Charleston, South Carolina has a colorful history related to pirates. The pirate with the main claim to fame would be Blackbeard, who once held Charleston Harbor for several days. But Charleston has latched onto one of Blackbeard’s lesser captains, the gentleman pirate, Stede Bonnet.
This isn’t surprising. Charleston is working hard to project a genteel image, and the aristocratic Stede makes a more acceptable figurehead than Blackbeard. Piracy is big business in Charleston, from pirate shops to pirate tours and pirate restaurants. So having a more genteel figure to point to works in everyone’s behalf. Event if the pirate in question held no great regard for Charleston. And certainly came to hate it.
Stede Bonnet, known as the Gentleman Pirate was born to wealthy English parents on Barbados in the Lesser Antilles, just north of the South American continent. After inheriting his fathers fortune, he married, a decision he came to regret. In fact, he blamed his wife for his decision to embark on a career of piracy, citing her incessant nagging as a cause for wanting to go away to sea.
Stede Bonnet had no experience as a seaman, so he did what the wealthy often did. He bought his way into the industry. Bonnet bought a ship, named it The Revenge, hired a crew and bought what he deemed to be the latest in pirate menswear and set off for a career of crime.
More of a dandy than a fighter, Bonnet was wounded early on in his career, which led to an ill-fated decision to turn over his ship and crew to the more illustrious pirate Blackbeard, whom he bumped into in Nassau, Bahamas. Once recovered from his wounds, Bonnet and Blackbeard plundered their way up and down the east coast of the United States. It didn’t take long for Blackbeard to realize that when it comes to running a ship, Bonnet was as worthless as testicles on the Pope. So he sent one of his own men to administer the ship, leaving Bonnet free to play pirate as we wished.
As to be expected, Blackbeard was insulting of Bonnet’s skills as a captain and a pirate, and eventually Bonnet’s crew deserted him and joined up with Blackbeard in 1718. Stuck with a ship and no crew, Bonnet turned his ship over to Blackbeard and stayed on as the captain’s guest.
Since piracy was a capital crime, there was little incentive to give it up, as eventually you were bound to be discovered and hanged, even if you went straight. The English admiralty wasn’t having a lot of success putting the pirates out of business, so the governors of the colonies took matters in their own hands, offering pirates a pardon and a chance to go free, albeit without the lucrative income of their former possessions.
Stede Bonnet took the pardon offered by the governor of North Carolina and turned to privateering. Privateering closely resembled piracy as the modus operandi were the same – capturing ships on the high seas and stealing the booty. The only difference was you were only allowed to attack Spanish ships, whom the British were currently at war with.
But the pay wasn’t nearly so good, and the pickings slimmer when all you could take were Spanish ships, so Bonnet turned once more to piracy.
In the fall of 1718 and his ship in need of repairs, Stede Bonnet was anchored off the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, while an expedition sent out from the governor of South Carolina combed the coastline for pirates, and Bonnet in particular. One of the hazards of anchoring in shallow water is that you’re at the mercy of the tides. The lead ship in the expedition’s crew was wedged on the bottom as three canoes carrying men from Bonnet’s ships approached, thinking them a merchant ship and intending to capture it. Realizing the ship was heavily armed, the three boats went back to warn Bonnet.
Bonnet’s plan was to wait for the morning tide, then make for the coast, deserting two of his sloops in the process. Unfortunately for Stede, the tide came earlier for the expedition’s ships, and before Bonnet could reach the mouth of the Cape Fear River, he found himself facing the three expeditionships. Two of the ships went to either side of Bonnet’s the Royal James, while a third approached head on. A glimmer of hope came for Bonnet when the two outer ships ran aground. The glimmer dimmed however as the Royal James made for the shore, and ran aground. The third expeditionary ship closed in, coming within musket range before running aground as well.
For five or six hours the immobilized ships exchanged musket fire and waited for the tide. Stede Bonnet strode the desk in all his finery, exhorting his men to fight and not consider surrender as an option, threatening to kill them himself if they did. Fate wasn’t with Bonnet, as the rising tide lifted all three of the expedition’s ships from the seabed, while the Royal James stayed wedged in the sand.
Vastly outnumbered, Bonnet wanted to fight on, but was outnumbered by his crew which was ready to surrender. Bonnet’s last order, to blow up the powder magazine on the Royal James was ignored, and by October 3, 1718, the pirates were prisoners in Charleston. It’s believed that most were held in the dungeons beneath Charleston’s Old Provost, but Bonnet had slightly better accommodations, as guest of the provost sherif, Nathaniel Partridge.
Bonnet and Partridge had things in common, such as membership in the same church back in Barbados, but in fact, his different housing likely had more to do with keeping Bonnet away from his crew, so no escape plans could be hatched.
