Major Stede Bonnet was truly a remarkable pirate. Unlike the vast majority of the other men and women who became pirates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bonnet was a gentleman, a man of means. He was born in Barbados to a wealthy family in 1688 and inherited his family's prosperous plantation while still a young man. He married a local girl and had four children. Then, suddenly, at the age of 28, he threw it all away, purchasing a well-armed sloop and sailing off into pirate history.
Bonnet was not a very good pirate. He didn't know bow from stern or a mizzenmast from a musket ball. But he hired men who did, and captured several prizes in 1717-1718. He even sailed for a time with the legendary Edward "Blackbeard" Teach.
The inept Bonnet was captured by the authorities when a pirate hunter named Colonel William Rhett defeated Bonnet and his crew in a pitched battle in the Cape Fear inlet on September 27, 1718. After some speedy trials, all of his men were hanged in November of 1718, and Bonnet was due to be among them. The people of Charles Town, particularly the women, took pity on him and urged the Governor to show him leniency. There was some talk of sending him to England to face justice there, but nothing ever came of it.
As Stede Bonnet awaited execution for piracy, he wrote an eloquent plea for mercy to Governor Robert Johnson of South Carolina. Many pirates expressed their wish for leniency, but Bonnet alone among his peers had the education to compose a coherent letter. Here is the letter, reproduced in its entirety. The letter is not dated, but was probably written sometime in November of 1718.
Honoured Sir;I Have presumed on the Confidence of your eminent Goodness to throw myself, after this manner at your Feet, to implore you'll be graciously pleased to look upon me with tender Bowels of Pity and Compassion; and believe me to be the most miserable Man this Day breathing; That the Tears proceeding from my most sorrowful Soul may soften your Heart, and incline you to consider my Dismal State, wholly, I must confess, unprepared to receive so soon the dreadful Execution you have been pleased to appoint me; and therefore beseech you to think me an Object of your Mercy.
For God's Sake, good Sir, let the Oaths of three Christian Men weigh something with you, who are ready to depose, when you please to allow them the Liberty, the Compulsion I lay under in committing those Acts for which I am doom'd to die.
I entreat you not to let me fall a Sacrifice to the Envy and ungodly Rage of some few Men, who, not being yet satisfied with Blood, feign to believe, that I had the Happiness of a longer Life in this World, I should still employ it in a wicked Manner, which to remove that, and all other Doubts with your Honour, I heartily beseech you'll permit me to live, and I'll voluntarily put it ever out of my Power by separating all my Limbs from my Body, only reserving the use of my Tongue to call continually on, and pray to the Lord, my God, and mourn all my Days in Sackcloth and Ashes to work out confident Hopes of my Salvation, at that great and dreadful Day when all righteous Souls shall receive their just rewards: And to render your Honour a further Assurance of my being incapable to prejudice any of my Fellow-Christians, if I was so wickedly bent, I humbly beg you will, (as a Punishment of my Sins for my poor Soul's Sake) indent me as a menial Servant to your Honour and this Government during my Life, and send me up to the farthest inland Garrison or settlement in the Country, or in any other ways you'll be pleased to dispose of me; and likewise that you'll receive the Willingness of my Friends to be bound for my good Behavior and Constant attendance to your Commands.
I once more beg for the Lord's Sake, dear Sir, that as you are a Christian, you will be as Charitable as to have Mercy and Compassion on my miserable Soul, but too newly awaked from an Habit of Sin to entertain so Confident Hopes and Assurances of its being received into the arms of Blessed Jesus, as is necessary to reconcile me to so speedy a Death; wherefore as my Life, Blood, Reputation of my family and future happy State lies entirely at your Disposal, I implore you to consider me with a Christian and Charitable Heart, and determine mercifully of me that I may ever acknowledge and esteem you next to God, my Saviour, and oblige me ever to pray that our heavenly Father will also forgive your Trespasses.
Now the God of Peace, that brought again from the Dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the Sheep thru' the Blood of the everlasting Covenant, make you Perfect in every good work to do his Will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his Sight thro' Jesus Christ, to whom be Glory forever and ever, is the hearty Prayer of
Most miserable, and,
Bonnet's pleas fell on deaf ears. Nocholas Trott, Lord Chief Justice of South Carolina at the time, sentenced Bonnet to hanging, citing the eighteen soldiers and sailors who were killed while apprehending Bonnet and his crew on September 27, 1718. As for the governor, any qualms he may have had concerning Bonnet's fate were most likely put to rest when Bonnet and a fellow pirate briefly escaped while awaiting trial: Bonnet's companion was killed when they were recaptured.
Stede Bonnet, the "Gentleman Pirate," was hanged on December 10, 1718 in Charles Town.
Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.