Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Captain William Kidd
By Cindy Vallar
William Kidd served aboard a twenty-gun brig that anchored in the Leeward Islands of St. Kitts in 1689. His shipmates were mostly French and English--a touchy situation since the two countries were at war. Kidd and his compatriots, including a man named Robert Culliford, absconded with the ship, sailing her to Nevis, an English island. The ship was rechristened the Blessed William, and Kidd became her captain. He and his men participated in various attacks on French settlements and vessels during King William’s War (War of the League of Augsburg), for which he was handsomely rewarded. His men, however, were not. Deprived of prize money and tired of their captain’s dictatorial attitude, they waited until Kidd spent the night ashore, then they set sail for New York, taking with them Kidd’s vessel and everything he owned, including £2,000 (his share of prize money from a captured Spanish ship).
Determined to retrieve his ship and punish the mutineers, he received a captured French vessel from a sympathetic governor. Aboard the Antigua, Kidd hunted the Blessed William, but lost her trail once he arrived in New York. He opted to settle down in the city, where he married a wealthy widow in 1691 and became an important member of society, as well as a sea captain with a good reputation. His beautiful and wealthy wife, Sarah Bradley Cox Oort, had been married twice before. Among their residences was a home at 56 Wall Street, although the family lived on Pearl Street.
Captain Kidd had brown eyes and a longish nose. “His lips seemed curled at the edge with a certain cockiness.” (Zacks, p.9) As was the custom among gentlemen of the day, he wore a shoulder-length wig. He was more literate than many people. He had a terse wit, but at times was either boisterous or argumentative, especially when he drank. This tall, well-dressed sea captain believed in hard work, especially from those who sailed with him, and he was fiercely independent, ambitious, and distrustful.
He set sail for London aboard the Antigua in 1695 with the hope of gaining an officer’s commission in the Royal Navy or command of a privateer. All his attempts failed, but he connected with a New York friend named Robert Livingston, who introduced him to Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont. A powerful Whig of the Irish peerage and a Member of Parliament, Bellomont had been appointed Governor of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. His primary mission as such involved the suppression of piracy and smuggling. He urged Kidd to become a privateer charged with hunting down pirates and their treasure-laden ships on the return leg of the Pirate Round, a regular route between North America and the Indian Ocean.
Bellomont convinced four others to back the venture. Charles Talbot, Duke of Shrewsbury, was one of the seven Lord Justices who ruled England while King William visited the Netherlands and Secretary of State. Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney, was a longtime friend of the monarch and Master General of Ordnance. Sir John Somers was another favorite of the king, and was also Solicitor General, speaker of the House of Lords, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and one of the seven Lord Justices. Admiral Sir Edward Russell, Earl of Orford, was First Lord of the Admiralty and Treasurer of the Navy.
On 10 December, the Admiralty granted Kidd a privateer’s letter of marque. A special commission on 26 January 1696, from King William directed him to hunt pirates, with one stipulation. “We do hereby jointly charge and command you, as you will answer the same at your utmost Peril, That you do not, in any manner, offend or molest any of our Friends or Allies, their Ships or Subjects.” (Botting, p.106) Among the pirates specifically named in this commission were Thomas Tew, John Ireland, and William Mayes.
In April, the three-masted Adventure Galley departed England. Her original crew of about one hundred forty was mostly English, but there were also Dutch and Scots aboard. They sailed under an agreement that they received no pay unless they captured legitimate prizes, and in such a case they would receive only one-fourth share. Ten percent of the take went to the king. Of the remaining ninety percent, the backers received sixty percent, Kidd and Livingston fifteen percent, and the crew twenty-five percent. The Adventure Galley carried thirty-two guns, and although a rarity for warships of the time, she had forty-six sweeps that allowed her to be rowed when necessary. With all her sails unfurled, she could make fourteen knots. Under oar without wind, she made three. The vessel lacked crew quarters for the men and a galley. On deck, though, there was a bricked hearth for cooking, but only in calm weather.
