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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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An Exception to the Rule

. . . having now discharged my Duty to you as a Christian, by giving you the best Counsel I can with respect to the Salvation of your Soul, I must now do my Office as a Judge.

The Sentence that the Law hath appointed to pass upon you for your Offences, and which this Court doth therefore award, is,

That you, the said Stede Bonnet, shall go from hence to the Place from whence you came, and from thence to the Place of Execution, where you shall be hanged by the Neck till you are Dead.

And the God of infinite Mercy be merciful to your Soul.
(The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, and Other Pirates, 43)

Nicholas Trott, Esquire, Judge of the Vice-Admiralty, and Chief-Justice of the Province of South Carolina, pronounced these words on 12 November 1718, but Stede Bonnet’s fate was sealed long before that fateful Wednesday. You might say his descent began when he was six years old, or in the aftermath of the death of his firstborn, or when he left Barbados without permission in 1716, or when he opted to return to piracy after securing the king’s pardon in 1718. Perhaps, it was merely a culmination of a series of missteps throughout his life, some of which most certainly would have impacted his mental state.

Rather than making a decision now, let us begin at the beginning . . . 29 July 1688, the day young Stede was christened at Christ Church Parish Church.1 He was a third generation Bonnet with roots within British and Barbadian aristocracy.2 His grandfather was one of the original settlers and served as the island’s Deputy Colonial Secretary. John Whetstone had two sons and a daughter; the latter married Captain Edward Bonnet. Stede’s father died in 1694 and his mother passed soon after. The six-year-old inherited a sizable estate, consisting of two windmills and a mill used in the production of sugarcane, which was cultivated on more than 400 acres by 94 slaves. His grandmother, Jennet, took over raising him once he turned eleven.

The Mill Yard in Antigua (1823)
                                  by William Clark (Source:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Mill_Yard_-_Ten_Views_in_the_Island_of_Antigua_(1823),_plate_V_-_BL.jpg)Slaves cutting the sugar cane by
                                  William Clark (Source:
William Clark's illustrations from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua . . . (1823)) of a mill yard and slaves cutting sugar cane
(Sources: Wikimedia Commons and Wikimedia Commons)

On 21 November 1709, Stede wed Mary Allamby, whose father also owned a large and successful plantation. Stede was twenty-one and his bride was sixteen when they walked down the aisle of the Cathedral of St. Michael in Bridgetown. Three years later, their first son, Allamby, was born on 17 May. Two other sons, Edward (1713) and Stede, Jr. (1714) followed, but tragedy struck sometime during the early years of this decade. Stede and Mary lost their firstborn son. Allamby’s death, as well as the death of Stede’s parents when he was six, had to effect Stede, but history doesn’t tell us how.3

Despite these losses, Stede’s life continued to progress on a relatively normal path. Being a landowner, he was automatically granted a military rank in the local militia. “Major” was more honorary than earned, as there are no extant records of his service and the local government deemed it legally necessary for the landowners to hold rank to control the slaves. Even so, Stede seemed to be proud of his title, using “Major” even after he went on the account instead of the more common “Captain.” In January 1716, he became a Justice of the Peace.

                                chapter page of A General History of
                                PyratesAt some point, according to Captain Charles Johnson (whose writings must be taken with a grain of salt), “a Disorder in his Mind, which had been but too visible in him,” surfaced.4 (Defoe, 95) Johnson attributed this to “some Discomforts he found in the married State” – which has been interpreted by some to mean a nagging wife. (Defoe, 95) These were two reasons given for his switch from being a respected and upstanding gentleman to becoming a pirate. Others have suggested that the cumulative effects of the losses he endured could have pushed him over the edge until he opted to “run away” from his life. Or maybe he just experienced a mid-life crisis.

Another possibility might stem from daydreams. (We all have them.) Reading was a passion of his, and he lived during a time when several popular books explored exotic voyages and privateering. These included Captain Edward Cooke’s A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World, Lionel Wafer’s A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World, and A Cruising Voyage Round the World by Woodes Rogers, one of his relatives. He might have wanted to follow in their footsteps and go to sea.

