Myth-Adventure: The True Story of Captain Kidd

The following is an article from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Here at the BRI, we're huge fans of Richard Zak's books. They're great bathroom reading. He has a new book coming out: The Pirate Hunter-The True Story of Captain Kidd. Here's a teaser from his masterpiece, An Underground Education.

WORKIN' FOR THE MAN While the popular image of buccaneers is peg-legged, eye-patched rascals, the ultimate anti-authority free agents, roving the seas, plundering ships, raping women, and brawling, the reality is much worse. They did all that and worked for the government. Prior to 1856, it was standard operating procedure for western nations either to commission privateers directly or to wink at the actions of freelance pirates, so long as those thieves were preying on the commerce of other nations. Piracy was often state-supported economic terrorism. Captain Kidd, for example, was no Joan of Arc, but he was no "Captain Kidd," either.

MEET CAPTAIN KIDD William Kidd (c. 1645-1701) was a plain-speaking, high-tempered Scotsman who had made his fortune as captain and ship owner, trading goods in the colonies. In 1696, the 51-year-old Kidd was a prosperous New York businessman, comfortably settled with his wife and family. That year, Kidd and his friend Robert Livingston connived with the newly-appointed governor of New England, Richard Coote, Earl of Bellamount, the King of England's cousin, to receive an unusual privateering commission. In times of war, wealthy investors routinely funded privateering vessels to attack the enemy's merchant ships and divvy the plunder. This was an English naval tradition dating back to Sir Francis Drake. But what was extraordinary about this commission was that it also entitled Kidd to attack pirate ships of all nationalities and keep their booty -no questions asked. It was an amazing financial opportunity.

SMART INVESTMENT Kidd's royal commission -secured by Bellamount- did, in fact,

give and grant full Power and Authority to Captain William Kidd, Commander of the ship Adventure Galley apprehend, seize and take into Custody the said Thomas Too, John Ireland, Tho Wake, and William Maze, and all other Pirates, Free-booters and Sea-rovers, of what Nation whatsoever, whom he should find or meet with, upon the said Coasts or Seas of America, or in any other Seas or Parts, with their Ships and Vessels, and all such Merchandise, Money, Goods, and Wares as should be found on board of them.

The mission began as an attempt by Britain to crack down on four colonial pirates, but was cunningly expanded so that Kidd would have maximum leeway to capture "prizes" -non-English ships. In addition to Livingston and Lord Richard, four of the most powerful men in England secretly invested the £6,000 it would cost to outfit the ship. The prospect of profit from this legal larceny was dizzying. If Kidd captured two large ships, the backers could easily received a hundredfold return on their investment in a year. In the official contract with Kidd, four obscure merchants were listed as the investors, but they were shills.

The real backers were John Somers, Lord Chancellor of England; Sire Robert Wadpole, Earl of Orford, First Lord of the Admiralty; and two secretaries of state, the Earl of Romney and the Duke of Shrewsbury. The king was to receive 10% of the booty as well, "chiefly to show that he was a partner in the undertaking," according to The Real Captain Kidd- A Vindication, by Sir Cornelius Dalton. Kidd and Livingston stood to receive 7.5% each, while if the haul totaled more than £100,000, Kidd was to be allowed to keep the ship.


The mission got off to a bad start in March 1696; Kidd and a London merchant handpicked 100-plus English sailors for the Adventure Galley, but before they departed the coast, a British man-of-war seized the bulk of his crew. Now, Kidd sailed to New York to round up a new crew, but his articles allowed him to offer the crew shares of only a quarter of the spoils (instead of the usual half) and there would be no regular wages; the voyage would be strictly "no purchase, no pay," or in sailor slang, "no prey, no pay." Kidd was forced to sign the piratical scum of the New York wharf, out-of-work scallywags.

Once out of the harbor, he had no luck whatsoever at finding pirate ships, and headed to the Indian Ocean. He was fired upon, but when he captured the vessel, it turned out to be a Dutch ship. His crew -led by gunner William Moore- voted to take her as a prize anyhow, but Kidd, pistols in hand, changed their minds. Kidd then spied a merchant ship and swung into action.