As vessels sailed down the Thames it was the custom to salute ships of the Royal Navy, but Captain Kidd failed to do so. When the naval gunner fired a shot at the Adventure Galley, “Kidd’s men in the tops turned up and slapped their backsides, in derision.” (Rogozinski, p.120) As a result, the Adventure Galley was stopped and some of her more experienced mariners found themselves pressed into service, leaving Kidd shorthanded. Even so, he managed to arrive in New York in August. Once there, Kidd tried to enlist a new crew, but few sailors wanted to sign on for a cruise under the articles Kidd offered. This eventually forced him to alter them, and he soon acquired the one hundred fifty-two men he needed. Again, most were English, with twenty-five Dutch, seven Scots, two French, two Welsh, and one African among the crew. Twenty-one were experienced sailors. Three were carpenters and two were cobblers. Also aboard were a surgeon, cook, vintner, joiner, cordwainer, gunsmith, jeweler, and baker. The youngest members of the crew were twelve-year-old Robert Lamley (cook’s apprentice), fourteen-year-old William Jenkins (chief mate’s apprentice), and fourteen-year-old Richard Barlycorne (Kidd’s apprentice).
On 10 September 1696, the men signed the eighteen articles of agreement under which they would sail. The contract “between Capt. William Kidd Command.er of the good ship the Adventure Galley on the one part and John Walker Quarter M.er to the said ships company on the other part,” included
That if any man shall lose an Eye, Legg or Arme or the use thereof…shall receive…six hundred pieces of eight, or six able Slaves. The man who shall first see a Saile. If she be a Prize shall receive one hundred pieces of eight. That whosoever shall disobey Command shall lose his share or receive such Corporall punishment as the Cap.t and Major part of the Company shall deem fit. That man is proved a Coward in time of Engagem.t shall lose his share. That man that shall be drunk in time of Engagement before the prisoners then taken be secured, shall lose his share. That man that shall breed a Mutiny Riot on Board the ship or Prize taken shall lose his shares and receive such Corporall punishment as the Capt. and major part of the Company shall deem fitt. That if any man shall defraude the Capt. or Company of any Treasure, as Money, Goods, Ware, Merchandizes or any other thing whatsoever to the value of one piece of eight…shall lose his Share and be put on shore upon the first inhabited Island or other place that the said ship shall touch at. That what money or Treasure shall be taken by the said ship and Company shall be put on board the Man of War and there be shared immediately, and all Wares and Merchandizes when legally condemned to be legally divided amongst the ships Company according to Articles.” (Zacks, pp.19-20)Although Kidd and his men sailed as privateers, these articles of agreement were akin to those signed by pirates rather than sailors sailing under letters of marque. To complicate matters further, the Royal Navy was suspicious of private warships like the Adventure Galley, in part because they competed for prizes, and the English East India Company despised Kidd’s venture because he was their rival. Kidd’s agreement with Bellomont and the other backers stipulated that he had one year to hunt down pirates operating in the Indian Ocean, an area that spanned 28,000,000 square feet. If he failed to return with the promised booty by 25 March 1697, Captain Kidd would owe his backers £20,000.
Prior to Bellomont’s arrival in the colonies, Governor Fletcher of New York wrote to the Board of Trade about Kidd’s crew: “Many flocked to him from all parts, men desperate of fortunes and necessities, in expectation of getting vast treasure. It is generally believed here that if he misses the design named in his commission, he will not be able to govern such a villainous herd.” (Botting, p. 108)
At some point, Kidd decided to sail to Madagascar, the pirate haven for those marauders who preyed on rich ships traversing the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. In mid-December, three English warships happened upon the Adventure Galley. Commodore Thomas Warren commanded these vessels, which had lost their sailing master, possessed no fresh food, and whose crews suffered from scurvy. He ordered Kidd to help them reach Cape Town, but Kidd was reluctant to do so. His men were relatively healthy, and he feared Warren would press more of his men into the Royal Navy. At present all the ships were becalmed, but Kidd waited until early morning before he and his men bid the naval ships a soft farewell, rowing silently away under cover of darkness. When Warren discovered the Adventure Galley’s disappearance, he decided Captain Kidd was up to no good.
