Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Swashbuckling Pirate Era in South Carolina

The exploits of pirates, privateers, and buccaneers have long captured America’s imagination. After all, these sea going brigands led a highly romanticized lifestyle sailing the sea lanes of the world, their canvases billowing in the trade winds, from the waters off Africa and Europe and the Orient to the Caribbean, and the coast of North America.
Fittingly, since relocating to Myrtle Beach South Carolina four years ago from my home state of New Jersey I’ve come upon frequent written accounts of swashbucklers roving the neighboring areas back in the day when South Carolina was still just an impoverished American colony and so was open to trading with the likes of privateers, pirates and buccaneers allowing them to meander freely around the towns and mingle with the populous at will as was the norm in New Providence, Bahamas and Port Royal in the Caribbean. So, while images of those settings and the Spanish Main, the collective term for those Spanish colonies on the mainland of the Americas and coastlines of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, are commonly associated with the term pirate. Pirates seeking sanctuary from pirate hunters often found their refuge in the serene backwaters near Charleston and elsewhere along the Carolina coast and the inlets in South Carolina’s Bull’s Bay, McClellanville, Murrells Inlet, Georgetown, and North Carolina’s Beaufort Inlet and the Cape Fear River that were all preferred pirate haunts.

The pirate’s primary goal was to scare the bejesus out of the crews of the merchant ships so severely that resistance would just collapse before they even boarded the ships. They weren’t seeking a fight and hadn’t any intentions to sink the ships because their objective was to capture their booty. But when they did face resistance, the battles were often bloody which contributed to their vicious reputations.
Pirate history abounds in Charleston, formerly Charles Town until 1783, with many of the old taverns and other places they frequented long ago still open to the public permitting visitors the opportunity to learn about and experience a piece of the Golden Age of Piracy and the role that South Carolina played in its history. Piracy flourished along the South Carolina coast largely in two periods, during the early “Proprietary” era of 1670 to 1700 and at the end of the “Golden Age of Piracy” spanning 1716 to 1720. Settled in 1670, Charleston soon became the principal port of the then Carolina colony, a region contested by the Spanish, French, and English in the frequent wars of the era. The proprietary form of government that was in place was often in disarray and headed by corrupt administrators and so pirates, most of whom began their commerce raiding ways as legal government commissioned wartime privateers, prospered in such an uncertain and tempestuous setting. The growing commerce and seafaring trade of Charleston also attracted raids by foreign privateers who were perceived by the local citizens as pirates too.
The British government had imposed a burdensome tariff on all goods transiting between the American Colonies and that fostered a black market for the cheaper goods plundered from foreign vessels by the pirates, privateers and their ilk. And while places such as Key West and Savannah are most often acclaimed as pirate towns, neither can compare with Charleston for its historic connections to the age of piracy. Consequently, a long list of characters that were wanted by the Crown for piracy freely preyed upon the maritime traffic of Charlestown. And it was not until South Carolina became a major exporter of cotton, rice, tobacco, and indigo dye that the large plantation owners petitioned the British monarchy to clamp down on the privateers and a solution was sought. Subsequently, on September 5th, 1717 King George the 1st granted clemency to all pirates and privateers in Nassau who agreed to abandon their felonious ways and pledge allegiance to the Crown and also promised to settle them in the colonies if they swore to never again take to sea. Given little choice since susceptible to a noose, the majority of the scallywags chose clemency. But soon afterward many become bored-rigid with the modest existence of a poor settler and so they returned to their prior wicked ways.

