Guest Post By Susan Jackson
Stede Bonnet, The Gentleman Pirate
Early in Drums of Autumn (DOA), Claire and Jamie meet Stephen Bonnet, a pirate who had just escaped hanging. Against his better judgment, Jamie lets Bonnet come along with them–under cover–and go back to his ship.
And that was the beginning of a loooong back and forth relationship, if you will, of the Frasers and the despicable Stephen Bonnet. In fact, I would say the man is hated much, much more than Geillis in the book series. Rightly so, as he was truly a degenerate, with no hope of rehabilitation–a career pirate.
Since the time of piracy’s heydays in the Colonial period, history has somehow managed to romanticize it. Not to be confused with privateering, which was a ship whose crew was authorized by their government to capture enemy merchant ships during war time, pirates captured any boat they thought had goods aboard that they could either sell for the profit, or keep themselves. Pirates murdered, maimed and stole simply out of greed.
When I first read the name Stephen Bonnet in DOA, I thought I had heard the name before. Living on the coast of North Carolina, there are plenty of old pirate stories hanging around, and Blackbeard is the best-known pirate in these parts, as he kept headquarters in the old town of Bath, which isn’t far from me. There are endless stories of treasure that Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (or a/k/a Thatch) has hidden all over the Outer Banks, even as far inland as Edenton. (No one has found any of it, by the way–but then again, who would tell it if they did?) But I knew there was something familiar about Bonnet’s name, so I looked it up. Come to find out, Stephen Bonnet is truly a fictional character, but his name is very similar to the man known as the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet.
Major Stede Bonnet was born in Barbados in 1688 to a fairly well-to-do English family. His father died when he was six years old, and he became owner of his father’s land and holdings. He was a member of the Barbados militia, and in 1709, married a young woman named Mary, and they had four children. As we say, life was good. Then something happened.
No one knows exactly when, but one of the Bonnet’s children died. Some blamed Stede’s decision to become a pirate on his grief, some blamed it on an unhappy marriage, and some chalk it up to Stede being a Jacobite and wanting to spite King George in any way he could. We Outlander fans are pros on terms like Jacobite, and even know who King George was. 😉 Whatever the reason, Stede used his own money to have a ship built, rigged it with cannons, named it the Revenge, got a crew together, and set sail.
The Bonnet Flag
Fortunately for the Major, he didn’t do too badly in 1717, hanging out around the coast from the Carolinas to New York, plundering away, in spite of the fact that he had no sailing experience whatever. His crew didn’t like him, though, as he ordered them around, not having a clue about navigation, or running a ship. His captain’s cabin was filled with books, and he often lay around like the well-to-do man that he was. One day, his lack of seafaring knowledge was plain to see when he ordered the attack of a Spanish ship. The Revenge was badly damaged, as were members of his crew, along with their captain.
During his convalescence, Bonnet met Blackbeard. Bonnet’s crew begged the fairly new pirate captain, Blackbeard, to take over the Revenge because Bonnet had no idea what he was doing. They needed a sure and confident leader, and Blackbeard, though just starting out with his own ship, was an experienced pirate. Blackbeard convinced Bonnet that he could be his guest while his injuries healed, and the pampered Bonnet was only too happy to accept. The two pirate captains were very successful in their partnership and the Gentleman Pirate must have thought every pirate captain was a gentleman. He would soon find out Blackbeard was a shrewd man, and a true pirate.
Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard
Sometime in early 1718, Bonnet was much improved and ready to take on the seas again, but ran into trouble when he attacked another ship and the attack failed. Once again, the captain and crew took refuge on Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Blackbeard suggested Bonnet and his crew go into the town of Bath to seek out a governor’s pardon. So much for good partnerships because while Bonnett and some of his crew were being pardoned and authorized to privateer, Blackbeard took off with their loot and the remaining crew! After this, Bonnet tried really hard to stick to privateering and attacking only Spanish ships, as the governor had given him the right to do. However, being the not-so-good man that he was, he ended up getting back into piracy and spending about two months looking for the double-crossing Edward Teach and the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Bonnet never found Blackbeard, as both Blackbeard’s and Bonnet’s days were numbered. While Bonnet was on the run, Blackbeard, in November 1718, was killed in a long fight with British soldiers near Ocracoke Island in North Carolina, and his head was taken and hung from the front of the military ship to prove that Blackbeard was no longer in the pirate business. In the meantime, Bonnet had changed his ship’s name to the Royal James to avoid detection from officials. They were onto him, however, and caught up with him as the boat underwent some repairs while harboring at a creek near the mouth of the Cape Fear River and the quaint little town of Southport. A fight ensued (The Battle of Cape Fear also called the Battle of the Sandbars), and the pirate ultimately surrendered. After a brief escape, old Stede was recaptured and hanged, along with his crew, in December 1718.
Bonnet’s Creek Memorial, Southport, NC. Reads as follows, “BONNET’S CREEK ~ Stede Bonnet, the ‘Gentleman Pirate’ used the mouth of this creek as a hide-out for his vessel, the Royal James formerly called Revenge. Here on September 26, 1718, the great Battle of the Sand Bars was fought between the pirates and the men sent to capture them under the command of Col. William Rhett aboard the “Henry” and “Sea Nymph”. After a twenty-four hour battle there were nineteen men killed, twenty-three wounded, and Bonnet, with the remains of his pirate crew, surrendered. On November 8, 1718, twenty-nine of the pirates were hanged in Charleston, S.C. A few weeks later, holding a cluster of flowers in his manacled hands, Gentleman Stede Bonnet met the same fate on the gallows. This part of the Cape Fear was a favorite meeting place for pirates, including the notorious Blackbeard and Mary Anne Blythe, the woman buccaneer.”
NC Historical Marker Located In Southport, NC
The Execution of Stede Bonnet
Bonnet Memorial in Charleston, SC
Diana has asked many times (somewhat jokingly) if we think she makes up the “stuff” she writes in her books. Well, she does but being the researcher she is, we also know she uses real people to create some fictional ones. Think about Geillis Duncan who was inspired by the nonfictional Gellie Duncan of the 1590’s Berwick Witch Trials in Scotland. So, what do you think? Could Stede Bonnet have been Diana’s inspiration for her fictional Stephen Bonnet? What other fictional characters do you think Diana has created from real people?
Want to visit the old stomping grounds of Stede Bonnet mentioned in this article? Did you say yes? Then, check out the following sites:
Susan Jackson is a mother of four who lives in coastal North Carolina, and an avid Outlander fan. Besides reading, she loves cooking and baking, and music. She is a thyroid cancer survivor and has worked in education most of her life. She hopes to one day blog about her thyroid cancer journey.