The Adventure Galley rounded the Cape of Good Hope in February 1697, one month before William Kidd was to return to England, and they hadn’t seen even one pirate or French ship. In need of repairs and leaking, their vessel required careening, a task that took five weeks. During this time, Kidd lost one-fifth of his men to disease, possibly cholera. Next they sailed for the Red Sea in hopes of encountering a pilgrim fleet returning from Mecca. They sighted a convoy of ships on 11 August, but armed escorts foiled their attack. After nine months at sea with no captured prizes, mutinous rumblings were heard aboard the Adventure Galley. In addition, they were short of water, the ship’s hull leaked, and the crew disliked Kidd’s high-handedness. A local agent in Karwar, India later described Kidd as a “very lusty man, fighting with his men on any occasion, often calling for his pistols and threatening any one that durst speak anything contrary to his mind and knock out their brains, causing them to dread him….” (Cordingly, p.180)
In August they stopped a two-masted, square-rigged ship under the command of Captain Thomas Parker. While he and Kidd closeted themselves in Kidd’s cabin, Quartermaster John Walker and gunner William Moore led a boarding party that ransacked the Mary. They seized five bales of coffee, sixty pounds of pepper, myrrh, navigation instruments, clothes, rice, plumblines, and eight firearms. They also tortured the Indians aboard to discover where they had hidden their valuables. When Kidd learned of this, he ordered his men to return the stolen property.
After this, they needed fresh water and sailed to Karwar. Nine men deserted the ship. Jonathan Treadway told the representatives of the East India Company that he “had been trepanned to be a pyrate instead of a privateer.” (Zacks, p.136) Two others reported the taking of the “English vessel off Bombay and they have got the commander aboard a prisoner, they took out of her 100 pieces of gold, some rice and raysons, their going to Mocha was with full intent to take ye Suratt ships had not ye convoy prevented them…” (Zacks, p.136) These reports convinced the East India Company that their suspicions about Kidd were on the mark. He was a pirate.
A Dutch ship was sighted in October. Although the crew wished to take her, Kidd refused because the Dutch were allies and the royal commission forbade him from attacking England’s friends. According to Abel Owens, the cook, the captain told the men, “You that will take the Dutchman, you are strongest, you may do what you please. If you will take her, you may take her; but if you go from aboard, you shall never come aboard again.” (Zacks, p.148)
A short time after this incident, William Moore sat on deck sharpening a chisel. When Kidd drew near, Moore said, “You have brought us to ruin. We are desolate.” Kidd’s anger got the best of him. “I have not brought you to ruin. I have not done an ill thing to ruin you. You are a dog to give me those words.” (Zacks, p.149) He swung a wooden bucket with iron hoops and struck Moore in the temple, fracturing the gunner’s skull. Moore died the next day.
Kidd’s actions did nothing to calm the men. The majority wished to go on the account. They were on half rations, with little water and no alcoholic spirits. Then on 18 November 1697, they spotted a ship flying a French flag. Using the technique known as the ruse de guerre, the Adventure Galley also raised the same flag. When the captain came aboard, he showed Kidd his French pass. This documentation confirmed to Kidd that he and his men had captured a legal prize, but she only carried opium, cotton, two horses, and fifty quilts, which they later sold for about £150.
In 1698, the Adventure Galley captured the three hundred fifty-ton ship Quedah Merchant. Her cargo included 1200 bales of muslin, calico, and other fabric, 1400 bags of brown sugar, 84 bales of silk, 80 opium chests, iron, and saltpeter--the approximate value of which equaled £50,000. Kidd also took possession of a chest filled with precious gems, jewelry, and silver, and another French pass. They sailed to Kalliquilon, where he sold the opium and silk for £10,000 in gold bars before the Adventure Galley and her two prizes set sail for Madagascar. By now, Kidd’s ship leaked so badly that the crew wrapped thick ropes around her to keep her together.
