18th Century

Stede Bonnet

Have a drink with: Stede Bonnet
The Gentleman Pirate, if you please

Ask him about: the shipboard library

Image: Warner Media
Image: Warner Media

Like many, many other people around now, I am smitten with Our Flag Means Death, Taika Waititi’s comedy series about real-life pirate Stede Bonnet and his journeys with the famous Blackbeard. What may be surprising to viewers is the degree to which the show is based on verifiable history. Read on for what the show gets right, from a tricked-out ship to pirates in pajamas…

Stede Bonnet, Gentleman Pirate? Yup. Bonnet was part of landowning society in Barbados before heading out to sea – island aristocracy would have been definitively second-tier, so he wouldn’t have been regarded on par with English high society, but as a landowner and a retired island militia major, he was doing better than many. That said, he had zero seafaring experience and his decision to turn pirate confused both contemporaries and scholars, who have suggested justifications ranging from midlife crisis to mental health, financial challenges to, as the show suggests, marital difficulties. (Charles Johnson’s famous 18th century text A General History of the Pyrates says that Bonnet was dealing with “some Discomforts he met with in a married State,” and this is where episode four of the show gets its title).

Besties with Blackbeard? Whatever the cause, Bonnet purchased and outfitted a ship and called it the Revenge (this itself was a bit unusual, as pirates usually just stole their first vessel). He hired a crew and got to pirating down the Eastern Seaboard, eventually meeting the noted pirate Edward Thatch (aka Blackbeard) in the Bahamas. And indeed they cooperated for a time – author Lindley S. Butler says that, consistent with the show’s meet-cute setup, Bonnet was recovering from a skirmish with the Spanish and agreed to let Blackbeard command while he recovered. And the description certainly sounds right by Rhys Darby’s portrayal; Butler cites one Captain Codd saying that Bonnet “has no Command, he walks about in his Morning Gown, and then to his Books, of which he has a good Library on Board.”

Piracy? Heartbreak? Petrified oranges? Bonnet was no sailor, but he definitely provided a platform for Blackbeard’s skill and the two men crossed paths repeatedly throughout 1717-1718. The two parted ways briefly, Bonnet on the Revenge and Blackbeard on his own ship, and later met up again in Central American waters after Bonnet had taken a thrashing. Blackbeard took Bonnet on board, sent his first mate to command the Revenge, and continued pirating. Bonnet was said at one point to be deeply depressed and ready to give up pirating altogether. The show fills these gaps with the suggestion of a tender relationship; scholars have generally believed that Blackbeard was simply eager to imprison and manipulate Bonnet, who was a poor sailor and leader.

I have no idea about the oranges.

ACT OF GRACE! ACT OF GRACE! The Act of Grace – an English law offering amnesty to repentant pirates – is real, and both Bonnet and Blackbeard sought its protections as the show suggests, though not together. In the Carolinas in 1718, some of Blackbeard’s fleet ran aground in shallows. He gave the Revenge back to Bonnet, who fled for pardon; Blackbeard then marooned some of the crew, took most of the loot, and went separately for his own act of grace (pursuant to which he settled in the town of Bath as a front, and cut in the the local governor on proceeds to fence pirated goods). Bonnet, peeved, rescued the stranded crew and wanted to go after Blackbeard on the way to St. Thomas, where he hoped to receive an official letter of marque as a privateer.

Did it end well? Nope. On the way south, Bonnet’s ship continued to loot and pillage, and eventually he was caught and arrested. Bonnet and crew stood trial in Charleston beginning on October 28, 1718 (the nation’s first piracy trial, according to American State Trials). The crew was tried in batches before their captain, not because the court was saving best for last but since Bonnet had staged an escape and had to be recaptured in order to be brought before a judge. A handful of crew members were found not guilty and released (largely because their limited testimony claimed they had been coerced into following Bonnet or had tried to flee); the others were executed November 8. Bonnet’s trial began November 10th. The “Gentleman Pirate” claimed that he really just wanted to go to St. Thomas and was unable to control his loot-hungry crew, saying: “May it please your Honors, and the rest of the gentlemen, though I must confess myself a sinner, and the greatest of sinners, yet I am not guilty of what I am charged with.” This was, however, too little, too late: since courts regarded piracy as a self-evident evil, they required little proof for a conviction.

Bonnet was found guilty and executed December 10th at White Point. Blackbeard had been killed in fighting off the Carolinas only weeks before, on November 22, 1718.

Fun Facts:

The character of Israel “Izzy” Hands, Blackbeard’s second-in-command, was based on a real person, and it isn’t the first time he’s made media appearances; Robert Louis Stevenson used Hands as a character in Treasure Island.

As noted in an old post about Captain Kidd, there was little emphasis on legal process in piracy trials so much as being sure a conviction was the destination. Under the law piracy was an evil “evident to the reason of all Men,” and a pirate was considered “Hostis Humani Generis, with whom neither Faith Nor Oath is to be kept.” It was essentially okay for someone to kill a pirate if it was not expedient to bring them to a government authority for due trial.

What do pirates look for when they’re plundering? Well, sometimes a nice rum punch: captured sailors testified that when Bonnet’s men “came into the Cabin, the first they begun with was the Pine-Apples, which they cut down with their Cutlasses…They asked me what Liquor I had on board? I told them some Rum and Sugar. So they made Bowls of Punch, and went to Drinking of the Pretenders Health, and hoped to see him King of the English Nation: Then sung a Song or two.”

Additional Reading:

Baylus C. Brooks, “Born in Jamaica, of Very Creditable Parents” or “A Bristol Man Born”? Excavating the Real Edward Thache, “Blackbeard the Pirate,” The North Carolina Historical Review, vol. 92, no.3, July 2015

Amy Crawford, “The Gentleman Pirate,” Smithsonian, July 31, 2007

Charleston County Public Library, “The Charleston Pirate Trials of 1718

Charles Johnson & Daniel Defoe, A general and true history of the lives and actions of the most famous highwaymen, murderers, street-robbers, &c. (1742)