Bored Millionaire Buys Ship and Becomes a Buccaneer
Stede Bonnet (circa 1680 – 1718) was nicknamed “The Gentleman Pirate” because he had been a wealthy plantation owner in Barbados and a British Army major before turning to piracy. He earned his fame or infamy not because of his success as a pirate, but because of his incompetence. It soon became clear that he had no business buccaneering, and that he probably should have left that to roughnecks better suited to that line of work.
Born into a wealthy family, Bonnet had led a prosperous and peaceful life, living with his wife in a profitable Barbadian sugar plantation. Then one day in 1717, he had a mid life crisis, and out of the blue decided to escape marital difficulties and boredom at home by becoming a pirate. So he bought a ship, named it Revenge, and armed it with cannons. He then hired a crew of 70 sailors, and sailed off into the ocean blue and the life of a pirate captain.
As might be expected from a rich dilettante playing pirate, Bonnet was not very good at piracy. It was not long before he revealed himself an incompetent sailor and worse leader, and he barely managed to seize a few trifling prizes off the coasts of the Carolinas and Virginia. Only the fact that he paid his crew regular and generous wages – the only pirate captain to do so – kept them from mutinying, deposing him, and electing another captain in his stead.
Bonnet came across the famous and fearful pirate Blackbeard in Florida. Blackbeard befriended Bonnet, and convinced him to give up command of the Revenge because of his utter incompetence at piracy. So Bonnet transferred to Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, where he remained as a guest. His own ship, Revenge, was taken over by one of Blackbeard’s lieutenants, whom the crew accepted as their new captain.
Soon thereafter, Bonnet accepted a royal pardon, and a royal commission to go privateering against Spanish shipping. However, he decided to return to piracy in July of 1718. Hapless as ever, he thought that changing the name of his ship from Revenge to Royal James, and adopting the alias “Captain Thomas”, would be enough to mask his identity. As with many other things, he was sadly mistaken.
Within a month, a British naval expedition surprised Bonnet at anchor in the Cape Fear River estuary, and after a fight, captured him and his crew. He managed to escape, but was recaptured after a few weeks on the run, and taken to Charleston. There, Stede Bonnet was tried and convicted on two counts of piracy, sentenced to death by hanging, and executed on December 10th, 1718.