The Trial of Captain Kidd: Pirate or Privateer?

Captain William Kidd was born in Dundee, Scotland sometime around 1654, however, resided in Massachusetts where he owned a large house and first began his career as a privateer. Privateers were not pirates, but licensed fortune hunters hired by various countries and dominions, including the American Colonies. In the beginning, William Kidd took to the sea and soon made a name for himself as a skilled, hardworking seaman. It was during 1689, when he was employed as a privateer, to capture French vessels, that he took his first prize. Subsequently, the ship was re-named the Blessed William put under the command of the Governor of Nevis. He then into New York just in time to save the governor there from a conspiracy. While in New York, he wed a wealthy widow. Not long afterwards, upon visiting England, he became friends with the Lord of Bellomont, who was to be the new Governor of New York. Such friendships enabled him to be well-connected and as rich as any skilled seaman during the 17th century. In fact, it appeared as though the sky was the limit for the young captain. Thus, Lord Bellomont and some of his friends were influential in suggesting that Kidd be given a contract to privateer which would allow him to attack pirates as well as French vessels. It was during a time when England was at war with France and because of the dangers upon the open seas, piracy was common. The suggestion was not accepted by the government, but Bellomont and his friends decided to fund the adventure themselves and thus establish Captain Kidd up as a privateer privileged to attack French vessels or pirates with the stipulation that he share his treasure with the investors. For this adventure, he was given the 34-gun Adventure Galley and set sail for the first time as privateer during May of 1696.

After about 18 months on the high seas, Kidd and his crew, unable to capture a French vessel, were distraught. There was a talk of mutiny but finally In August of 1697, he attacked a convoy of Indian treasure ships, but was driven off by an East India Company Man of War. This was an act of piracy and clearly not in the charter of William Kidd. Also, about this time, Kidd killed a mutinous gunner named William Moore by hitting him in the head with a heavy wooden bucket.

On January 30, 1698, the luck of Captain Kidd finally changed. He captured the Queddah Merchant, a treasure ship heading home from the Far East. It was not really fair game as a prize because the ship a Moorish vessel with cargo owned by Armenians, captained by an Englishman named Wright. Allegedly, it sailed with French papers: this was sufficient for Kidd, who sold off the cargo and divided the spoils with his men. The holds of the merchantman were bursting with valuable cargo, and the prize for Kidd and his pirates was 5,000 pounds, or well over two million dollars in the currency of today. Kidd and his pirates were rich men by those standards. Setting out for Madagascar and the Indian Ocean, a known island inhabited by pirates, he and his crew found very few French vessels to take. About a third of his crew fell ill and died of diseases while the rest became surly because of the lack of prizes. More than two years had expired, and the treasure went undelivered to the Massachusetts investors.

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Not long afterwards, Kidd ran into a pirate ship captained by a notorious pirate named Culliford. What happened between the two men is unknown. According to Captain Charles Johnson, a contemporary historian, Kidd and Culliford greeted each other warmly and traded supplies and news. But during this exchange, many of his crew deserted him, running off with their share of the treasure while others joined the pirate Culliford. At his trial, Kidd claimed that he was not strong enough to fight Culliford and that most of his men had abandoned him to join the pirates. He said that he was allowed to keep the ships, but only after all weapons and supplies were taken. In any event, Kidd swapped the leaking Adventure Galley for the fit Queddah Merchant and sailed for the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, the news that Captain Kidd had turned to piracy reached England. Bellomont and his wealthy friends, who were very important members of the Government, quickly distanced themselves from the enterprise. Robert Livingston, a friend and fellow Scotsman who knew the King personally, was deeply involved in the Kidd adventure. Meanwhile, Livingston turned on Kidd, trying desperately to keep secret the names of the promoters. Bellomont managed to publish a proclamation of amnesty for the pirates, but Kidd and Henry Avery were specifically excluded from it. For this reason, certain members of the former crew would later accept a pardon in exchange for testimony against Captain Kidd. When Kidd reached the Caribbean, he learned that he was now considered a pirate by the authorities and decided to go to New York, where his friend, Lord Bellomont, could protect him until he was able to clear his name. In this cause, he abandoned his vessel and instead captained a smaller ship to New York. But as he neared the colonies, as a precaution, buried his treasure on Gardiner Island, a site near Long Island in New York City. Upon arriving in New York, he was arrested forthwith and Lord Bellomont refused to believe his stories as to what had transpired. To save his reputation, he divulged the location of his treasure on Gardiner Island, and it was recovered.

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After spending a year in prison, Kidd was sent to England to face trial. Meanwhile certain members of his crew gave testimony in Charleston, South Carolina, in the form of depositions. In 1701. John Dove (or defoe), mariner, swore that he was n a passenger on the ship Adventure Galley under the command of Captain Kidd when they were in Madagascar and the St. Thomas Islands of the West Indies. Sam Bradley, a brother-in-law of Captain William Kidd gave an affidavit in Charleston, stating that he was opposed to turning pirate and that while he was sickly, he had been put ashore on the Isle of St. Thomas and left to die. Hence, a year later, Bradley was pardoned by Governor James Moore of Charleston.

The sensational trial occurred on May 8, 1701. Kidd swore that he had never actually turned pirate. But the investors and other concerned parties had managed to exonerate themselves and the flimsy evidence of the sworn affidavits as well as the death of Mr. Moore, a rebellious gunner, mounted against him and he was found guilty. Kidd now attempted to negotiate for his life in exchange for the bulk of the treasure removed from the Queddah Merchant The authorities refused. Kidd was hanged on May 23, 1701 and his body was put into an iron cage hanging along the River Thames, where it would serve as a warning for other pirates. The site of the real treasure of gold and silver was never divulged, although Kidd insisted until the end of his life that he had buried another treasure somewhere in the Indies.

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by Jeannette H Austin