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Captain Kidd is the archetypal swashbuckling pirate of all time - or is he? He himself strenuously denied it before his execution, which he attended in a state of inebriation! Did he get a fair trial or was he one of the many victims of a justice system which is still on the rack today? And just where did the legends of fabulous buried wealth - which have intoxicated treasure hunters for almost three centuries - spring from?
William Kidd, (Captain Kidd) 1645-1701
A Scottish merchant and privateer, Kidd was born in Greenock. (The portrait above is thought to have been made in 1710, shortly before his execution.) By 1680 he had a small fleet of trading vessels based in New York and appears to have been a successful sea-captain. Between 1688 and 1691 he fought as a privateer to protect West Indian Anglo-American trade routes from the French and in 1691 was rewarded by New York city for his exploits. He came to London in 1695 and was given the command of an expedition against pirates in the Indian Ocean, setting off from Deptford on February 27th 1696. His ship, the Adventure Galley was a cross between a sailing ship and an oared galley, weighed 287 tons and carried 34 guns. His commission from William III has survived:
He landed at Madagascar in early 1697 but seems to have succumbed to the temptations of the profits offered by piracy and began to sanction attacks on some merchant ships. He hoisted the French colours or the blood-red flag as suited him and captured several merchant ships. At one point his crew threatened mutiny and Kidd flew into a rage, striking his gunner, William Moore, with an iron-bound bucket. Moore's skull was fractured and he died within twenty-four hours. In January 1698 Kidd seized the Quedah Merchant, 400 tons and carrying a cargo of silk, muslin, calico sugar and opium. After two years in the Indian Ocean he decided to return to the West Indies. He arrived there with his flotilla only to discover that he had been proclaimed a pirate.
The Quedah Merchant was unloaded at Hispaniola and then burnt. Kidd sailed to Boston in a small ship called the Antonio determined to prove his innocence to the British Governor. He appears to have been perfectly confident that he could do so. However, he and nine of his crew were arrested and sent to London. On April 16th 1700, he was arraigned before the Lords of the Admiralty and committed to Newgate.
At the Old Bailey on May 8th and 9th 1701 Kidd was tried for Moore's murder and several counts of Piracy. The nine members of his crew were tried on the piracy charges. All were found guilty and sentenced to hang. Many felt that the trial was inadequate and there are arguments about it to this day. Certainly, some evidence which might have proven his innocence seems to have been mislaid during the trial, particularly this French pass:
On Sunday May 18th 1701, the chaplain at Newgate preached a sermon on the text "For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ". Perhaps Kidd did not fully appreciate the irony of it, as he was still confident of a reprieve. Although a reprieve did arrive for eight of his crewmen, he and the Irishman Darby Mullins had their sentences confirmed. The following Tuesday, May 23rd they were taken from Newgate, together with a pair of condemned Frenchmen, in two horse-drawn carts. They were guarded by marshals and led by the Admiralty marshal who carried the Admiralty's symbol, a silver oar. It was quite clear that Kidd was not sober - to the shocked disapproval of the Newgate Chaplain. The procession, accompanied by a large crowd, made its way through the City and past the Tower of London to Execution Dock, Wapping.
At this place there was a permanent gallows for pirates and it was customary to chain the corpses of the hanged to a post on the foreshore and let them "drown" in three tides as an example. Kidd spoke from the gallows and warned all ship-masters to learn from his fate. As the cart was drawn away from the scaffold, the rope around Kidd's neck broke, leaving him floundering in the Thames mud as the other condemned men hung. Still drunk, and now covered in mud, he had to be helped to his feet and man-handled back on to the gallows for a second time - the praying Chaplain in attendance. A new rope was hastily thrown around his neck and he was eventually hung. After the symbolic triple "drowning" his body was taken to Tilbury Point where it was left to hang in chains for two years.
During his incarceration and trial there were fierce rumours in London that the jewels found on his ship were worth more than £30,000 - about £10 million at today's equivalent. Lord Belmont prepared a document which minutely accounted for every thing Kidd had in his possession at the time of his arrest.
This amounted to 1,111 ounces of gold, 2,353 ounces of silver, over a pound of precious stones (i.e. rubies and diamonds), 57 bags of sugar, and 41 bags of miscellaneous goods worth in all some worth about £6,500. They were forfeit to the Crown and later given to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.
When the actual value of the forfeited goods became known, many were convinced that he had outwitted the authorities and hidden the bulk of his treasure away. And so began the rumours of fabulous wealth stashed away on some "Treasure Island." As the years passed, the supposed value multiplied many times and treasure hunters have searched for it from the America to the South China Sea. So far, it continues to elude their best efforts.
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Note: Various aspects of the history and legends associated with William Kidd can be explored online at the following sites:
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