Stede Bonnet lived a life of luxury in Barbados, inheriting from his father an over 400-acre sugarcane plantation, along with 94 slaves. But in late 1716, when he was 29 years old, Bonnet decided to leave behind his plantation, his wife, and his three surviving children, all under the age of 5, to become a pirate, despite having no experience even captaining a ship. As Captain Charles Johnson put it in A General History of the Pyrates: “He had the least Temptation of any Man to follow such a Course of Life, from the Condition of his Circumstances,” blaming it on a “Disorder in his Mind.”
So why did Bonnet leave behind his privileged life, and would he have made the choice again if he knew how it would turn out? Joining me in this episode to help us understand more about Stede Bonnet and his possible motivations is freelance historian Jeremy R. Moss, author of The Life and Tryals of the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The mid-episode audio is “Oh, Better Far To Live And Die,” from The Pirates Of Penzance, written by Gilbert & Sullivan and performed by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1959, available via the Internet Archive. The episode image is: “Print engraving of Stede Bonnet in Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates,” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The HBO Show loosely based on the life of Stede Bonnet that we reference in the episode is Our Flag Means Death, created by David Jenkins and starring Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet and Taika Wititi as Blackbeard.
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Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On today's episode, we're discussing the gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet. You may be wondering why a mostly US History podcast is focusing an episode on a Barbadian pirate. But the real story of Steve Bonnet is more closely tied to the American colonies than you may think. More on that in a bit. Stede Bonnet was born in Barbados in 1688, to Edward and Sarah Bonnet. We don't know Stede's birth date, but he was christened in Christ Church Parish on July 29, 1688. Bonnet's father died when he was only six, and his mom died soon after. Bonnet inherited their over 400 acre sugarcane plantation, with its two windmills, three servants, and 94 slaves, which were held by a guardian until Stede Bonnet reached adulthood. As a member of the landowning aristocracy. Bonnet was given the title of major in the Barbadian militia, the unit that enforced penalties on runaway slaves. There's no evidence that he saw any actual military service. On November 21, 1709, when he was 21 years old, Bonnet married Mary Allamby, the daughter of another wealthy planter. The couple lived in Bridgetown and had four children, three sons, Allamby, born in 1712, Edward, born in 1713, and Stede, Jr, born in 1714, and a daughter, Mary, born early in 1717. The oldest son Allamby died young, which may have been one cause of Stede Bonnet's apparent mental break in the coming years. Charles Johnson, author of, "A General History of the Pyrates," claimed that Bonnet's turn to piracy was, "occasioned by some discomforts he found in a married state," but beyond that we know little about the married life of Stede and Mary. In late 1716, when Stede Bonnet was 29 years old, and his three surviving children were all under the age of five, he decided to leave behind his plantation, his wife, and his children to become a pirate. It was a highly unusual move. I'll speak with today's guest about reasons Stede Bonnet may have done so. Instead of seizing a ship bonnet purchased a 60 ton sloop from Captain Godfrey Melbone. The sloop was named "The Revenge" and Bonnet armed it with six cannons, and hired a crew of 126 men. After he appointed Mary and two of his friends as his power of attorney, he said he was leaving for a short voyage. He never returned. In spring of 1717, Bonnet and crew, ignoring the requirement that they be cleared before departing, sailed away from Barbados, toward the Virginia capes. Bonnet had no experience as a pirate, and in fact, no experience captaining a ship at all. But with the wages he paid, he was able to hire some experienced sailors, which led to some early successes for the Revenge, as they plundered the Anne, the Turbet, the Endeavour, and the Young. Bonnet dismissed the other ships after plundering, but the Turbet hailed from Barbados, and he set it on fire, so that word of his piracy wouldn't reach his home. In September, 1717, The Revenge engaged a vessel off the coast of Florida, that turned out to be a Spanish man-of-war, a mistake that cost the lives of many in Bonnet's crew, and that nearly