Thursday, 3 May 2007

Arrrr! Me hopeless hearties

Barbadian Stede Bonnet obviously didn't think it through when he left his landlubber's life in the summer of 1717 to become a pirate. He bought a ship, Revenge, and fitted it out with cannons. Then he hired a crew and paid them wages.

For a few months, Bonnet and his salaried scurvy dogs raided merchant vessels along the Atlantic coast of North America. They were doing quite well for a bunch of apprentices until the captain suffered injuries in a battle off the Carolinas. They sailed Revenge to the safety of the Bahamas.

Bonnet thought it might be fun to join Blackbeard (Edward Teach) in his plundering of the colonies. Still unwell from his wounds, Bonnet handed over command of Revenge to Blackbeard, who—unnacountably—didn't boot the silly bugger off the side.

After more successful raids, Bonnet and Blackbeard went their separate ways for a while. When they met again, Bonnet's crew deserted and Blackbeard took his ship. The hapless captain remained a 'guest' of the pirate during raids on the Carolinas. But by this time, Blackbeard was growing tired of being on the wrong side of the law. He petitioned for and received a pardon. The infamous pirate retired to Ocracoke Island.

Bonnet was also prepared to go straight. Well, straightish. He planned to head to St Thomas and take up privateering, which was almost as good as out and out piracy but was authorised by the government. Unfortunately, once aboard Revenge, he slipped back into piratical ways.

To ensure that he didn't jeopardise his pardon or his chance of privateering for fun and profit, he changed his name and that of his ship. Stede Bonnet and Revenge disappeared at sea. The new pirate 'Captain Thomas' led the crew of the previously unknown 'Royal James' on raids from Delaware Bay to Cape Fear. He thought he'd got away with it.

Until ... the vessel was careened to fix a leak.

On hearing that Revenge/Royal James and two captured vessels were stuck in Cape Fear River, the navy went out huntin' pirates. They were nearly as daft as ... er ... Cap'n Thomas because their flagship Henry ran aground on a mud bank. Bonnet sent out crew in canoes to board the stricken ship but once they got close enough to see the cannons, they paddled straight back home.

The navy blockaded the mouth of the river. Bonnet decided to fight his way out. But not before he'd sent a letter to the governor in which he threatened to burn the city of Charleston to the ground.

Pirates and navy engaged in the Battle of Cape Fear River, which seems to have involved a lot of fancy manoeuvres, most of which resulted in vessels on both sides getting stuck in shallow water as the tide ebbed.

Bonnet's crew put up a good fight. But the rising tide refloated the naval vessels and the pirates were back in deep doo doos. After failing to blow the naval flagship out of the water, they surrendered. Bonnet was disappointed in his crew's performance.

Of course. it wasn't over yet.

Bonnet escaped from gaol in Charleston. He was recaptured on Sullivan's Island in the mouth of the harbour. When put on trial, he claimed his crew acted against his wishes in raiding merchant vessels. Now they were disappointed in his performance. He was convicted of piracy and sentenced to hang. To avoid this awful fate, he offered to have his arms and legs cut off. The judge was not impressed.

Stede Bonnet was hanged on December 10, 1718, after a career that lasted less than eighteen months. At least he'd given it a go.


Sherryl said...

Imagine my surprise when I saw your blog all about good old Stede Bonnet. Hate to tell you this, but I've already written the novel!
In fact, Stede started me off on pirates, leading to the four books already in print. The novel featuring him and Blackbeard is out on submission right now (fingers crossed) but I had a lot of fun researching it.
Dare I say that some of your narrative had errors? I have a huge timeline of who did what when, cross-referenced by as many sources as I could find. However, 1717-1718 wasn't a great era for recording stuff so it's all a little doubtful.
Glad to see someone other than me found Bonnet's story interesting!

Snail said...

Now why didn't I know you were writing about Bonnet and Blackbeard? Or did I forget?

I'm sure this post is chockers with errors ... I had a quick look at Wikipedia, that utterly reliable source of information. (Although it was particularly good on Red Ben McNevis, the kilted killer of the Caribbean, until they twigged that he might not have been real.)

Didja know that William Goldman was also inspired by Bonnet and Blackbeard? Really, who could resist that story? He wrote a screenplay called The Sea Kings but it was never made into a film.