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Kidd William
(c. 16451701)

Kidd William (c. 16451701)

William Captain Kidd was a Scottish sailor remembered for his trial and execution for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Some modern historians deem his piratical reputation unjust, as there is evidence that Kidd acted only as a privateer. Kidd's fame springs largely from the sensational circumstances of his questioning before the English Parliament and the ensuing trial. His actual depredations on the high seas, whether piratical or not, were both less destructive and less lucrative than those of many other contemporary pirates and privateers.

According to most scholars, Kidd was born into a reputable family in Greenock, Scotland in 1645. However, recent genealogical research suggests that Kidd was born in Dundee, despite his 'death-row' claim to be from Greenock. According to myth or other stories, his father was thought to have been a Church of Scotland minister. After the death of his father, when he was five-years old, Kidd moved to the colony of New York. It was here that he befriended many prominent colonial citizens, including three governors.

During the War of the Grand Alliance, on orders from the province of New York, Massachusetts, Kidd captured an enemy privateer, which duty he was commissioned to perform off of the New England coast. Shortly thereafter, Kidd was awarded £150 for successful privateering in the Caribbean. One year later, Captain Culliford, a notorious pirate, had stolen Kidd's ship while he was ashore at Antigua in the West Indies. In 1695, William III of England replaced the corrupt governor Benjamin Fletcher, known for accepting bribes of one hundred dollars to allow illegal trading of pirate loot, with Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont.

In New York City, Kidd was active in the building of Trinity Church, New York. The first building to house Trinity's worshippers was a modest rectangular structure with a gambrel roof and small porch. According to historical records, Captain Kidd lent his runner and tackle for hoisting the stones.

On December 11 of 1695, Coote, who was now governing New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, asked the trusty and well beloved Captain Kidd (Hamilton, 1961) to attack Thomas Tew, John Ireland, Thomas Wake, William Maze, and all others who associated themselves with pirates, along with any enemy French ships. This request preceded the voyage which established Kidd's reputation as a pirate, and marked his image in history and folklore.

Four-fifths of the cost for the venture was paid for by noble lords, who were among the most powerful men in England: the Earl of Orford, The Baron of Romney, the Duke of Shrewsbury and Sir John Somers. Kidd was presented with a letter of marque, signed personally by King William III of England. This letter reserved 10% of the loot for the Crown, and Henry Gilbert's The Book of Pirates suggests that the King may have fronted some of the money for the voyage himself. Kidd and an acquaintance, Colonel Robert Livingston, orchestrated the whole plan and paid for the rest. Kidd had to sell his ship Antigua to raise funds.

The new ship, the Adventure Galley, was well suited to the task of catching pirates; weighing over 284 tons, it was equipped with 34 cannons, oars, and 150 men. The oars were a key advantage as they would enable the Adventure Galley to maneuver in a battle when the winds had calmed and other ships were dead in the water. Kidd took pride in personally selecting the crew, choosing only those he deemed to be the best and most loyal officers.

As the Adventure Galley sailed down the Thames, Kidd unaccountably failed to salute a Navy yacht at Greenwich as custom dictated. The Navy yacht then fired a shot to make him show respect, and Kidds crew responded with an astounding display of impudence but turning and slapping their backsides in [disdain]. (Botting 106)

Because of his crew's refusal to salute, the Adventure Galley was stopped by the H.M.S. Duchess, whose captain was offended by Kidd's failure to fire the customary salute in response to his vessel's presence, and he retaliated by pressing much of Kidd's crew into naval service, this despite rampant protests. Thus short-handed, Kidd sailed for New York City, capturing a French vessel en route (which was legal under the terms of his commission). To make up for the lack of officers, Kidd picked up replacement crew in New York, the vast majority of whom were known and hardened criminals, some undoubtedly former pirates.