cost Bonnet his own life. Bonnet and The Revenge limped to the pirate haven of Nassau for repairs. There they met Edward Thatch, sometimes called Edward Teach, better known to us as Blackbeard, and they teamed up. Blackbeard became captain of the Revenge, while Bonnet rode along as a passenger. Under the command of Blackbeard, the Revenge returned to the shores of the American colonies, terrorizing at least 15 ships in a matter of weeks along Chesapeake Bay, Philadelphia, and New York. By late 1717, Blackbeard was essentially commodore of his own fleet of ships. In March, 1718, Blackbeard stayed with one of the ships that was in need of repair, the now flagship Queen Anne's Revenge, while Bonnet captained the Revenge, and again ran into trouble, losing a battle against the Protestant Caesar near Honduras. Upon reuniting with Blackbeard, Bonnet once again lost his command of the Revenge. In summer, 1718, both Blackbeard and Bonnet accepted pardons from North Carolina Governor Charles Eden, under the Act of Grace, issued by King George. Bonnet intended to buy a letter of marque in order to engage in legal privateering, but Blackbeard had marooned the crew of the Revenge and robbed it of supplies. With few other options, Bonnet returned to piracy. In September, 1718, Bonnet and his men were captured by Colonel William Rhett in the Battle of Cape Fear River. Rhett brought his prisoners to Charles Town, South Carolina. On October 24, 1718, Bonnet, dressed in women's clothing, escaped the home in which he was being held, with his sailing master, David Herriot. Two weeks later, he was recaptured. 29 of Bonnet's crew were found guilty of piracy and sentenced to death by hanging. Four were acquitted. On November 10, 1718, Bonnet, himself was brought to trial for two acts of piracy. He pled not guilty, and tried to make his own defense without the help of counsel. After two days, he was sentenced to death. Bonnet pled with the governor for a pardon, writing from prison, "I have presumed on the confidence of your eminent goodness to throw myself after this manner at your feet, to implore you'll be graciously pleased to look upon me with tender bowels of pity and compassion, and believe me to be the most miserable man this day breathing, that the tears preceding from my most sorrowful soul may soften your heart and induce you to consider my dismal state, wholely, I must confess, unprepared to receive so soon the dreadful execution you have been pleased to appoint me, and therefore beseech you to think of me an object of your mercy." On December 10, 1718, Stede Bonnet was hanged in Charles Town, South Carolina. Blackbeard was killed in battle, a few weeks before Bonnet was hanged, dying on November 22, 1718. Mary Allamby Bonnet led a peaceful life after Stede left. She lived to around 60 years old, dying in June, 1750 In St. Thomas, Barbados. Joining me now to help us understand more about Stede Bonnet and his possible motivations is freelance historian Jeremy R. Moss, author of "The Life and Tryals of the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet."
Before that, though, I'd like to leave you with the words of Attorney General Richard Allein, from Bonnet's trial. "I am sorry to hear some expressions drop from private persons. I hope there is none of them upon the jury in favor of the pirates, and particularly of Bonnet, that he is a gentleman, a man of honor, a man of fortune, and one that has had a liberal education. Alas, gentleman, all these qualifications are but several aggravations of his crimes. How can a man be said to be a man of honor, that has lost all sense of honor and humanity, that has become an enemy of mankind, and given himself to plunder, to destroy his fellow creatures, a common robber and a pirate. His estate is still a greater aggravation of his offense, because he was under no temptation of taking up that wicked course of life. His learning and education is still a far greater aggravation, because that generally softens men's manners and keeps them from becoming savage and brutish. But when those qualifications are perverted to wicked purposes, and contrary to those ends for which God bestows them upon mankind, they become the worst of men. As we see the present instance, and more dangerous to the Commonwealth."
Pirate Music 11:38
I am a pirate king...
Kelly Therese Pollock 11:58
Hi Jeremy, thanks so much for joining me today.
Jeremy R. Moss 12:15
Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.
Kelly Therese Pollock 12:17
Yes, I am super excited to talk about Stede Bonnet. So first, I want to talk about how you got started writing this book? Because, of course, this was before the HBO show that got everyone else interested in Stede Bonnet.
