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Pirates > Pirate Rounders > William Kidd

William Kidd


William Kidd - William Kidd Portrait (17th Century)

Sir James Thornhill - William Kidd Portrait (18th Century)

William Kidd was a privateer from Scotland and one of the most infamous and notorious pirates of the 17th century. He operated on the first Pirate Round in the Indian Ocean and was originally sent to capture pirates but ended up turning into sort of a pirate himself. Upon his return to British North America he was caught up in a political gambit that saw him wrongfully imprisoned and executed.

This famous pirate rounder was given the run around and completely abandoned by his former backers who were trying to save their political careers. The official documents that would exonerate him would be lost for over two hundred years, only resurfacing in the 1990's. Overall the story of William Kidd is not a famous pirate story like that of many others but instead one of political betrayal and deception that truly outlines the tyranny and complete lack of regard for human life by the ruling elite in the imperial times.

The story of William Kidd outlines the gritty nature of late 17th and early 18th century politics in England and shows you how the ruling elite were often much more criminal than the pirates themselves. Overall in order to completely make amends with the past the British government should exonerate Kidd because he was not acting outside of his scope as a privateer commissioned by the Crown with an official letter of marque.

At the time of Kidd's execution the mass populace and especially the sailors knew all about the true circumstances of the trial, publishing a famous broadside indicating just that soon after his death. His death would play no small part in many British ex-privateers having no problem turning against the Crown and plundering all enemies in the Post Spanish Succession Period.

Early Life

Kidd was born in Dundee, Scotland in January of 1645. Coming from a seafaring family, Kidd's father himself was named Captain John Kyd and was lost at sea. While there is much speculation about Kidd's early life, the first records of his life are from 1689 when he was a member on a French and English pirate ship in the West Indies. During this period Kidd and the other pirates mutinied, took the ship, renamed her Blessed William and then sailed onto the colony of Nevis.

Kidd was became captain of the new ship, however the methods vary. Some accounts say he was elected, others say that the governor of Nevis appointed him captain. However regardless of this fact, Captain Kidd and the crew became part of a small group to defend the colony of Nevis from the French. As was common practice at the time, Codington told the privateers their pay was whatever they stole from the French. In response to this Kidd and his crew attacked the French island of Mariegalante and in the process destroyed the town and looted around £2,000. Next Kidd and his crew captured an enemy privateer off the coast of New England and awarded £150 for his efforts.

A year later, Kidd was robbed himself by pirate Captain Robert Culliford. Culliford stole Kidd's ship while he was on Antigua.

William Kidd - Captain Kidd's House 1691

William Kidd's House, Pearl Street, New York (1901)

Kidd settled down next in New York City and was extremely influential in helping build the Trinity Church during this period. On May 16th, 1691 Kidd married Sarah Bradley Cox Oort. Sarah was one of the wealthiest women in the Province of New York because of her two previous marriages and had previously been twice widowed. However this period of peace was to only last a few years before Kidd was drawn back into the life of the sea.

Second Privateering Expedition

The Governor of the Northern American colonies was a man named Richard Coote, the Earl of Bellomont. Replacing the notoriously corrupt Benjamin Fletcher, who was known for allowing the trading of pirating goods, Coote was aimed at reforming the New World colonies. On December 11th, 1695 Kidd was commissioned by the Governor of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire to track down and capture Thomas Tew among other pirates John Ireland, Thomas Wake and William Maze. Kidd was also allowed to plunder any French enemy ships he spotted as well.

Thus Captain Kidd was to embark on a second privateering expedition, with the cost assumed by noble lords in England. They paid for 4/5 of the coast and included names such as the Earl of Orford, the Baron of Romney, the Duke of Shrewsbury and Sir John Somers. These were some of the most powerful men in England and it is rumored that King William III himself even funded some of it.

