Guest Post By Susan Jackson
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.
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.
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.
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:
Great historical information, thank you for sharing! I do hope to visit some day, I too love the Outlander books, Stars series. So much so, my husband and I are going to Scotland in the Fall of 2018. We’ve been to Colonial Williamsburg 3 times because we, mostly me, love the rich history.
Thanks again for your research and sharing it.
Hey Sally! Thank you for your kind comment. Can you pack me up and take me to Scotland with you? LOL! I want to go! Seriously, I know you are going to have a great time. If you’re not a member of our FB group, head on over there and join (https://www.facebook.com/groups/outlandernorthcarolina/). That way you can share your Scotland experience with us! Also, when you visit Colonial Williamsburg, you’re only a zip away from North Carolina. Come on down!!!!
Sally, I’m glad you found this informative–I love learning new things, and once I really started looking around for Stede, I learned about his close association with Blackbeard.
If you come back to eastern NC and want to see some authentic Colonial sites, go to Edenton. They have a walking tour, and one of the stops is the Penelope Barker House, where she organized the first tea tax rebellion. The oldest house in North Carolina is there as well, (though it doesn’t look old! ), and the original 1767 courthouse is a sight to see!
I am new to your site and I greatly enjoyed reading this piece! I too am jealous of Sally heading to Scotland. My husband’s great-grandparents hail from Glasgow and we’ve longed to go there….even before my obsession with the amazing Diana Gabaldon and her wonderful Outlander World. Keep up the great work and Thank you!
Hey Lydia! Thank you for the kind comment and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I learned so much myself. Susan did a great job! I want to research my family history – I MUST have ancestors from Scotland! How else can I account for my obsession?!?! Thank you so much for stopping by my site!!!
Thank you for reading my first post, Lydia! ????
Thanks Beth! I enjoyed reading this bit of NC history. When I was reading DOA I had convinced myself that Stephen Bonnet was a pseudonym for Blackbeard, so thanks for the clarification.
Thank you, Colleen! Susan did a great job with this post! And, yep, Diana knows her stuff, right? Wish I had her brain! Of course, she wouldn’t want mine so I’m afraid I am rather stuck with what I have! Thank you so much for reading and for the kind words.
Thanks for stopping by. Colleen! ????
Wonderful article!! It is so amazing reading about areas in North Carolina I visit frequently or live within a few miles of, such as Bath, NC! I grew up attending school in Bath, its history was something as kids and now adults we still find fascinating. Reading of North Carolina towns and some of its history in the Outlander series is so amazing and I often find myself learning something new. The research and detail Diana has put into this series astounds me!!!
Thank you, Angela! I was so excited when I was reading the books and learned Jamie and Claire come to live in NC! I’ve learned and continue to learn so much because of Diana’s wonderful books! She is truly amazing and has made me so enthusiastic about NC history. Susan did a great job bringing that history to life in this post! Thank you for commenting!
I feel the same way, Angela. I didn’t move to this area on the coast until I was an adult, and gobbled up every bit of history and lore and legend I could get my hands on. I loved learning about Blackbeard, and really enjoyed the extra knowledge I gained by researching Bonnet.
I have a good friend from Bath (Bayview area)–he grew up there and is a commercial fisherman, but has moved on up north where the big fish are. lol
Thanks for your kind words! ????
Very interesting information, thanks! Diana has said that Stede Bonnet is probably Stephen’s father or grandfather.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Karen! Stephen would definitely be a chip off the old block then!
Hey, Karen! And if Stephen is a descendant, he must’ve gotten the DNA that made Stede go off his rocker. ???? Thanks for stopping by!
Very interesting historical article. I knew Steven Bonnet was a real person but didn’t know this was the reality. I’m heading to Scotland for the second time next month; it gets into your soul and won’t let go. Eating is overrated, aye?
Oh aye, Trudy! I’m with you! In fact, take me with you. I won’t cause much trouble – promise. ???? Seriously, I hope you have a wonderful trip. Are you a member of the FB group (Outlander North Carolina)? If so, would love for you to post some pictures from your trip! Thank you for reading the blog and for commenting!
Yes, Trudy–come join us in Facebook and let us travel vicariously with you! Thanks for stopping by the blog! ????????
I also am an avid Outlander fan and am truly amazed at Diana Gabaldon’s way with words. As a 72 year old Aussie of Irish extraction among others I have a fondness for the Celtic ambience and I find myself carried away by her description of places. I find myself laughing at the antics of Claire and Jaime and as an extremely well read connoisseur of most literature I would put Diana up there with the best. Thoroughly enjoyable reading and just for the record I got onto the reading after having watched the first two seasons of Outlander on netflix and wondered what comes next. Thank you Diana for this inspirational read. Sandra Le Gay Brereton nee Power
Thanks for bringing my favorite pirate to light although Old Stede and Stephen had little in common aside from their professions. Diana’s Bonnet is a true psychopath while Stede was a bit of a bumbler. I doubt he would have thrown children out of his cabin into the sea! I believe that Stede was hunted down by Colonel William Rhett of South Carolina and upon the gallows, wept and begged for mercy. Stephen Bonnet would have cracked a few jokes and mooned the crowd.
hahaha, you’re right, Daniel! Yes, many people think Diana based her Bonnet on Stede, and she said in her mind, they might be related, but in reality, I don’t think a definite line from Stede Bonnet has ever been proven. (I could be completely wrong on that, so don’t quote me!) Stephen Bonnet is definitely pirate material, much more so than Stede. Thanks for stopping by!