My name was William Kidd, As I sailed, as I sailed,
My name was William Kidd, When I sailed,
My name was William Kidd; God’s laws I did forbid,
And so wickedly I did, As I sailed.
We’ve not long passed the three hundred and tenth anniversary of the execution of Captain William Kidd, by reputation one of the most notorious pirates who ever lived, of the Caribbean or any other of the seven seas. Taken to Execution Dock in Wapping, he was hanged on 23 May, 1701, a particularly brutal event. Twice the rope around his neck broke; the third time it held.
Afterwards, according to Admiralty custom, he was tied to a stake on the Thames Estuary to allow three tides to wash over him. Not content with that, his bloated body was then dipped in tar and squeezed into an iron frame at Tilbury, there hanged anew as a warning to all future pirates.
The problem is William Kidd, for all the notoriety subsequently attached to his name, was not a pirate at all but a privateer, acting under licence at a time when Britain was at war with France. That is to say, he was an ‘official’ pirate, whose plundering of enemy merchants had the sanction of the authorities, themselves party to a contract that promised a lucrative return in loot. In the end he was betrayed in a shabby act of duplicity by the very people who had sent him out in the first place.
My interest in the subject was whetted by an article written by Angus Konstan in the June issue of the BBC History Magazine (The Sacrifice of Captain Kidd). Taking this as my cue I did a spot of further research, coming up with some rather intriguing material. There was even a suggestion in one report I read that he was deliberately framed by William III, the ruling monarch, because he was Scottish!
Kidd was certainly born in Scotland, though I can’t be certain where. According to some accounts it was the neighbourhood of Dundee, while others say it was Greenock, places at opposite ends of the country. Scottish he may have been by birth but he moved to the colony of New York when he was five years old; so by the time of his trial, when he was in his mid-forties, he was more American than anything else.
Kidd, who made a career as a professional seaman, caught the attention – unfortunately for him – of Richard Coot, earl of Bellomont, colonial governor of New York, as the man best able to intercept French pirates and merchantmen. Bellomont joined with a number of other aristocratic backers to fund the venture, all members of the ruling Whig establishment.
King William himself was involved, signing a letter of manqué, which reserved ten per cent of the proceeds for the crown. There is also a suggestion that he put up some of the venture capital, though the evidence here is far from certain. Unusually, and perhaps fatally in the outcome, the Admiralty was not promised a share; in fact the Admiralty, as a branch of government, seems to have been duped in a manner that would now be considered fraudulent, duped by none other than Admiral Edward Russell, its own First Lord, one of Bellomont’s clique. No, this was privateering at its purest; and at its purest the borders with piracy are particularly fine.
Armed with this dubious mandate, “trusty and well-beloved Captain Kidd” sailed from Deptford on the purpose-built Adventure Galley in September 1696. This was voyage to be as ill-omened as that of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. His first misfortune came when he encountered a convoy of East Indiamen, escorted by Commodore Warren of the Royal Navy. With Warren threatening to impress some of Kidd’s crew, the Adventure Galley sailed off under cover of night.
Warren, in a fit of pique, immediately wrote to the Admiralty in London, denouncing Kidd as a pirate, though so far he had yet to board a single ship. The slander went round the world, repeated in India by the agents of the East India Company, which meant that all ports under its control were closed to Kidd. Unable to make land, his crew became mutinous. During a confrontation on 30 October 1697 Kidd threw a bucket at William Moore, his chief gunner, which hit him on the head, fracturing his skull. He died the next day of concussion.
Later when Kidd was brought to trial, on civil and not Admiralty law, in addition to the accusations of piracy he was charged and convicted of the premeditated murder of Moore. I find it difficulty to believe that there can be a more unusual case than this, one where the murderer’s weapon of choice was a wooden bucket!
After the bucket-wielding captain had suppressed the mutiny his luck changed, or appeared to change. In November he captured the Rouparelle, whose captain carried a pass promising him the protection of the French crown. In January he found an even greater prize, the Quedagh Merchant, the captain armed with a similar pass. He also happened to be an Englishman by the name of Wright. Though Kidd tried to persuade his crew to hand the vessel back, the pass notwithstanding, they refused. Now his reputation as a pirate was cemented.
The Quedagh Merchant, which carried goods to the value of £75,000, a huge sum for the day, more than justified the voyage of the Adventure Galley. Still denied the ports controlled by the East India Company, Kidd sailed for New York to meet Bellomont. On the way he buried part of his treasure for safety in an island in Long Island Sound. Though long since recovered it has done nothing to stop people looking for his pirate hoard ever since.
Bellomont, concerned by his business associations with a man now generally perceived as a pirate, greeted his protégé coldly, almost immediately having him arrested, later shipping him to England to stand trail. First he had to appear before the House of Commons, there to face questions from the Tory opposition, anxious to determine to what extent the ministry was involved in his alleged acts of piracy.
He was finally called before the bar of the House in March 1701, by which time the French passes, the main basis for his defence, had conveniently disappeared. They were not rediscovered until 1910.
Much had changed since Kidd first arrived in London. The Tories were now in power. Here was his moment, his chance to implicate his backers in what might have turned into a political trial. But he simply held to one defence: that he was innocent and his sponsors had encouraged no wrong doing. Disappointed, Parliament consigned him to a process where the matter had already been prejudged.
Kidd was a victim. The victim of the king, who had to be seen as tough on piracy and tough on the causes of piracy, while hypocritically benefiting from the proceeds; the victim of the Admiralty, which refused to see the death of Moore as a consequence of mutiny; the victim of Bellomont and his shady Whig clique, anxious to cover the fact that they had diverted funds from the Admiralty for their own private profit. He was the victim, as Konstan says in his article, of the manipulation of evidence, of perjury, of rumour-mongering and of deal-making. He was the victim, above all, of political expediency.
The story has an interesting postscript. In the summer of 2009, acting on the findings of researchers in America, the Fraternity of Masters and Seamen in Dundee decided to look into the facts, with a view to presenting a case before the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The matter was subsequently taken up in the Scottish Parliament, aptly enough, by one William Kidd! Mr Kidd, urging his fellow members to support the bid to clear the Captain’s name, said;
I don’t expect that there’s going to be a mass campaign on the streets for something that happened three hundred years ago but I do expect that people are going to be worried about the fact that someone can be used and abused in that way by the state, whatever time in history.
Apparently people are not worried enough, because I’ve been unable to discover any further developments. Captain Kidd still remains a convicted pirate.
I do have a certain sympathy with the view put forward by the MSP, that there should be no limit on justice, that wrongs, no matter how distant in the past, are still wrongs. Captain Kidd, when all is considered, was subject to a serious miscarriage of justice, bordering on outright conspiracy.
But does it really matter? His final adventure was disappointing, tragic, mundane and fatal. Innocent or not, he is dead beyond recovery. Would he not have been better pleased by his re-emergence in fiction as a dark and abiding legend? He continues to live in Washington Irvine’s The Devil and Tom Walker, in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug and in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. What better posterity, what better legacy?