William Kidd’s Last Voyage

In the closing days of the 17th century, honest, peace-loving folk in both England and its North American colonies feared, above all, the French, divine judgment, and William Kidd. Of these, the infamous Captain Kidd seemed to many to embody the most pervasive threat. The Royal Navy and amazing grace offered a substantial degree of security against the first two dangers, but the third grew in the minds of many decent citizens into a supernatural menace which even the grave could not confine. After Kidd’s execution by hanging in 1701, an anonymous epitaph warned:

Reader, near this Tomb don’t stand

Without some Essence in thy Hand;

For here Kidd’s stinking Corpse does lie,

The Scent of which may thee infect. . . .

Yet the real Captain Kidd stands in stark contrast to this better-known, though legendary, alter ego. Perhaps no character in a Greek drama ever was more victimized by hubris and a cruel fate than was William Kidd, who exhibited no predisposition to become a pirate, who denied to the end that he had ever played the part of one, and whose inept exploits, whatever his true motivation, showed him to have little aptitude for such a swashbuckling career.

Kidd himself did not know he was a wanted man until he dropped anchor in the West Indies in April, 1699. He successfully avoided two British ships sent to intercept him, but rather than flee across the sea, he surrendered himself to the governor of the American colonies of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Not doubting his own innocence, Kidd believed he could clear his name if given a chance to tell his story. . . .

Kidd’s reputation had been unblemished in 1696, when he first set sail on his controversial voyage. In that year, he was known only as a well-to-do New York colonist, who had come to England hoping to serve his King as captain of a Royal Navy warship.