Somehow a plan was hatched and Bonnet, along with David Heriott, his sailing master managed to escape from Partridge’s Charleston home. Fleeing the city by canoe and with the assistance of two slaves, Bonnet was hampered by a fierce headwind. Eventually they came ashore at Sullivan’s Island, across the harbor from Charleston. Stede Bonnet was hoping to be rescued by a fellow pirate, Christopher Moody, whose suspected presence had managed to stop ship traffic in and out of the harbor. For nearly two weeks Bonnet, Moody and the two slaves shivered in the chilly ocean breeze, with Bonnet obsessively scanning the horizon for Moody’s ship.
Sullivan’s Island today would hardly be recognizable to Bonnet. Later on came Fort Moultrie on the tip of the island, along with the slave trade. It’s estimated that nearly half of all African Americans have ancestors which passed through Sullivan’s Island, making it something of an Ellis Island for the slave trade. Today it’s taken over by summer residents, tourists and those looking for a taste of island life, i.e. lots of expensive rum and Jimmy Buffet on auto repeat.
Being pretty desolate during Bonnet’s era, the smoke from their campfires eventually caught the eye of the citizens of Charleston. With Bonnet recently escaped and on the lamb, a posse was sent out to Sullivan’s Island, headed by William Rhett, who had captured him the first time. With Bonnet’s spyglass trained to sea in search of Moody’s pirate ship, he didn’t notice the armed expedition coming from behind. Ordered to surrender, someone in Bonnet’s party fired a pistol shot. Herriot was shot dead on the spot, the two slaves wounded and Stede Bonnet surrendered for a second time.
This time Bonnet was tossed into the dungeon with 29 of his former crew. They barely had time to catch up however, as the next morning the crew, who had been tried, convicted and sentenced while Bonnet cooled his heels on Sullivan’s Island, were taken from the dungeon to White Point, now the Battery and hung.
The pirate hunters of Charleston were on a roll now, and the governor approved a new expedition to go after Christopher Moody, who still hadn’t shown up. Bonnet was hoping for a rescue, and his hopes must have risen when he heard that two ships had been spotted at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Instead of Moody, it was Richard Worley, who must have had one of the shortest careers for a pirate, going from rags to riches in about six weeks. The four expeditionary ships made for the mouth of the harbor, disguised as merchant ships. Worley took the bait and moved to attack, only to find himself facing four well armed war ships. Worley was killed in the short battle, and Bonnet’s hopes were dashed as the cheer went up from the citizens of Charleston who watched from rooftops and the shoreline.
At least Bonnet now had company in the Provost dungeon, joined by thirty members of Worley’s crew, many of whom were horribly wounded. In fact, the prisoners were dying at such an alarming rate that the trial was rushed so that those who were dying would live long enough to be hanged. In the end, they managed to prop up nineteen of Worley’s crew for hanging. This brought the total number of pirates hung in November of 1718 to 48. Moody took the hint and headed south from Charleston, leaving Bonnet to his fate.
Bonnet was of course found guilty and sentenced to hang, along with the hopes of the presiding judge that he find himself “in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Whether it was the fear of the noose, or the eternal torments of the damned, Stede didn’t accept his fate quietly. Bonnet wrote increasingly desperate letters to anyone who would listen and might be able to stave off the noose. By the end he was offering to have his arms and legs cut off to ensure he didn’t return to piracy, if only he be allowed to live. Eventually the citizens of Charleston began to take pity on Bonnet, particularly the women, so a date was set for the execution before public opinion might turn the tide completely in his favor.
On December 10, 1718, a barely coherent Stede Bonnet was taken out from the city walls to the swampy tip of the harbor, on land eventually to be known as White Point Garden. Clutching a small bouquet of flowers between his trembling hands, the noose went around his neck and the cart pulled away, leaving Bonnet to dangle. It was said that the length of rope wasn’t quite right, and Bonnet danced the dead man’s dance, his legs kicking in the air as he slowly strangulated. His body was left on the gallows for a few days so that those considering a life of piracy, or pirates looking to come into Charleston might think twice. When he was cut down, he was buried below the low tide mark along the creek which used to flow where Water Street is now, to rejoin his crew. The creek was a popular route into Charleston taken by pirates wishing to avoid detection, and it was hoped that the smell of their rotting corpses might dissuade them.
It’s a bit hard to stand in White Point Garden today and get a feel of what it must have been like in Bonnet’s day. Certainly his gallows would have been erected near the point, for maximum effect as a deterrent to those sailing into Charleston Harbor. But the land has been built up over the centuries, and the landscape has been marked by more famous men and more famous events. Today, most tourists visit the garden for the ocean breeze to break the shock of a Charleston summer, and for the view of Fort Sumpter in the harbor, with mortars and cannons still trained in that direction. There are statues of famous Charlestonians, generals and statesmen. But there is also, under the branches of trees gnarled and hoary with age, a marker speaking of the end of the golden age of piracy, of Stede Bonnet’s fate and Charleston’s hand in it.