Article written by 2007 DPDF Black Atlantic Studies Fellow Matthew Norton:
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
On Thursday, 30 October 1718 at Admiralty Sessions in Charlestown, South Carolina, Attorney-General Richard Allein provided a scarcely necessary recounting of a recent communal trauma. “What a grievous Dilemma were we our selves reduced to in the Month of May last?,” Allein asked, “when Thatch the Pirate [a.k.a. Black Beard a.k.a. Edward Teach] came and lay off this Harbour with a ship of forty guns mounted, and one hundred and forty men, and as well fitted . . . as any fifth-rate ship in the Navy, with three or four pirate sloops under his command.” The pirate fleet at the mouth of Charlestown harbor snatched up five prizes, some fifteen hundred pounds sterling, and a number of prominent hostages. They then, in Allein’s words, “had the most unheard-of impudence to . . . demand a chest of medicines of the value of three or four hundred pounds . . . or otherwise they would send in the heads” of all the prisoners they had seized, including one member of the province’s Council. Further deepening the humiliation, three or four “of the pirates, walked upon the Bay, and in our publick streets, to an fro in the face of all the people, waiting for the Governor’s answer.” The governor yielded and sent the medicines; the pirates freed the hostages and departed.
The trial underway in October 1718, however, was not intended to adjudicate any of these alleged crimes from the previous May. Rather, men from the crew of one of Teach’s lieutenants at the time of the attack on Charlestown, Major Stede Bonnet—himself a quite successful Barbados planter rather inexplicably turned pirate—were on trial for an act of piracy more minor and remote. The way that Allein eventually brings his discourse around to the indictment at hand is instructive. After recounting a series of other depredations allegedly perpetrated by Teach (who, to be clear, was not on trial) and Bonnet, Allein says,
Gentlemen, most of the said Bonnet’s crew . . . are old offenders, and were with Thatch and Bonnet at the taking of all, or most of these vessels I have mentioned, and were with Thatch and Bonnet when they lay off our bar in May last, and sent up that insulting message [demanding the medicine chest], and were in the Engagement against Col. Rhett [where they were captured], so that there is hardly any room left for the least pity or compassion: who can think of it, when you see your fellow-townsmen, some dead, others daily bleeding and dying before your eyes? But the particular fact or act of piracy for which the prisoners at the bar are now to be tried is set forth in the indictment . . . we shall prove, that all the prisoners at the bar were at the taking of [Captain] Manwareing’s sloop, [and] that they all bore arms.
In this speech, Allein fuses both the past of Charlestown’s humiliation and the past plunder of Captain Manwareing’s ship into the temporality of the trial, the social construction of a laminate temporality where the past becomes part of the present, poised for judgment.
The Stede Bonnet trial is a good example of a general mechanism I take to be important to the project of consolidating a degree of control over maritime violence in the early modern English/British empire, namely the social manipulation of temporality. Using the institutionalized interpretive authority of Admiralty Sessions, the aggrieved of Charlestown were able to revisit a humiliating episode from their past and to reinterpret it in accordance with an alternative system of social meaning based on concepts of law, right, and sovereignty, which at the time of the trial—in stark contrast to the time of the attack—they were able to forcefully assert. The attack on Charlestown was not even formally at issue in this trial, but contemporaries were insistent in making that past trauma present. They built the temporality of this later moment in the life of the community around the representation of the past moment of powerlessness in order to enforce an alternative interpretation—a more just one, as they saw it, in which the pirates submitted to the retribution of…