Captain William Kidd (c. 1645-1701) was one of the most notorious pirates in history. He sailed the coast of North America, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean, plundering ships. To this day, rumors persist that he left behind a great treasure.
Not much is known about Kidd's origins or early life, which is not unusual, since few records were made of people of common birth in the 17th century. Even after he became famous, no one thought to write down any information about his youth or his parentage. At the time of Kidd's execution, the pastor of the prison where he was held noted that the prisoner was a Scot about 56 years of age. Other than that, no verifiable facts are known, but a long-standing tradition holds that Kidd was the son of a Presbyterian minister and that he was born in Greenock, Scotland, about 1645.
Greenock is a port town, and anyone raised there would have seen ships come and go from the docks. Kidd evidently found the life of a sailor more interesting than following in his father's footsteps. The first records of his life date from 1689, when he was about 44 years old and was a member of a French-English pirate crew that sailed in the Caribbean. Kidd and other members of the crew had 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 appointment by Christopher Codrington, governor of the island of Nevis. 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 to the tune of 2,000 pounds Sterling.
No Honor among Thieves
Shortly after his conquest of Mariegalante, Kidd and the crew of the Blessed William joined the British navy in a battle against French warships. Many members of Kidd's crew considered this a dangerous waste of time since there was no treasure to steal on the enemy warships, and they turned against him. Kidd explained that they were working for the British and therefore obligated to help the Royal Navy, but his words fell on deaf ears. When he rowed ashore while his ship was anchored at Nevis, his crew stole the ship, as well as Kidd's 2,000-pound fortune.
Governor Codrington provided Kidd with another ship and gave him leave to hunt down his disloyal crew. Kidd sailed from Nevis intending to do just that, but once at sea he changed his mind and instead sailed to New York. At the time a British colony, New York was in open revolt against the British. Loyal to the crown, Kidd offered to carry guns and ammunition for the British, who were trying to assert their authority over the colony. In reward for his loyalty, the provincial assembly gave him 150 pounds and praised his efforts.
While in New York, Kidd met Sarah Bradley Cox Oort, a woman married to John Oort, a rich gentleman who owned several docks, as well as what is now Wall Street. Two days after John Oort's mysterious death, Kidd and Sarah Oort applied for a marriage license. Although no one discovered the truth behind John Oort's death, some historians believe Kidd killed him—perhaps with the aid of Sarah.
Sarah Kidd inherited her ex-husband's fortune, and Kidd gained control over it. Suddenly he was a very rich man, with land, docks, and a ship called the Antigua, which he was given while in the Caribbean. He loved his wife and the two daughters she brought with her to the marriage. While he could have retired from the sea, Kidd remained restless.
Privateer with King William's Blessing
In the spring of 1695 Kidd and his friend Robert Livingston came up with a scheme. Marauding pirates were constantly disrupting English shipping traffic. To solve this problem it was decided that Kidd would sail to pirate-infested waters and take pirates into custody. He would then "recover" the booty the captured pirates had plundered from other ships, and would divide it among Kidd and Livingston's several investors, who would include King William of England. King William would enthusiastically support this plan, because the pirates were cutting off England's shipping and because he would receive a cut of the profits. The key, Kidd and Livingston knew, was to leave untouched English ships but to prey only on those of other countries— particularly Portugal, France, and Spain. Under this scheme, they could continue to enjoy a life of piracy while remaining protected by the official sponsorship of the King of England.
King William was enthusiastic about this idea and, according to an essay posted on the Discovery.com Web site, granted Kidd power to apprehend "pirates, free-booters, and sea-rovers, being our subjects or of other nations associated with them." If they resisted, Kidd was authorized to use force against them. He was also given permission to take French ships, because at the time, England and France were at war. However, he was not allowed to attack English ships, or those of allies of England.
By August 1696 eight partners had signed on to the venture, including the king, who would receive ten percent of the profits. The partners contributed to the venture and purchased a ship, the Adventure Galley, for 6,000 pounds. The ship was outfitted with 30 cannons and was altered to sail more quickly. In February of 1697 Kidd left Plymouth, England, with a crew of 80 men, and set sail for Madagascar, a hotbed of pirate activity.
It remains uncertain whether Kidd intended to take any ship he wanted, or whether he seriously intended to prey only on ships owned by enemies of England. To his dying day he denied ever intending to become a true pirate. After arriving in the Indian Ocean, however, he soon became known and feared by other captains.
Murder of Robert Moore Signaled Downfall
A discontented crew member named Robert Moore complained about Kidd's commission to attack only non-English ships, arguing that the captain and crew would have earned more plunder if Kidd had been more aggressive. The two fought, and Kidd finally picked up a wooden bucket and smashed it over Moore's head, killing the sailor instantly. The murder did little to improve Kidd's popularity among his ship's crew, and to regain their esteem he tossed aside his reluctance to attack English ships. From this point on, any ship on the open sea was fair game. Kidd and his crew sailed continuously, scarcely ever putting in to port for repairs, and eventually the Adventure Galley was close to sinking. Too worn to be of any further use, the pirate ship was run aground. The pirate captain transferred his booty and possessions to the Quedah Merchant, which he had captured.
