Captain William Kidd (c. 22 January 1645 – 23 May 1701) was a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Some modern historians deem his piratical reputation unjust, as there is evidence that Kidd acted only as a privateer. Kidd's fame springs largely from the sensational circumstances of his questioning before the English Parliament and the ensuing trial. His actual depredations on the high seas, whether piratical or not, were both less destructive and less lucrative than those of many other contemporary pirates and privateers.
Kidd was born in Dundee, Scotland, January 1645. He gave the city as his place of birth and said he was aged 41 in testimony under oath at the High Court of the Admiralty in October 1695 or 1694. Researcher Dr David Dobson later identified his baptism documents from Dundee in 1645. His father was Captain John Kyd, who was lost at sea. A local society supported the family financially. Richard Zacks in the biography The Pirate Hunter (2002) says Kidd came from Dundee. Reports that Kidd came from Greenock have been dismissed by Dr. Dobson, who found neither the name Kidd nor Kyd in baptismal records. The myth that his "father was thought to have been a Church of Scotland minister" is also discounted. There is no mention of the name in comprehensive Church of Scotland records for the period. A contrary view is presented here Kidd later settled in the new colony of New York. It was here that he befriended many prominent colonial citizens, including three governors. There is some information that suggests he was a seaman's apprentice on a pirate ship much earlier than his own more famous seagoing exploits.
The first records of his life date from 1689, when he was a member of a French-English pirate crew that sailed in the Caribbean. Kidd and other members of the crew mutinied, ousted the captain of the ship, and sailed to the English colony of Nevis. There they renamed the ship the Blessed William. Kidd became captain, either the result of an election of the ship's crew or because of appointment by Christopher Codrington, governor of the island of Nevis. Captain Kidd and the Blessed William became part of a small fleet assembled by Codrington to defend Nevis from the French, with whom the English were at war. In either case, he must have been an experienced leader and sailor by that time. As the governor did not want to pay the sailors for their defensive services, he told them they could take their pay from the French. Kidd and his men attacked the French island of Mariegalante, destroyed the only town, and looted the area, gathering for themselves something around 2,000 pounds Sterling. During the War of the Grand Alliance, on orders from the province of New York, Massachusetts, Kidd captured an enemy privateer, which duty he was commissioned to perform off the New England coast. Shortly thereafter, Kidd was awarded 150 lires for successful privateering in the Caribbean. One year later, Captain Robert Culliford, a notorious pirate, stole Kidd's ship while he was ashore at Antigua in the West Indies. In 1695, William III of England replaced the corrupt governor Benjamin Fletcher, known for accepting bribes of one hundred dollars to allow illegal trading of pirate loot, with Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont. In New York City, Kidd was active in the building of Trinity Church, New York.
On 16 May 1691, Kidd married Sarah Bradley Cox Oort, an English woman in her early twenties, who had already been twice widowed and was one of the wealthiest women in New York, largely because of her inheritance from her first husband.
On 11 December 1695, Belmont, who was now governing New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, asked the "trusty and well beloved Captain Kidd" to attack Thomas Tew, John Ireland, Thomas Wake, William Maze, and all others who associated themselves with pirates, along with any enemy French ships. This request, if turned down, would have been viewed as disloyalty to the crown, the perception of which carried much social stigma, making it difficult for Kidd to have done so. The request preceded the voyage which established Kidd's reputation as a pirate, and marked his image in history and folklore.
In September 1696, Kidd weighed anchor and set course for the Cape of Good Hope. A third of his crew soon perished on the Comoros due to an outbreak of cholera, the brand-new ship developed many leaks, and he failed to find the pirates he expected to encounter off Madagascar. Kidd then sailed to the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, one of the most popular haunts of rovers on the Pirate Round. Here he again failed to find any pirates. According to Edward Barlow, a captain employed by the English East India Company, Kidd attacked a Mughal convoy here under escort by Barlow's East Indiaman, and was repelled. If the report is true, this marked Kidd's first foray into piracy.
Kidd killed one of his own crewmen on 30 October 1697. While Kidd's gunner, William Moore, was on deck sharpening a chisel, a Dutch ship appeared in sight. Moore urged Kidd to attack the Dutchman, an act not only piratical but also certain to anger the Dutch-born King William. Kidd refused, calling Moore a lousy dog. Moore retorted, "If I am a lousy dog, you have made me so; you have brought me to ruin and many more." Kidd snatched up and heaved an ironbound bucket at Moore. Moore fell to the deck with a fractured skull and died the following day.
Acts of savagery on Kidd's part were reported by escaped prisoners, who told stories of being hoisted up by the arms and drubbed with a drawn cutlass. On one occasion, crew members ransacked the trading ship Mary and tortured several of its crew members while Kidd and the other captain, Thomas Parker, conversed privately in Kidd's cabin. When Kidd found out what had happened, he was outraged and forced his men to return most of the stolen property.
Kidd was declared a pirate very early in his voyage by a Royal Navy officer to whom he had promised "thirty men or so". Kidd sailed away during the night to preserve his crew, rather than subject them to Royal Navy.