Kidd was presented with a letter of marque personally signed by William III and reserved 10% of the loot for the crown. Kidd and his acquaintance, Colonel Robert Livingston, set up the whole operation and paid for the rest of the costs themselves. Kidd was even forced to sell one of his ships in Antigua in order to come up with all the funds necessary.

However, in the end Kidd found himself as captain of a new ship called the Adventure Galley and was a ship well suited to catching pirates. It was a unique pirate ship of the time as in addition to the usual 34 cannons it also had oars that could propel it when other ships were dead in the water when there was no wind. Having a hand selected crew of 150, the Adventure Galley was a formidable warship. His crew included many men who would become famous pirates in their own right such as Joseph Bradish and many others.

Kidd's first incident came as he sailed down the Thames River in England and failed to salute a Royal Navy ship at Greenwich. The captain fired a shot in order to command respect and Kidd's crew responded by dropping their pants and mooning the captain. Because of his refusal to salute, the captain pressed many of Kidd's crew into naval service. Thus, with a diminished crew he sailed back to New York and captured a French ship while en route. To make up for his lack of loyal crew, he picked up many criminals and former pirates in New York and began his hunt for the pirates.

Captain Kidd - Pirates of the Spanish Main (1888)

Captain Kidd - Pirates of the Spanish Main (1888)

In September of 1696, Kidd and his crew set course for the Cape of Good Hope in hopes of finding Tew and the rest of the English pirates in the Indian Ocean. However, as soon as he reached the Comoro Islands his crew caught a nasty outbreak of cholera and nearly a third of them died. Kidd failed to find any pirates and his ship had begun to leak off the coast of Madagascar. Things were not going well for Kidd and company.

Foray into Piracy

Soon it became obvious that Kidd was not going to find any pirates and his expedition was turning into a failure. However Kidd still refused to capture several ships when given the chance and some of his crew deserted him when they next they weighed anchor. The rest of his crew that stayed constantly threatened Kidd with mutiny. Kidd then sailed to the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern mouth of the Red Sea. This was one of the popular Locations on the Pirate Round however, Kidd failed to find any pirates here.

According to Captain Edward Barlow of the British East India Company, Kidd unsuccessfully attacked a Mughal convoy. It is not known if this is true, however if it is it would mark Kidd's first pirate attack. It does not make sense he would do this however as he refused to attack countless ships after this incident, even killing one of his crew over the view. Kidd's next incident came on 30 October 1697 when he killed one of his own crew, a man named William Moore. Moore was on deck sharpening his chisel when a Dutch ship was spotted. Moore suggested they seize the ship, however Kidd refused and called Moore a lousy dog. Moore responded with:

"If I am a lousy dog, you have made me so; you have brought me to ruin and many more."

Kidd next threw an iron bucket at Moore which hit him in the head and fractured his skull. He died the next day from his wounds. Kidd thought he was free and clear from this incident despite that fact murder was not permitted under Admiralty Law. However it would be this murder that would ultimately cement his execution sentence after his capture.

Formal Accusations

It was not so much Kidd that was the pirate but rather his crew. However, being the captain he was ultimately the one responsible for their actions and thus took the blame. His crew was reported on multiple occasions of to hoisting merchants up by their arms and torturing them with a cutlass. One report states that when Kidd captured the merchant ship Mary, his crew ransacked the ship while Kidd was meeting with the captain. When Kidd found out he was outraged and made all of his men put the stolen goods back on the ship.

Unaware to Kidd he was actually branded a pirate fairly early in his career. Kidd had a habit of pissing off British Royal Navy officers, so a second time Kidd promised the Captain thirty or so of his crew in order to augment the Royal forces. However in order to avoid subjecting his crew to that sort of torture, Kidd absconded in the night and sailed away. This left the captain pissed off and declared Kidd an outlaw and a pirate.

