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.
While Kidd waited in England for a vessel to command, the Whig-dominated Board of Trade pondered a related concern--the pirates who were disrupting commerce between England and her Indian colonies. What England needed, the King's advisors decided, was an aggressive privateer who could battle the pirates on their own terms, and perhaps prey on a few French merchantmen as the opportunity arose.
The Board reached this conclusion almost as Kidd came knocking on the door, asking for a ship to command. The New Yorker, his heart set on a commission in the Royal Navy, balked at accepting employment as a privateer, but officials in the service of the Crown pointedly questioned the loyalty of any British subject who refused to serve the King, and hinted suggestively that should Kidd choose instead to return to America, his ship might not clear customs. In the end, it was not so much these threats as the realization that the hoped-for Royal Navy commission was not forthcoming that persuaded Kidd, reluctantly, to lead a ship against the Red Sea pirates.
Having virtually shanghaied Kidd, the Board of Trade offered him almost no compensation. The Board well understood that giving a man an armed ship and a license to plunder created a temptation to which even the most patriotic mariner might succumb. To ensure that privateers stayed well clear of British or allied shipping and that the sponsors received their fair share of the spoils, the Board of Trade required privateers to post a bond before leaving port. It set Kidd's at a staggering £20,000, compelling him to sell his own ship and to find a private investor in order to meet his obligation. In return, Kidd and his crew were to be paid strictly out of the booty they captured. If they failed to take any prizes, they would not only receive any pay, they would also assume the costs of the entire voyage. These last terms negated the intent of the bond by fostering a state of desperation among the crew and encouraging them to run amok in search of victims.
While seeking to guarantee Kidd's integrity, the members of the Board felt no compunction against skimming off an immodest percentage of his booty for themselves. Such arrangements were not unheard of, but the equity of the details contained in Kidd's contract may be judged from the fact that every one of his sponsors used an alias when signing it--including King William, who claimed 10 percent of Kidd's profits.
The captain spent the autumn preparing his newly built 34-gun ship, the Adventure Galley. He set sail on 27th February 1696 but was barely underway when a Royal Navy warship stopped the privateer and impressed many of Kidd's best crewmen, leaving him with barely enough sailors to manage the ship, let alone wage war against well-armed pirates. When Kidd resumed his voyage, he set out not for the Indian Ocean, but for New York. There, he recruited 85 new seamen to replace those who had been impressed.
Kidd's unscheduled stopover severely threatened his chances of fulfilling a major stipulation of his commission--that he return to New York with his spoils by 20th March 1697. September arrived before Kidd finally left port bound east, and December before he passed beneath the Cape of Good Hope. A few weeks later, he and his crew still had not taken a prize, and it was obvious that he could not fulfill his obligations to the Board of Trade by the agreed-upon deadline.
From this crossroads in Kidd's life, he followed one of two paths. According to his own description of what happened next, he simply attempted to fulfill his mission, disregarding his deadline but otherwise adhering to the terms of his contract. According to his accusers, he turned to piracy himself.
Since English law did not allow pirates to be tried in the colonies, Kidd was transported back to England, but the fallout from his voyage preceded him. The identity of his Whig party sponsors became public in 1698, and the revelation led to an uproar over the Government's practice of making personal profits from the commissioning of privateers. The Tory opposition in Parliament initiated proceedings of censure and even impeachment against leading Whig lords, which failed to achieve results when Whig MPs closed ranks to vote them down.
In Kidd, the Tories apparently saw a potential ally who could provide the shove needed to bring down the Whig ministry, if only he would disclose all the details of his commission and repudiate the Board of Trade. Whigs, on the other hand, had no interest in allowing the matter to be delved into too deeply, and rather than let a useful scapegoat go free, impeded Kidd's defence by confiscating all his papers pertaining to the voyage while insisting that his actions had been unsanctioned.