King Ordered Kidd's Death
By this time, English sea captains who had escaped Kidd's predation had begun complaining to their king about the scourge of piracy in the Indian Ocean. King William ordered Kidd, to be put to death if caught, although he never admitted that it had been under his commission that the pirate had first begun his activities. Kidd was eventually apprehended and imprisoned in Boston, in the colony of Massachusetts, where he had sailed after leaving the Indian Ocean. After languishing in a colonial jail, Kidd was transferred to England and jailed in Newgate Prison, a notoriously filthy and pestilential place. As Robert C. Ritchie wrote in Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, "the very special nature of Kidd's circumstances brought him to a terrible sentence, discharged in awful conditions; although his health was frequently poor, his constitution, long attuned to the rough life at sea, kept him alive."
Trial and Conviction
In the spring of 1701 Kidd was finally brought to trial for piracy and the murder of the sailor Moore. His trial began on May 8, 1701, and was over the next day. Accused prisoners had to defend themselves, and were only brought to trial if the prosecutors were sure they would be convicted. Kidd, as expected, was rapidly convicted, although he protested that he was not a pirate—he had been carrying out the terms of his commission to take any ship that was not English, and he asserted that he had only plundered French ships. Of Moore's death, Kidd maintained that he had not intended to kill the seaman, but had struck him in the heat of anger.
Kidd was scheduled to be executed for his crimes against England on Friday, May 23, 1701. Late in the afternoon on that date, two horse-drawn carts arrived to take him and other prisoners to the gallows. The prisoners were accompanied by officials in a symbolic parade, and were followed by a crowd of curious onlookers who yelled at the condemned, in turn offering them liquor and cursing at them. Kidd was already drunk at this point, a disappointment to Paul Lorrain, the prison pastor, who hoped that the noted pirate would repent and confess his guilt. Although drunk, Kidd was coherent enough to give a final speech, in which he blamed others for his fate and said the only thing he was sorry about was leaving his wife and children.
When the hangman attempted to hang him, the rope broke, and Kidd fell to the ground, stunned but still alive. The hangman picked him up and made a new rope ready. Meanwhile, Lorrain once again pleaded with Kidd to repent, and this time the clergyman was successful—at least according to Lorrain's later report. Pastor and condemned man prayed together for a short time before the hangman completed his work, thus putting an end to Kidd's pirate career. Afterward, Kidd's body was strung up along the banks of the Thames River in London, a warning to others who might consider taking up a life of piracy. His abandoned ship, the Adventure Galley, remained in the shallow water of the harbor of Ile Sainte Marie for many years, her decaying form visible to other ships passing by. Eventually she rotted, her remains filtering beneath the shifting sands, and was forgotten for over 300 years.
Search for Kidd's Lost Treasure
After Kidd's death a story circulated that he had left a vast treasure behind. Searches were conducted all over the world, in every place that he touched shore. In the 19th century, companies were formed for the express purpose of searching New York's lower Hudson River valley for signs of this pirate gold. Even into the 21st century such searches continue.
In 1999 treasure hunter Barry Clifford began a search for the Adventure Galley in Ile Sainte Marie, Madagascar. He had discovered the remains of the Whydah, the only authenticated pirate ship then known to be in existence, off the coast of Massachusetts in 1984. One of the first signs of the lost wreck was a pile of stones, metal, and porcelain; the porcelain turned out to be remnants of Ming vases made between 1666 and 1722, the time when Kidd roamed the seas. Existing historical records verified that Kidd's ship would have held such cargo. Also found were rum bottles, ship fittings, and cannon. In addition, the wreckage was in the right place. At Kidd's trial, one of his crew had described the location where the ship had been run aground. This was the only place in Ile Sainte Marie that fit.
On June 22, 1999, a member of Clifford's expedition found two gold coins that might have come from Kidd's ship. According to Discover.com, pirate experts hypothesized that, although Kidd transferred some of his booty from the Adventure Galley to the Quedah Merchant, he might not have been able to retrieve every last gold piece from the leaky and flooded hold. The coins discovered by Clifford fit what is known about Kidd's last attack, which was on a ship sailing from the East Indies: one of the coins was Islamic, the other Ottoman. While the evidence indicated that the ship may have been Kidd's, it was by no means conclusive proof. Expedition members were forced by the Malagasy government to leave the country before conclusive evidence could be uncovered. However, as Clifford was quoted as saying by Discover.com, "Everyone who has ever walked a beach from the Dominican Republic to Maine has looked for the pirate treasure of Captain Kidd. Daniel Defoe thought about Kidd's treasure when he wrote about pirates [under the pseudonym Captain Charles Johnson] and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about it in Treasure Island. Now we have done it. We may have touched Kidd's treasure."
Johnson, Captain Charles, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, Lyons Press, 1998.
Ritchie, Robert C., Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, Harvard University Press, 1986.
"Diving for Captain Kidd's Lost Ship," Discovery.com Web site, http://www.discovery.com (December 20, 2000).