Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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William Kidd and the East India Company
By Cindy Vallar
Kidd’s troubles with the East India Company began long before Adventure Galley reached the Indian Ocean. One clash occurred in early December 1696 after his departure from the Cape Verde Islands. The encounter would be but the first to raise suspicions about his true intent.
A thick fog blanketed the sea, and soon after Adventure Galley emerged from the mist 100 miles northwest of the VOC’s supply station at Cape Town (South Africa), she found herself followed by HMS Tiger. She was part of a Royal Navy squadron and her captain, John Richmond, insisted that Kidd remain in close proximity until his commanding officer arrived. Several hours passed before Commodore Thomas Warren and his vessels arrived, accompanied by two EIC ships. The master of one of those ships was John Clarke, who later wrote an account of his encounters with Kidd, extracts of which the Company passed along to the Council of Trade and Plantations.
That evening Kidd went aboard Warren’s ship, HMS Windsor, accompanied by Benjamin Franks, a jeweler who had signed aboard Adventure Galley in order to go to India where he wished to open a new business. After an outbreak of scurvy, Warren was in need of experienced recruits for his squadron and sometime during the get-together, “Kidd promised to spare the Commodore twenty or thirty men . . .”, according to Franks’s later deposition. (Cabell, 48) The opposite was actually true; Kidd had no intention of surrendering any of his crew to the Royal Navy. Nor did he have any plans to sail with the convoy.
[T]hat night he rowed away in a calm and next morning was almost out of sight. He talked very big while on board, which made many suspect the honesty of his design. (Clarke, 723)Soon after, the Company ships and the squadron parted company. The former sailed to Johanna, where they found Adventure Galley anchored in the harbor.
Kidd hoisted English colours, with threats. Just then two more East Indiamen came into the harbour, and we sent Kidd word that unless he behaved civilly we would call him to account. He gave us an invitation to board his ship, and gave out that he was bound for Port St. Mary’s . . . to hunt for pirates . . . . Kidd not liking our company filled up with water and sailed away. (Clarke, 723)When Warren and his squadron stopped at Cape Town, he informed the Dutch authorities that Kidd was a pirate. Five EIC masters, who had had similar dubious encounters with Kidd, concurred.
In June 1697, Edward Barlow served aboard the Sceptre. He had no real prospects of ever being in command of a Company ship because he lacked sufficient funds to purchase a captaincy from the EIC. He was also in the habit of speaking his mind, which landed him ashore without a job more than once during his career. He had grown up on a Manchester farm in England and his family was so poor that he never had “clothes fitting to go to church in.” (What, 35) A yen to witness “strange things in other countries” spurred him to relocate to London, where he lived with his uncle, the innkeeper at the Dog and Bear. (What, 35) His first job aboard a ship was as an apprentice on the Naseby, the vessel that brought Charles II back to England in 1660. Barlow was fifteen when he joined the Royal Navy, twenty-seven when he transferred to the merchant fleet of the EIC. From 1669 through 1703, he would serve on eight of the Company’s ships, one of which was the Sceptre where he was her first mate.
Fate intervened when Sceptre’s captain fell ill and died. This elevated Barlow, albeit temporarily, to command of the ship. His first task as master was to escort, with the assistance of two Dutch vessels, a convoy of seventeen ships laden with pilgrims returning from the Hajj, Indian merchants, cotton textiles, spices, coffee, gold, and other treasures. They were bound from Mocha to Surat, a journey of 2,000 miles by sea. (One of the vessels was the Ganj-i-Sawai, which Every had attacked two years earlier.) Before weighing anchor on 11 August 1697, Barlow heard rumors about a pirate ship lurking near the narrow strait of Bab-el-Mandeb (also known as the Gateway of Tears), which connected the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
The morning after they cleared the strait, a lookout noticed that the convoy had acquired an extra vessel. Of this ship, Barlow wrote, “He showed no colours, but had only a red broad pennant out without any cross on it.” (Botting, 110) Barlow assumed this meant surrender or die because no quarter would be given otherwise. He watched and waited as the stranger headed toward one of the larger merchant ships. When the intruder drew nearly abreast of his ship, Barlow hoisted the English flag and “let fly two or three guns at him.” (What, 37) The shots missed their target. With the light wind insufficient to fill the sails to pursue, he ordered boats to be launched and tow lines attached. While this was being accomplished, the pirates fired a broadside at their intended target and struck the hull, sails, and rigging of the merchant ship. By this time, Barlow’s men had pulled Sceptre closer to the intruder. “We fired at him as long as he was anything near and judged did hit him with some of our shot.” (Cabell, 58) Barlow also ordered his idle crewmen aloft to threaten and curse the pirates. This tactic, known as vaporing, was a ruse pirates often employed to intimidate their victims into surrendering without fighting. The gambit succeeded in getting the pirates to veer away, but they lurked near enough that Barlow played a game of cat and mouse with them until the pirates sailed away for good.
