Battle of Cape Fear River: Stede Bonnet and his Pirates Captured
September 29th, 2010 by Siggurdsson
Today in Military History: September 27, 1718
The Golden Age of Pirate in the New World thrived from about 1660 to 1720. Many famous – and infamous – characters roamed the Caribbean, seeking gold, silver and other plunder to enrich themselves, their crews and probably even a few government officials, skimming a little something right off the top. The names “Black Bart” Roberts, “Calico Jack” Rackham, Captain Kidd and Henry Morgan struck fear into many a seaman’s soul. However, as the age began drawing to a close, a few men became household names in their own right. One of these men was Stede Bonnet.
Today’s Historical Background Lecture: Stede Bonnet, “The Gentleman Pirate”
Stede Bonnet was likely born in 1688 on the island of Barbados, a major English colony in the Caribbean. [Church records indicate that Bonnet was baptized on July 28, 1688; during that time period, a newborn was usually baptized within the first week of its birth.] His family was apparently fairly well-off, as his father owned over 400 acres of land – almost certainly a sugar plantation – which was bequeathed to him when his father died in 1694. Bonnet received a “liberal education,” though where exactly is not known. He was described by his associates as bookish.
Bonnet was married in 1709 to a Mary Allamby, and within eight years he had sired three sons and a daughter. He had acquired the rank of major in the Barbadian militia, but it is unknown if he ever saw any real action. [It is speculated that, as a landowner, Bonnet was responsible for suppressing any slave revolts on the island. Also, his commission coincided with the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), and local militias were probably on alert on a fairly regular basis.] By 1717, however, Bonnet yearned for something more in his life. It seems that married life was not all he had hoped for. [According to the 1724 book, “A General History of the Pyrates [sic],” Bonnet’s wife Mary is described as something of a nagging woman, which eventually drove Bonnet to find adventure and excitement away from Barbados.]
In the spring of 1717, Major Bonnet took his first steps toward pirating. He paid for the construction of a 60-ton sloop, armed it with six cannon, and hired a crew of 126 men. He named his vessel Revenge. Sometime in April, under cover of darkness, Bonnet and his crew sailed from Carlisle Bay, Barbados.
Bonnet’s decision to become a pirate is something of an anomaly. First, he had no training in sailing or navigation whatsoever, a major disadvantage. He depended upon other members of the crew for sailing knowledge, and on his quartermaster and other officers to instill discipline. Next, a pirate usually captured a vessel then converted it into a piratical craft. Third, as a fairly wealthy man, Major Bonnet paid his crew wages, rather than divide plunder up into shares as was the usual practice. He was described as something of a dandy, wearing fine gentleman’s clothes on the quarterdeck. [One account says that Bonnet took his entire library with him when he sailed.]
Over the next 17 months, Bonnet and his crew ranged from the Chesapeake Bay, to the coast of the American colonies, to the Bahamas. When he would capture a ship, he would simply loot it, then let it go on its way, perhaps impressing a few sailors for his crew. If he encountered any vessels from his native Barbados, he would burn them to the waterline. Apparently, he did not want news of his depredations reaching his home and family. In September of 1717, after barely surviving a battle with a Spanish man-of-war, Bonnet and the Revenge put into Nassau in the Bahamas to refit re-provision and take on new crew. While in Nassau, Bonnet met Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. Still recovering from wounds, Bonnet made the fateful decision to join forces with the more famous pirate.
Almost immediately, Bonnet’s crew gravitated to the charismatic, ruthless, more experienced Blackbeard. Bonnet essentially became a “guest” on his own vessel, now under the command of the vicious Blackbeard. In late December, Bonnet managed to exert enough authority to separate himself and his ship from Blackbeard’s influence. In March of 1718, while sailing off the coast of Honduras, Bonnet and his crew failed to capture a large merchant vessel, which caused the crew to become very restive. Shortly afterwards, Bonnet and Blackbeard met again, but this time Bonnet’s crew deserted to the more successful Blackbeard. The Englishman put one of his own officers on the Revenge, and Bonnet was now a second banana to Blackbeard, confined to the flagship Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Blackbeard and his fleet blockaded the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina towards the end of May, 1718. After several days of stopping ships and ransacking them, Blackbeard moved off to Beaufort Inlet (also known as Topsail Inlet) on the coast of North Carolina to repair his ship and careen the hull. While entering the inlet, Blackbeard’s ship ran aground on a sandbar, badly damaging the hull. After failing to refloat his vessel, Blackbeard and Bonnet went ashore and traveled to the town of Bath, then the capital of North Carolina. They applied for pardons to Governor Charles Eden and were both rewarded.
While Blackbeard returned to Topsail Inlet, Bonnet remained behind to receive permission from Governor Eden to sail for Saint Thomas in the Danish-owned Virgin Islands, where he hoped to obtain a letter of marquee to attack Spanish shipping. [Another war in Europe was looming, and Bonnet hoped to become a privateer, essentially a “legal” pirate who would prey upon the ships of a particular nation, and not all countries indiscriminately.] After Eden gave him permission, Bonnet returned to Topsail Inlet, only to discover that he’d been double-crossed.