Jeremy R. Moss 12:32
Yeah, you know, it's a great question. And you're absolutely right. It's a couple of years before HBO made Stede Bonnet kind of the man that he is in the media's eyes today. You know, I got interested in Bonnet and piracy, much like others. I grew up in mid Atlantic coastal towns, specifically Virginia Beach, and had kind of ignored the historic impact of piracy and trade and all of that that had happened in the early 1700s, until, oddly enough, I came across a haunted ghost stories of Virginia Beach book at a local coffee shop. And then flipping through that, of course, there's interesting ones about, you know, old hermits that live in far off places in town. But you know, there was a particularly interesting story about Blackbeard the pirate. And I was just drawn to the story. First of all, I didn't know at the time that Blackbeard was a real person. He was right, a real person, actual historic figure. And I was also unaware of that he had spent a lot of time in the mid Atlantic, what is now United States, then American colonies. And it was literally right in my backyard. So I started to do a little bit of research about Blackbeard and piracy in general. And I was really interested not in what we have seen in Hollywood, right, the Treasure Islands of the world, the Pirates of the Caribbean, but trying to get some actual, you know, historic data about pirates. And you know, as you know, from prior episodes, there's not much of it. And I've really kind of said, "Look, somebody ought to write a book, or a series of books about pirates that are based on historic facts, right, contemporary accounts, etc." And whenever I say that somebody should do that I typically look inward and say, maybe I'm the person. And I actually started my writing career trying to write a book about Black beard. And after doing some research, I realized, "Look, there is a decent amount of scholarly research about Blackbeard (Edward Teach, Edward Thatch)." But I kept coming across the name about the gentleman pirate who had sailed with Blackbeard and given him his first real ship of any significance. And you know, there were a lot of parallels, honestly, right, Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate was married with four children. I happened to be married with four children. He was, you know, a wealthy landowner and slave owner. And I was looking at him as somebody who had everything that he possibly wanted in the world. And I was so drawn to his story about how could he possibly have turned to this world of piracy, which was ugly and dirty and smelly? And even though it had some familial parallels right? I was married with four children. That made it even more fascinating because I kept saying to myself, "How can somebody literally just pick up and leave their family, cash in their line of credit, and go build out a ship and just leave?" And there was not a lot of scholarly research about Bonnet. We had a few books, some contemporaneous accounts from the early 1720s, that were not particularly accurate. So I just kind of dug in, and I found this trial transcript, they did keep transcripts of trials back then, I'm an attorney by trade, and really just kind of dug in once I saw that I said, "Look, there's enough factual information here. There's just there's a story." And I think for your listeners, having listened to the Anne Bonny/ Mary Read story, it's really similar, right, the best factual evidence we have of those pirates come from the trial transcript and the same contemporaneous account that has a bunch of holes in it. So it's just it became kind of a passion. And then it became a little bit of a job. But it was really fun to kind of cobble these stories together in a way that creates a compelling narrative, but also tells the actual truth. And I think that that's important, because we do get a lot of fictionalized pirates in the world.
Kelly Therese Pollock 16:14
Right? So let's talk then about why Stede Bonnet did it. And of course, he didn't leave a memoir for us. So we don't know for sure. But based on the research you've done, you have some ideas of why he picked up and left. So what what are the theories that you have based on your research?
Jeremy R. Moss 16:30
Yeah, and really that's the question, right? That's what's what's drawn me into the story. And it's one of the more fascinating portions of the Bonnet story. Even in the midst of the bounty that that that Stede had, right. He was a wealthy landowner. He had all the money that he needed, he had servants, he had slaves, he had a family, you know, he obviously just did not adjust well to family life. There was something about that livelihood, or where he was in Barbados that just made him want to pick up and go. You're right, I have a couple of theories. None of them have necessarily proven it out. But you know, I for me, Bonnet was an avid reader. We know that he kept a library on his ship, which was highly unusual at the time. Even in his trial, they focused on his liberal education pretty significantly. So I know that he was a reader. And we also know that he had certain books on his ship. So they have found the the remnants of Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge. And they've started to pull up some of the cannons and other things. And there's actually bits of books they've been able to identify that are stuffed inside the cannons as kind of fodder. And they were able to identify that these are voyage narratives right, books about those before Bonnet, who had kind of circumnavigated the globe. And for me, the most realistic theory is Bonnet, as an avid reader would have read these, would have read newspaper accounts, would have read all the voyage narratives that people that had sailed around the globe, and Bonnet, in his 28 years on Earth had only been in Barbados, right, a lush Caribbean island that was very hot, and had significant agriculture, it was not a particularly nice place to live. And because of that, he kind of would stare out in the sea and say, "Look, there's more out there for me." And it's really that that kind of wander lust or fear of missing out, you know, this, like this, this FOMO that, that said, "Look, I'm gonna go." So in some ways, it is like a midlife crisis. And that's what you hear most often, is that he had some discomforts in his married state, right that he was he had a nagging wife is what people will have said historically. And that may be true, he may not have been particularly happy in his married life. So it's really kind of those two things that I think combined. And his ability to pick up and go, right, he was, he was a rich man. And when British men had midlife crises, they typically can do things that are a little bit out there. So I think it's kind of those things combined that pushed him out. But he did have a romanticized view of piracy, probably much like a lot of us do. So I do suspect that when he actually got out there, it hit him pretty hard. And there were a number of times that we have heard from contemporaneous accounts that we said, "Look, I'm, if I could go home, I would." He tries to go to St. Thomas, late in his career, he begs the governor of South Carolina to let him go, and he'll, you know, he'll be a good boy after that. And he just, he really, you can see some regret in some of his words.