Alike to the merchants in all of the other colonies, Charleston’s traders were accustomed to dealing with contrabandists of all sorts and therefore welcomed the cheap goods and specie, or metallic money, of all types and origins that the pirates brought. Moreover, customs officers were prone to taking bribes to smooth over illegal trade, and so consorting with pirates became common and that abetted their success. Too, South Carolina had just survived a ravaging war with the Yamassee Indians in 1715 that left the colony unprepared to cope with the onslaught of pirates swarming along the coast from 1717 to 1718. Among the most notorious of them sailing off South Carolina’s shores were Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Charles Vane, Christopher Moody, Richard Worley, and Anne Bonney. Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard the Pirate was the most renowned pirate of them all to be associated with Charlestown who in mid-May 1718 sailed down the coast of South Carolina leading an armada of ships intent on blockading the port of Charlestown. Along with Stede Bonnet’s four-ship fleet they mounted around sixty canons combined to blockade the port. Then during one week, numerous merchant ships were plundered of goods and specie, trade came to a standstill, and hostages were ransomed for valuable medicines. But, despite profiting well from the loot of the captured ships, the actual reason Blackbeard had blocked the port was to obtain a chest of medicine that contained mercury, the only remedy available at the time known to treat his syphilis. After securing what he came for Blackbeard turned his fleet north and headed for his homeport of Bath, North Carolina presumably to lay low and convalesce. However, later on, he met his demise at the hands of British Lieutenant Robert Maynard Captain of HMS Pearl in a battle at Ocracoke Island NC on 21 November 1718. He had been shot five times and cut about twenty. Blackbeard’s corpse was thrown into the inlet and his severed head was suspended from the bowsprit of Maynard’s sloop so that the reward could be collected. On their return to Virginia, Teach’s head was placed on a pole at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay as a warning to other pirates and a greeting to other ships, and it stood there for several years.
The humiliating incident of the blockade was preceded by Charles Vane’s seizure of several ships off the harbor entrance. Vane, who was commanding his own vessels, was one of the leaders of the Republic of Pirates in Nassau. In 1718 Vane was captured but agreed to stop his criminal actions and declared his intention to accept a King’s pardon; however, just months later he and his men, including Edward England and Jack Rackham, returned to piracy. And when Vane returned later in the summer for a brief blockade of Charleston, Colonel William Rhett of the Provincial militia and active merchant captain sailing the vessel Providence was sent by the Governor, Robert Johnson, along with armed sloops to capture him. However, Vane eluded the pursuit. But, later on, in February 1719, Vane was caught up in a hurricane and wrecked on an uninhabited island. And when English ships arrived shortly afterward to collect fresh water on the island, Vane tried to infiltrate one of the crews under a false name and was recognized by a past adversary. So, Vane was arrested and taken to Spanish Town, Jamaica and held in prison for some time. Until, on 22 March 1721, he was tried for piracy and found guilty and sentenced to death. Then, on 29 March he was hanged at Gallows Point in Port Royal and his corpse was hung in chains at Gun Cay Island.
British Colonial and Governor Robert Johnson who oversaw the suppression of the pirates who were preying upon the commerce of South Carolina and neighboring colonies went on to continue his campaign until they were all exterminated. And, he did so by organizing another retaliatory expedition under his direct command but again led by Rhett with four highly armed vessels. Subsequently, on November 5 Johnson and Rhett’s flotilla clashed with two pirate sloops in a bloody action at the harbor’s mouth in sight of the port. When one of the sloops bolted for the open sea, Rhett aboard Providence gave chase and ultimately succeeded in taking the prize. The pirate captain, who was killed in the action, turned out to be Richard Worley, a pirate who was active in the Caribbean Sea and the east coast of the American colonies during the early 18th century.
Another pirate that was hunted down by Johnson and Rhett was Stede Bonnet, a former plantation owner in the Caribbean who took to piracy in pursuit of adventure. They sighted Stede Bonnet’s fleet at Cape Fear, NC and defeated him in a furious battle and then returned him and his crew to Charleston for trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Afterward, Bonnet was taken to the gallows at White Point SC where he and numerous fellow failed pirates were strung up and hanged.
Today White Point is a tourist destination in Battery Park. And White Point executions, gunfire and Civil War battles are all part of the park’s fact-based history. Thus, White Point Garden is celebrated as one of the most haunted places in South Carolina’s antebellum city of Charleston. A place where it’s rumored that should one venture out to the park in the dead of night, it’s probably best if they don’t go it alone for while beauty adorns the park during the day, at night is when the spirits come out to play.
Charlestown was also the hometown of the most infamous female pirate to sail the seas, Anne Bonny, who was the hot-headed daughter of an Irish born plantation owner. Having initially run off in 1718 with, and then marrying sailor John Bonny Anne later took up company with John “Calico Jack” Rackham, captain of the pirate sloop Revenge. When finally captured by the British alongside Rackham and fellow female pirate Mary Read in October 1720, they were the only crew members sober enough to put up a fight. They were later paraded before the Governor of Jamaica at trial and all three were convicted of piracy and sent to the gallows although temporary clemency was granted to both women because they were pregnant at the time with the sentence to be carried out later after childbirth. Records indicate that Mary Read died in her cell, yet there is no mention of what became of Anne Bonny. However, rumors swarmed afterward that her father had paid the Governor a high ransom to spare his daughter and marry her off to a member of Jamaican high society.
The battles waged by Colonial Rhett and Governor Johnson and others such as Lieutenant Robert Maynard against the pirates and the subsequent mass executions of them virtually ended their presence along the South Carolina coast. As a result, piracy in the province slowly died out in the 1720s. However, among the lingering pirates who operated fleetingly in that decade were George Lowther and Edward Low. Lowther attempted to take an armed merchantman off of Charleston in 1722 but was defeated and driven off. The following year Edward Low ravaged five vessels off the harbor and escaped, but the Royal Navy soon captured him. After that, although an occasional rumor of a pirate sighting would reach Charleston, the “Golden Age of Piracy” was over in South Carolina.