army as a Major, Bonnet returned to Bridgeport. Now married, he inherited his father’s sugarcane plantation, and built his own fortune.
Then in 1717, something happened. Bonnet, for unknown reasons, decided to become a pirate. People have speculated over the years how this wealthy, refined, dandy would leave his posh plantation for a reckless life of piracy. Many thought he was, well, crazy. Some thought he was having a mid-life crisis. But most thought he was simply trying to escape his nagging wife.
Regardless of the reason, Bonnet bought a ship called The Revenge (the only time a pirate had ever bought a ship), hired a crew (to whom he paid a salary), and set sail. There was just one problem–Bonnet didn’t know anything about sailing. He either wandered around the ship taking in the sea air as if he were on a mid-day cruise, or he stayed in his berth and read. The crew soon began talks of mutiny, but The Revenge did have some success plundering ships. And Bonnet, looking for a quick buck, would secretly sell his stolen goods at a discounted price to the upper-crust of Charles Towne–goods they were more than willing to buy on the cheap.
In early spring, 1718, Bonnet was off the coast of Charles Towne, and Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) sailed by. Blackbeard was a real pirate. He was well over six feet tall at a time when poor nutrition restricted the height of most pirates to around 5’5″, and he literally towered above his crew. He was cunning and shrewd, and his reputation for ruthlessness was well-known. Many ships surrendered just because they could see him coming. He was an absolute terror in the Caribbean and Atlantic between 1716 and 1718.
Blackbeard boarded Bonnet’s ship, and quickly surmised that Bonnet was no pirate. He suggested they team up for profitability’s sake, and offered to put one of his own crewmen on Bonnet’s ship to run things. Bonnet could still wander about the deck, read in his berth, and whatever else he usually did to pretend he was a pirate. That sounded like a win-win to Bonnet, and he agreed.
In May of 1718, Blackbeard, now with a fleet of six ships, blockaded Charles Towne. They pillaged nine ships and took hostages. For several days, Charles Towne leaders felt helpless. They couldn’t retaliate as long as Blackbeard had the hostages. To make matters worse, the pirates owned the city–they looted and vandalized businesses, attacking anyone in their way.
South Carolina Governor, Robert Johnson, was finally able to negotiate the release of the hostages with a few thousand British pounds of gold and silver. Blackbeard sailed away to Teach’s Hole, his hideout in North Carolina. Though no one pursued him, he knew the possibility of capture still lingered. So, he suggested that he and Bonnet separate and investigate obtaining a pardon from the governor of North Carolina.
Bonnet went ashore with several of his crew to gather provisions. When he returned to his ship a week later, he found his crew stranded on a sand bar and The Revenge scuttled. Blackbeard had double crossed him. No honor among thieves, apparently.
By September, Bonnet was captured during what would be known as the Battle of Cape Fear, and imprisoned in the Provost Dungeon in Charles Towne. Because of Bonnet’s popularity with the town’s elite, though, strings were pulled to get him out of the dungeon and placed under house arrest in the town marshal’s mansion. With the help of a crooked sentry an a few local sympathizers, Bonnet was able to escape while disguised as a woman. He and his lieutenant escaped in a small boat, but were soon re-captured on Sullivan’s Island, located across the harbor, the next day. He was still wearing the dress.
Bonnet repeatedly tried to obtain a pardon from Robert Johnson without success. On December 10, 1718, Bonnet was taken to the gallows at White Point Gardens, located on Charles Towne Harbor, and hanged with 29 other pirates. The thirty corpses twisted in the coastal breeze for four days so that any pirate sailing in the harbor would see that Charles Towne had had enough. But pirates often rowed up Vanderhorst’s Creek to access the city from the rear. So, after the pirates’ bodies were cut down, they were thrown into the creek which ran below the water line, from the beginning of the Cooper River across the peninsula toward Meeting Street. Any pirate who had designs to sneak into Charles Towne would surely see the mass makeshift grave in the creek.
As the city expanded, Vanderhorst’s Creek was filled and became Water Street, and the dead pirates supposedly remain below. Some have said they have seen the ghosts of pirates still hanging from the oak trees at White Point Gardens. Others say that Stede Bonnet still haunts Water Street. One steadfast legend is that if you stand at the foot of Water Street and look out into the Cooper River under a full moon, you can see the faces of all of the dead pirates just below the water line.
True? Who knows? You’ll have to check it out. Try Charleston Pirate Tours for a family-friendly, “swashbuckling good time.”
Schoonover, F. E. (1922). Delaware art museum presents frank e. schoonover ~ an artist for all seasons. Retrieved from http://www.artknowledgenews.com/Frank_E._Schoonover.html
JEBulebush. (2011). Provost dungeon at night – old exchange building – charleston, south carolina. Retrieved from http://www.flickr.com/photos/bulebushphotography/6099922374/lightbox/
Unknown. (2015, July 2). Print engraving of Stede Bonnet in Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_General_History_of_the_Pyrates#/media/File:Bonnet.gif
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White Point Gardens
neonkid. (2012, January 5). Untitled. Retrieved from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/64438141