Kelly Therese Pollock 19:18
Yeah. So let's talk some about the relationship with Blackbeard that you mentioned earlier. So this is fascinating. And of course, anyone who watches "Our Flag Means Death," and we'll get back to that some, you know, has has a certain view of what their relationship might have been. But what, based on the sources that we have, what was this relationship between the two of them? They spent quite a while together and it seems like it was really important to Blackbeard's career too. So what did that actually look like?
Jeremy R. Moss 19:48
You're absolutely right, kind of working backwards from that. It was very important. Bonnet's existence is critical to Blackbeard being who he is. And I say this a lot. I mean, you can tell the Blackbeard story without telling the Bonnet story. But you absolutely cannot talk about Stede Bonnet without talking significantly about Blackbeard because they did spend much of Bonnet's career together. They really met by happenstance. So Bonnet had been out on his own. He had been sailing from Barbados, up the east coast of what is now the United States for several months, and he was having some success. But a couple of months into his career, he realized that he didn't really know where to go next. Right, the Atlantic hurricane season was about to start. He was getting provisions and munitions and sales and riggings. But he wasn't making the type of money that I think he expected to make. So he did what a lot of pirates did at the times, and that's called, "fish the wrecks." So in 1715, there was a huge Spanish treasure armada that crashed off the coast of Florida, fairly close to where Cape Canaveral is now, they call it the Treasure Coast or the Space Coast. And we're talking about millions and millions and hundreds of millions of current dollars worth of gold coins is spilled along the beaches within 20 feet of the surface of the water. So for decades, people would fish these wrecks, meaning that the pirates would go down and try to get gold off the bottom or they would try to wait for others to scrape that gold up and then they would take their ships and collect the treasure. So Bonnet decided that he was going to go down and fish these wrecks and he ran across what he thought was a large merchant ship and decided based on his earlier success that, "Look I'm gonna go take this merchant ship and see if there's gold on it." Unfortunately for Bonnet his inexperience was evident then and he pulls right alongside what is essentially a Spanish man-of-war that just broadsides and just demolishes his his ship, tears down the riggings, kills half his crew really on the single volley and critically injures Bonnet. So Bonnet retreats, Bonnet's crew retreats to Nassau, which is the nest of rogues. Right? It's where all the pirates were at the time. And just by happenstance, he runs into or meets Blackbeard. Now, Blackbeard was not the pirate that he is known to be today. He had a relatively small ship, it had six guns. He had a relatively small crew, he sailed with a group called the Flying Gang. So he was at least known to history by then. But I think that he saw an opportunity in Bonnet, somebody that needed that needed a strong captain, that needed some maritime experience, that probably needed a little bit of toughness. And then Bonnet saw exactly what his hopes and dreams were right. He was if you left Barbados to have this life of adventure, and here he was with one of the most menacing looking pirates that there is, that has significant naval experience, perhaps even naval warfare experience. And it was more likely than not a trade of assets, right? Bonnet had the ship, Blackbeard had the experience. Let's get together and we can go do this together. Blackbeard allowed Bonnet to stay on the ship in his captain's quarters while Blackbeard sailed successfully for a year. So for a long time, it just seemed like they just kind of dealt with each other. There's not a lot of talk about Blackbeard in the Bonnet trial transcript, which I found interesting other than Bonnet just kind of pointing at Blackbeard and said, "He did everything. I wasn't captain anymore." But you never saw any, "You know, he tricked me or he, I fell in love with him," or you know, there was none of this public discussion of Blackbeard other than, "Yeah, we sailed together. He did all the bad stuff. I just happened to be there on the ship. I didn't want to be there." So that's what Bonnet essentially said, so it's another one of those that we're filling in gaps. And when you're a pirate historian, you're writing books about pirates, you try not to fill in a lot of gaps, but you do end up with gaps that need to be filled. So in my opinion, it was a trade of assets. And I certainly see, there's been a lot of talk for decades about homosexuality and piracy, sodomy and piracy, meaning that there's no lustful or loving feelings that they just, you know, having sexual encounters. So there has been talk about that for a long time. I just haven't yet seen the evidence to say, "Yeah, it really happened. And it definitely happened with these two." But is it possible? Sure. Yeah. We just don't know enough to say it's not or it is. So, you know, it's one of those gaps that "Our Flag Means Death," you know, now, of course, is filling in a particular way. And they've just done it so artfully, and so well, right. They've crafted that relationship in such a way that connects with people, that it's really taken off as kind of the primary assumption of why the relationship is what it is.
