…. Next to Blackbeard, Captain Kidd probably has one of the most notorious reputations as a pirate. He’s been perceived as vicious, bloodthirsty, conniving, dishonest, and treacherous. Hey, wait a minute! That could describe most of those folks posing as politicians in Washington, D.C. But I’ll save that for another time.
….The fact is, Captain William Kidd, when judged by the standards of the day, was hardly any of those things. When conjuring up visions of diabolical pirates, I’m afraid Kidd would likely come in at the bottom of the list.
…. Consider the following. How many pirates received a commission from the king himself to hunt pirates and attack ships from countries at war with England? Commissions like these were generally called letters of marque.
…. Before he set one foot on a ship, Kidd’s venture was more business than swashbuckling adventure. He had entered into a business pact with Lord Bellomont, Robert Livingston, and several other influential men of England who helped bankroll his efforts. The expectation, of course, was that Kidd would bring home lucrative treasure for their troubles.
…. The general rule of thumb for pirates and privateers can best be summed up in four words: “No prey, no pay.” Nobody was getting anything if ships weren’t caught.
…. With these salient points in mind, grab your passport and your cutlass because we’re about to sail into history:
…. The year was 1697 and the men who crewed ships in those days were a hearty, anxious, hungry lot. Hungry for adventure, hungry for fairness, hungry for freedom, but mostly hungry for money.
…. A share of the spoils was a prime motivator to risk life and limb on the high seas where if a cannonball didn’t get you, a terrible storm likely would. And the crew well understood the difference between pirate ships, those with a letter of marquis, and enemy and neutral vessels. Practically no one gave a damn. Money was money.
…. But a captain like Kidd knew the fine line between attacking vessels of foreign flags on your legal list and those that were off limits. Walking that fine line with your crew was more hazardous than walking the proverbial gangplank.
…. When Kidd’s first months at sea produced no pirates and no ill-gotten goods, his crew grew restless, then angry, then downright hostile. Any ship began to look good. Still, Kidd went out of his way to stay within the bounds of the law much to the ire of his men. Eventually, neutral ships and those belonging to allies of the king induced cannon fever in the crew. One night his gunner, William Moore, got into it with Kidd because he refused to attack a Dutch ship. Moore goaded him so badly before his men that Kidd flew into a rage and, picking up a lead bucket, slammed it over his head, an action he no doubt immediately regretted. The gunner died the next day.
…. Many a pirate escaped the scaffold for crimes worse than that; still if one examines all the other opportunities Kidd had to vent his thirst for torture and murder, it’s difficult to find them. While his counterparts like Blackbeard, L’Ollonois, and Edward Ned Low basked in torture, death, and even mutilation, Kidd seemed, well, kind of boring.
…. There’s an account of his taking a ship, and while he was below in his cabin with the captain of the captured ship, his men were torturing some of the crew. When Kidd found out, he was livid and returned the plundered goods and the ship to the captain and crew.
…. Maybe Kidd was kind of naïve, but I don’t think he ever appreciated how wanted he was when the king put a bounty on his head. What kind of a desperado would willingly sail to New York believing he could rectify the misunderstanding? Before he could say, “Jack Sparrow,” he found himself in handcuffs and on his way to Boston then England for a trial.
…. The fact is, Kidd was unaware he was about to become a political football. Kidd’s backers were Whigs, but once in England, the Tories were in control and Kidd became the perfect tool to discredit their enemies. Instead of ratting them out, Kidd kept the names of the Whigs to himself, believing he would be rewarded for his fidelity once he was exonerated.
…. Sadly, no one stepped up to help except the hangman at the gallows who put the noose around his neck. Lord Bellomont was glad to see him dead. How embarrassing to have his name kicked around the courts of England! An associate of pirates indeed! In fact, a pass that Kidd desperately depended on to prove his innocence mysteriously vanished. Not till Kidd was long gone in history did it one day suddenly appear.
…. Kidd, in some ways, seemed larger than life, so much so that he had to be hanged twice. The first time the rope broke. For most men, those in authority would have viewed this as an intercession from Divine Providence, and let him go. But Kidd was wanted dead and hardly for his piratical acts; his pillaging and plundering pale when compared to others of his ilk.
…. Kidd was 371 years old this January 22. How about a toast to this much maligned pirate. May the Divine Pirate in his loving mercy forgive him his trespasses and grant him a sturdy ship and a happy crew to sail among the stars. Happy Birthday, Captain Kidd.
The Uncommon Mariner
*** For a stunning account of the real story behind Captain Kidd read Richard Zacks’ The Pirate Hunter published by Hyperion.