Around the time their arrival in Sainte Marie’s, the pirate stronghold in Madagascar, Kidd came face to face with an old “friend”--Robert Culliford, the man who had led the mutineers that had stolen Kidd’s ship the Blessed William. A confirmed pirate, Culliford was a popular captain with a seaworthy vessel that carried more firepower. Many of her crew had sailed with another famous pirate, Thomas Tew. One hundred of Kidd’s crew decided to join Culliford’s crew and demanded their shares. “For the space of 4 or 5 Dayes, the Deserters, sometimes in great numbers, came on board the Gally and Adventure Prize and carried away great guns, Powder, Shot, small Armes, Sailes, Anchors, Chirugeons Chest and what else they pleased,” Kidd later wrote. (Zacks, p.188) When Culliford and his fellow pirates departed the island on 15 June 1698, they left behind Kidd and fifteen loyal men, four of whom were cabin boys.
Since Adventure Galley was no longer fit to sail, Kidd beached her then took whatever of value remained before setting her afire. The men careened the Quedah Merchant before reloading her with three hundred bales of cloth, food, water barrels, ballast, sugar, and cannon. A handful of pirates decided to retire, and joined Kidd’s crew. They set sail in mid-November. In late March 1699, they arrived at Anguilla in the West Indies, where Kidd learned he had been declared a pirate. “The news of…being proclaimed pirates… put the [crew] into such consternation that they…sought all opportunities to run the ship upon some reef or shoal lest I should carry her into some English port.” (Zacks, p.210)
Kidd firmly believed in his innocence, and desperate to clear his name, he purchased a sloop. The Quedah Merchant leaked and would be easily recognizable by those hunting for Kidd and his men. He intended to return in three months to retrieve the Quedah Merchant. On 9 June, Kidd anchored in Oyster Bay, New York and sent secret messages to his wife Sarah and his lawyer James Emott, who traveled to Boston to meet with Governor Bellomont. “On the 13th of last Month, Mr. Emot, a Lawyer of New-York, came late at Night to me and told me he came from Capt’n Kidd, who was on the coast with a sloop but would not tell me where. That Kidd had brought 60 Pound Weight of gold and 100 Weight of Silver and 17 Bales of East India Goods…. That Kidd had left behind him a great Ship near the Coast of Hispaniola that nobody but himself could find out, on board where there were in bale goods, Saltpetre and other things to the value of £30,000: That if I would give him a pardon, he would bring in the Sloop and goods hither and would go and fetch the great Ship and goods afterwards.” (Zacks, pp.228-229) The lawyer also handed over the two French passes Kidd had taken from his captured prizes.
When Emott left Bellomont on 15 June, he carried this message from the governor: “Welcome home. I invite you to come to Boston. A pardon is possible.” (Zacks, p.231) This didn’t satisfy Kidd. He wanted something in writing that would guarantee his safety. Four days later, Bellomont wrote, “…I had set myself a Rule, not to grant a Pardon to any Body whatever without the King’s express Leave or Command…” (Zacks, p.234) He acknowledged receipt of the passes, and assured Kidd that they would help him justify his actions. “I have advised, with his Majesty’s Council…they are of the Opinion, That if your Case be so clear as you…have said, then you may safely come hither, and be equipped, and fitted out, to go and fetch the other Ship; and I make no Manner of Doubt but to obtain the King’s Pardon for you…. I assure you, on my Word and Honour, I will perform nicely what I have now promised….” (Zacks, p.235)
Sarah Kidd came aboard her husband’s ship with their daughter, then Kidd sailed to Gardiners Island where he secreted some of the treasure he carried because he didn’t totally trust Bellomont. On 1 July 1699, he arrived in Boston, but didn’t go to the governor’s house until the evening of 3 July. The next day he returned to present a detailed narrative of the voyage and to name his crew and the mutineers. Several days later, Bellomont issued an arrest warrant. Captain Kidd was taken to jail and all his possessions were seized. The governor sent a letter informing the Board of Trade in England that he had captured the infamous William Kidd.
Kidd attempted to escape, which resulted in his being moved to Stone Prison. He was denied visitors and put in irons. Sarah petitioned for the return of belongings she had brought to her husband’s ship (which had been confiscated with Kidd’s holdings), as well as for her husband’s clothes to be given to him. Although she had no communication with William, Sarah remained loyal to him. He spent his days in an unheated cell, waiting for a chance to clear his name. On 16 February 1700, he was taken aboard HMS Advice where he was chained to the wall of a cabin. On the voyage to London, he was kept incommunicado. Sarah never got to say goodbye. Her husband departed before she awoke on 10 March.
