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TITLE: ships.  

AUTHOR: Beverly Enwall 


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Teach, like many pirates, preferred to operate on his own. However, during his cruise along the coasts of America he made an exception in the case of Major Stede Bonnet. Why "major"? It was said that he had held this rank in the army before becoming a rich planter in Barbados where he lived a peaceful, comfortable life. Generally pirates were seamen who, by chance or inclination, chose to become outlaws to sail the seas and fight for none but themselves. Stede Bonnet had never set foot on a ship except as a passenger, and it was therefore with amazement that his friends learned that this peaceful, law-abiding citizen had left to sail the seas. He commanded a vessel of nine guns with a crew of seventy men. How did he acquire them? He bought them.

Usually the first prize that a pirate made was a ship he had seized. Stede Bonnet seized nothing. He became a pirate almost legally. Why? Not from necessity. He was rich. Perhaps for a taste for adventure? Charles Johnson, in his general Hystory of Pyrates, London, 1704, explains: "It is claimed that his fantasy to become pyrate was occasioned by the tribulations he suffered in consequence of his married state. An illustration in a popular edition of the times shows him running from his home under an avalanche of broken plates thrown at him by his spouse. Johnson also speaks of a mental disorder "which had been only too apparent some time before his unfortunate determination.

Stede Bonnet's imagination was inflamed by the adventures of sea rovers, just as Don Quixote had been fascinated by tales of chivalry. Little by little he dreamed of taking his place among them, in order to experience the exhilaration of great combats, the excitement of hunting in the ranks of old sea-dogs. Thus it was that he bought a ship, recruited a crew and set to sea. Since he himself knew nothing of seamanship, one must suppose that among his crew he recruited a competent pilot and fist mate. He cruised off the coast of Virginia in a ship which, for some unknown reason, he had named Vengeance. But on whom or what could Stede Bonnet, who possessed everything which life could desire (with the exception perhaps of his wife) wish to be revenged? Perhaps it was something he had once read, a fine name for a pirate ship.

The sails of the Vengeance billowed under a fine breeze. Her holds were stocked with food and ammunition. Bonnet felt he was about to realize his cherished dream. A sailing ship was sighted. The Vengeance swooped down on her and her unfortunate crew allowed themselves to be captured. Stede Bonnet was exultant. The prize was of only mediocre value, but he had now become a real pirate.

During the following weeks, first one ship and then another was taken. True, they were only small ships and their cargoes did not enrich the pirates very much, but the ease with which they were captured seemed like a good augury and Stede Bonnet felt he was cut out for his new profession.

He thirsted after fresh and more important conquests. He now sailed north to the sea routes frequented by great merchantmen on their way to New York. But first he had to revictual, something he could do without difficulty since he was as yet unknown. Then he once again hunted for prey. But no great merchantmen appeared on the horizon and his men began to grumble. Only one innocent sloop was pillaged form top to bottom. It was essential to approach nearer the coast, but that was dangerous for the English frigates were ever on the look-out.

In 1711 Stede Bonnet sailed southward to North Carolina, still hoping to attack a large ship, his crew still grumbling. Discipline on board was relaxed. The crew no longer had any confidence in a captain who did not know how to navigate his own ship. As for his courage in combat, this was yet to be judged, for they had not yet been seriously engaged.

It was now that Teach appeared on the scene. The two men met quite by chance. Stede much admired Blackbeard who conformed in every way to the pirate ideal. It is not known from whom came the initiative, but the two captains concluded an alliance. Teach no doubt saw the advantage of having an extra ship and crew of which he would in reality have command while Stede must have imagined he could learn much from this master pirate.

Events, however, did not turn out quite as Stede Bonnet had imagined. His companions no longer obeyed him but were fascinated by the barbaric personality of Teach and hoped that under his guidance they would at last make a fortune. Very soon Stede Bonnet resigned his position as commander. He left the Vengeance for the ship of his friend, no doubt hoping to be chosen as his second in command. But Teach kept him in the background, showing him the most complete indifference. Bonnet, humiliated, suffered from this isolation, from his uselessness, and gradually became disgusted with the life of a pirate. It was not remorse but regret to have become a caricature of the sea rover of his dreams.

He was bored and soured and seeking a way to be rid of Teach when the latter gave him the pretext he needed. Blackbeard decided to pretend to give up the life of a filibuster and demand an amnesty. He no longer wished to be encumbered by several ships. After the voluntary sinking of Teach's vessel, Stede Bonnet hastily regained the Vengeance and once again sailed on his own.

He disliked Teach but still wished to emulate him. He, too, would make a pretence of submission to the authorities to give an appearance of legality to his crimes. The Vengeance anchored off the island of Saint Thomas and Stede Bonnet went ashore to obtain his pardon. The negotiations took a long time. When he returned, he hastened to board his ship, but she seemed empty, her deck in disorder. Stede Bonnet was stupefied at what appeared to be a complete desertion by the crew.

