Captain William Kidd, the Scottish privateer and notorious pirate, was hanged at Execution Dock in London, for piracy and murder, on the 23rd of May, 1701.
Forget Jack Sparrow. Of all the pirates that ever sailed the seven seas, the name of Captain Kidd is probably the first one folks think of when the topic is raised. He was certainly infamous and over time has become legendary, particularly because of his buried treasure; an alleged fortune. Like all good legends, there is truth and half truth, and downright untruths, in the telling of the tale. Kidd was certainly a privateer, which was a somewhat respectable occupation for the time. At one time, he was highly thought of, enough to have been granted his privateer’s commission. However, there is debate about Kidd’s having been a pirate. Some would have it that he was a reluctant pirate, driven to dastardly deeds by desperate circumstance. Others point to evidence of his wickedness and the fact he was found guilty, not only of piracy, but the murder of a crewman.
Kidd’s legend is further adorned, of course, by the imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson, who drew on his tale as inspiration for ‘Treasure Island’. No doubt also, the sordid behaviour of his sponsors provides some mitigation for his character and provides ammunition to those who claim that his fate was unjust. There are those who portray him as more heroic than heinous, and apologists claim that he committed only a single act of piracy. So – pirate or privateer, rogue or misguided fool, swashbuckling hero or murderous criminal – you pays your money and you takes your choice.
Here are some ‘facts’ to help you make up your mind. William (or Robert) Kidd was born in Dundee (or Greenock), in 1645 (or 1654 or 1655), the son of John Kidd, a seaman, and Bessie Butchart (?). Well, isn’t that a good start? I guess you can see how legends are created. In any case, wherever and whenever, he spent his formative years as a sailor and, by 1689 (when he might have been as old as forty-four), he was in command of a vessel named the ‘Blessed William’ and operating as a privateer in the West Indies.
You should think of privateering in the 16th and 17th Centuries as legalised piracy. Privateers operated their own ships, independent of the Navy, but nevertheless, with government permission to attack enemy ships on the basis that any spoils would be shared with the authorities. A true fact in Kidd’s story is the privateer’s ‘Letter of Marque’ he was granted by the Admiralty and the King’s commission, procured by his influential backers and issued on the 26th of January, 1696. The commission from William III stated:
“Now KNOW YE that we… do hereby give and grant to the said Robert Kidd, (to whom our commissioners for exercising the office of Lord High Admiral of England, have granted a commission as a private man-of-war, bearing date the 11th day of December, 1695,)… full power and authority to apprehend, seize, and take into your custody… all such pirates, free-booters, and sea-rovers, …which you shall meet with upon the seas or coasts of America, or upon any other seas or coasts, with all their ships and vessels, and all such merchandizes, money, goods, and wares as shall be found on board, …And we do hereby enjoin you to keep an exact journal of your proceedings… And we do hereby strictly charge and command you, as you will answer the contrary at your peril, that you do not, in any manner, offend or molest our friends or allies, their ships or subjects, by colour or pretence of these presents, or the authority thereby granted.”
Kidd’s first venture in piracy occurred when, after a couple of failed attempts, he took a small prize, sometime before docking for repairs in the Laccadive Islands. Then, in August 1697, he overhauled a Moorish vessel commanded by an Englishman, Captain Thomas Parker. With that act, he most certainly broke both international marine law and the terms of his Royal Commission. Kidd forced Parker and a Portuguese called Don Antonio, the only Europeans on board, to take on with him.
Shortly afterwards, sailing to Carawar on India’s Malabar coast, he took another English vessel off Bombay. However, Kidd’s most infamous act of piracy was yet to come. He captured another Moorish ship, commanded by a Dutchman called Schipper Mitchell, and crewed by Moors. Piling one felony upon another, he craftily forced the lone French passenger to sign a paper declaring he was the Captain. This was sworn before witnesses and Kidd kept the document as proof that he’d legitimately captured a French ship. Following those escapades, Kidd plundered a number of boats along the coast of Malabar, including a Portuguese vessel, which he kept for a week, before letting her go.
At Kidd’s trial, Doctor Bradinham, a prosecution witness, testified that Kidd had fired on English ships, kidnapped an English captain, tortured passengers, executed a native that had been tied to a tree, and burned a village. Doctor Newton, the lead prosecutor stated that Kidd “committed many great piracies and robberies, taking the ships and goods of the Indians and others at sea, Moors and Christians, and torturing cruelly their persons to discover if anything had escaped his hands; burning their houses, and killing after a barbarous manner the Natives on shore.”
His most lucrative capture was in fact a legal act, but it was the event that led to the East India Company crying “pirate!” In the circumstances, Kidd could be excused for responding “injustice!” as the ‘Quedah Merchant’ sailed under French papers and, in 1698, her cargo was fair game. A reasonable view of Kidd’s conduct is that when he failed to encounter any pirates, he became desperate, due to the terms of his engagement, which meant he was forfeit if he returned empty handed. Rather than lose face and run the hazard of poverty, he resolved to turn pirate, since he found no honest success. That doesn’t quite explain the incongruity in his apparent lack of effort in chasing down the pirates after whom he was dispatched. Either way, he was a pirate.
Captain Kidd died, twice hung, on the scaffold at Execution Dock on the banks of The Thames, a convicted pirate and murderer, protesting his innocence. The French passes that he was convinced would clear his name (one legitimate from the ‘Quedah Merchant’, the other criminally forced) disappeared, along with his journal, before his trial. An American, Ralph D. Paine, discovered the passes, in 1911, in the Public Records Office in London.