Twenty-six days after leaving Mocha, he brought the convoy safely into Surat, which he considered “a good piece of service done for the company’s interest.” (What, 37) The EIC factor invited Barlow and his crew to a celebration one evening. “We were very merry with our countrymen and women, which were seven in all, dancing and making great mirth in an evening.” (What, 38) Only later did Barlow discover that the pirate he had tangled with was William Kidd and the Adventure Galley. He wrote, “Had not our ship happened to have been in their company, [Kidd] had certainly plundered all the headmost ships of all their wealth.” (Botting, 114)
Sceptre, with Barlow sailing as captain, resumed her normal merchant duties. When she reached Bombay, he met with the EIC President, who made his appointment official. “It pleased the [governor of Bombay] to declare me amongst our ship’s company commander of the ship Sceptre.” (What, 38) But the promotion wasn’t permanent. Once the ship returned to England, the Company chose someone else as her captain and offered Barlow his old job as first mate, but at a higher rate of pay. He refused, and when he heard that the new commander wrecked the ship in the Bristol Channel and the Company’s cargo was lost, he wrote, “It pleased God to answer their expectations according to some of their deserts.”1 (What, 41)
News of these incidents had already reached Karwar, a port located between Calicut (Kozhikode) and Goa, by September when Adventure Galley put in to take on wood and water. In fact, the president of the EIC’s headquarters in Bombay, Sir John Gavin, had written to the Company in London that Kidd was “a pirate who has done much mischief in those parts.” (Cabell, 63) Two factory agents, Thomas Pattell and John Harvey, went on board Adventure Galley and met with Kidd, who showed them his commission to hunt pirates, but confessed he had yet to meet any even though he had put in at several places where they were known to frequent. Pattell and Harvey wrote to Sir Gavin that “we do not think it is prudent to molest him for fear it should aggravate him to mischief.” (Cabell, 63)
Wary of what had occurred so far during the cruise, two crew members of Kidd’s ship bade a soft farewell and snuck ashore. Pattell and Harvey wrote again to headquarters.
Two of Captain Kidd’s men have come to the factory, who tell us that they have taken an English vessel at Bombay and have the commander a prisoner on board. They took out of her about £100 of gold and other goods. Their going to Mocha was with full intent to take the Surratt ships, had not the convoys prevented them. They were on the watch for a rich native ship. They intend to take into their own use the first good ship they meet with, as their own is rotten and leaky. We believe he intends to lie off here, so if you send a force against him, it is ten to one that you find him hereabout. (Cabell, 64-65)One of these men was the jeweler Benjamin Franks. From the moment they had arrived at Karwar, he asked to disembark, but Kidd always refused. Then he offered Kidd a beaver hat, and his request was granted. Nine men rowed him ashore, and once there, none of them returned to the ship. He and one other, Jonathan Treadway, sought refuge with the Company, which escorted them to Bombay, where they were imprisoned until January 1698. They sailed back to England to testify before the Board of Trade.
The two factory agents did return to Adventure Galley and demand the release of the English captain and a Portuguese mate, but Kidd claimed to have no such prisoners on board. In reality, the men were imprisoned in the hold of his vessel.