Employing a standard battle tactic, he flew French colors to trick his adversary and lured the giant Quedagh Merchant to come alongside. When an officer of that ship boarded holding French papers of clear passage, Kidd hoisted the British flag and declared the ship captured. Although the Quedagh Merchant was obviously an Armenian ship with a crew of Moors and a few Christians aboard, the officer presented French papers, which made it a legitimate prize, given the state of war at the time between England and France. And it was a rich prize. The Quedagh Merchant was packed with fine cloths, silks, and jewels, worth perhaps as much as £400,000.


Kidd who had taken another ship traveling with French papers hauled his prizes back to Ste.-Marie, in Madagascar. His articles stated that he must take captured ships back to Boston (or to London, if armed British escort appears) so that an Admiralty Court could rule on whether they were legitimate captures and could document the spoils. In Madagascar stood the Mocha Frigate, a former merchant ship turned pirate by a man named Robert Culliford. When Kidd (with his mounted cannon) hit port, his pirates abandoned ship. Kidd had proposed that they capture the Mocha as well, but instead, his men swore they'd shoot him if he tried. Ninety-seven of them mutinied over to Culliford and promptly attacked Kidd.

Receiving no wage with Kidd, the most the men could hope for was a share of one-quarter of the spoils, if an admiralty court ruled in their favor in Boston; with Culliford, they might split up everything, and right away. Here's how Kidd described what happened next:

The said Deserters came on board, and carried away Guns, Powder, Shot, small Arms, Sails, Anchors, Cables, Surgeon's Chests, and what else they pleased; and threatened several times to murder the Narrator [i.e., Kidd]. Their Wickedness was so great, after they had plundered and ransacked sufficiently, [they] went Four Miles off to one Edward Weiche's House, which his the Narrator's chest had lodged, and broke it open; and took out Ten Ounces of Gold, 40 Pound of Plate, 370 Pieces of Eight, the Narrator's Journal, and a great many Papers that belonged to him, and the People of New York that fitted him out.

OUT OF LUCK Kidd was left with 13 sailors; his original ship was leaking badly (requiring eight-man shifts to bail her out); and his prize was far too big to sail with his reduced crew. The date was early in 1699. Kidd was two years past his contracted return date, and no doubt his powerful backers were getting nervous. And now the East India Company reported in London that "they had received some information ...that Kidd had committed several acts of piracy, particularly in seizing a Moorish ship called the Quedagh Merchant."

The vastly profitable East India Company had no desire to enrage the great mogul of India by allowing British pirates to prey upon Moorish ships, especially since the great mogul, a now-forgotten potentate, then controlled an enormous empire and could expel the Brits. With a single order, Kidd was officially declared a pirate.


Captain Kidd spent six long months in Madagascar trying to round up a crew, then headed for Boston. When Kidd and his skeleton crew finally reached Anguillla in the West Indies and found out they were wanted for piracy, they were dumbfounded. Once again the crew started deserting. Kidd no longer had sailors enough to sail his prize to Boston, so he traded for a smaller ship complete with crew and moved an undisclosed portion of the remaining booty aboard. (How much booty has intrigued treasure hunters ever since.) Kidd could have stayed in the Caribbean a very wealthy man. At least £10,000 of treasure remained and possibly as much as £40,000 or even more. Instead he sailed north. In New York Harbor, he handed over the two French passes (which would clear him of the piracy charge) to an old friend to deliver to his backer, New England governor Coote, who was then in Boston.


Coote (as you remember, cousin to the king of England) sent the postmaster of Boston out the Block Island to give a message to Kidd. The note declared the governor was sympathetic to Kidd's version of the events and then concluded:

I make no manner of doubt but to obtain the King's pardon for you, and for those few man you have left who I understand have been faithful to you, and refused as well as you to dishonor the Commission you have from England ...I assure you on my Word and Honour I will perform nicely what I have promised.

