“It was to our great regret that last Friday afternoon,” a petition from the people of Lewes to the colonial authorities complained in 1698, “a comfortable little ship and sloop arrived at our cape… (and) landed about fifty men, well armed, and they rode into the city and pillaged almost every house therein.
Pirates, “Commit great loot, break open doors and chests, and take away any money or plates to be found.” After trashing Lewes, the petition went on to state, “They are begging thugs and will loot for a trifle… This place (Lewes) is very exposed to danger and very bare for defence.
Twenty years later, Lewes was still “very naked on defense.” Few lights shone from the village on July 31, 1718, and darkness was almost complete as the ship, Francis, commanded by Captain Peter Manwareing, sailed peacefully at anchor. Not far away, the pirate ship Revenge, commanded by Stede Bonnet, was also at anchor.
Most of the pirates were misfits, outcasts and cut-throats drawn from society’s drags into a life of crime on the high seas. sugar prospered on the island of Barbados in the West Indies and was a respected retired army officer.
Inexplicably, Bonnet abandoned his quiet life ashore, hired 70 men for his crew, bought a sloop (which he dubbed the Revenge), outfitted it with ten guns, and set sail to hunt ships to be pillaged. . As Captain Charles Johnson said, in his “General History of the Pyrates”, originally published in 1724: “The major was only ill-qualified for the business, as he did not understand maritime affairs.”
Leaving the West Indies, Bonnet sailed north, and for a time the gentleman-turned-pirate met the famous Blackbeard, who seemed somewhat perplexed by the amateur buccaneer.
Leaving Blackbeard on the Carolina coast, Bonnet sailed north along the Delmarva Peninsula capturing several ships until he reached Cape Henlopen. On July 31, 1718, Bonnet spotted Captain Manwareing’s small sloop, Fortune.
Bonnet sent a dory with five well-armed men to Fortune, and Manwareing later said, “But as soon as they got the shrouds up, they clapped their hands on their cutlass.” Then I saw that we were taken.
Manwareing was brought aboard the Revenge, and Bonnet’s ruthless crew began transferring cargo from the Francis to the Revenge. By this time Bonnet had a small host of prisoners from the ships he had captured, and he decided to send them ashore at Lewes with the threat of burning the town if they injured a hair on the head of a of his crew. .
Two years after pirates sacked Lewes in 1698, the famous Captain Kidd called at Cape Henlopen and several townspeople traded peacefully with the pirate. Learning from this experience, the people of Lewes dismissed the crew of the Bonnet.
Satisfied with the booty he had taken at Manwareing, Bonnet sailed south until he was captured by the colonial authorities.
The gentleman pirate was taken to Charleston, South Carolina. Bonnet was accused of piracy, found guilty and executed on December 10, 1718.
Why did a respected gentleman, former army officer and owner of a profitable sugar cane plantation turn to piracy? Captain Charles Johnson said Bonnet had been driven outlaw at sea by “certain discomforts which he found in a married state”.
CHB Turner, ed., Some Records of Sussex County, Philadelphia: Allen, Lane and Scott, 1909, p. 41.
Tryals of Major Stede Bonnet and Other Pirates, printed for Benjamin Cowse, London, 1719, pp. 13, 38-39, 43, 49.
John D. Lawson, ed., American Sate Trials, Vol. 4, St. Louis, 1915, p. 710, 678, 713.
Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates, Manuel Schonhorn, ed., Mineola, NY, 1972, pp. 95, 99.
Frank Sherry, Raiders and Rebels, The Golden Age of Piracy, New York, 1986, pp. 214-215.