Early in the eighteenth century there lived at Bridgetown, in the island of Barbadoes, a very pleasant, middle-aged gentleman named Major Stede Bonnet. He was a man in comfortable circumstances, and had been an officer in the British army. He had retired from military service, and had bought an estate at Bridgetown, where he lived in comfort and was respected by his neighbors.
But for some reason or other this quiet and reputable gentleman got it into his head that he would like to be a pirate. There were some persons who said that this strange fancy was due to the fact that his wife did not make his home pleasant for him, but it is quite certain that if a man wants an excuse for robbing and murdering his fellow-beings he ought to have a much better one than the bad temper of his wife. But besides the general reasons why Major Bonnet should not become a pirate, and which applied to all men as well as himself, there was a special reason against his adoption of the profession of a sea-robber, for he was an out-and-out landsman and knew nothing whatever of nautical matters. He had been at sea but very little, and if he had heard a boatswain order his man to furl the keel, to batten down the shrouds, or to hoist the forechains to the topmast yard, he would have seen nothing out of the way in these commands. He was very fond of history, and very well read in the literature of the day. He was accustomed to the habits of good society, and knew a great deal about farming and horses, cows and poultry, but if he had been compelled to steer a vessel, he would not have known how to keep her bow ahead of her stern.
But notwithstanding this absolute incapacity for such a life, and the absence of any of the ordinary motives for abandoning respectability and entering upon a career of crime, Major Bonnet was determined to become a pirate, and he became one. He had money enough to buy a ship and to fit her out and man her, and this he quietly did at Bridgetown, nobody supposing that he was going to do anything more than start off on some commercial cruise. When everything was ready, his vessel slipped out of the harbor one night, and after he was sailing safely on the rolling sea he stood upon the quarter-deck and proclaimed himself a pirate. It might not be supposed that this was necessary, for the seventy men on board his ship were all desperate cutthroats, of various nationalities, whom he had found in the little port, and who knew very well what was expected of them when they reached the sea. But if Stede Bonnet had not proclaimed himself a pirate, it is possible that he might not have believed, himself, that he was one, and so he ran up his black flag, with its skeleton or skull and cross-bones, he girded on a great cutlass, and, folding his arms, he ordered his mate to steer the vessel to the coast of Virginia.
Although Bonnet knew so little about ships and the sea, and had had no experience in piracy, his men were practised seamen, and those of them who had not been pirates before were quite ready and very well fitted to become such; so when this green hand came into the waters of Virginia he actually took two or three vessels and robbed them of their cargoes, burning the ships, and sending the crews on shore.
This had grown to be a common custom among the pirates, who, though cruel and hard-hearted, had not the inducements of the old buccaneers to torture and murder the crews of the vessels which they captured. They could not hate human beings in general as the buccaneers hated the Spaniards, and so they were a little more humane to their prisoners, setting them ashore on some island or desert coast, and letting them shift for themselves as best they might. This was called marooning, and was somewhat less heartless than the old methods of getting rid of undesirable prisoners by drowning or beheading them.
As Bonnet had always been rather conventional in his ideas and had respected the customs of the society in which he found himself, he now adopted all the piratical fashions of the day, and when he found himself too far from land to put the captured crew on shore, he did not hesitate to make them walk the plank, which was a favorite device of the pirates whenever they had no other way of disposing of their prisoners. The unfortunate wretches, with their hands tied behind them, were compelled, one by one, to mount a plank which was projected over the side of the vessel and balanced like a see-saw, and when, prodded by knives and cutlasses, they stepped out upon this plank, of course it tipped up, and down they went into the sea. In this way, men, women, and children slipped out of sight among the waves as the vessel sailed merrily on.
In one branch of his new profession Bonnet rapidly became proficient. He was an insatiable robber and a cruel conqueror. He captured merchant vessels all along the coast as high up as New England, and then he came down again and stopped for a while before Charles Town harbor, where he took a couple of prizes, and then put into one of the North Carolina harbors, where it was always easy for a pirate vessel to refit and get ready for further adventures.
Bonnet's vessel was named the Revenge, which was about as ill suited to the vessel as her commander was ill fitted to sail her, for Bonnet had nobody to revenge himself upon unless, indeed, it were his scolding wife. But a good many pirate ships were then called the Revenge, and Bonnet was bound to follow the fashion, whatever it might be.
Very soon after he had stood upon the quarter-deck and proclaimed himself a pirate his men had discovered that he knew no more about sailing than he knew about painting portraits, and although there were under-officers who directed all the nautical operations, the mass of the crew conceived a great contempt for a landsman captain. There was much grumbling and growling, and many of the men would have been glad to throw Bonnet overboard and take the ship into their own hands. But when any symptoms of mutiny showed themselves, the pirates found that although they did not have a sailor in command over them, they had a very determined and relentless master. Bonnet knew that the captain of a pirate ship ought to be the most severe and rigid man on board, and so, at the slightest sign of insubordination, his grumbling men were put in chains or flogged, and it was Bonnet's habit at such times to strut about the deck with loaded pistols, threatening to blow out the brains of any man who dared to disobey him. Recognizing that although their captain was no sailor he was a first-class tyrant, the rebellious crew kept their grumbling to themselves and worked his ship.
Bonnet now pointed the bow of the Revenge southward—that is, he requested somebody else to see that it was done—and sailed to the Bay of Honduras, which was a favorite resort of the pirates about that time. And here it was that he first met with the famous Captain Blackbeard. There can be no doubt that our amateur pirate was very glad indeed to become acquainted with this well-known professional, and they soon became good friends. Blackbeard was on the point of organizing an expedition, and he proposed that Bonnet and his vessel should join it. This invitation was gladly accepted, and the two pirate captains started out on a cruise together. Now the old reprobate, Blackbeard, knew everything about ships and was a good navigator, and it was not long before he discovered that his new partner was as green as grass in regard to all nautical affairs. Consequently, after having thought the matter over for a time, he made up his mind that Bonnet was not at all fit to command such a fine vessel as the one he owned and had fitted out, and as pirates make their own laws, and perhaps do not obey them if they happen not to feel like it, Blackbeard sent for Bonnet to come on board his ship, and then, in a manner as cold-blooded as if he had been about to cut down a helpless prisoner, Blackbeard told Bonnet that he was not fit to be a pirate captain, that he intended to keep him on board his own vessel, and that he would send somebody to take charge of the Revenge.
This was a fall indeed, and Bonnet was almost stunned by it. An hour before he had been proudly strutting about on the deck of a vessel which belonged to him, and in which he had captured many valuable prizes, and now he was told he was to stay on Blackbeard's ship and make himself useful in keeping the log books, or in doing any other easy thing which he might happen to understand. The green pirate ground his teeth and swore bitterly inside of himself, but he said nothing openly; on Blackbeard's ship, Blackbeard's decisions were not to be questioned.