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The Unlucky Life And Gruesome Death Of Captain William Kidd

Updated: Sep 26

In the 16th and 17th centuries, privateers enjoyed a successful trade around the world. Privateer ships were warships that were privately owned, but had government permission to attack enemy ships. The privateer would then share any booty with the government.

Captain Kidd can be said to be the most unfortunate pirate ever to sail the high seas! For it was his bad luck to sail as a privateer/pirate just when the rules changed and the privateer/pirate became an outlaw.

William Kidd was born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1654, the son of John Kidd a seaman, and his wife Bessie Butchart. He became a sea captain, his first ship being the Antigua. Kidd settled in the Manhattan area of New York where, in May 1691, he married the wealthy widow Sarah Oort, raised two daughters, and perhaps earned a living as a respectable merchant with a bit of small-scale privateering on the side.

During the war between England and France in the 1690’s, Kidd became a successful privateer in charge of the vessel Blessed William, defending American and English trade routes with the West Indies. He was commissioned by the English government to take charge of an expedition against pirates in the Indian Ocean. Kidd’s public mission was to rid the sea of pirates, but it was probably understood by his backers that he would also take every opportunity to capture any enemy ships that had valuable cargo.

Captain Kidd in New York Harbor, in a c. 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Kidd’s ship for the expedition, also paid for by his sponsors, was the Adventure Galley. Purpose-built in Deptford, London, the 287-ton three-masted ship could pursue a target in all conditions thanks to its mix of square-rigged sails, lateen sail, and banks of oars (46 in total). The Adventure Galley was crewed by over 150 men and was well-armed with 34 cannons. There was one significant downside to all this financial backing, and that was that Kidd had to sign a contract which gave him and his crew only a very small proportion of any plunder taken on the expedition. At least Kidd’s privateering expedition received the legitimacy of royal support, his commission being signed by King William III of England who was promised 10% of the profits. Actually, there were three commissions: one to privateer against French vessels; another to apprehend pirates wherever Kidd came across them, including, if possible, the notorious Henry Every; and a third, to keep all booty for sharing amongst the investors without going through any courts as was the usual practice.

As the Adventure Galley sailed down the Thames, Kidd unaccountably failed to salute a Navy yacht at Greenwich, as custom dictated. The Navy yacht then fired a shot to make him show respect, and Kidd's crew responded with an astounding display of impudence – by turning and slapping their backsides in [disdain]. - Douglas Botting, The Seafarers.

Because of Kidd's refusal to salute, the Navy vessel's captain retaliated by pressing much of Kidd's crew into naval service, despite the captain's strong protests and the general exclusion of privateer crew from such action. Short-handed, Kidd sailed for New York City, capturing a French vessel en route (which was legal under the terms of his commission). To make up for the lack of officers, Kidd picked up replacement crew in New York, the vast majority of whom were known and hardened criminals, some likely former pirates.

On 6 September 1696, Kidd and a crew of 150 men left New York aboard the 32-gun Adventure Galley, bound for the Indian Ocean. One of the pirates he set out to capture was Robert Culliford, who sailed with a surgeon named Jon Death. The story goes that Culliford would order his men to load their cannons with china dishes, as the china shards would shred the sails of the ships that he was attacking.

Poor Captain Kidd was not very adept at finding pirates. The mood of his crew turned ugly and mutiny was in the air. Finally his crew forced him to turn pirate himself. In late January 1698, the Quedah Merchant was sighted rounding the tip of India. Kidd and his crew attacked and took the ship: the cargo was silk, muslin, calico, sugar, opium, iron and saltpeter and worth a rumoured 70,000 pounds. The Quedah Merchant, renamed the Adventure Prize, was kept by Kidd, as he was forced to abandon and sink his now leaking ship.

Unfortunately for Kidd, it was now two years since he had begun his voyage and in that time there had been a change of attitude in England toward piracy. Piracy was to be stamped out and was now a criminal act.

Kidd finally arrived in the West Indies in April 1699 to find that he was now deemed to be a pirate and that the American colonies were gripped by pirate fever. Up and down the coast, everyone was on the hunt for pirates.

Kidd sailed for Boston, stopping along the way to bury booty on Gardiners Island and Block Island. Some of the booty on Gardiners Island was later recovered.

A Captain Kidd cigarette card

Prior to returning to New York City, Kidd knew that he was wanted as a pirate and that several English men-of-war were searching for him. Realizing that Adventure Prize was a marked vessel, he cached it in the Caribbean Sea, sold off his remaining plundered goods through pirate and fence William Burke,and continued towards 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. Kidd landed in Oyster Bay to avoid mutinous crew who had gathered in New York City. To avoid them, Kidd sailed 120 nautical miles (220 km; 140 mi) around the eastern tip of Long Island, and doubled back 90 nautical miles (170 km; 100 mi) along the Sound to Oyster Bay. He felt this was a safer passage than the highly trafficked Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Captain Kidd, gibbeted near Tilbury, following his execution in 1701.

The New England governor, Lord Richard Bellomont, himself an investor in Kidd’s voyage, had him arrested on 7 July 1699 in Boston. He was sent to England aboard the frigate Advice in February 1700.

The shamelessly rigged trial started on 8 May and was completed the next day – the verdict was that Kidd was guilty of the murder of one of his crew and guilty of multiple acts of piracy.

William Kidd spent his last days on earth in Newgate Gaol, where on Sunday 18 May 1701, he heard his final sermon, preached by the prison chaplain on the cheerful text, ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.’ Kidd still hoped for a reprieve, and the others who had been condemned with him for piracy received it – all except one, an Irishman named Darby Mullins.

On the afternoon of 23 May, they were taken, with two Frenchmen who were also to die, from Newgate in two horse-drawn carts, guarded by marshals and led by the Admiralty Marshal and the silver oar which was the Admiralty’s symbol. To the chaplain’s shocked disapproval, Kidd was the worse for drink. At five o’clock, low tide, they reached Execution Dock at Wapping, a few yards below Wapping Old Stairs, in the presence of a large and lively crowd. There was a permanent gallows for pirates there and after the hanging the corpses were customarily chained to a post on the foreshore, where they were left until three tides had flowed over them, as an example.

Captain William Kidd was hanged in a public execution on 23 May 1701, at Execution Dock, Wapping, in London. He had to be hanged twice. On the first attempt, the hangman's rope broke and Kidd survived. Although some in the crowd called for Kidd's release, claiming the breaking of the rope was a sign from God, Kidd was hanged again minutes later, and died. His body was gibbeted over the River Thames at Tilbury Point – as a warning to future would-be pirates – for three years.

His English backers, though tainted by the piracy scandal, kept their estates and power.

After his death, his legend grew, especially the stories of buried treasure. Authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson with his book “Treasure Island” and Edgar Allan Poe (“The Gold Bug”) helped fuel the myth.


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