Was the Pirate Captain Kidd Innocent?

He is one of the most infamous and well-known pirates in history–but was William “Captain” Kidd actually innocent of piracy and murder? The surprising answer may be “yes”.

Not much is known of Captain Kidd’s early life–most of his story comes from his own testimony at his piracy trial. He was born “William Kyd” in January 1654, the son of a merchant ship captain who later died at sea. Some sources say he was born in Greenock, Scotland, but his own testimony was that he was born in Dundee, and this is confirmed by birth records found by later historians.

By 1689, Kidd had somehow made his way across the Atlantic to live in New York, and became a crew member on a pirate ship that was operating in the Caribbean. When the crew expelled the captain (pirate ships, unlike Royal Navy ships, were democratically run, with the captain being elected and with written agreements about how loot was to be divided), Kidd was elected by the crew to lead them, and sailed the ship to the nearby British island of Nevis. There, the British Governor Christopher Codrington allowed Kidd to keep the ship, which he named Blessed William, and issued him a letter of marque designating Kidd as a privateer.

During this time, navies played a crucial role, and all three of the major world powers of the day—France, England and Spain, had large navies that spanned the entire world. In time of war, it was advantageous to attack the enemy’s commercial and cargo shipping, but this took a large number of ships and a lot of resources, which the regular navy could not spare.  As a result, when war was declared, national governments would seek out “privateers”—these were ordinary citizens with their own ships who would be hired by a government under a contract (known as a “letter of marque”) that granted them the right to attack and seize the merchant ships of enemy nations and to keep them as prizes. Privateering was an entirely legal and accepted aspect of 17th century naval warfare. Pirates, on the other hand, were those who crossed the line, and who began indiscriminately attacking merchant ships of any nation even in times of peace. Pirates were considered “the enemy of all nations”.

In 1689, the War of the Grand Alliance was on between England and France, and Kidd, in command of a small fleet, went into action against the French as a privateer. He attacked the small French Island of Mariegalante and seized over 2,000 pounds sterling worth of loot, and also captured a French privateer. He was rewarded for his actions with a 150-pound bonus by the English Governor of New York, and settled down in New York City as a respected merchant captain (while he was ashore in Antigua, Kidd was himself the victim of piracy, when the buccaneer Robert Culliford boarded Kidd’s ship and sailed away with it). In 1691 Kidd married a wealthy widow named Sarah Oort, and became a member of New York society, with a house on Wall Street and friends among  the colonial government. Among other things, Kidd helped finance the construction of Trinity Church in New York City.

In August 1695, while traveling in London, Kidd happened to run into a friend from New York, Robert Livingston, who offered Kidd a business deal; Livingston was friends with New York Governor Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, and proposed to ask Bellomont for a letter of marque, placing Kidd in command. Kidd agreed, and in December the Governor duly asked him to form a fleet to hunt down the pirate Thomas Tew, and to once again privateer against the French. But Bellomont had brought in his own partners, and they were in high places–Kidd’s letter of marque was issued personally by King William III, and the venture was quietly being financed by four prominent London noblemen in the King’s government, and perhaps, according to some sources, by the King himself. Under the terms of the letter of marque, Kidd was to keep a portion of any loot for himself and his crews, and turn the rest over to Bellomont, the other English nobles, and to the Crown. Kidd went to England and obtained a ship for the task, which he named Adventure Galley.

When the Adventure Galley set sail from London, an odd incident occurred. While sailing past a Royal Navy ship on the Thames River, Kidd’s crew failed to give the customary salute, and when the Royal Navy ship fired a small deck gun as an admonition, the crew of the Adventure Galleyreportedly pulled down their pants and mooned the Navy men instead of saluting them. Angered by the impudence, the ship sent Royal Marines to board Kidd’s ship and took most of his officers as prisoners, later impressing them into the Royal Navy. Kidd then sailed for America with a short-handed crew.

While crossing the Atlantic, Kidd encountered and captured a French merchant vessel, then put in at New York to find crew members to replace some of those who had been arrested in England. He then set out across the Atlantic and around the southern tip of Africa for the Indian Ocean, where the pirate Tew was known to operate. What happened next became the basis for Kidd’s arrest, trial and execution for piracy and murder.

Shortly after setting sail, Kidd encountered a squadron of Royal Navy ships, whose commander, in typical British navy practice, attempted to impress some of Kidd’s crew into service for his own ships.  Kidd, already short-handed, instead pulled anchor and sailed away during the night, and the angered British commander reported the incident to London, opining that perhaps Kidd had refused to submit to the Navy’s authority because he had gone rogue and become a pirate. It was the start of a string of rumors that would flow back to London about Kidd.

