Post-Spanish Succession Period > Battle of Cape Fear River

Battle of Cape Fear River

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration

Background

The Battle of Cape Fear River, also known as the Battle of the Sandbars was a naval engagement fought between the naval forces of William Rhett and the famous pirate Stede Bonnet in September of 1718. Here the British pirate hunters defeated Bonnet and his crew and captured them, bringing them to Charles Town for their execution. At this point in the Golden Age of Piracy the Royal Navy had really upped their effort in combating piracy in the New World and the West Indies to protect their economic interests.

Stede Bonnet was a famous and notorious pirate throughout the English world and had his own fleet of pirate ships while sailing with the likes of Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach's and the rest of the Flying Gang. In August of 1718 Bonnet was sailing down from the Delaware Bay to the Cape Fear River in the Province of North Carolina. He was commanding his sloop-of-war named the Royal James along with the Francis and the Fortune.

The Royal James was a former flagship of Blackbeard's which was armed with eight cannons and the other two ships had similar armaments along with a crew of about forty-six pirates spread between them. The Royal James was in dire need of careening and the hurricane season was quickly approaching so Bonnet had chosen the Cape Fear River as a safe shelter against the coming storms. For several weeks the Royal James was repaired with material salvaged from a captured shallop.

By late August there would be reports of Bonnet and his crew that reached Governor Robert Johnson of Province of South Carolina. Governor Johnson dispatched the pirate hunter and militia colonel named William Rhett to track him down and eliminate the pirates. The pirate hunters did not have official Royal Navy sailors or marines amongst their crew but were most likely volunteer militia and sailors out of the port of Charles Town. Overall the pirate hunters managed to pull together two eight-gun sloops and 130 men to take out the pirates.

Engagement

On the night of 26 September 1718 Colonel Rhett reached the Cape Fear River estuary however, he was spotted by Bonnet and his crew. The pirates believed the ship was a merchant and set out in three canoes to attempt to seize their prize. Unfortunately the Henry ran aground on a sandbar. The pirates rowed close enough to learn it was a pirate hunter and quickly retreated back to their ship unscathed.

Deciding not to run, Bonnet and the crew were going to fight their way out into the Atlantic Ocean. As the day broke the next morning the pirates attempted to cruise past the two sloops aboard the Royal James, Fortune and Francis. They had spent the night preparing their weapons and upon daylight Bonnet raised his flag and began his assault on the British pirate hunters.

They sailed towards the sloops for a few minutes until they came within range of their cannons and muskets and they fired upon them. The pirate hunters returned fire in retaliation and both ships broke formation and split up. They would both run aground on sandbars however, as Stede Bonnet swerved to avoid the enemy fire he ran aground on sand by sailing too close to the western shore of the river.

At this point in the naval engagement only the Henry and the Royal James were within firing range of each other so for the next five to six hours they exchanged fire. The Henry was left far more exposed than the Royal James which was tilted as to provide protection from enemy fire. Throughout the gun fight Bonnet patrolled the deck with a pistol and promised to shoot any man who was a coward. The pirates themselves were in good spirits though and they continually taunted the pirate hunters.

After five hours of gun fighting the pirate hunters had lost thirty of their crew and nine of Bonnet's crew had been slain or injured. As the water began to rise in the early afternoon it proved decisive for the Battle of Cape Fear River. Since the pirate hunters sloops were downstream they managed to get free from the sandbar first while Bonnet and the Royal James were still stranded. Soon Rhett and his crew repaired the rigging and raised the sails and moved the Henry into position to fire the starboard guns directly onto the deck of the Royal James.

At this point it seemed desperate so Bonnet ordered his gunner George Ross to light the powder magazine and scuttle the Royal James. However, he was persuaded not to by his crew who had already surrendered. After a brief conflict between the remaining pirates the Royal James was boarded and the entire surviving crew plus Bonnet was captured.

Aftermath

Overall the pirate hunters lost twelve and had eighteen wounded wild the pirates lost twelve of their crew as well. All of the survivors were captured including Bonnet and they were taken to Charles Town where they arrived on 3 October to await charges of piracy. Bonnet would be held for almost a month at the home of the Charleston provost marshal along with his boatswain Ignatius Pell and the sailing master David Herriot.

While at the provost marshals house Bonnet, Pell and Herriot would escape with the help of two slaves and an Amerindian and possibly a local merchant named Richard Tookerman. As soon as the authorities became aware of his escape Governor Robert Johnson placed a £700 dead or alive bounty on the pirates. Bonnet and the rest of them would soon be captured after a brief conflict on Sullivan's Island.

On 10 December 1718 Bonnet and the rest of his crew would be hung for piracy.

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