Blackbeard had selected one of the ships in the fleet, taken all the supplies and loot, and sailed off for parts unknown. Incensed, Bonnet reclaimed his ship Revenge, picked up some crewmen that Blackbeard had marooned nearby, and set off in pursuit of his erstwhile partner. Fortunately, he never saw Blackbeard again. Although still intent on sailing for Saint Thomas, he now faced two problems: first, his supplies were low; and second, Saint Thomas was now socked in by the hurricane season, which made for treacherous sailing.
Still hoping to keep to the letter of his pardon, Bonnet adopted the alias of “Captain Thomas,” and changed his ship’s name to the Royal James. Bonnet and his crew sailed north towards Delaware Bay in late July. They captured eleven ships, taking all valuables and taking on some sailors looking to go “on the account” (become pirates). Though he let go most of the ships he attacked, he kept two sloops named Francis and Fortune. Each of Bonnet’s vessels was armed with eight cannon, and he commanded 46 men distributed on the three ships.
On August 1, 1718 Bonnet and his fleet left Delaware Bay and sailed south. Along the way, the Royal James began to leak badly, necessitating repairs. By mid-August, Bonnet’s company reached the estuary of the Cape Fear River in southern North Carolina. Putting into the estuary – which was not well-used in this time period – Bonnet ordered his crew to begin careening the hull of Royal James and making repairs. His plan, after repairs were made, was to wait out the worst of the hurricane season, then sail for the Virgin Islands, obtain a letter of marquee, and continue his career as a privateer.
By the end of August, news had filtered back to Charleston that “Captain Thomas” and his crew were moored in the Cape Fear River area. South Carolina Governor Robert Johnson authorized Colonel William Rhett to take two British Navy sloops – each one mounting eight guns – with a total of 130 men to hunt down and capture Bonnet and his men.
The flotilla arrived at the mouth of Cape Fear River on the early evening of September 26. Bonnet’s lookouts sighted the British ships, but mistook them for merchant ships. Hoping to take the supposed prey easily, Bonnet sent some of his men in three canoes. As the pirates approached the unknown vessels, Col. Rhett’s flagship Henry ran aground on a sandbar. This allowed the pirates to get closer and identify the ships as Royal Navy sloops. Rather than try to flee upriver in the dark, Bonnet decided to wait until the next day, then sail past the British vessels.
The next morning, September 27, the British sloops had re-floated and were waiting to intercept the pirate flotilla. Bonnet raised his pirate flag and headed toward the British ships, unleasing a salvo of cannon shot and a volley of musketry. Almost at the first shot, as both forces maneuvered, both of Col. Rhett’s vessels ran aground, as did all three of Bonnet’s sloops. [Apparently, the navigators of both forces were not terribly familiar with the area…] Only Bonnet’s flagship Royal James and Rhett’s lead vessel Henry were within range.
Consequently, for the next five to six hours, these two protagonists kept up a skirmishing fire. There was only one problem: each vessel’s deck was slightly tilted in one direction. The Royal James’s deck was tilted away from the British sloop, while the Henry’s deck was tilted in such a way that the British sailors had only minimal cover, exposing Rhett’s men to musket fire. Bonnet’s men were described as enthusiastically firing on their enemy, mocking them and daring them to come aboard and fight hand-to-hand. Bonnet patrolled the deck of the Royal James throughout the battle brandishing a loaded pistol, threatening to shoot any man who didn’t fight.
Finally, by mid-afternoon the tide began to come in, freeing Col. Rhett’s Henry first. Bonnet and his men were left helpless, watching while the enemy vessels repaired their rigging and closed to board his paralyzed vessel. Outnumbered almost three to one, Bonnet’s men would have had little hope of winning a boarding action. Making one of the few decisions of his brief career, Bonnet ordered his gunner, George Ross, to blow up the Royal James’s powder magazine. Ross apparently attempted this, but was overruled by the remainder of the crew, who surrendered.
During the battle, Bonnet’s force suffered twelve casualties while killing ten and wounding fourteen of Rhett’s 70-man crew. Bonnet and 34 of his remaining crew were captured and transported to Charleston, arriving there on October 3. While being held prisoner, Bonnet and two of his officers escaped, but were eventually recaptured. His trial took place on November 10, and Bonnet conducted his own defense. He was found guilty on two counts of piracy, and sentenced to be hanged.
While awaiting his execution, Bonnet wrote to Governor Johnson, begging abjectly for clemency and promising to have his own arms and legs cut off as assurance that he would never again commit piracy. An English author wrote that Bonnet’s visibly disintegrating mind moved many Carolinians to pity, particularly the female population, and London papers later reported that the governor delayed his execution seven times. Stede Bonnet was eventually hanged on December 10, 1718, bringing to a close the short career of “The Gentleman Pirate.”
Footnote #1: A plaque commemorates the battle of Cape Fear River, near Bonnet’s Creek in Southport, NC. The Yacht Basin Provision Company also holds an annual Stede Bonnet Regatta near Southport, commemorating the infamous pirate’s dash for the ocean. This year’s event will be held on Saturday, October 30.