Among Kidd's officers was his quartermaster, Hendrick van der Heul. The quartermaster was considered 'second in command' to the captain in pirate culture of this era. It is not clear, however, if van der Heul exercised this degree of responsibility because Kidd was nominally a privateer. Van der Heul is also noteworthy because he may have been African or of African-American descent. A contemporary source describes him as a small black Man. However, the meaning of this term is not certain as, in late seventeenth-century usage, the phrase black Man could mean either black-skinned or black-haired. If van der Heul was indeed of African ancestry, this fact would make him the highest ranking black pirate so far identified. Van der Heul went on to become a master's mate on a merchant vessel, and was never convicted of piracy.

In September 1696, Kidd weighed anchor and set course for the Cape of Good Hope. However, more bad luck struck, and a third of his crew soon perished on the Comoros due to an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, the brand-new ship developed many leaks, and he failed to find the pirates he expected to encounter off Madagascar. Kidd then sailed to the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, one of the most popular haunts of rovers on the Pirate Round. Here he again failed to find any pirates. According to Edward Barlow, a captain employed by the British East India Company, Kidd attacked a Mughal convoy here under escort by Barlow's East Indiaman, and was beaten off. If the report is true, this marked Kidd's first foray into piracy.

As it became obvious his ambitious enterprise was failing, he became understandably desperate to cover its costs. But, once again, Kidd failed to attack several ships when given a chance, including a Dutchman and New York privateer. Some of the crew deserted Kidd the next time the Adventure Galley anchored offshore, and those who decided to stay behind made constant open-threats of mutiny.

Kidd killed one of his own crewmen on October 30, 1697. While Kidd's gunner, William Moore, was on deck sharpening a chisel, a Dutch ship hove in sight. Moore urged Kidd to attack the Dutchman, an act not only piratical but also certain to anger the Dutch-born King William. Kidd refused, calling Moore a lousy dog. Moore retorted, If I am a lousy dog, you have made me so; you have brought me to ruin and many more. Kidd snatched up and heaved an ironbound bucket at Moore. Moore fell to the deck with a fractured skull and died the following day.

While seventeenth century English admiralty law allowed captains great leeway in using violence against their crew, outright murder was not permitted. But Kidd seemed unconcerned, later explaining to his surgeon that he had good friends in England, that will bring me off for that.

Acts of savagery on Kidds part were reported by escaped prisoners, who told stories of being hoisted up by the arms and drubbed with a naked cutlass. In truth, many of these acts were committed by his disobedient and mutinous crew. On one occasion, crewmembers ransacked the trading ship, Mary and tortured several of its crewmembers while Kidd and the other captain, Thomas Parker conversed privately in Kidd's cabin. When Kidd found out what had happened, he was outraged and forced his men to return most of the stolen property.

Kidd was declared a pirate very early in his voyage by a Royal Navy officer to whom he had promised thirty men or so (Hamilton, 1961). Kidd sailed away during the night to preserve his crew, rather than subject them to Royal Navy impressment.

On January 30, 1698, he raised French colors and took his greatest prize, an Armenian ship, the 400 ton Quedah Merchant, which was loaded with satins, muslins, gold, silver, an incredible variety of East Indian merchandise, as well as extremely valuable silks. The captain of the Quedah Merchant was an Englishman named Wright, who had purchased passes from the French East India Company promising him the protection of the French Crown. After realizing the captain of the taken vessel was an Englishman, Kidd tried to persuade his crew to return the ship to its owners, but they refused, claiming that their prey was perfectly legal as Kidd was commissioned to take French ships, and that an Armenian ship counted as French if it had French passes. In an attempt to maintain his tenuous control over his crew, Kidd relented and kept the prize. When this news reached England, it confirmed Kidd's reputation as a pirate, and various naval commanders were ordered to pursue and seize the said Kidd and his accomplices for the notorious piracies (Hamilton, 1961) they had committed.