Kelly Therese Pollock 24:34
Talk a little bit about democracy and pirates and pirate ships. So we've been talking about who's the captain and who's in charge, but there was a certain amount of collaboration on a pirate ship. So can you talk a little bit about pirate codes of conduct how it was that pirate ships decided what to do next, where to go and how that works visa vie having a strong captain like Blackbeard perhaps?
Jeremy R. Moss 25:02
Yeah, absolutely. And this is I think one of the more fascinating pieces of piracy is generally speaking, these crews were very egalitarian and very democratic. And I mean, pure democratic, they would vote on literally, almost everything where they would go, who was going to be the captain, who was going to be the quartermaster, who was going to be in any of the other significant offices. And I think that that kind of flies in the face of how you think about pirates, particularly how you think about the really strong captains, right, we see them severely punishing their crew members and in in movies, right and demeaning them. And the reality is, in a lot of ways, they operated as political characters, they had to have enough votes. Some of those were forced votes. And you see that like on Black Sails, they've got some really good scenes about how all this went down. But generally speaking, you're absolutely right, they had a written code of conduct that everybody would sign on to when they joined the crew. And it would dictate things like, can they gamble on board, can they have women on board, and then all the way down to how the spoils, how their their plunder is going to be divided once it's actually received. So it was fairly straightforward and fairly well laid out. Now some instances are different and Bonnet's is another is a good example of that. So Bonnet, unlike most pirates, who would divide plunder pursuant to these codes, or articles, Bonnet actually paid his crew a wage, right. So he essentially established a minimum wage for pirates and just paid him out of his own wealth. And I think that he did that so that he could attract people for the first time, right. "I needed his crew. In order to get the 125, 126 crew members that I need, I need to actually pay them. That's the only way I can get them on board." So he did that for quite a while. And that probably disrupted the democratic aspect of it, because Bonnet's essentially, you know, he's, he's, he's funding the whole operation. He's the boss, he's kind of the CEO of a ship. And I think that got him in trouble early on, because he had no maritime experience. So they're looking at him saying, "Where should we go next boss?" and they're saying, I don't know, I've never been on a boat before. So he, he that created some interesting dynamics early on. Now, Blackbeard took over, there's no record of there being a code. So there's no written code that has survived from that crew. But my expectation is that they had some codes of conduct that established order on the ship, to keep them in, you know, to keep them moving in a way that was successful and typical, and all of that. So I think that his charisma, Blackbeard's charisma, helped them gather additional crew members, but also kind of just set order on what was an otherwise chaotic ship prior to meeting that Blackbeard in Nassau.
Kelly Therese Pollock 27:54
So you mentioned earlier that at a couple times Stede Bonnet would say things, you know, like, if I could go home, you know, was regretful, but he was actually offered a pardon. So, all pirates were offered a pardon at a certain point. And he took the pardon, and was gonna sort of go straight and then turned back on it. So what's going on there? What what happened? What did that piece of history look like?
