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Who are the local pirates?

Ben Steelman

There were quite a few. Blackbeard (alias Edward Teach, Thatch or possibly Drummond) supposedly pulled up in Topsail Inlet a time or two for water, supplies or simple repairs before meeting his end on Ocracoke Island, Nov. 22, 1718, in mortal combat with Lt. Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy.

Persistent local legend claims that, sometime prior to his arrest in 1699, Capt. William Kidd buried treasure on Money Island, an uninhabited sandbar in Greeville Sound near Bradley Creek Point. No treasure, other than a few copper coins, has ever been found (although in 1939, two local youths told reporters of finding a very old iron chest — unfortunately, empty — there.) Most historians say Kidd and his crew were never anywhere near Money Island, and some sources question whether Kidd was a pirate at all — that he might have been framed at his trial.

The pirate most closely associated, however, is probably the most hapless — Major Stede Bonnet (1688-1718), the “Gentleman Pirate.”

A well-to-do planter’s son who inherited wealth on the island of Barbados, Bonnet abruptly turned to piracy in the summer of 1717, despite a complete lack of sailing knowledge or experience. (His major’s rank was a somewhat honorary title from the Barbados militia.) Capt. Charles Johnson, in his “General History of the Pirates,” claimed that Bonnet’s decision was prompted by his wife’s nagging and his “discomforts he found in the married state.”

Bonnet bought a vessel he renamed the Revenge, hired a crew and set sail for Nassau in the Bahamas. It was an ill-starred voyage. He was wounded in an encounter with a Spanish warship, then teamed up with Edward Teach, or Blackbeard. Before long, Bonnet found himself a “guest” aboard Blackbeard’s flagship, with the other pirate in control of the Revenge. Eventually, Bonnet’s crew deserted to follow Blackbeard.

In the summer of 1718 Bonnet received a pardon from Gov. Charles Eden of North Carolina and received a letter of marque (essentially, a license for legalized piracy) to sail as a privateer against Spanish shipping. Under the alias “Captain Thomas,” he set sail on the Revenge — renamed the Royal James — and began pillaging the coast, raiding 11 vessels and seizing two of them, the Francis and the Fortune.

By the end of August 1718, South Carolina authorities learned the Bonnet was anchored off the Cape Fear River and dispatched two eight-gun sloops under Col. Wiliam Rhett to capture him — even though the Cape Fear was clearly in North Carolina territory.

On Sept. 27, 1718, the two sloops cornered Bonnet aboard the Royal James off what is now known as Bonnet’s Creek in eastern Brunswick County, not far from Southport. It wasn’t much of a fight. Bonnet ran his vessel aground, and after a five- or six-hour stalemate (the South Carolinians had run aground, too, but floated free first), he ordered his gunner to blow up the ship’s powder magazine. The crew refushed (by some accounts), reported put a dagger to Bonnet’s throat and ordered him to surrender.

Bonnet was taken to Charleston, S.C., where he escaped (probably with help from a local merchant), was recaptured and eventually was put on trial for piracy. He was sentenced to death on Nov. 12, 1718. The N.C. Maritime Museum at Southport has a copy of Bonnet’s plea for clemency to Gov. Charles Johnson of South Carolina, promising to have his arms and legs cut off to prevent his becoming a pirate ever again. Reportedly, the ladies of Charleston took pity on Bonnet, and his execution was stayed seven times, but on Dec. 17, 1718, he was finally hanged at Charleston’s White Point.

An unofficial highway marker notes the site of Bonnet’s “Battle of the Cape Fear,” not far outside Southport.

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