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Captain Kidd: Victim or Pirate?

Posted on 30 September 2011

Kidd stopped at Gardiner’s Island and asked John Gardiner to bury a treasure chest in Cherry Tree field, still marked to this day.

By Jim Marquardt

Captain Kidd’s name is as familiar today as it was 300 years ago. Perhaps it is the mystery of what really happened to his treasure, at least some of it buried on Gardiner’s Island off East Hampton, or the notoriety of his trial before the House of Commons, or the fact that he was hanged for crimes he may not have committed. In his well-researched book, The Pirate Hunter, Richard Zacks details all of these possibilities. Like any good historian, he tells it like it happened, yet between the lines you detect the author’s feeling that Captain Kidd got royally shafted.

William Kidd was born in Dundee, Scotland, January 1654. By the late 1600s he had become a respected citizen of New York City, then a struggling seaport of 5,000 people with a handful of paved streets and hungry pigs helping the one sanitation man. Kidd was captain of a merchant ship and happily married to Sarah, a young, wealthy widow. He could have led a comfortable life, but he was adventurous and naively decided he should become a captain in the British Royal Navy.

With a recommendation from a friend, he sailed to London, but got a cold shoulder from the Admiralty. Instead he fell in with politically-connected Robert Livingston, who hatched a plan to have Kidd commissioned a privateer, permitting him to hunt for pirates and merchant ships of countries unfriendly to England, especially France. Four noble lords, prominent Whigs, invested in the heavily-armed Adventure Galley with the expectation of sharing in booty from captured cargos, even the king would skim ten percent off the top.

Kidd recruited 150 sailors with promises of spoils and headed for the Indian Ocean. When he met a fleet of Royal Navy ships off South Africa, British Commodore Thomas Warren announced he would impress at least 30 of Kidd’s crewmen, a hated custom of the British Navy. But when Kidd sneaked away overnight, the incensed Warren decided that Kidd himself was a pirate and spread the word through the English oceans, an accusation that followed Kidd the rest of his life. Kidd meanwhile searched fruitlessly for prizes from Madagascar to Somalia and the Red Sea, then east to the coast of India.

Finally, the Adventure Galley came upon the 400-ton Quedagh Merchant which was carrying a rich cargo and sailing with French papers, making it legitimate prey. But when Kidd learned it was captained by an Englishman and its goods and treasure belonged to a Grand Indian Moghul, he was reluctant to seize the prize. But his surly crew hadn’t seen any payoff despite years of cruising and convinced him to take it. He led the merchant ship to Madagascar to sell part of its cargo in the island’s shady bazaar. While there, he came across Patrick Culliford, an avowed pirate, whom he planned to capture, but instead most of Kidd’s unhappy crew decided he was too wimpy to be a corsair and they joined up with Culliford.

Culliford began chasing lucrative prizes belonging to Indian Muslims and when the Grand Moghul sought revenge, Captain Kidd was targeted too because of his suspect reputation. The English East India Company enjoyed lucrative trade with the Moghul and joined the hunt. With a sparse crew, Kidd escaped west on the Quedagh Merchant around the Cape of Good Hope and eventually to St. Thomas in the Caribbean which Zacks describes as a “tropical Lichtenstein,” doing business with all comers. But the governor had heard of Kidd’s “piracy” and refused to deal with him. Kidd bought a more seaworthy vessel, the Saint Antonio, for 3000 pieces of eight (Spanish dollar coins made of silver), and sailed for New England with 75 pounds of gold, 150 pounds of silver, a pile of jewels and 29 bales of Persian silk.

Not sure of his reception in Boston, Kidd stopped at Gardiner’s Island and asked John Gardiner to bury a treasure chest in Cherry Tree field, still marked to this day, says Zacks. He reunited with Sarah on Block Island and tried to arrange safe entry to Boston to fight the accusations against him. According to some accounts, the Earl of Bellomont, Governor of Massachusetts, had also been involved in commissioning Kidd as a privateer and now was anxious to avoid being linked to the “pirate.” He fooled Kidd into thinking he’d get a fair hearing, but instead slapped him into solitary confinement. When ordered, John Gardiner brought Kidd’s treasure to Bellomont. (The East Hampton Library has a copy of the inventory.) While in prison Kidd had to listen to Cotton Mather preach about ill-gotten gains.

Kidd was put in chains aboard the Saint Antonio for a rough winter cruise to  London and locked away in the dreadful Newgate Prison. The Tories in power were happy to blame Kidd’s supposed crimes on the Whigs who had backed his venture, but the bigwigs abandoned him, claiming he’s not “our” pirate. Kidd’s letters and memoirs in his own defense disappeared at the Admiralty. He was tried before 400 members of the House of Commons who were more interested in tarring their opponents than in giving him a fair trial. The French papers that would prove he had acted as a privateer in taking the Quedagh Merchant also had disappeared into the Admiralty. Some of his former crew who had joined Culliford and were hoping for leniency testified against him. They added the charge of murder for Kidd’s whacking a recalcitrant crewman with an “ironbound bucket.” He was convicted of piracy and murder and sentenced to death.

Kidd was hanged on May 23, 1701. He prepared for his demise by drinking gallons of rum, but sobered up somewhat when the rope broke and he fell to the ground. Despite a tradition that this was a sign of innocence, he was strung up again. The court ordered his body put into an iron cage, and suspended it at the mouth of the Thames as a warning to pirates. They auctioned off Kidd’s gold, silver, and some diamonds and rubies, generating 5,500 pounds, some of which went to an old sailors home. In 1910 an American researcher found the two French passes misfiled at the Board of Trade in London.

The authorities forced Sarah Kidd from the family mansion on Pearl Street in Manhattan and confiscated her other properties. But with legal help she fought back and in 1704 Queen Anne returned her assets. She married a fourth husband, Christopher Rousby, and named one of their offspring, William. Sarah Bradley Cox Oort Kidd Rousby died wealthy in 1744, leaving a sizeable amount to Kidd’s grandchildren. Sarah obviously was more successful in fighting British bureaucracy than the incredibly unlucky Captain William Kidd.

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