The Trial Of The Century … In 1718
It was all people could talk about. In shops and in church, in bars and on street corners, people kept saying the same thing. “Have you heard the latest on the trial? How do you think it will turn out?” Sounds like South Carolina in 2023?…
It was all people could talk about. In shops and in church, in bars and on street corners, people kept saying the same thing. “Have you heard the latest on the trial? How do you think it will turn out?”
Sounds like South Carolina in 2023? Try South Carolina in 1718.
Three centuries ago, our ancestors were fascinated by yet another lowcountry trial. In fact, over a period of several weeks this fall, there were more than a dozen fast-track trials and nearly five dozen defendants. And it’s not hard to say that South Carolina has a lot to do with the outcome.
This is the story of Charleston’s Pirate Trials.
Piracy was a very serious problem in the early 18th centuryth Century. South Carolina was an English colony that was almost five decades old. The sea was his connection to the outside world. Immigrants and the goods they needed came by ship; The crops harvested for export went out in the same way. And this connection was threatened by pirates.
Their plunder was so widespread that the era was known as the Golden Age of Piracy. It wasn’t just an inconvenience; it was a major blow to South Carolina’s bottom line.
It’s important to understand early on that these weren’t the cute, lovable “Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum” villains you find in Disneyland. There was no such thing as a flamboyant Johnny Depp Captain Jack Sparrow. They were cutthroats who robbed, raped, and murdered with a criminal organization just as ruthless and just as deadly as today’s drug cartels.
When the British Navy cracked down on piracy in the Caribbean, many of the seaworthy villains fled to the barren shores of North Carolina and operated from there to hunt down the nautical lifelines of Virginia and South Carolina.
Chief among them was the notorious Blackbeard, a man as bold and cunning as he was evil. He had the gall to blockade Charleston Harbor for a week in May 1718, looting several ships, taking hostages and threatening to kill some of them unless he was given a box of medical supplies. (Which he got and then sailed away.)
After several other humiliating incidents, the colonists finally had enough. They sent Col. William Rhett and a handful of armed ships to capture the villains. The South Carolinians caught up with them at Cape Fear. After a battle that would have made an action movie proud, the pirate ship Revenge was captured and its crew returned to Charleston to stand trial. Among the prisoners was Stede Bonnet, the so-called “Gentleman Pirate”. Despite his distinguished nickname, Bonnet was a criminal honcho. It was a big bust, to use today’s jargon.
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A second punitive raid that fall, this time led by Governor Robert Johnson himself, resulted in another naval battle and the expulsion of more pirates.
In Charleston, 58 men accused of piracy were charged in 13 separate trials that took place in rapid succession for five weeks. South Carolina’s first newspaper was still more than a dozen years away. But thanks to a book entitled “The Attempts of Major Stede Bonnet and Other Pirates‘, which was printed in London the next year.
The trials began on October 28 and lasted until November. To say there was a lot of public interest in the case would be an understatement. The pirates had made life difficult for the colonists; now these colonists wanted to see the pirates meet the painful end of justice.
Two pirates crafted the State’s Proofs (or rather, the King’s Proofs) and ratted out their teammates for mercy. The space does not allow to delve into the fascinating details of the falls. Suffice it to say that the justice demanded by the colonists was swift and severe.
By the end of 1718, 49 pirates were being sent to the afterlife at the end of a rope. Among them: The infamous Stede Bonnet. But these were no ordinary executions.
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The convicted pirates were hanged on the far southern part of White Point on the beach within sight of ships. The location was no coincidence. It was intended to discourage sailors from joining the ranks of pirates.
Evidence suggests the bodies were left hanging for a while to ensure the message got across.
Piracy gradually disappeared over the next few years. Other sensational public trials have come and gone with time. But few, if any, dominated public interest quite like the pirate trials of 1718.
(Note: Editor’s tip to Dr. Nic Butler, historian at the Charleston County Public Library, whose excellent research helped make this story possible.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former television journalist, government communications veteran and political adviser. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Do you have a tip or an idea for a story for Mark? Email him at [email protected]
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