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Major Stede Bonnet and the Battle of Cape Fear River

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Major Stede Bonnet and the Battle of Cape Fear River

Stede Bonnet

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Major Stede Bonnet and the Battle of Cape Fear River:

On September 27, 1718, hardened pirates serving under Major Stede Bonnet fought against two pirate hunter ships under the command of Colonel William Rhett at the point on the Carolina coast where the Cape Fear River drains into the Atlantic Ocean. The battle lasted for hours as all of the ships got stuck on the sandy shoals of the inlet. The pirates were eventually overcome and taken in chains to Charles Town (now Charleston) where all of them, including Bonnet, were hanged.

Stede Bonnet, Pirate Captain:

Stede Bonnet was an unlikely pirate. He was originally from Barbados, where he had inherited a prosperous plantation. He married a local girl and had a family, but was apparently extremely unhappy, because in the spring of 1717 he purchased a ship, hired a crew and sailed off to be a pirate. He was an inept seaman, however, and knew nothing of piracy or life at sea and thus relied on others to show him the ropes. He even served for a time with the legendary Blackbeard. By summer of 1718 he was well-known as a pirate off the Atlantic coast of the present-day USA and in the Caribbean.

Pirate Hunters:

Meanwhile, Charles Town was smarting from a series of pirate attacks. Blackbeard and Bonnet had blockaded the city in May, essentially holding it for ransom until they received a valuable chest of medicines. Not long after, the infamous Charles Vane was reported as having captured several vessels in the vicinity. In addition, a certain "Captain Thomas," believed by many to be Stede Bonnet, was attacking ships in the area. The Governor of South Carolina gave two ships - the Henry (8 cannons, 70 men) and the Sea Nymph (8 cannons, 60 men) - to Colonel William Rhett: and told him to find the pirates and bring them to justice.

A Night Assault:

Rhett was mostly looking for the much more dangerous Charles Vane, but found Bonnet instead. On the evening of September 26, 1718, he saw three ships anchored in the Cape Fear inlet. It was Bonnet, in his ship the Royal James, with two prizes he had recently taken. It was too late to attack, so he anchored there to wait until the next day. The pirates noticed the armed sloops and sent men in three canoes to take them that night but they were easily fought off. Bonnet therefore knew that these were pirate hunters, and both sides spent the night making preparations for battle.

A Letter to the Governor:

That night, Bonnet showed a letter he had just written to one of his captives, a ship’s Captain named Manwaring. The letter was addressed to the Governor of South Carolina and stated that if the nearby sloops were indeed pirate hunters, and if he got clear of them, he would burn any and all ships sailing to or leaving from Charles Town. It was no empty treat: pirate captains often held grudges against cities where pirates had been hanged or whose merchants had angered them.

The Battle of Cape Fear River:

The next morning, the pirates set sail, hoping to blast their way past the enemy ships and into the open sea. It was obvious that Rhett had superior numbers, however, and the pirates didn't want to get close enough to be boarded. Before long, the Royal James was stuck on a sandbar, as were the Henry and the Sea Nymph. The Henry and the Royal James were stuck very close to one another, and for the next five hours the two crews traded small arms fire as neither could bring their cannons to bear on the other. The Henry was stuck with her deck towards the pirates, which left her men at a disadvantage. The Royal James, however, was stuck with her deck away from the Henry, meaning that Bonnet and his men had excellent cover as they tried to pick off their enemies.

Victory for the Pirate Hunters:

As the tide came in, the first ships to be freed of the sandbars were the Henry and the Sea Nymph. They set their sails and advanced on the still-stuck Royal James. Once they had him cornered, Bonnet knew he was lost, as the pirate hunters outnumbered his men by about four-to-one. Instead of waiting to be boarded and possibly massacred, they surrendered. On board the Henry, ten men had been killed and fourteen wounded. The Sea Nymph had lost two men with four wounded. Of the pirates, nine were killed and several others wounded. In addition to Bonnet, thirty-three pirates were captured.

Trials and Aftermath of the Battle of Cape Fear River:

The victorious pirate hunters sailed back in to Charles Town on October third to the cheers of the populace. The pirates where housed in a makeshift jail as no formal prison existed at the time. Bonnet, as a nobleman, had nicer quarters. The pirates were put on trial and all of them except for four were found guilty. They were hanged on November 8 and November 13. Bonnet escaped for a while but was recaptured, and in spite of his eloquent letter to the Governor, was hanged on December 10.

The Battle of Cape Fear River was a large one by pirate standards, involving multiple ships and relatively high casualties on both sides. Eventually, eighteen men who had served on the Henry or Sea Nymph died either in battle or later of their wounds, a fact which was mentioned at Bonnet's trial. It is probably the death of these men which sent Bonnet to the noose: otherwise, as a wealthy gentleman, he may well have avoided it.

Sources:

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.

Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009

 

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