Capture of Quedah Merchant

His next pirate act came on 30 January 1698 when he captured the 400-ton Armenian ship Quedagh Merchant, loaded with satins, silks, muslins, gold, silver and all sorts of other East Indies goods. The Quedagh Merchant was captained by an Englishman named Wright who was carrying documents that granted him the protection of the French East India Company and the French Crown.

However, the crew seeing this as an opportunity seized the ship and the goods. Kidd tried to convince the crew to give the ship and goods back since the captain was English but the pirates refused saying he had French passes and they had a letter of marque to seize French ships no matter who captained them. Acquiescing to his crews demands, Kidd kept the ship. This act would cement his reputation as a pirate and actually several Royal Naval vessels were sent out to find and capture him.

Kidd decided to keep the French documents in case anyone tried to question him about the capture. Courts were sometimes lenient with privateers who returned home wealthy so he hoped for the best in the courts. He renamed the ship Adventure Prize and set a course for the pirate haven of Madagascar.

Kidd and the crews of the Adventure Galley and Adventure Prize reached Madagascar by April 1st of 1698. Here he met the notorious Robert Culliford who had stolen his ship so many years ago at Antigua. Culliford was aboard his frigate the Mocha Frigate. There are some differing accounts on what happens next but like always we are going to go with Charles Johnson who cites court documents and trial testimony of the era. Apparently Kidd was peaceful towards Culliford during the encounter. According to the testimony of Kidd's crewmen Joseph Palmer and Robert Bradinham, Kidd gave Culliford an anchor and some guns and the two drank together that night. However, before long most of Kidd's crew abandoned him for Culliford and he was left with only thirteen on the Adventure Galley.

At this point the Adventure Galley was destroyed due to damage and rot. Kidd scraped every last piece of metal off the boat before burning it. With the severely diminished crew Kidd decided to return to the Caribbean and eventually New York with his loot. Prior to arriving in New York, Kidd learned that he was a wanted pirate and that the Royal Navy was searching for him and his crew. He soon realized this was probably due to his capture of the Quedagh Merchant and that the Adventure Prize was now possibly evidence to be used against him. He hid the ship in the Caribbean and made towards New York on a small sloop. He buried some of his treasure on Gardiners Island off the coast of Long Island before continuing towards his home at New York City.

There is where one of the only myths of buried treasure comes from as Captain Kidd is one of the only pirates known to have buried treasure. However, the treasure was dug up and sent back to England by governor Bellomont to be used as evidence against Kidd during his later trial. Kidd had planned to use the location of the treasure as leverage during his trial if necessary. This has none the less spawned many rumors and myths about buried treasure from various pirates all over the world. If there was some it is probably so well hidden on some secluded island that no one would ever find it.

Betrayal & Arrest

As Kidd was accused, now his financial backers also stood chance of being culpable to piracy so they quickly turned against Kidd. They knew that presenting Kidd to the Crown would be the best chance at self preservation so thats what they did. So Governor Bellomont, one of the investors, tricked Kidd into coming into New York on the pretense of amnesty and pardon. Once he was there, Bellomont issued an arrest warrant on 6 July 1699.

Kidd was sent to Stone Prison and placed in solitary confinement and subjected to brutal conditions. The British also imprisoned his wife Sarah. After a year of being in jail, Kidd was sent to England for questioning about the incidents. There was a political shift in power and the Tory government wanted to use Kidd to reveal his Whig backers so they could discredit them politically. However, Kidd refused to speak believing that his loyalty would be rewarded by the power elite he protected.

Rigged Trial

Quedah Merchant French Passes (c. 1690s)

Quedah Merchant French Passes (c. 1690s)

Had he talked he probably would have been spared. Kidd's backers never intervened on his behalf and Kidd was sentenced to stand trial for five counts of piracy for the Quedah Merchant and the murder of of William Moore. At the time Kidd did not even know he was being charged with this. Kidd was imprisoned in Newgate Prison at this point and sent several letters to King William to request clemency. He got two lawyers to assist him with the case. It would all be for naught though as the case was rigged from the start.