Aside from being declared a pirate, Kidd promised to cause a political scandal because he was linked with King William and four powerful Whigs who had backed the mission. The Tories accused them of hiring a pirate to steal for them. Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, said, “…Captain Kidd was commander under the Great Seal of England to go against pyrats at Madagascar…. That severall great men were to have shares with him, amongst whom the pyrats’ goods were to be divided, whereas by law, they should be returned to the owners…. It is said the Great Seal [Somers] and others are concerned in it.” (Harris, p.309)
When Kidd arrived in England, the Lords of the Admiralty questioned him for seven hours. In his deposition he said, “[H]e was employed for the seizing of pirates…; only as to his own committing piracy he would excuse himself that his seamen forced him to what was done.” (Zacks, p.320) Thereafter, Kidd was accused of piracy and imprisoned in Newgate Prison in solitary confinement. He could write only to the Admiralty and no one was permitted to talk with him.
About a month after his leg irons were removed in April 1700, the deputy keeper at Newgate reported that Kidd was delirious and frozen. He complained of “a great pain in his Head, and shaking in his Lymbs, and further sayd that he was in great want of his Cloathes.” (Zacks, p.327) Since Kidd hadn’t changed his garments for over three weeks, he was given his trunk and bedding. A few relatives living in London were also allowed to visit him as long as the jailor was present.
On 27 March 1701, Kidd appeared before the House of Commons. He was the only accused pirate to testify there, and he did so after spending one day shy of a year in Newgate Prison. The four hundred members shouted questions, and while no transcript exists, he denied being a pirate and refused to implicate his backers in the supposed scandal.
William Kidd’s trials began on 8 May 1701, and ended the next day. Five prosecutors tried him and nine others, six loyal members of his crew and three mutineers. Kidd refused to plead until he had the French passes, but eventually he pled not guilty. For two years, Kidd had been told he was a pirate, but the first charge against him was for the murder of gunner William Moore. After hearing from two prosecution witnesses--Joseph Palmer and surgeon Robert Bradinham--the jury deliberated while Kidd’s second trial began. An hour later, the jury from the first trial delivered an unanimous “Guilty” verdict in the presence of the jury for the second trial.
Doctor Newton, the prosecutor for the case of piracy concerning the Quedah Merchant said 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; equally cruel, dreaded and hated both on land and at sea. These criminal attempts and actions had rendered his name…too well known…he was now looked upon as an Arch Pirate and Common Enemy of Mankind.” (Zacks, p.369) Then he called his witnesses. Doctor Bradinham 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. He denied any knowledge of the French passes, but Joseph Palmer confirmed that Kidd had taken them. The second jury found the captain guilty in thirty minutes.
On Friday, the third jury also returned a guilty verdict after half an hour. The fourth jury returned needed only a few minutes of deliberation to reach the same conclusion. Then Robert Culliford, who had been captured and imprisoned in Newgate since 17 October 1700, came before the bench. He pleaded guilty because he had surrendered under “Proclamation of Pardon.” The judges gave him an indefinite reprieve before turning their attention back to William Kidd. “What canst thou say for thyself? Thou hast been indicted for several Piracies and Robberies, and Murder, and hereupon hast been convicted; What hast thou to say for thyself, why thou shouldest not die according to law?”
