Captain Kidd Hanged for Piracy

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Captain Kidd Hanged for Piracy

Wapping, London The 23rd of May 1701 AD

The image of a typical pirate, all ‘avast theres’ and ‘me hearties’ is singularly inappropriate for Captain William Kidd , a somewhat gentlemanly privateer. Indeed, it is still debated if he was truly a pirate, a crime for which he was hanged – though the murder of which he was also found guilty doesn’t exactly weigh in his favour.

Kidd was born in Scotland (either Greenock or Dundee , it is not sure) in about 1645. After his father died when William was a child he went to live in America, growing up in the colony of New York, and mixing with the gentry there. His contribution to the building of Trinity Church in New York likewise fits ill with the big screen vision of the bloodthirsty pirate.

In the 1690s Kidd became an officially sanctioned privateer, licensed to attack pirates and the French. A subsequent voyage was financed by the great and the good, the Earl of Orford and Duke of Shrewsbury among them. Even King William may have had some money invested in his venture, and certainly signed the letter of marque Kidd was given setting out the terms on which he was to operate (not least that ten per cent of his loot would be given to the crown).

Kidd’s ship, a sailing-galley the Adventure Galley, had 34 guns and a hand-picked crew, though early in the voyage a Royal Navy vessel relieved Kidd of much of that crew. Throughout 1696 Kidd sailed to various points of expected pirate activity, the Comoros, Madagascar, the Red Sea, but found little or nothing of value. Desperate for success and money, with a crew on the point of mutiny because of repeated failure to attack vessels outside Kidd’s terms of reference, he attacked an East India Company convoy but was repelled, further damaging his authority over the crew. More opportunities were spurned by the fastidious Kidd, leaving a Dutch ship and a brother privateer to go their way.

On October 30th 1697 Kidd was insulted by one William Moore, a gunner, for not attacking a Dutch vessel. Kidd lost his temper and battered the man to death with a heavy bucket, an act out of character for the careful privateer, though some might dismiss it as dealing swiftly with a mutinous crew-member.

Kidd took the Armenian merchant vessel the Queddah Merchant, with a fabulous cargo of cloth – silk, satin and muslin – as well as gold and silver, but finding the captain was English tried to persuade his crew to return the booty! When they refused he held on to the French passes the captain was sailing under as a future defence against the charge of piracy..

Learning he was a wanted man, Kidd returned by sloop to New York, burning the leaky and worm-infested Adventure Galley. The governor of New York, Bellomont, fearing for his own skin as he had invested in Kidd’s voyage, lured him to Boston where Bellomont was staying, then clapped him in irons and left him to languish in jail for a year, much of it in solitary confinement and appalling conditions, possibly hoping to rid himself of the supposed pirate by prolonged ill-treatment.

Eventually sent to England Kidd was questioned by Parliament , the Tory regime hoping to implicate Whig grandees in his crimes. The Whigs distanced themselves from him in spite of Kidd’s loyal silence, and the now pauperised defendant stood trial before the Admiralty Court without benefit of a barrister to represent him. The French passes that offered some defence against the charge of piracy were ‘mislaid’, turning up more than 200 years later in government papers.

On May 23rd 1701 having been found guilty of piracy and the murder of Moore, Kidd was hanged at the second attempt at Execution Dock in Wapping, the rope having broken at the first try.

At the end there is finally the whiff of the storybook pirate about Kidd, for he had a record of burying treasure in his career, and on his death is supposed to have left a secret cache for which treasure hunters are searching to this day. And there would certainly have been the whiff of the pirate about his gibbeted body, left to hang in a cage for two years after his execution.

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