Nearly every major travel magazine touts Charleston as the most polite city in America. Even our best-known pirate, Stede Bonnet, was widely recognized as a gentleman.
Bonnet came to the Carolinas via Barbados, where he was born in 1688 to Edward and Sarah Bonnet, wealthy owners of a large sugar plantation. Records from Christ Church parish note that the Bonnets’ first son, Stede, was christened there on July 29.
Little is known of Bonnet’s youth, though he received a good education. At his sentencing, Judge Nicholas Trott referred to his liberal education.1 Upon his father’s death in 1694, Stede inherited the plantation and later served in the Barbadian militia during Queen Anne’s War, attaining the rank of Major.
Bonnet married Mary Allamby on Nov. 21, 1709, and they had four children: Allamby, Edward, Stede and Mary. Yet by 1717, Bonnet apparently hit “the worst midlife crisis on record.”2 No one knows why Bonnet decided to become a pirate, but according to Capt. Charles Johnson, author of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, the “[d]iscomforts he found in a married State'' drove Bonnet to abandon his family and turn to a life of piracy.3 One researcher suggests that Bonnet was a Jacobite and so made his decision merely in opposition to English authority in general.4 Whatever the reason, Bonnet turned the management of his plantation over to his wife and two trusted friends.5
Not only was Bonnet not a sailor, he didn’t seem to even know much about how the pirate business worked. As anyone worth his seasalt knows, pirates first commandeer a ship by force of arms and press its crew into service. Instead Bonnet bought a sloop and 10 guns and advertised in local pubs for a crew.
Despite now being a pirate, Bonnet maintained his sense of good taste, fashion and manners. He dressed in fine clothes, was well groomed, and usually wore a powdered periwig. One could tell immediately by his bearing and speech that he was well educated, witty and refined - qualities that earned him the nickname “The Gentleman Pirate.” Yet, lest anyone write Bonnet off completely as a dandy, it is worth noting that he was one of the few sea captains who ever actually required prisoners to walk the plank,6 a mostly mythical practice promulgated by Capt. Johnson’s highly dramatized History of the Pyrates.
Despite Bonnet’s eccentricities and inexperience, by late summer of 1717 he and his crew had developed a reputation as a threatening presence along America’s Mid-Atlantic coast. Though not hugely successful compared to some other legendary pirates, they did seize a number of ships and plunder. While some ships' crews were mercifully set ashore on small islands to fend for their survival, at least one ship, the Turbes, was burned at sea, establishing Bonnet’s habit of burning ships he captured flying under a Barbadian flag. No one knows why he did that, but some suggest it was because he didn’t want word of his marauding deeds getting back to his family and friends in Barbados.7
Bonnet commandeered two more ships off Charles Town’s harbor, after which he put into a North Carolina cove to make repairs to his ship, the Revenge. Around this time, Bonnet was wounded in an encounter with a Spanish ship, and his crew began to express concerns about their captain's leadership qualities. Nevertheless, once the repairs were completed, the Revenge headed south to a popular “pirate resort” in Honduras for a little R&R.
While in Honduras, the dissatisfied rumblings and grumblings of Bonnet’s crew came to the attention of another sea captain vacationing in that port, one Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, one of the fiercest pirates in history. Though the two men were clearly cut from different cloth, Teach found his bonny comrade to be a man of interest and charm.
Rather than seize the Revenge outright, Blackbeard suggested that one of his trusted crewmen should take command of Bonnet’s ship, while Bonnet joined him as a guest aboard his own ship and recuperate from the wound he had received in his confrontation with the Spanish galleon. Some accounts of their early days together note that Bonnet was happy to have a respite from his captain’s duty, often sleeping late before appearing on deck still dressed in his nightgown and reading a book from the personal library he carried with him on all his travels.8 Other accounts claim Bonnet was virtually a prisoner aboard Blackbeard’s ship, though treated with collegial respect.
Over the next few months, the duo captured another dozen or so ships, bringing in a generous haul of booty. One of their notable capers together was a blockade of Charles Town Harbor in late May or early June of 1718, during which they seized eight or nine local ships along with a number of prominent Charlestonians onboard them, including Samuel Wragg, a member of the S.C. Commons House of Assembly, and his young son, William.
Rather than demanding a monetary ransom, Blackbeard sent one of his crew ashore demanding a chest of medicines, as he had sick and injured crew members who needed medical assistance.9 If the medicines weren’t delivered within two days, the pirates threatened, they would begin sending the heads of the captives back to shore, starting with the Wraggs. Gov. Robert Johnson met their demands and the captives were released unharmed. The pirates' victory did not sit well with Johnson.
