Tag Archives: Major Stede Bonnet

Let’s go live the glamorous life as pirates!

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

At least one feminist historian argued Black Bart was a woman because of his taste and style

In his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), Capt. Charles Johnson, whoever he is, quotes “Black Bart” Roberts as saying that pirates have “Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power . . . ‘a merry life and a short one,’ shall be my motto.” Sounds great! Let’s go a-pirating!

Not so fast. First, you have to get a ship. Now, Henry Every started off with an actual warship, but they aren’t just lying around everywhere. Captain Worley set off from New York harbor in September of 1718 with eight companions in an open boat, carrying “a few Biscuits, and a dry’d Tongue or two, a little Cag of Water, [and] half a dozen old Musquets and Ammunition accordingly.” Hardly a Caribbean cruise ship! Although it’s been done in the same style in the Caribbean: Ned Lowe began with 12 men in a boat, and in 1722 John Evans began with a canoe and “three or four” companions on the coast of Jamaica.

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

How unfortunate was Major Stede Bonnet? This unfortunate!

But just think of the riches you’ll enjoy! Again, Every and his crew came away from seizing the Ganj-i-sawai with enough wealth to retire to Madagascar, the Bahamas, Pennsylvania, or England. Making the big score was the dream, one which the crews of the other ships Every cheated did not get to share in. And neither did most pirate crews. There just weren’t that many poorly defended ships with treasure sailing about. You were more likely to encounter coastal sailing ships carrying provisions, as the unfortunate Major Stede Bonnet did in his cruise off the Virginia coast in July, 1718.

Woe betide the pirate captain who failed to find enough treasure for his crew! At best, they were likely to lose crew members who took one of the prizes and sailed off in the night, as happened to Bonnet, and which happened multiple times to Black Bart. Worse, your crew might depose you or, if they were really unhappy with your performance, kill you. Capt. Thomas Anstis was shot in 1723 by some of his crew members while lying in his hammock, ending his career with his life. In the same year, Captain Lowther saved his crew the trouble: he shot himself after losing his ship while it was being careened.

But think of the plentiful supplies you’ll have, the clothes you’ll wear, the food you’ll eat! Pirates did love looting ships for fancy clothes. That’s because sea water ruined all but the sturdiest of their clothes, so they had to be replaced frequently. And no horror was worse for pirates than to run short of food and water. Why it was even worse than running short of liquor! Yet it happened far too often, for pirate crews were not careful to budget their supplies, always figuring they could steal more from the next ship they seized.

Sometimes there was no next ship when they needed one. This happened at least twice to Black Bart Roberts in 1720, in both cases because his voyage turned out to be much longer than expected. The second occasion was the more dreadful. Roberts had been sailing to Africa, but thanks to poor navigation got caught in trade winds that forced him to turn back to the Caribbean. He had 700 leagues (2400 miles) to sail with only one hogshead (maybe 60 gallons) of water for a crew of 124! As Johnson describes it,

They continued their Course, and came to an Allowance of one single Mouthful of Water for 24 Hours; many of them drank their Urine, or Sea Water, which instead of allaying, gave them an inextinguishable thirst, that killed them: Others pined and wasted a little more Time in Fluxes and Apyrexies, so that  they dropped away daily: Those that sustain’d the Misery best, were such as almost starved themselves, forbearing all Sorts of Food, unless a Mouthful or two of Bread the whole Day, so that those who survived were as weak as possible for Men to be, and alive.

The pirates managed to make the coast of South America, where they obtained water from a river mouth at the coast, and soon seized provisions from a passing ship. But this no doubt explained why some of Roberts’s crew left him in another ship the next time he sailed for Africa!

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard's head from the bowsprit of his ship

Captain Maynard hung Blackbeard’s head from the bowsprit of his ship

It could be a miserable life, and worse yet, a short one, as Roberts admitted. He did well enough, but didn’t last three years (1719-22) as a pirate. Others had an even briefer run. Blackbeard was a pirate captain for only two years (1717-18). Howel Davis, actually one of the more clever pirates, was a captain but one single year before he was killed in an ambush in 1719. Johnson describes a Captain Worley (mentioned above) whose entire career ran from September, 1718 to February 17, 1719. And no doubt there were many pirates whose careers were even shorter and escaped Capt. Johnson’s attention!

