Book Review: The Life and Tryals of the Gentleman Pirate, Major Stede Bonnet by Jeremy R. Moss

  • Köelher Books
  • 2020
  • ISBN 978-1-64663-149-0

If you’ve ever read about pirates, you might have heard of Stede Bonnet especially if I’m your reading you’ve seen something about Blackbeard. But if you’ve only heard of him then you might well be puzzled. This was what author, Jeremy Moss found when he began his search to find out the truth about the ‘Gentleman Pirate.’

Though rather obscure today, Bonnet was better known than some in the 18th century, indeed he was known in his day as one of the more infamous pirates of the Atlantic and Caribbean. But is this deserved?

Amongst student of maritime crime, Bonnet is known as a bit of a joke, and Moss’ critical eye for detail makes him perfectly suited to act as his biographer. Bonnet was a wealthy gentleman who seemingly had a midlife crisis and joined the 18th century equivalent of a biker gang, only he bought all the bikes and hired all the riders to form his gang. 

“the author brings the reader into constant contact with important contemporary sources, such as trial records, later history and collections of state papers. Not enough pirate history does this”

Though it is true that he learned a great deal from being the prisoner of Blackbeard, and associations with others like Charles Vane, by the time of his capture he had learned how to act like a pirate, cruising and capturing passing craft casually from a secluded inlet, and puffing and blowing about taking revenge on ships from Carolina, and threatening to shoot any of his crew dead who refused to fight. As Moss brings us through the story of his unusual life, one even begins to wonder who was conning who when it came to Blackbeard. 

This book highlights very well the difference between the wannabe apprentice pirate captain Bonnet and ‘real’ pirates, who acted according to codes and traditions and considered themselves a loose brotherhood, hence they felt entitled to act in certain ways depending on who had done what in disregard of the rules. We see this when Moss looks into his motivations in turning criminal. Jacobite sympathies (a popular affectation by certain captains) mixed with, mid life crisis & literal dementia is an original hypothesis, and one that is actually borne out by the available sources. 

When I read the book, I loved how the author brings the reader into constant contact with important contemporary sources, such as trial records, later history and collections of state papers. Not enough pirate history does this, and it will really enable a serious student to do some proper digging. *doffs cocked hat*.

Stede actually got off to a good start but he wasn’t a typical pirate as he literally owned his ship & the crew had bounties, but he revealed he was no sailor and then got hammered by a Spanish Man O’ War.

The hero, for all his faults is treated kindly, for instance Bonnet is thought by the author to have likely remained faithful to his wife. I suspect the author is trying to make Bonnet out to be less than the figure of fun that he is commonly ascribed. And it’s true Bonnet isn’t implicated with women in the record.

Apart from a few small things, mostly cosmetic to do with naval terminology and weaponry, which gave me no pause to doubt the overall narrative, there were no speed bumps. A highly detailed coverage of the trial of the pirates takes up part two of the book, offering day by day narrative of the proceedings, yielding many interesting points for studious readers, and some are also amusing, such as Chief Justice Alein becoming irritated when he could get no straight answer as to wether or not Bonnet was, as he called it ‘commander in chief’ of the pirate ship. 

This wonderful moment of anecdote shows us not only the singularity of the semi-diplomatic nature of pirate crews, but we can also see the novelty of it at the time, as the confused Chief Justice becomes increasingly irate at the mention of the power of the pirate quartermaster exceeding that of Bonnet.

Excellent appendixes round out the book, which is in sum highly readable and supremely informative. I look forward eagerly to Moss’ future work.

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