For the next twelve months, Kidd’s fleet criss-crossed the Indian Ocean looking for pirates or French ships to capture, but found none. The crew, whose pay depended entirely upon how many prizes they captured, began getting restless, and there was talk of mutiny. Some crew members deserted. Matters came to the boiling point in October 1697, when the Adventure Galley spotted a Dutch merchant ship on the horizon. According to Kidd, one of the crew, gunner William Moore, declared that they should attack the vessel so they could finally get some prize money. Kidd replied that he could only attack French ships. An argument broke out, and Kidd picked up a heavy wooden bucket and hit Moore in the head with it, killing him.

In January 1698, Kidd finally scored a rich prize, when he encountered the Quedagh Merchant, a ship flying an Armenian flag. After boarding the ship, Kidd found that the Captain was an Englishman named Wright, but was carrying passes from the King of France allowing him to sail for the French East Indies Company under the protection of France. Kidd, according to his testimony, wanted to release the ship on the grounds that it had a British captain, but the crew once again threatened to mutiny, and Kidd relented and took the ship, keeping the passes that showed her to be sailing under French protection, and renaming her the Adventure Prize. TheQuedagh Merchant had been carrying a huge cargo of gold, silver, silk and spices. Kidd, happy at last with enough loot to make the venture profitable, set sail for Madagascar.

When Kidd reached Madascar in April, he found that the pirate Robert Culliford, the same one who had stolen Kidd’s own ship years before, was anchored there. According to Kidd, he ordered his ships to attack the pirate–instead, all but 12 of his men abandoned him and joined Culliford’s crew. According to accounts from some of the crew, Kidd and Culliford spent an afternoon drinking together and swapping stories, and the crew joined Culliford for a better chance at capturing rich prizes. In either case, with most of his crew now gone, Kidd scuttled theAdventure Galley, transferred his remaining crew (and his loot) to the Adventure Prize, and sailed to the Caribbean on the way home.

When he got to the Caribbean, he was shocked to learn there that several ships of the Royal Navy had already been dispatched to find him, and that he was wanted for murder and piracy. During his time in the Indian Ocean, stories had filtered back to England about the killing of William Moore and the capture of Captain Wright’s ship, as well as stories accusing him of capturing a number of other ships. Kidd ditched the Adventure Prize, buried most of the treasure he had captured with her on a small island (the only known instance of a pirate actually burying treasure), transferred to a small sloop, and sailed to New York to clear his name. He was arrested shortly after his arrival.

At trial, Kidd faced charges for the murder of his gunner Moore, for the capture of Captain Wright and the Quedagh Merchant, and for four other accused instances of piracy, including an unsuccessful attack on an Indian fleet being escorted by Royal Navy ships. Kidd seemed unconcerned–the killing of Moore had been an accident but had been carried out under a captain’s legitimate legal authority to maintain discipline against mutiny, Kidd had papers showing that Captain Wright and his ship had been operating under the authority of the French King, and was therefore a legitimate target for a privateer, and there wasn’t any hard evidence that he had carried out any of the other attacks he was accused of. And, perhaps, Kidd thought that his high-ranking government friends, who had financed the mission, would back him up.

Things didn’t turn out as Kidd hoped, however . . .

Faced with the widespread rumors of Kidd’s piracy that were reaching London, his backers in the English government, who had issued Kidd’s letter of marque, now did their best to distance themselves from him. The King’s political opponents in Parliament, meanwhile, wanted to use the sensational Kidd story as a weapon against the Crown by tying him indirectly to pirates, and had Kidd brought all the way to London for questioning by Parliament. When Kidd had been arrested, the papers that he had in his possession, proving that the Quedagh Merchant had been operating under a French pass, were taken from him and never seen again. Also, neither he nor the court were ever given a copy of a deposition made by one of his crew members about the killing of William Moore, which supported Kidd’s story.

In desperation, Kidd revealed the location of his buried treasure and offered it as a bribe for his release–the treasure was subsequently dug up and taken to England, but Kidd remained in jail. He was locked in solitary confinement for over 12 months before being placed on trial in 1701. The verdict was a foregone conclusion–every major political figure in England had a vested interest in his silence, and Kidd was unable to present the documents that may have established his innocence. Kidd soon refused to participate in any of the proceedings, declaring, “I will not trouble this court any more, for it is folly.” He was convicted and sentenced to hang.

On May 23, 1701, Kidd climbed the steps of the scaffold. When the lever was released, the rope broke, and Kidd plunged into the mudflats below. He was then led up the steps a second time.  This time, the rope held. For the next 20 years, Kidd’s rotted corpse was displayed on the banks of the Thames as a warning to other pirates.

In 1910, over two hundred years after Kidd’s death, an American historian found the French passes that had been seized along with the Quedagh Merchant, in a file in the British Archives where it had been “misplaced” in 1701.

Today, historians are divided over whether William “Captain” Kidd was a once-legitimate gentleman seaman gone bad because of the temptations of easy pirate wealth, or if he was an honest and loyal English privateer who became the unfortunate victim of British political machinations.

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