William Dampier by Thomas Murray
                                  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dampier-portrait.jpg)Woodes Rogers from Hogarth's
                                  painting of governor and children
(left) William Dampier by Thomas Murray (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
(right) Woodes Rogers by William Hogarth (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There was just one problem: he didn’t know the first thing about ships and sailing. But why allow something this trivial to stop him from pursuing his ambition? He definitely had access to money and he did take out a loan of £1,700. What the money was for is unknown, but before the year was out, he found just the right ship to buy, a sixty-ton sloop that sailed into Carlisle Bay from South Carolina. Godfrey Malbone, master of the vessel, agreed to Stede’s terms and Stede paid the full price in cash. He also arranged for a local shipwright to make the necessary alterations so the sloop could handle the armament that he wanted (at least twelve guns) and an oversized crew (at least 100 men). Stede made one other request of the shipwright. His cabin should be comfortable and have space to house a library full of books.

SloopLithograph of Bridgetown,
                                  Barbados (1848) (Source:
Drawing of a sloop (left) and Lithograph of Bridgetown, Barbados (1848, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

While the shipwright went to work, Stede put his affairs in order. His wife, Mary, had his power of attorney and two friends would oversee all personal and business matters pertaining to the family. Since he lacked seamanship, Stede needed a crew who knew the ins and outs of sailing and working the ship. By the time he left Barbados in late spring of 1717, he had hired 126 experienced men. Purchasing and finding twelve cannons proved problematic, so he settled for six with a magazine that was fully stocked with gunpowder, round shot, and small arms. Then, in the dark of night, he and his men weighed anchor and departed Carlisle Bay, never to return. Doing so without permission, which is what Revenge did, meant that Stede had already committed his first crime.

To be continued . . .

1. This would be the second building of that name, since the 1629 wooden Christ Church was destroyed in 1669. Rebuilt on the site, the new church was of stone and could accommodate 300 people. A hurricane destroyed the church in 1780, but several other renditions have been erected since then. https://www.christchurchpc.com/history-architecture

2. Genealogy research conducted by Baylus C. Brooks shows that Stede Bonnet’s great-great-grandfather, Roger Whitstone was married to Oliver Cromwell’s sister. They had two sons, one of whom was Sir Thomas Whetstone, whose second wife was the daughter of one of the men executed for beheading King Charles I. The other son, Capt. John Whetstone was the grandfather of Sarah Whetstone, who married Woodes Rogers, the future governor of the Bahamas.

3. Allamby’s death would be equally devastating on Mary, but no records exist that indicate what those effects were.

4. No contemporary document corroborates Johnson’s claim, but it is frequently mentioned in subsequent biographies.

Baker, Daniel R. "Stede Bonnet: The Phantom Alliance," The Pyrate's Way, Summer 2007, 21-25.
British Piracy in the Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730 edited by Joel H. Baer. Picekring & Chatto, 2007, 2:321-380.
Brooks, Baylus C. Quest for Blackbeard: The Story of Edward Thache and His World. Independently published, 2016.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Random House, 1995.

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Dover, 1999.
Dolin, Eric Jay. Black Flags, Blue Waters: The Epic History of America's Most Notorious Pirates. Liveright, 2018.
Downey, Christopher Byrd. Stede Bonnet: Charleston's Gentleman Pirate. The History Press, 2012.
Duffus, Kevin P. The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate. Looking Glass Productions, 2008.

Malesic, Tony. "Richard Tookerman," E-mail posted on Pirates List, 26 September 2001.
Maryley, David F. "Bonnet, Stede (fl. 1717-1718) Pirates of the Americas. ABC-CLIO, 2010, 2:527-533.
Moss, Jeremy R. The Life and Tryals of the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet. Köehler, 2020.
Moss, Jeremy. "Stede Bonnet, Gentleman Pirate: How a Mid-life Crisis Created the 'worst pirate of all time'," History Extra, 4 January 2023.

The Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet, and Other Pirates. Printed for Ben J. Cowse at the Rose and Crown, MDCCXIX.

Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Harcourt, 2007.

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