Kidd kept the French passes of the Quedah Merchant, as well as the vessel itself. While the passes were at best a dubious defense of his capture, British admiralty and vice-admiralty courts (especially in North America) heretofore had often winked at privateers' excesses into piracy, and Kidd may have been hoping that the passes would provide the legal fig leaf that would allow him to keep the Quedah Merchant and her cargo. Renaming the seized merchantman the Adventure Prize, he set sail for Madagascar.

On April 1, 1698, Kidd reached Madagascar. Here he found the first pirate of his voyage, Robert Culliford, (the same man who had stolen Kidds ship years before) and his crew aboard the Mocha Frigate. Probably realizing that his men would not attack Culliford's powerful vessel if ordered, Kidd anchored near the Mocha Frigate and made peaceful overtures to Culliford, promising him that he meant his fellow pirate no harm. Most of Kidd's men now abandoned him for Culliford. Only 13 remained with the Adventure Galley.
Deciding to return home, Kidd left the Adventure Galley behind, ordering her to be burnt because she had become worm-eaten and leaky. By burning the ship, he was able to salvage every last scrap of metal, for example hinges. With the loyal remnant of his crew, he returned home aboard the Adventure Prize.

Prior to Kidd returning to New York City, he learned that he was a wanted pirate, and that several English men-of-war were searching for him. Realizing that the Adventure Prize was a marked vessel, he cached it in the Caribbean Sea and continued toward New York aboard a sloop. He deposited some of his treasure on Gardiners Island, hoping to use his knowledge of its location as a bargaining tool with Bellomont.

Bellomont (an investor) was away in Boston, Massachusetts. Aware of the accusations against Kidd, Bellomont was justifiably afraid of being implicated in piracy himself, and knew that presenting Kidd to England in chains was his best chance to save his own neck. He lured Kidd into Boston with false promises of clemency, then ordered him arrested on July 6, 1699. Kidd was placed in Stone Prison, spending most of the time in solitary confinement. His wife, Sarah, was also imprisoned. The conditions of Kidd's imprisonment were extremely harsh, and appear to have driven him at least temporarily insane.

He was eventually (after over a year) sent to England for questioning by Parliament. The new Tory ministry hoped to use Kidd as a tool to discredit the Whigs who had backed him, but Kidd refused to name names, naively confident his patrons would reward his loyalty by interceding on his behalf. Finding Kidd politically useless, the Tory leaders sent him to stand trial before the High Court of Admiralty in London for the charges of piracy on high seas and the murder of William Moore. Whilst awaiting trial, Kidd was confined in the infamous Newgate Prison and wrote several letters to King William requesting clemency.

Kidd was tried without representation, and was shocked to learn at his trial that he was charged with murder. He was found guilty on all charges (murder and five counts of piracy). He was hanged on May 23, 1701, at 'Execution Dock', Wapping, in London. During the execution, the hangman's rope broke and Kidd was hanged on the second attempt. His body was gibbeted left to hang in an iron cage over the River Thames, London, as a warning to future would-be pirates for two years.

His associates Richard Barleycorn, Robert Lamley, William Jenkins, Gabriel Loffe, Able Owens, and Hugh Parrot were convicted, but pardoned just prior to hanging at Execution Dock.

Kidd's Whig backers were embarrassed by his trial. Far from rewarding his loyalty, they participated in the effort to convict him by depriving him of the money and information which might have provided him with some legal defense. In particular, the two sets of French passes he had kept were missing at his trial. These passes (and others dated 1700) resurfaced in the early twentieth century, misfiled with other government papers in a London building. These passes call the extent of Kidd's guilt into question. Along with the papers, many goods were brought from the ships and soon auctioned off as pirate plunder. They were never mentioned in the trial. Nevertheless, none of these items would have prevented his conviction for murdering Moore.


Guinea Bissau, 2009, Pirates

Nevis, 2000, William Kidd hanging on gibbet

Turks & Caicos, 1985, The fate of Captain William Kidd

2003-2018 Dmitry Karasyuk. Idea, preparation, drawing up
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