Jeremy R. Moss 28:20
Yeah, so that the pardon is an interesting piece of kind of criminal justice, right. And that's what you have to think about this as in a way is, you had the crown in England, that had a significant issue with piracy in the new world. And we essentially had sea robbers, people that were stealing stuff at sea, that were disrupting commerce all over the new world in which England was relying on for significant amounts of money and commerce, and they just didn't have the naval resources necessary to go out and hunt them down. And so what they did is they devised a system where they said, "Look, I'm gonna give clemency I'm gonna give a pardon to anyone that comes to a governor essentially, or somebody that has that authority, and gives himself up and says that they're sorry, and kind of repents for what they've done." So a lot of pirates actually, at that time, took the pardon. They went to the governors and they said, "Look, we're done. We're not gonna be pirates anymore. We're gonna be law abiding citizens." And both Blackbeard and Bonnet took advantage of that together. In fact, they they went to North Carolina together, and after Blackbeard's ship ran aground, they eventually split up so they didn't go to the governor that same time. But they both took advantage of that pardon. So for a period of time, in the early 1718s, they both kind of lived as freemen without the burden of all this criminal history behind them, and Blackbeard took up residence in North Carolina for a while but Bonnet said, "Look now that I'm a free man, and the crown is no longer hunting after me, I'm going to go to St. Thomas, and I'm going to get what's called a letter of marque, which is essentially a privateering certificate, legalized piracy, state sponsored piracy to go down and hunt the Spanish on behalf of the Dutch." That was his plan. Now the problem was when he got back to his ship after getting his pardon, Blackbeard had stripped it down, had taken everything from it, had in fact taken his crew away from it and marooned them on an island in North Carolina. So the Revenge, Bonnet's ship, was stripped down and didn't have the necessary riggings, sailing, food, ammunition to make the trip down to St. Thomas. So by necessity, all of a sudden, Bonnet had to go stop these ships in North Carolina, South Carolina, and take from them whatever he needed, additional rigging and sailing. And he actually tried to avoid it, he changed his name, he changed the name of the ship, and he entered into what we'd like to call a forced barter system. "Hey, I need your sails. So I'm going to take them but here's a bucket of nails" or something, right? So they're he's he's giving them things in return to create some kind of plausible deniability that, "Hey, it wasn't actually piracy. Look, they got these other things." But the reality is, he just needed things in order to make his way down to St. Thomas. And, you know, as history tells, he just didn't make it that far. The hurricane season came, he had to hunker down, his ship was a mess, and he had to clean it and repair it. And he intended to ride the hurricane season out in the Cape Fear River. So you're absolutely right, there was a pardon available. They both took it. But very quickly thereafter, Bonnet was almost forced into it, in piracy because he had no money and, and no equipment.
Kelly Therese Pollock 31:31
Bonnet comes down to us in history, you know, at least prior to this HBO show, and maybe even since then as sort of this failed pirate, right? Like this joke of a pirate. But you point out in the book that actually he was pretty successful. So can you talk a little bit about that? What what we could think about his legacy as a pirate?
Jeremy R. Moss 31:52
Yeah, yeah, you're right. There's a lot of articles even now that say, "Look, this is the worst pirate of all time. Right? Stede Bonnet is the worst. He was, it was just, it was terrible." But the reality is, you're right. I do point this out in the book, and I'd like to talk about it is he really wasn't that bad. First of all, he sailed with one of the greatest pirates of the Golden Age, Blackbeard, who may not have been the wealthiest, right? They didn't take the most plunder out of anybody. But they were Top 10, Top 15 pirates of all time, as far as what they actually were able to take. There certainly, if you as you attach yourself to Blackbeard, you become part of the crew that is among the most known and the most studied of all time. So we are still talking about him 304 years later. So in that way, I think that he was successful in what he wanted to do. And you have to also remember that these are humans, right? These are real people. Some of them are terrible, right. So Bonnet's a slave owner, he's his, he's part of that generation, that is, you know, just bad people that had morals that don't align with what we have today. But they're real people. And they're human. And for Bonnet as a human, it sounded like he wanted to escape what was happening in his home. And he wanted a life of adventure. He wanted to at least escape his marital affairs. And he did that too. So for measuring success in a way that's not financial, he's already financially successful enough that I think that that story is over. Right. But if we want to measure it in a more humanistic way, I think he got what he wanted. Right? I think that he had that life of adventure. I think he had that, it's like a moth that's being drawn to, you know, light bulb, like he actually touched the light bulb, right? He was, he was tried as a pirate and he was killed. But that's why he was trying to get into it anyway. So you know, I think that in, in most ways, Bonnet was pretty successful. Now, did he know what he was doing? Absolutely not. Was he a skilled seaman? No way. Did he have success on his own? Not much. Did he eventually get caught? Yes. Did he ever win a naval battle? No. So I mean, you can point at these individual things and say, "Man, he lost all these little battles." But eventually, in my mind, he won the war. Like he, he did what he wanted to do, and made his name in history. If he had stayed on his plantation as a wealthy slave owner and husband, we wouldn't be talking about Stede Bonnet today. Right? We would, we would have one entry in the tiny Bridgetown Church's death certificate saying, "Stede Bonnet died on this day at 54 years old, unhappy and married with adult children who don't talk to him." Right. So I just think that he he kind of made it. So.
