‘A General History of the Pyrates’ and the Story of Stede Bonnet


By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University

Before Hollywood came along, there were two texts that sat right on the bleeding edge of history and mythologizing that set the ground for most of the Anglophone world’s pirate beliefs, and they both featured Golden Age Caribbean piracy prominently. The first is Buccaneers of America and the other is A General History of the Pyrates.

Image of a pirate hat, sword, keys, and mug, all on a wooden table
A General History of the Pyrates tells amazing stories about the history of different pirate captains. (Image: S.J. Photography/Shutterstock)

Buccaneers of America

Alexander Exquemelin wrote Buccaneers of America. Exquemelin was a Franco-Dutch surgeon, who had fled his indenture, and taken up with the buccaneers of Tortuga, eventually falling in with Henry Morgan, whom he describes as a violent, vain, destructive pirate.

Front page of the book 'Buccaneers of America'.
The Buccaneers of America was published first in Dutch in 1678. (Image: Alexander Exquemelin/Public domain)

Buccaneers of America was published first in Dutch in 1678, and was widely translated, appearing in English in 1684 by way of a Spanish adaptation. Morgan, who by then had attained a degree of respectability, sued William Crook and Thomas Malthus, the English publishers, of the book. 

So later printings took out some of the worst torture scenes, and added in the Journal of Basil Ring Rose and an account of Bart Sharp, other hardscrabble buccaneers who, like Morgan, spent the late 17th century trying to accumulate some wealth by exploiting the possibilities of the Isthmus of Panama.

A General History of the Pyrates

But even more important in legend-building than the Buccaneers of America is A General History of the Pyrates, which appeared in 1724. By 1728, it was already in its fourth edition, which was really good by the standards of the time, and it has never been out of print since. 

The General History was published with a probably pseudonymous attribution to Captain Charles Johnson. It is an amazing gripping blend of fact, exaggeration, and straight fiction.

It is from the General History that we got all the outlandish tales about Blackbeard setting his face on fire and sailing with the devil. And it is because of the volume’s enduring popularity that its obvious embellishments to history have become in all their mendacity, the first things we remember about most of the legendary pirates.

It’s important to remember, though, that much of what we think we know about pirates is information about bad pirates, the ones who got caught and couldn’t talk their way out of the rope’s end. Indeed, the General History that provides us with so much of what we know about pirates, relied heavily on trial records for its information.

And even then, we only know the fate of about two-thirds of the pirate captives mentioned in the book, let alone their crews. Twenty-six of the captains were hanged, six were killed in battle, others fell to piratical mutinies, and a dozen or so surrendered and accepted amnesty. For most of the rest, the pirates who kept their profiles low, there is nothing to go on.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Pirate Captain Stede Bonnet

Stede Bonnet is one of the pirates described in the General History. According to the book, he was born in Barbados to a wealthy plantation family. He was educated, and prosperous, and a major in the colonial militia to boot. In his middle age though, something went wrong. The General History claimed it was a “disorder in the mind” brought about by some “discomforts he found in the married state”. 

For some reason, the Major decided he’d rather be a pirate captain. So he bought a little sloop, fitted it out, named it the Revenge, hired a crew, and set out to terrorize the Chesapeake Bay on the North American coast. Things went surprisingly well at first, and Bonnet took several prizes, but heading back to the Caribbean, he ran afoul of a Spanish man-of-war and was badly mauled.

A drawing of Stede Bonnet
Stede Bonnet was a military man, but later chose to become a pirate captain. (Image: Charles Johnson/Public domain)

Bonnet, though a military man and a man of letters, was no mariner, and he had trouble keeping command of his men. When he fell in with Captain Thatch, aka Blackbeard, he was overwhelmed by the more dominant personality. 

Blackbeard, either because he doubted Bonnet’s abilities, or because Bonnet’s men were complaining, eventually reassigned command of the Revenge and took Bonnet onto the Queen Anne’s Revenge as a passenger. Bonnet was witnessed, striding around comfortably in his bathrobe and reading rather than pirating in the more usual sense.

Stede Bonnet’s Death 

In 1717, Bonnet accepted a royal pardon, and he promised never to pirate again. But instead, he snapped up a group of men Blackbeard had marooned and recommenced pirating, renaming his ship the Royal James. His comeback didn’t last long. In October 1718, Bonnet was captured by the pirate hunter William Rhett after a disastrous battle. 

Rhett had two ships to Bonnet’s one, but both of Rhett’s ships and Bonnet’s Royal James all ran aground in the treacherous Cape Fear River, and pirate and hunter were trapped, shooting at each other for hours until the tide came back in and freed Rhett’s ships first. 

After an abortive escape attempt, Bonnet was tried in Charleston. He pled not guilty, claiming that his men had forced him to act as a pirate against his inclinations 13 times. Judge Trott was not convinced, and Bonnet was hanged.

Common Questions about A General History of the Pyrates and the Story of Stede Bonnet

Q: What were the two great texts that built the legends of piracy?

The two books, A General History of the Pyrates and Buccaneers of America, highlighted the Golden Age of Caribbean piracy.

Q: Who was Stede Bonnet?

According to A General History of the Pyrates, Stede Bonnet was an educated, prosperous major in the colonial militia. He had been born in a wealthy family in Barbados. In his middle age, he decided to become a pirate captain.

Q: What names did Captain Stede Bonnet choose for his ship during his piracy career? 

Captain Stede Bonnet called his ship Revenge when he started piracy for the first time. After a while, he decided to give up piracy, but he recommenced it again sometime later. At that point, he renamed his ship Royal James.

Keep Reading
Who Is and Isn’t a Pirate?
Privateers: How Do They Differ from Pirates?
Some Legendary Pirates and Their Stories