Long before Archdale’s administration, piracy flourished in Carolina. As early as 1685 it had been suggested that perhaps the governor of Carolina had best not reside in Charleston, “which is so near the sea as to be in danger from a sudden invasion of pirates.” Later, one of the members of Governor James Colleton’s Council was expelled “for holding correspondence with pirates.” During this same period Seth Sothel, one of the proprietors of the colony and governor of the Albemarle section, used accusations of piracy as a means of enforcing his arbitrary will.
At one time, buccaneers freely roamed the streets of Charleston, and if arrested and brought to trial, side-stepped justice by bribing public officials and even the juries. Decent citizens could do little more than raise their voices in angry protest. The growing importance of Charleston called for the appointment of governors who would take a firmer stand against these corsairs. The South Carolina Assembly passed laws curbing the activities of pirates. And for a change, these acts were enforced. The buccaneers began to steer clear of the port and sought greener pastures a little further to the North.
The term “Carolina” in the 17th century applied to the territory of both present‑day North and South Carolina. The area known as “Carolina south and west of Cape Fear,” or modern South Carolina, grew much faster than the area of today’s North Carolina. South Carolina had an excellent port in Charleston which attracted trade and people. North Carolina’s coastline of shallow coastal sounds and inlets offered little opportunity for harbor developments. Yet, as so often happens, one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain. These same shallow waters offered an ideal haven to pirates. By 1700 Edmund Randolph was sending reports to England that North Carolina had achieved a reputation as “a place which receives pirates, runaways and illegal traders.”
Because the colony showed so little promise as a potential trade center, the English authorities neglected to emphasize or particularly encourage its development. The thinly-scattered population was ideal for pirates. There were those among the more unscrupulous elements of the population of North Carolina who welcomed the pirates as an additional source of revenue. Yet there were many North Carolinians who wished to rid the colony of this menace. It was not to be an easy task.
When people think of pirates, most often Captain Kidd comes to mind. However, there is much doubt today that William Kidd was ever a pirate. Measured by his deeds, or misdeeds, on the high seas, certainly he would not rank with the top 100 pirates in history. Yet more words have been printed about this much-maligned man than any other captain in the trade.
In reality, it would appear that Kidd was a privateer rather than a pirate. At the age of 50, he was a successful, respected sea captain, living with his family in a fine brick house in New York. The prosperous owner of several merchant ships, he entertained no ambitions toward the life of a buccaneer. England was suffering from pirate raids on English merchant vessels in the Red Sea. The nation was also engaged in a war with France, and could not spare the ships to suppress this threat to her prosperity. A number of prominent Englishmen provided the financial backing for an expedition to crush the Red Sea pirates, expecting to make a nice profit from the sale of goods taken from the renegades.
One of the chief promoters of this expedition was Lord Bellomont, soon to be governor of New York. The list of those who invested money included the names of the Lord High Chancellor of England, the First Lord of the Admiralty, two of the King’s Secretaries of State, and a number of less important dignitaries. Even the King, William III, was to receive 10% of any proceeds from the voyage. Captain Kidd was selected to command and received a commission as a privateer.
In 1696 Kidd set sail in the 34-gun Adventure Galley. Two vessels were captured which were sailing under French passes, or permits. These were considered legal prizes of war, because of the war between France and England. When Kidd returned, it was not to share in any profit but to discover that he had been charged with piracy. Taken back to England in chains, his case became a political football. Certain elements were attempting to turn a number of his financial backers out of public office, and Kidd’s trial provided a method by which they could be discredited. Even then, he was not convicted of piracy, but for killing a mutinous seaman by striking him on the head with a water bucket. As captain of the ship, Kidd had every right to discipline a member of the crew, but this was not considered in the verdict. After he was hanged on May 23, 1701, his body was hung up in chains as a grisly warning to other erring mariners. Although Captain Kidd does not fall within any list of Carolina pirates, it has seemed appropriate to clear up the many misconceptions so long associated with his career. As he stated at his trial, Kidd was “the innocentest of them all. . . .” Yet few of the Carolina pirates, who were much more active in the bloody business, ever achieved his fame.
There were, however, many famous pirates who terrorized the shipping off the coast of Carolina. This was especially true after some of them fled the West Indies in 1717. Not only were the isolated shallow sounds an attraction, but rumors of a friendly governor led many of the buccaneers to look with favor upon the colony. It has been estimated that there were at least 2,000 pirates operating off the North American coast at this time. Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia sent a plaintive plea for aid back to England for, as he said, “Our coast is now infected with pirates.”
Not all of them were bearded swashbuckling males. One of the more famous pirates was a woman who, according to the scanty records, grew up in “Carolina.” Her name was Anne Bonny (sometimes spelled Bonney). She was born in Ireland, the daughter of an Irish lawyer whose name is not known. Her father emigrated to Carolina, where he prospered as the owner of a plantation. After the death of her mother, the young girl kept house for her father. Even then, or so the story goes, she had a “fierce and courageous” temper, and in one of her uncontrollable rages killed one of the house servants.
Anne met a handsome but penniless young sailor by the name of James Bonny. She fell in love. This so enraged her father that he turned her out of the house. She wandered with her husband to the West Indies. He seems to have been a pirate, for after his arrival there he surrendered and took the oath from Woodes Rogers. Anne could not take the rather dull life of a housewife ashore. A short time later she joined the pirate crew of Captain John Rackham, more commonly known as “Calico Jack,” because of the striped breeches which he always wore.
According to the stories of the day, Anne once more fell in love, this time with a member of the crew. This affair ended rather suddenly when Anne discovered that the other pirate was also a woman! This other female pirate was Mary Read, and her past had been filled with even more adventure than had Anne Bonny’s. She had at one time served in the English army, concealing her identity by donning the uniform of a regular soldier.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read became close companions and were almost constantly together. They wore women’s clothes most of the time they were on shipboard until a prize was sighted. Then they quickly changed into men’s jackets, long trousers, and knotted handkerchiefs about their heads. In battle, they fought alongside the other members of the crew, and it was later testified at their trials that they were just as cruel and bloodthirsty as any other pirates. When Rackham’s crew was eventually captured and tried, the two women were sentenced to hang along with the other men, but neither was ever executed. Mary Read died in jail of a violent fever. Anne Bonny was reprieved a number of times, and although no one seems to be certain just what did happen to her, there is no record of her having met death on the gallows.