Editors note: Local columnist, Brian Hicks has created installments for a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate its 350th anniversary. This article is a special supplemental from this weeks ninth installment.
When the “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet died at the end of a hangman’s noose in Charles Town, there was no celebration.
In fact, many of the colonists were saddened by his execution. They rather liked Bonnet, and in some ways considered him one of their own.
Bonnet’s story is not the stereotypical life of a pirate. He was born into relative wealth in Barbados, which is where many of Charles Town’s earliest settlers hailed from. No doubt some were acquainted with his family; they were of the same social class.
Bonnet inherited his father’s estate when he was still a child. He later married, served as an officer in the British army and had retired when he took up piracy. By then, he was “middle aged” … which in those days meant he was about 30.
No one ever knew for sure why a man of such comfortable means wanted to be a pirate, although Frank Stockton in “Buccaneers and Pirates of Our Coast” says the most common explanation was that “his wife did not make his home pleasant for him.” Yikes.
Trouble was, Bonnet knew nothing about sailing when he bought a ship and hired a crew (most of whom were not pirates). As such, his men never respected him and reportedly had recurring thoughts of mutiny … or at least abandoning Bonnet.
But they never did, because Bonnet’s nickname “the Gentleman Pirate” was a reference to his station in life, not his manners. Bonnet was fairly ruthless; he abused his men, would shackle or flog them for the smallest infractions, and walked the deck with loaded pistols – promising to shoot any of them if the mood struck.
Bonnet and his men worked their way up the coast, raided some ships off Virginia, and eventually sailed South. He met Blackbeard either in the Bahamas or Honduras (accounts differ), and at first Blackbeard thought he’d found a kindred spirit. He suggested they team up.
It didn’t take long for Blackbeard to figure out Bonnet didn’t know his keel from his stern. He took over Bonnet’s ship, put his men in charge of it and made the Gentleman Pirate a semi-voluntary guest on his flagship. Bonnet was still onboard when Blackbeard ransomed Charleston in June 1718.
After releasing Wragg to Charles Town, Blackbeard sailed to North Carolina, dismissed his crew (he didn’t want to be responsible for them) and took an extended vacation to spend some of his newly acquired bounty. He gave Bonnet’s ship back to him and sent him on his way.
Bonnet went out briefly, raided a couple of ships, and was back in Carolina when William Rhett caught up with him in September of 1718.
In Charles Town, Bonnet was afforded better treatment than most prisoners. Because of his previously held social standing, which was always important in the city, Bonnet and his sailing master, David Herriot, were allowed to stay in the home of the town marshal. Most pirates were jailed in the city’s Watch House.
According to Walter J. Fraser Jr.’s “Charleston! Charleston!” Bonnet and Herriot escaped three days before their trial – with the help of locals who may not have wanted their deals with the pirate to come out in public. Allegedly, the guards were bribed and local admirers supplied the two men with a small boat. They only got as far as Sullivan’s Island before bad weather forced them ashore.
Col. Rhett and a small band of men eventually found the two on the island and carried them back to the city. But Rhett felt the same as many other locals; he sort of liked Bonnet. He offered to accompany the pirate to England and plead for his clemency. After all, Rhett said, he’d been driven to commit crimes by his shrewish, nagging wife – ha.
Bonnet, terrified of death, begged for his life, but neither he nor Rhett could change Gov. Johnson’s mind. He ordered the pirate executed.
On Dec. 10, 1718, Bonnet was hanged in what later came to be known as White Point Garden. Locals were mostly saddened, but Johnson had been right about one thing. Charles Town’s pirate problem died with Bonnet.