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The pirate as comedy: Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Major Stede Bonnet

All these years I’d never seen the Disney Peter Pan movie (that I remember). And for that matter, I’d never read Peter and Wendy, J. M. Barrie’s “novelization” of his own play. Since Captain Hook is one of those iconic pirates, albeit a comic one, I figured it was time to fill up the gaps in my education. So I read the story and watched the film.

Captain Hook fighting Peter Pan, original illustration from "Peter and Wendy"

Captain Hook fighting Peter Pan, original illustration from “Peter and Wendy”

First, let’s disentangle what’s going on here. James Matthew Barrie (1860 – 1937) originally wrote a novel called The Little White Bird (1902) in which Peter Pan figured through several chapters. Then he wrote the play Peter Pan (1904, though he kept revising it until 1928), and finally he wrote the “novelization” of the play under the title Peter and Wendy (1911). The Peter Pan of The Little White Bird differs significantly from the later Peters, and Hook does not appear, so we may ignore it here. What most people are talking about when they refer to “Peter Pan” is some adaptation of the 1928 play text. Peter and Wendy is Barrie telling us adults what to think about the play as he reproduces its action. And Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) is an adaptation of the play. Got it?

Captain Hook from the Disney film (Copyright resides with Disney)

Captain Hook from the Disney film
(Copyright resides with Disney)

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the Disney Peter Pan first. There, Captain Hook, like Mr. Darling (Wendy’s father), is a comic figure, inept, cowardly, and a bit thick. His crew is even thicker, both mentally and in waist measurements. Were it not for his hook, he would be simply a figure of fun. Indeed, the entire pirate ship and crew are a child’s idea of what a pirate is like. The sole exception is that Hook can be treacherous when he uses his hook, which, however, he rarely actually uses for violence in the movie. Barrie’s Captain Jas. Hook in Peter and Wendy is a more complex character. We find out that he was a member of the nobility, attended a notable “public” school (what we’d call a private school in the United States), and is obsessed with “good form” as defined in elite public schools. That said, he’s a more vicious and smarter individual than in the Disney movie. His crew has reason to fear his hook, because he uses it to kill them when angered. And he defeats the Indians by simple cunning. If Disney made the pirates adult children at their most foolish, Barrie made Hook an adult child in that he is haunted by a childhood standard of behavior, good form. Like Peter, he has never grown up, really. Oddly enough, there is a real parallel to Barrie’s Captain Hook: Major Stede Bonnet. To quote from Johnson’s General History,

The major was a gentleman of good reputation in the island of Barbados, was master of a plentiful fortune, and had the advantage of a liberal education. He had the least temptation of any man to follow such a course of life [piracy], from the condition of his circumstances. It was very surprising to every one, to hear of the major’s enterprise, in the island where he lived; and as he was generally esteemed and honored, before he broke out into open acts of piracy, so he was afterward rather pitied than condemned, by those that were acquainted with him, believing that this humor of going a-pirating, proceeded from a disorder in his mind . . .

Major Stede Bonnet (from Johnson's 1724 book)

Major Stede Bonnet (from Johnson’s 1724 book)

Bonnet was unfortunate in his piratical career. It began in 1717 when he bought his own ship, an unusual course for a man about to turn pirate. On some of his early exploits he actually paid for the goods he took! The pirate Blackbeard, a more ferocious character than the gentlemanly Bonnet, took over the Major’s ship at one point in 1717, and then ditched him in 1718, cheating Bonnet and his crew of their share of the loot from past captures. Bonnet was captured later in 1718 by a naval expedition that was actually hunting for a different pirate. He managed to escape, only with his customary luck to be quickly recaptured, tried, and hanged on November 13. Whether Barrie ever knew of Major Stede Bonnet I can’t say. But the resemblance to the Captain Hook of Peter and Wendy is there.