Kidd faced the court virtually defenceless, being denied access to counsel or even a clear statement of the charges against him. When the trial began, he learned to his surprise that, in addition to five counts of piracy, he also stood accused of murdering one of his crewmen. The whole affair, according to one modern writer, 'can be viewed only as a monstrous combination of persons and events deliberately calculated to crush the blocked and frustrated Kidd.'
The defendant depicted himself as torn between the conflicting necessities of placating a riotous crew and honouring his commission. By the time he reached the coast of Africa, Kidd testified, his men were close to mutiny, and, starved for a richly laden victim, forced him to attack a fleet of 15 Mogul merchantmen. Kidd steered towards the merchant ships, but broke off the engagement and fled after finding that they were escorted by two armed Dutch ships and a Royal Navy vessel.
A month later, he stopped a Moorish ship, only to find she was commanded by an English captain and thus did not qualify as a legitimate prize. During Kidd's inspection of the merchantman, the 'blood-thirsty' pirate allowed his crew to amuse themselves by slapping the Moors with the flat edges of their swords, and then detained the captain and his Portuguese mate, to serve as a pilot.
Controversy piled upon controversy for Kidd. He chased down yet another potential prize only to find a fellow New Yorker in command. He allowed the ship to proceed unmolested, he testified, because he had 'no commission to take any but the King's enemies and pirates.' The prosecution countered that Kidd let the ship go free because its captain proved to be a fellow pirate.
When the English merchantman sailed away unharmed, a violent argument erupted on the Adventure Galley over whether the potential prize should have been allowed to go free. Conflicting testimony makes it impossible to determine all the details of the argument, but it ended with Kidd hitting a seaman named William Moore over the head with a bucket. The crewman later died, providing the court with the basis for Kidd's murder charge.
In February 1698, almost a full year after he had been expected to return to New York, Kidd finally found his bonanza, but it proved to be a mixed blessing. The incident epitomized the perplexing legal guidelines applying to privateers. The merchantman was, in fact, a legal nightmare--owned by Indians, carrying Persian cargo, with a Moorish crew and an English captain. All sailed together, Kidd claimed, under a French pass.
The pass was the key to the matter. If it really existed, it provided undeniable proof that the Quedah Merchant was a legitimate prize. Kidd insisted that the pass had been among the papers that had been taken from him following his arrest, but the court denied his pleas that he be given access to them. In desperation, Kidd produced witnesses who claimed to have seen the pass, but the court simply ignored their testimony.
If taken lawfully, the Quedah Merchant's cargo of silk, gold, jewels, sugar and guns could have fully compensated Kidd's sponsors for his overextended voyage. Rather than setting course for New York, however, he headed for St. Mary's, Madagascar, an infamous pirate haven. When he arrived, a single undermanned pirate ship, which should have been easy prey for a 34-gun warship, lay anchored in the harbour.
But rather than enjoying an advantage, Kidd found himself at his adversary's mercy after most of his own men deserted to the enemy ship. After negotiating with his adversary, Kidd made his way safely back to the West Indies aboard the Quedah Merchant. Both Kidd's and the prosecution witnesses' versions of this incident seem unlikely, and it may be that they both felt it best not to tell the whole truth. The disappearance of the Adventure Galley, at a time when Kidd is known to have been dealing with a bona fide pirate, seems especially suspicious. Kidd claimed he scuttled it at St. Mary's because it had become unseaworthy.
Kidd next dropped anchor at Anguilla, possibly because he had taken on paying passengers bound for the West Indies in order to help offset the cost of his voyage. There he heard that he was a hunted man, and he made the fatal decision to deliver himself into the hands of the colonial authorities.
The saga came to an abrupt end on 23rd May, 1701, when Kidd was hanged at Execution Dock. His sentence called for his body to remain hanging in public view until it had rotted away.
Though he was found guilty, the complete truth about Kidd's last voyage will never be known for certain. Perhaps the aptest evaluation of Kidd's life was made by the writer Harold Thompson in 1940, when he described Kidd as 'a man neither very good nor very bad, the fool of fortune and the tool of politicians, a pirate in spite of himself.'
* Originally published in 2016.