In fact, Kidd's political backers did far from help him. They actually participated in the coverup and aided in his conviction. The Whig backers of Kidd's expedition 'lost' the French documents from the capture of the Quedagh Merchant and also helped deprive him of money needed to continue his trial. The French documents, dated 1700 eventually resurfaced in the early 1990s. The existence of these passes proves Kidd's innocence and he should be granted a post-humous exoneration by the British Crown.

Also in exchange for pardons, two of Kidd's crew Palmer and Bradinham testified against him in the killing of Moore. Despite a contradicting statement from years before at Rhode Island, the court still took the crew members testimony. The documents like Kidd's French passes just never arrived. Along with the loot being sold, Kidd did not have much evidence to present at trial in his defense.

Execution & Legacy

Captain Kidd Hanging in Chains - Pirates Own Book (1837)

Captain Kidd Hanging in Chains - Pirates Own Book (1837)

He was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to he hung at Execution Dock. He was hanged on 23 May 1701 and during the execution the rope snapped so Kidd was forced to be subjected to a second hanging. His dead body was then gibbeted over the River Thames at Tilbury point for nearly three years. This was a brutal punishment for a captain who was wrongfully betrayed by the government he fought for.

After Kidd's death a popular sea shanty was written called 'Captain Kidd's Farewell to the Seas' , the 'Famous Pirates Lament'. This was printed right after his death and suggested the commonly held belief that Kidd was wrongfully prosecuted and killed because of politics rather than what was right or wrong. Kidd's crew of Richard Barleycorn, Robert Lamley, William Jenkins, Gabriel Loffe, Able Owens, and Hugh Parrot were all convicted of piracy. However just before their execution they were pardoned which goes to show you the whole thing was for show.

Modern Day

Captain Kidd's Ship

The Adventure Galley was discovered off the coast of Madagascar in 2000 by maritime archaeologist Barry Clifford. Clifford is also famous for recovering Samuel Bellamy's ship the Whydah in 1984. Subsequent excavations have yielded even more clues and over thirteen other pirate ships in the area. One of them was named the Fiery Dragon and belonged to Christopher Condent, also known as 'Billy One Hand'.

Quedah Merchant

The Quedah Merchant was found in 2007 in about 10 feet of water off the coast of Antigua in the Caribbean.

Captain Kidd's Buried Treasure

Researchers have been continuing to excavate the Adventure Galley wreck even into the present and in 2015 they made a startling discovery. Barry Clifford discovered a massive 120 pound silver ingot near the site and believes it may have been part of Kidd's supposed buried treasure. Clifford believes this is not the only piece of treasure down there either. The ingot itself was presented to the president of named Hery Rajaonarimampianina after its recovery.

Adventure Galley Ingot Markings - Rob Sixmith/HISTORY

The massive silver ingot is marked with the letters T and S and is believed to have come from Bolivia. That would mean this is possibly silver from the legendary mine of Potosi itself. The Potosi mine was only active until around the 17th century and by the 18th century this legendary silver mine would be depleted. However, the discovery of this ingot does not prove it was the treasure from the Adventure Galley itself as even Clifford admits several other pirate ships have sunk in the harbor in that exact same area. The methods employed by Clifford are also being scrutinized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

According to UNESCO underwater specialist Ulrike Guerin it is basically a film crew going into an archaeological site and trying to dictate what is what. They are not following scientific procedure and may in fact be destroying the site in the process according to him/ Actually this whole story seems very unlikely as it does not make sense that Kidd would purposely led a massive 120 pound silver block to be sunken with his moldy and destroyed ship. In fact, the Adventure Galley was subject to so much rot and decay that Kidd was known to have pulled all the metal off of the boat before scuttling it to the bottom of the sea. Why would he scuttle a boat and take all of the scrap metal if he was going to sink a massive 120 pound silver bar?

Pirate Rounders


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