Bonnet and Blackbeard’s partnership was short-lived, though reasons for their split vary. Bonnet began considering an early retirement when N.C. Gov. Charles Eden announced he was granting pardons to any pirates who agreed to lay down their arms, surrender their ships, and settle down to a more traditional mercantile or agrarian lifestyle.
Then an even better option then presented itself. The War of the Quadruple Alliance broke out in Europe, this time pitting the English and French against the Spanish and Jacobites, which meant that England, France and Spain were again awarding governmentally sanctioned licenses for the legal privateering of foreign ships. Bonnet refitted the Revenge, applied for his license, and set out again for adventure on the high seas.
Meanwhile, back in Charles Town, S.C. Gov. Robert Johnson, still sore from the humiliation he had suffered at the hands of Blackbeard and Bonnet earlier that year regarding the medical supplies, commissioned Col. William Rhett to track down and arrest any pirates (or privateers) he could find. Rhett quickly refitted two of his merchant ships, the Henry and the Sea Nymph, with eight powerful guns each and a crew of about 125 men between them. The ships passed out of Charles Town harbor in August 1718 as Rhett learned that a pirate ship had put into the Cape Fear River to make repairs.
Some time on the evening of Sept. 26/27, 1718, Rhett entered the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Its waters were dotted with sandbars and shoals, and neither Rhett nor his pilots were as familiar with the Cape Fear River as Bonnet. Both of Rhett’s ships ran aground soon after entering the river. While stalled, Rhett’s crew saw the mast tips of Bonnet’s Royal James peeking above the treetops around a bend upriver. Nevertheless, they were stuck.
It would be at least six hours, nearly midnight, before the rising tide would bring the Carolinians’ ships afloat again, and even then, continuing forward in the unknown darkness would be unwise. But one thing they knew regardless of what happened with the timing of the tides: Bonnet and the Royal James were not getting out of that inlet without having to go around Rhet's ships. As midnight’s incoming tide raised Rhett's ships afloat once more, his crew spent the hours until dawn anchoring themselves strategically within the river's mouth. As the sun rose, Rhett could see Bonnet’s sails being raised for what was going to be a very close encounter.
Bonnet’s strategy was to hit Rhett hard enough, fast enough, to drive him backward into the open water, where there was a chance for escape.10 Rhett anticipated the move, repositioned his ships, and again dropped anchor, hoping that he could maneuver Bonnet’s Royal James into the shallow waters of the river’s shore.
Coming together the three ships began blasting one another as fast as they could load the cannons. Rhett’s strategy worked: the Royal James grounded on a sandbar as it passed near the shoreline.
Yet the real battle was just beginning. The Sea Nymph, which had been moving into position to block the Royal James’ escape into open waters, came to rest upon a sandbar downriver, out of cannon range. Likewise, in the process of maneuvering the Royal James, Rhett’s Henry grounded nearly against the pirate's ship, so close the combatants were within pistol range. Both ships careened inland, an angle that sheltered Bonnet’s crew, as its deck tilted toward the land, exposing its hull to Rhett's cannon. The same position exposed the Henry’s men on the inclined deck, easy targets for small arms fire. Assured of their victory given this advantage, the pirates began chanting derisions at the South Carolinians, just a stone throw’s away. As the pirates rained bullets all around them, the Henry’s crew gallantly dodged the shots well enough to reload their cannons and fire a few shots into Bonnet’s exposed hull.
Hours passed this way. Somewhere between five and six of them actually, as the tide again shifted its flow. At some point the sailors on all three ships must have anticipated what would happen next, thanks to nature’s everyday, relentless routine. As the tide began flowing back into the river, first the Sea Nymph and then the Henry arighted and began to float, shortly before the Royal James’ hull, now riddled with cannon ball holes, struggled without hope to rise above the river’s bed. Bonnet’s well-recognized Jolly Roger came down as his crew raised a white flag, surrendered unconditionally, and begged for mercy. It was one of the bloodiest and most definitive battles in pirate history.
Rhett sailed back into Charles Town Harbor with his prisoners amid cheers on Oct. 3, 1718. After two days at anchor, he presented about three dozen captive pirates (reports vary) to Marshal Nathaniel Partridge of Charles Town’s City Guard. As the colony had no prisons, malefactors were often held at Partridge’s house at the corner of Tradd and Church streets, though Dr. Nicholas Butler, historian at the Charleston County Public Library, notes that old maps show Partridge owned several properties in and around the city, any of which could have served as their holding site.11
Still, around three dozen sailors were more than his residence(s) could accommodate, so the prisoners were crowded into a civic building known as the Watch House at the southwest corner of Broad and Meeting streets,