Kelly Therese Pollock 34:37
Yeah. So let's talk about we've mentioned "Our Flag Means Death." I assume that you have seen this show as everyone in America seems to have seen the show. Obviously, they're not trying to get a perfectly historically accurate depiction. That's not what this show is about. But are there are there things that you think that they get right either maybe fact or not facts, but but sort of thematically or the feelings of the ship or something like what, how do you react to this show?
Jeremy R. Moss 35:09
Yeah, first of all, there are certain historians that when they see a show like that, that is an obvious attempt to veer off the historical course, right, it's, it's clear that they are not trying to follow the Bonnet story necessarily, that they just kind of write it off and say, "Look, I'm not gonna watch it." But you're absolutely right. I'm just one of the first ones to watch it. I actually knew who Stede Bonnet was the day that the show came out unlike a lot of people. So I was really excited for it to come out. And I think that they did a fantastic job in the show that they created. You are right, though, that there is a lot of really thematic and even specific things that are pretty close, especially early on. So it's very clear. And this is there's a little bit of tension about this, particularly because Bonnet is a slave owner, and it hasn't been recognized on the show, right? You've got to kind of fiercely egalitarian group on the show, but they just ignore the fact that he was a slave owner. But with that said, the timing is exactly right. His family situation is portrayed in a way that at least rhymes with history, might not be a perfect reflection on it. But when they flashback to his life as a child on the plantation, his life with his former schoolmates, that's probably pretty close. There's a scene at the dinner table early on with his wife, and it's just you can feel the angst between the two of them. That's probably pretty close. And then also the portrayal of Blackbeard as a person with this big reputation and the fact that he had this really kind of dark dark beard and big hair. And then he would like this incense around him, which is historically accurate, although they went a little bit over the top on "Our Flag Means Death." But you know, that portrayal of Blackbeard in the midst of battle is pretty close. The other thing that I thought was interesting is he does pay them a wage on the show, which is historically accurate. His library, although it is probably vastly oversized, is historically accurate, right, he does have a library on the ship. And most people think that that's an interesting component. And he does early in his career meet a handful of people that are from Barbados, that he has to take action against, burn their ships down, or whatever, so that news doesn't get back to Barbados. And we saw a little bit of that with the Royal Navy captain who comes over that Stede accidentally kills. There's a lot of that dynamic that you can picture have if you met somebody from Barbados before. So there are quite a few parallels. I think that it's true what David Jenkins, the writer said, which is, "Hey, I read the Wikipedia page, and then I just kind of ran with it." That's that's probably pretty close to what happened. Yeah. You know, and I think that that's in a way, that's good. Because it does it is pushing people towards conversations like this right, what actually happened, and then certainly pushing people toward my book and others that cover Bonnet, which I think is great. And really, that's what fictions about historical figures should do is say, "Okay, I think that this is an interesting captain," right? The fictionalized Bonnet's hilarious. So he's like the Ted Lasso of the sea. He's just great. And then you've got this other one that has really significant human flaws, that it's okay to look at and study, if you recognize those flaws. And that would be my only complaint about the show so far, is that they haven't just recognized that human flaw that Bonnet has that he made all his money as a slave owner, and you're creating a show that is fiercely egalitarian. And you've just ignored that. And I think that they, they just kind of missed on it, because they could have easily had a storyline where Bonnet looked at his life as a slave owner, not as a family man but as a slave owner and said, "Hey, this isn't right. I'm not doing this anymore. I'm out." And I think that that would resolve the tension a little bit. You know, I, I looked at that as an option when I was writing the book, is that something that Bonnet could have possibly done and we just didn't see enough of it from Bonnet later. Enough of it, meaning that we didn't see that he was fiercely egalitarian or when they would capture slaves slave ships, for example, they were letting them go, but letting them go with the the slave masters at the time, right so it's not like they just let them go free. It was like they put them all together. So that was just I didn't see enough to say that that actually happened. But for me, that's the the only real miss is that they could have just addressed it in episode one. And then moved on. And that seems to be creating tension even today.