On 30 January 1698, he raised French colours and took his greatest prize, an Armenian ship, the 400 ton Quedagh Merchant, which was loaded with satins, muslins, gold, silver, an incredible variety of East Indian merchandise, as well as extremely valuable silks. The captain of the Quedagh Merchant was an Englishman named Wright, who had purchased passes from the French East India Company promising him the protection of the French Crown. After realising the captain of the taken vessel was an Englishman, Kidd tried to persuade his crew to return the ship to its owners, but they refused, claiming that their prey was perfectly legal as Kidd was commissioned to take French ships, and that an Armenian ship counted as French if it had French passes. In an attempt to maintain his tenuous control over his crew, Kidd relented and kept the prize. When this news reached England, it confirmed Kidd's reputation as a pirate, and various naval commanders were ordered to "pursue and seize the said Kidd and his accomplices" for the "notorious piracies" they had committed.
On 1 April 1698, Kidd reached Madagascar. Here he found the first pirate of his voyage, Robert Culliford (the same man who had stolen Kidd’s ship years before), and his crew aboard the Mocha Frigate. Two contradictory accounts exist of how Kidd reacted to his encounter with Culliford. According to The General History of the Pirates, published more than 25 years after the event by an author whose very identity remains in dispute, Kidd made peaceful overtures to Culliford: he "drank their Captain's health," swearing that "he was in every respect their Brother," and gave Culliford "a Present of an Anchor and some Guns." This account appears to be based on the testimony of Kidd's crewmen Joseph Palmer and Robert Bradinham at his trial. The other version was presented by Richard Zacks in his 2002 book The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. According to Zacks, Kidd was unaware that Culliford had only about 20 crew with him, and felt ill manned and ill equipped to take the Mocha Frigate until his two prize ships and crews arrived, so he decided not to molest Culliford until these reinforcements came. After the Adventure Prize and Rouparelle came in, Kidd ordered his crew to attack Culliford's Mocha Frigate. However, his crew, despite their previous eagerness to seize any available prize, refused to attack Culliford and threatened instead to shoot Kidd. Zacks does not refer to any source for his version of events.
Both accounts agree that most of Kidd's men now abandoned him for Culliford. Only 13 remained with the Adventure Galley. Deciding to return home, Kidd left the Adventure Galley behind, ordering her to be burnt because she had become worm-eaten and leaky. Before burning the ship, he was able to salvage every last scrap of metal, such as hinges. With the loyal remnant of his crew, he returned to the Caribbean aboard the Adventure Prize.
Prior to Kidd returning to New York City, he learned that he was a wanted pirate, and that several English men-of-war were searching for him. Realizing that the Adventure Prize was a marked vessel, he cached it in the Caribbean Sea and continued toward New York aboard a sloop. He deposited some of his treasure on Gardiners Island, hoping to use his knowledge of its location as a bargaining tool.
Bellomont (an investor) was away in Boston, Massachusetts. Aware of the accusations against Kidd, Bellomont was justifiably afraid of being implicated in piracy himself, and knew that presenting Kidd to England in chains was his best chance to save himself. He lured Kidd into Boston with false promises of clemency, then ordered him arrested on 6 July 1699. Kidd was placed in Stone Prison, spending most of the time in solitary confinement. His wife, Sarah, was also imprisoned. The conditions of Kidd's imprisonment were extremely harsh, and appear to have driven him at least temporarily insane.
He was eventually (after over a year) sent to England for questioning by Parliament. The new Tory ministry hoped to use Kidd as a tool to discredit the Whigs who had backed him, but Kidd refused to name names, naively confident his patrons would reward his loyalty by interceding on his behalf. There is speculation that he probably would have been spared had he talked. Finding Kidd politically useless, the Tory leaders sent him to stand trial before the High Court of Admiralty in London for the charges of piracy on high seas and the murder of William Moore. Whilst awaiting trial, Kidd was confined in the infamous Newgate Prison and wrote several letters to King William requesting clemency.
Kidd had two lawyers to assist in his defence. He was shocked to learn at his trial that he was charged with murder. He was found guilty on all charges (murder and five counts of piracy). He was hanged on 23 May 1701, at 'Execution Dock', Wapping, in London. During the execution, the hangman's rope broke and Kidd was hanged on the second attempt. His body was gibbeted over the River Thames at Tilbury Point - as a warning to future would-be pirates - for three years.
His associates Richard Barleycorn, Robert Lamley, William Jenkins, Gabriel Loffe, Able Owens, and Hugh Parrot were convicted, but pardoned just prior to hanging at Execution Dock.
Kidd's Whig backers were embarrassed by his trial. Far from rewarding his loyalty, they participated in the effort to convict him by depriving him of the money and information which might have provided him with some legal defence. In particular, the two sets of French passes he had kept were missing at his trial. These passes (and others dated 1700) resurfaced in the early twentieth century, misfiled with other government papers in a London building. These passes call the extent of Kidd's guilt into question. Along with the papers, many goods were brought from the ships and soon auctioned off as "pirate plunder." They were never mentioned in the trial. Nevertheless, none of these items would have prevented his conviction for murdering Moore.
As to the accusations of murdering Moore, on this he was mostly sunk on the testimony of the two former crew members, Palmer and Bradinham, who testified against him in exchange for pardons. A deposition Palmer gave when he was captured in Rhode Island two years earlier contradicted his testimony and may have supported Kidd's assertions, but Kidd was unable to obtain the deposition.
A broadside song Captain Kidd's Farewell to the Seas, or, the Famous Pirate's Lament was printed shortly after his execution and popularised the common belief that Kidd had confessed to the false charges.
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