However, three men appeared on shore and signaled to him. They explained that during Bonnet's absence, a sloop had approached their ship and to their surprise, it was Teach. The crew had given him a warm welcome, but Teach, in the face of these demonstrations of friendship, held the crew at pistol point while his pirates pillaged Bonnet's ship of all its food stocks and munitions. He then had taken the crew prisoners and left them on a deserted island some miles away. A few had managed to escape, and it was these men who were now on the look-out for Bonnet's return.

Stede Bonnet was consumed with rage. He swore vengeance and his resolve animated the men with new energy. He picked up the rest of his men from the deserted island, and they were happy to leave and sail again with Bonnet. They all had one idea: to seek out Teach and avenge themselves. They received news that Teach was at Ocracoke, so they immediately set a course for North Carolina. But Bonnet never found Teach, which perhaps was just as well, since his former ally would have made mincemeat of him.

Stede Bonnet did not renounce the idea of seeking revenge, but for the moment he had to live. Once more he took to sea to make new captures, calling himself Thomas and renaming his ship the Royal James. Off Philadelphia several ships were pillaged and their cargoes were of some value, notably bullion, so Bonnet's companions hoped at last to make their fortune. But the first mate had noticed that the Royal James was leaking badly, so they would have to put in at some deserted creek for at least two months while she was caulked and overhauled.

Naively, Stede Bonnet believed himself to be within the law with the commission he had been granted. He considered that he had not acted as a pirate because each time he had seized a cargo he had given something in exchange-a mere symbolic exchange, however, for the vanquished captains were never consulted and once back in port did not hesitate to describe the events in detail and lodge complaints against Bonnet. Consequently, Bonnet, in spite of his modest successes, began to acquire a reputation as a dangerous sea rover. The Governors of Jamaica and North Carolina both gave orders for the capture of this "perjured pirate who inflicted untold calamities on maritime commerce."

The authorities learned that the Royal James was immobilized in Cape Fear River, a good opportunity to capture her without great difficulty. Two sloops under the command of a William Bluet were suitably armed and sent out. Bonnet had no idea that they came to capture him and sent out a cutter to meet them. The cutter's crew, however, turned about and called out, "They are English who have come to attack us." Not only did Stede Bonnet not attempt to escape but he got ready to engage the two sloops. At daybreak, he hoisted sail and weighed anchor, to make for the open sea and to manoeuvre.

Unfortunately, he manoeuvred so badly that he ran aground. One of the English sloops did no better. There followed an exchange of fire, and between salvoes the opposing crews cursed each other. Charles Johnson wrote, "The pirates waved their hats and derisively invited Bluet's men to pay them a visit. The latter replied by joyful shouts affirming that they would come soon enough to exchange a word or two. All three vessels suffered only minor damage, but both sides had casualties. The grounded sloop managed to get afloat again, but before her crew could board the Royal James, Stede Bonnet hoisted the white flag."

If he surrendered because he believed he would not be treated as a pirate, as soon as he was confined to prison along with his second in command, David Hariott, Bonnet attempted to plot an escape He bribed the jailer with a few pieces of gold not only to let them escape but to supply them with a small sailing boat. . The fugitives set course for the north, ran into a bad storm, and might have been wrecked if Hariott had not taken the tiller and found refuge on an island near Charleston.

A few days later, Bluet and his sloop were sighted and in the ensuing fight, Hariott was killed. Bonnet surrendered and in November, 1718, was imprisoned again, this time in Charleston, South Carolina. He appeared before his judges together with his crew, all of whom claimed that they had been forcibly impressed to service on Bonnet's ship. Bonnet himself claimed that it was necessity that drove him to take to the high seas and attack merchant shipping.

The judge stated, "The sea was created by God for the use of man. It is susceptible to ownership and government like terra firma. The King of England enjoys sovereign rights over British waters. Commerce and navigation cannot dispense with laws. There have always existed special laws for the good ordinance of maritime affairs."

All but three of the pirates were condemned to be hanged. The execution took place on November 18, 1718, but Bonnet was spared, not as a pardon but because he had another crime that must be tried. The magistrate at the second trial declared, "You are a man of good condition . . . You have the advantage of a good education. You are generally considered to be a well-read man." The magistrate then read several extracts from the Bible and for a second time condemned Stede Bonnet to be hanged.

His lot seemed desperate, but Bonnet still had hope. His friends tried to find a way to save him from hanging, perhaps by arranging to have him retried in England. William Bluet himself volunteered to escort the prisoner, but eventually the idea was shelved. English judges had scant pity for pirate, so it was probable that the King would not overturn the decision.

Nevertheless Stede Bonnet wrote a letter asking for a reprieve: "I implore you to spare me my life, even if I have to cut off my arms and legs to obtain my pardon, leaving me only the use of my tongue with which to pray to God, to make penance every day and live clad in sackcloth and ashes." Despite this appeal, Bonnet was hanged. He asked for and was granted a last favour: he died with a bunch of flowers in his hands.

======================== This story contributed by Beverly Enwall

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