Many people know the names of the infamous pirates from history such as Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, but there is one swashbuckler of the seas that you may not be familiar with, a villainous pirate with a dashing personality whose exploits earned him the nickname “The Gentleman Pirate.” His real name was Stede Bonnet, and his life story deserves every bit as much attention as his contemporary villains of the sea. However, unlike most pirates, Bonnet’s life is so extraordinary because he suddenly left a monied life of ease and decided to embark on a life of adventure and crime.
Stede Bonnet was born into a prosperous British family on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean in the 1680s. Bonnet was well-educated, and he inherited his father’s estate on Barbados in 1694 when he was still very young. He married, started a family, and enjoyed a seemingly comfortable life as a wealthy landowner. Then, in 1717, Stede Bonnet drastically altered the course of his serene life. Rumors as to why Bonnet made his decision have been debated by historians. Theories range from family and marital problems, to financial issues, to a mental breakdown.
Whatever the cause, Bonnet purchased a ship he called Revenge and set out on the high seas to live the life of a pirate. He assembled a crew of some 70 men and sailed northwest to Virginia. This era was regarded as the golden age of pirating, and men such as Blackbeard were often looked at heroes instead of murderers and plunderers. Bonnet was known as “The Gentleman Pirate” due to his wealthy, landowning background. Most men of the sea were criminals, escaped slaves, or desperate men with no ties to any place. Stede Bonnet turned that popular conception on its head when he took to the high seas.
Stede Bonnet was also out of his element.
Although Bonnet had no seafaring experience, many of his crew did, and they quickly captured vessels filled with valuables. Bonnet and his crew decided to enjoy their spoils in Honduras, a popular pirate hangout of the time, and it was there that he became acquainted with the notorious Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. The two decided to voyage together, but Blackbeard quickly realized that Bonnet had no pirating experience and was, in fact, not a very good pirate. He decided to manipulate the newcomer, and essentially took him prisoner aboard his ship, while his rowdy crew had his way with Revenge and her men.
When Blackbeard stopped in North Carolina, Bonnet was allowed to walk free, but not without a severely bruised ego. Bonnet decided to pursue Blackbeard and his men, and along the way the former rookie pirate developed a reputation as a bloodthirsty captain with retribution (or Revenge…) on his mind. Bonnet’s name and exploits became so well-known that South Carolina’s governor decided that Bonnet had to be stopped. He enlisted Colonel William Rhett to track and capture Stede Bonnet.
In August 1718, Colonel Rhett captured Bonnet and his men. Once imprisoned, Bonnet attempted to use his elite background to save his own neck, blaming all his transgressions on the vicious Blackbeard.
The court was not influenced by Bonnet’s pleas, and “The Gentleman Pirate” was hanged in South Carolina on December 10, 1718, less than three weeks after Blackbeard was killed in a battle off of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.