Kidd, who was joined on ship by his wife and family, responded with great relief to the news that the governor would take up his cause; and he guessed aloud that the East India Company must have heard of acts of piracy committed by Captain Robert Culliford, using the munitied members of Kidd's former crew. But, on July 1, 1699, when Kidd and his few remaining crew members sailed into Boston Harbor, Governor Coote promptly had them arrested. England dispatched a Navy ship to ferry Kidd back to justice. The House of Commons sniffed a scandal and demanded that Kidd not be tried until it was back in session. Unfortunately for Kidd, that meant spending a year in Newgate Prison.


On March 6, 1701, the House of Commons began to examine Kidd's papers. Included among them, as clearly stated in the Parliament papers, were Two French Passes from the ships Kidd had captured. Nonetheless, Kidd was ordered to stand trial in Admiralty Court -and it was specifically stated that his papers should be delivered there for his trial. The court then stunned Kidd by charging him not with piracy but with the murder of William Moore, the ship's gunner. Testimony from paid informants painted the following picture of the crime. While the ship was anchored off the coast of Africa, after more than a year without taking a single prize, Kidd called Moore a "lousy dog." Moore replied: "If I be so, you have made me one." Kidd, in a rage, swung an iron-hooped bucket, which caught Moore flush in the temple. Moore died the next day.


Kidd claimed that he never meant to kill Moore, and that threat of mutiny had been strong at that time. Testifying for the Crown were two of Kidd's crew who had mutinied, signed up with Culliford, and gone out on later pirate voyages; they were offered pardons in exchange for turning Crown's evidence. After one especially absurd statement, Kidd complained: "It signified nothing to ask any questions. The rogues will swear to anything." Then later, he asked: "Have you not been promised your life to swear away mine?" The judge intervened: "He is not bound to answer that question. He is very fit to be made as evidence for the Crown." It took the jury an hour to bring in a guilty verdict. As for the piracy charges, the judge, Lord Chief Baron, shaped the trial so that it all hinged on whether or not Captain Kidd received French passes from the captured ships, which apparently never found their way to the Admiralty Court. The lord chief summed up:

And as to the French passes there is nothing of that appears by any proof; and for aught I can see, none saw them but himself, if there ever were any. "Four respected British officer's testified to Kidd's valor during the French war in the Caribbean and one noted that Kidd fought off a mutiny to prevent his ship from going 'a-pirating.'"

But Kidd was convicted of piracy. When sentenced to death, he told the court: "My lord, it is a very hard sentence. For my part, I am the innocentest person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons."


In prison, Kidd refused to confess to the chaplain and refused repeated requests to cast blame on the ministers that backed up his mission. (Perhaps he was still hoping for a pardon.) On May 24, 1701, Captain William Kidd was brought to Execution Dock at Wapping.

The noose about his neck, he kicked out unto eternity and the rope broke. Kidd would have to be re-hoisted up the ladder and turned off a second time. In the little waiting period, he told the chaplain at the gallows that his greatest sorrow was leaving his wife and children in New York without getting a chance to say good-bye. The next day in Parliament, Lord Chancellor Somers admitted he had had a secret share in Kidd's voyage but claimed there was nothing illegal in that. In fact, he pointed out that "owners of the said ship had lost their expenses and had not received any benefit from the grant."

The East India Company soon after reported to the great mogul of India that the "evil pirate" Captain Kidd had been hanged. Britain's inroads in India eventually led to conquering the entire subcontinent. Robert Culliford, the pirate captain of the Mocha Frigate, applied for a pardon and, with a lawyer at his side, was granted amnesty by the Admiralty Court. Kidd's hard-earned estate was forfeited after his hanging, taken from his wife and children. Queen Anne used the money to found the Greenwich Hospital. The British Admiralty dangled Captain Kidd's dead body -encased in pine resin and bound by leather straps- for years from a specially constructed gallows over the Thames River to serve as a warning to other pirates.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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