Kidd replied, “I have nothing to say, but that I have been sworn against by perjured and wicked People.” Then sentence was pronounced. “You shall be taken from the place where you are, and be carried to the Place from whence you came, and from thence to the Place of Execution, and there be severally hanged by your Necks until you be dead. And the Lord have Mercy on your Souls.” Kidd’s only answer was, “My Lord, it is a very hard sentence. For my part, I am the innocentest Person of them all, only I have been sworn against by Perjured Persons.” (Zacks, p.379) During his trial, a Member of Parliament said of Kidd, “I thought him only a knave. I now know him to be a fool as well.” (Cordingly, p.180)
Kidd’s execution was set for late afternoon on Friday, 23 May. He drank a considerable amount of rum before and during the three-mile procession to Execution Dock at Wapping. He slurred his words while giving his last speech in which he blamed his mutinous crew for his troubles and named Livingston and Bellomont as villains. When he finished, the hangman yanked the blocks holding up the platform, and Kidd and three others dropped. Kidd’s rope broke, and he fell to the ground only to be hanged again. After the Thames River washed over his body three times, his corpse was put into an iron cage and hung from an iron gibbet at Tilbury Point “as a greater Terrour to all Persons from Committing ye like Crimes for the time to come.” (Botting, p.127)
Robert Culliford was freed in 1702, then disappeared. Joseph Palmer and Robert Brandinham were pardoned, for testifying against Kidd. Lord Bellomont died two months before Kidd. Three weeks after his arrest, though, Bellomont had men who recovered the treasure Kidd buried on Gardiner’s Island. Totally, he shipped 1111 ounces of gold, 2353 ounces of silver, less than a pound of gems, 57 bags of sugar, and 41 bales of cloth to the English Treasury. The auction of this treasure raised £6,472, to found the Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich. Sarah Kidd eventually regained her properties in 1704, remarried a fourth time, and died a wealthy widow in 1744. The French passes that William Kidd was convinced would clear his name disappeared sometime between his appearance before the House of Commons and his trial. Ralph D. Paine, an American, discovered them in 1911 in the Public Records Office in London.
Read about other Scottish pirates
For more information on William Kidd, I suggest:Bath, Geoff. Captain Kidd Maps and the Oak Island Mystery. 1998. [http://www.keypress.btinternet.co.uk/index.htm -- link no longer active 7/18/2015]
Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life, 1978.
Captain William Kidd Biography & Pirate in Sayville, Long Island and his lost treasure. [http://www.geocities.com/timmlimm/pirates.htm -- link no longer active 7/18/2015]
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. Random House, 1995.
Davidson, James D. G. Scots and the Sea. Mainstream, 2003.
Defoe, Daniel. (ed. Manuel Schonhorn). A General History of the Pyrates. Dover, 1999.
Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. St. Martin’s, 2003.
Feder, Joshua B. Pirates. Mallard Press, 1992.
Gosse, Philip. The History of Piracy. Rio Grande Press, 1995.
Gosse, Philip. The Pirates’ Who’s Who. Rio Grande Press, 1924.
Harris, Graham. Treasure and Intrigue: the Legacy of Captain Kidd. Dundurn Press, 2002.
Hawkins, Paul. Captain William Kidd. 2000.
Investigating History: Captain Kidd. The History Channel.
Jameson, John Franklin. Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period: Illustrative Documents. MacMillan, 1923.
Klekowski, Libby. Captain Kidd.
Konstam, Angus. The History of Pirates. Lyons Press, 1999.
“Legends of Captain Kidd,” Expedition Whydah. [http://whydah.com/page.php?id=exp0481 -- link no longer active 7/18/2015]
Marley, David F. Pirates and Privateers of the Americas. ABC-Clio, 1994.
Marx, Jenifer. Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean. Krieger, 1992.
Pirates: Terror on the High Seas from the Caribbean to the South China Sea. Turner Publishing, 1996.
Pringle, Patrick. Jolly Roger: the Story of the Great Age of Piracy. Dover, 2001.
Real Pirate Treasure Charts.
Ritchie, Robert C. Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates. Harvard University Press, 1986.
Rogozinski, Jan. Honor Among Thieves: Captain Kidd, Henry Every, and the Pirate Democracy in the Indian Ocean. Stackpole Books, 2000.
Ruddach, James. Captain Kidd’s Treasure. 2005. [http://www.captkiddstreasure.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/ -- link no longer active]
Seitz, Don C. Under the Black Flag: Exploits of the Most Notorious Pirates. Dover, 2002.
The Tryal of Captain William Kidd for Murther and Piracy. Dover, 2001.
Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter: the True Story of Captain Kidd. Hyperion, 2002.
Click on the Cannon to Contact Me