Kelly Therese Pollock 39:45
Yeah, I think one thing we should probably mention is that Rhys Darby is of course much too old to be playing an accurate Stede Bonnet. Rhys Darby is wonderful, and I love the portrayal of the character, but at 48 years old, is much older than Stede Bonnet.
Jeremy R. Moss 40:00
Yeah, he's 28. He's 20 years older than Bonnet would have been. So you're absolutely right. But fantastic, you know, as I read books, and now as I write them, I do tend to assign faces to people, especially historic figures that I can actually think of. And although it wasn't Rhys Darby, it is now. Whenever I think about Bonnet, that's certainly who I think of. So he's done a fantastic job. And I think he's, he's just, he's a great Stede Bonnet.
Kelly Therese Pollock 40:29
Yeah. So I want to mention that you have kept writing since this book that inspired you to write. Could you talk a little bit about what else you've done with with piracy?
Jeremy R. Moss 40:39
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. I have a new book that came out this year called, "Colonial Virginia's War Against Piracy." So for years, I lived in Virginia, and again, that was kind of the original inspiration to starting to study piracy is that it all happened so locally. And there's one story about the governor of Virginia, Francis Nicholson, who was on the bow of a royal ship, that was in a fierce gunfire with a pirate ship in the Lynnhaven Bay, which is kind of right in the tourist section of Virginia Beach. Everybody drives over what's called the Lesner Bridge to see this bay. And it's just fascinating to think about these 1670 cannonballs exchanged between the two ships and two really interesting characters, the governor of Virginia who was, you know, unempathetic and brash and loud and a little bit off kilter, and then this kind of suave French buccaneer who had made his way up to Virginia. So it just creates, you know, it's another one of those has really interesting characters, and then all of a sudden, you plug them together into the historical story, and people are drawn to one side or the other. And we get that a little bit with Bonnet too. It's like people are either drawn to Bonnet or Blackbeard, or are drawn to those that are hunting them down. So that's where I have settled in is, is the really interesting characters, really detailed stories. I like to try to tell narratives based on actual facts and fill in the gaps as we talked about earlier, as little as possible. And another one that is based on a trial transcript, which, you know, as we already discussed earlier, just it's just something that fascinates me and kind of helps me keep plowing through some of these archival materials.
Kelly Therese Pollock 42:07
If anyone would like to read your books, and they certainly should, anyone who likes "Our Flag Means Death" absolutely needs to read this book about Stede Bonnet, how can they get your books?
Jeremy R. Moss 42:18
Yeah, the books are available almost anywhere books are sold at this point, certainly the big names like the Amazons of the world, Walmart, Target, etc. always have them online. I would encourage if you can, look on a website called indiebound, which will point you in the right direction of the local independent bookstore. And also feel free to, you know, just request that your library carry it as well. I know that there's a handful of libraries that are that are starting to stock them now with the popularity of the show, but would love to get more. You know, try to find the locals that have it. I mean, if you're feeling truly piratical, you can find a friend that has it and maybe swipe it off the table. But other than that, you could find him anywhere books are sold.
Kelly Therese Pollock 42:56
Yeah. Excellent. Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about?
Jeremy R. Moss 43:00
No, I think that we've covered it. You know, for those that are drawn to "Our Flag Means Death," you know, kind of welcome to the Bonnet team. I think that you will find that the real Stede Bonnet is as interesting, different but as interesting as the fictionalized version. And, you know, as we've talked about, I hope you just continue that, that research. There are a lot of interesting characters in the world of piracy, not all of which had been shown on the small or big screen, and hopefully just kind of stay in and stay tuned.
Kelly Therese Pollock 43:27
All right, excellent. Jeremy, thank you so much. This was really fun and I'm delighted to have learned more about the real Stede Bonnet.
Jeremy R. Moss 43:34
Thank you. Great talking with you.
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode @UnsungHistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.
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Jeremy R. Moss is a husband, father, philanthropist, real estate developer, attorney, and lobbyist living in Jacksonville, Florida.
An emerging author and freelance historian, Jeremy’s first two books are focused on his passions of real estate development, unique personalities of the Golden Age of Piracy and early colonial history. Jeremy is a passionate speaker, regularly talking with groups, large and small.
When not reading, writing or working, Jeremy is usually looking for his now-lukewarm half cup of coffee. Jeremy has a competitive spirit and enjoys physical activity, and has competed in Olympic weightlifting, Crossfit, strongman and rugby.