One other piece of information shared by the informants was that Kidd and his crew were “a very distracted company, continually quarrelling and fighting amongst themselves, so it is likely they will in a short time destroy one another, or starve, having only sufficient provisions to keep the sea for a month more.” (Botting, 111)
Pattell and Harvey also shared some pertinent information with Kidd. While in prison in 1699, he wrote about his journey, relying solely on memory because his journal had been confiscated. He mentioned his stop at Karwar in this narrative.
[T]he Gentlemen of the English Factory gave . . . an Account that the Portugese were fitting out two men of War to take him, and advised him to set out to Sea, and to take care of himselfe from them, and immediately he set sail thereupon . . . about the 22d of the said month of September, and the next morning about break of day saw the said two Men of War standing for the said Gally, and spoke with him, and asked him Whence he was, who replyed, from London, and they returned answer, from Goa, and so parted, wishing each other a good Voyage, and making still along the Coast, the Commodore of the said Men of War kept dogging the said Gally all Night, waiting an Opportunity to board the same, and in the morning, without speaking a word, fired 6 great Guns at the Gally, some whereof went through her, and wounded four of his Men, and thereupon he fired upon him again, and the Fight continued all day, and the Narrator had eleven men wounded: The other Portuguese Men of War lay some distance off, and could not come up with the Gally, being calm, else would have likewise assaulted the same. The said Fight was sharp, and the said Portuguese left the said Gally with such Satisfaction that the Narrator believes no Portuguese will ever attack the Kings Colours again . . . . (Jameson, 207)Kidd next crossed paths with the 400-ton Quedagh Merchant on 30 January 1698. The EIC had hired this Armenian ship to transport cargo. Armenian merchants played a crucial role in the Company’s history. Initially, the two entities were competitors, but like needs brought them together as partners. They already had a trade network established throughout India and worked closely with the EIC’s factories and trading posts, including Surat. Kidd later wrote:
. . . under French Colours with a Designe to decoy, met with a Bengall Merchantman belonging to Surrat of the burthen of 4 or 500 Tuns, 10 guns, and he commanded the Master on board, and a Frenchman, Inhabitant of Suratt and belonging to the French Factory there, and Gunner of said Ship . . . and when [they] came on board the Narrator caused the English Colours to be hoisted, and the said Master was surprized and said, You are all English; and asking, Which was the Captain, whom when he saw, said, Here is a good Prize, and delivered him the French Pass. And that with the said two Prizes sailed for the Port of St. Maries, in Madagascar . . . . (Jameson, 208-209)When Kidd halted the vessel, there was on board an Armenian merchant named Coji Babba. He offered Kidd 20,000 rupees if he would release the Quedagh Merchant, but Kidd refused. His seizure would be the final straw for the English. Thereafter, he was officially condemned as a pirate – one with a bounty on his head.
Kidd’s attack also unleashed another firestorm upon the Company. On this particular voyage, the Quedagh Merchant had been leased by an influential member of the imperial court named Muklis Khan, who owned nearly half of the cargo she carried. Babba and his fellow Armenians, who had also lost their cargoes, informed Khan and the court of the attack. The EIC received letters demanding recompense. The emperor threatened the Company and London. One of his demands was the immediate payment of the EIC’s annual customs. He sent soldiers to the factory to make certain none of the Company’s agents and employees emerged from behind its walls. Trade was also halted. After some negotiating, the EIC and Surat’s governor came to terms, but the damage Kidd had caused took far longer to heal.
The time had come to teach the pirates a lesson. On 23 November 1698, a royal proclamation declared William Kidd to be a pirate. The Company directors pressured the British government to hunt him down. They amassed a collection of depositions and other documents that were passed along to the Admiralty, Lords of Trade, and Privy Council. Kidd was finally arrested in Massachusetts in 1699, and shipped off to London where he was tried. Company officials were so determined that Kidd would meet his just dessert and be hanged, they brought one Armenian merchant, who had sustained significant losses, to London to testify against him. After Kidd was hanged as a pirate and murderer, his body was put in a gibbet and displayed on the Thames River to warn others of the hazards of turning away from the law.
1. Barlow made two subsequent voyages as a first mate for the EIC, but on the second, he was kicked off the ship and had to find his own way home. It would be his last time at sea.
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