Half a pirate

Patrick O’Brian

  • Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates by Robert Ritchie
    Harvard, 306 pp, £16.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 674 09501 4
  • Richard Knight’s Treasure! The True Story of his Extraordinary Quest for Captain Kidd’s Cache by Glenys Roberts
    Viking, 198 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 670 80761 3

Captain Kidd, though by no means the most successful of the pirates, was certainly the best-known. His name means piracy to this day, and it is a little strange to see it used in the title of the present book as though he took part in this war on the virtuous side. Yet such is the case.

Robert Kidd appeared on the recorded scene in 1689 at the age of about 44, as one of the crew of a buccaneering ship in the West Indies. Buccaneering and piracy were often much the same thing. Piracy had not yet acquired anything like the full odium of later days: buccaneers, though much given to rapine, still had some of the Elizabethan glory hanging about them and their private or sometimes publicly acknowledged war was usually conducted, not against mankind in general, but against the Spaniards, who were by definition lawful prey since they prevented trade with their vast American possessions and tried to keep the Pacific as a private lake. Only a few years before this the terrible Henry Morgan, whose exploits and enormous plunder make Kidd’s dwindle into insignificance, had been knighted and made lieutenant-governor of Jamaica.

The buccaneers came from all the maritime nations and the mixed crew often agreed very well: but in 1689 William III of England and Louis XIV of France were at war, and conceivably out of patriotism the British members of a privateer took the ship away from the French members, sailed her to Nevis and renamed her the Blessed William. Whether the crew elected Kidd captain in the usual democratic buccaneering way or whether he was appointed by the governor of Nevis makes little odds, for the men would never have sailed under a captain who could not sail, navigate and fight his ship. In the Caribbean of that time this was perfectly obvious, and the governor had no hesitation in granting Kidd letters of marque and reprisal, thus giving the Blessed William a legal existence, and sending him off to join Captain Hewetson of HMS Lion. Captain Hewetson would not have been at all surprised at the appearance of the new member of his little squadron: privateers and slightly altered merchantmen had been used time out of mind to supplement the very small Royal Navy. Nor would he have been surprised at knowing nothing about Kidd: buccaneers were not expected to produce credentials. In fact, Kidd is said to have been a minister’s son from Greenock in Scotland, but when he went to sea or how he learnt his calling does not appear. He learnt it fairly well, and the Blessed William served with some distinction against the French, sacking the island of Marie Galante.

When she returned to Nevis, Kidd had £2000 by way of loot on board: but although for his part he had not disliked fighting navy-fashion, broadside to broadside, his crew had not relished it at all, and while he was ashore they sailed away, never to return. The Governor gave him a captured French brigantine by way of compensation and in this he sailed to New York, a haunt of pirates, arriving shortly after the Blessed William’s crew had set off for the Indian Ocean, like so many of their kind. He found the colony in a state of political confusion caused by the Glorious Revolution; he backed the winning side, married a young widow with property of her own and settled down as a landsman. This was in 1691. By 1695 Kidd had grown tired of life on shore and he sailed for London, where he hoped to be granted the letters of marque that would allow him to take to privateering again. At this stage in the war letters of marque were hard to obtain because the Navy was in great need of men, and the men, given the chance, would far sooner ship in a privateer: but with the help of some influential acquaintances he had made in New York he hoped he might succeed.

In the event, his success exceeded his hopes. An impoverished Calvinistical Whig, the kind of person who at that time was made an earl in the Irish peerage, was going out to govern New York, Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire: Bellomont knew that New York was a favourite port for pirates and that by virtue of his office as vice-admiral he could make a great deal of money by seizing their ships. At this time pirates had grown very much more unpopular than they had been even ten or fifteen years ago, for they had taken to rounding the Cape of Good Hope, pausing on the coast of Madagascar, where New York merchants often brought them supplies and news from home, and then making for the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the coast of India. Their obvious prey was the shipping of those parts rather than the large, powerful East Indiamen, but that made things no pleasanter for the Company, which was held responsible for the doings of all Englishmen – and pirates, as the Company’s French, Dutch and Portuguese rivals pointed out, were always English. The Company’s profits fell, their splendid dividends (50 per cent or even more) dwindled, and the shareholders saw that trading might have to cease.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Bellomont was able to induce several of the most important members of the reigning Whig Junto – the Duke of Shrewsbury, Sir John Somers, Lord-Keeper of the Great Seal and soon to be Lord High Chancellor, Lord Romney, Sir Edward Russell the First Lord of the Admiralty, and some others – to join him in a scheme by which Kidd was to be sent after the pirates in a vessel provided by the partners and called the Adventure Galley. Kidd had letters of marque to enable him to take enemy merchantmen, an unusual document issued under the Great Seal allowing him to seize pirates too, and an even more unusual grant from King William stating that the Adventure Galley and her owners could keep everything she took – no tedious Vice-Admiralty courts and sharing of the spoils, nothing to be given back to the original owners.

With these papers and a vessel that gauged 287 tons, carried 34 guns, and could both sail and row, Kidd should have been well away. He sailed at the end of February 1696, but he had not cleared the river before he showed that he was a foolish, indiscreet man who should never have been entrusted with the mission. He was so pleased with his royal warrant and his grand owners that he refused to salute one of the King’s yachts; he did not salute a Royal Navy ship at the mouth of the Medway either, and this was very nearly his undoing. The Navy took his men and anchored the Adventure Galley at Sheerness. Fortunately for Kidd, the First Lord was one of the partners, so in April the galley left these dangerous waters and crossed the Atlantic to the less punctilious New York.

Here he recruited another ninety hands, all on the privateers’ usual terms of no prey, no pay: this brought his crew up to 152, and in September he sailed for the Cape. The men included a fair number of former pirates – John Browne, for example, once of the Blessed William – and it is difficult to believe that Kidd had any serious intention of acting as a policeman in the Indian Ocean. When the Adventure Galley met some ships of the Royal Navy escorting Indiamen and kept company with them for a week, Kidd left the officers in whose company he had dined with the conviction that he was himself a pirate, in spite of the papers he displayed. When the King’s ships reached the Cape they told the Dutch authorities and the East-Indiamen of their suspicions, and Kidd entered the Indian Ocean under a cloud. His subsequent behaviour did nothing to dispel it. He reached Madagascar in January 1697, and there he met with a slaver, the Loyal Russell, from Barbados, with which he sailed up to the Comoro Islands, to re-victual, careen his ship, and wait for the south-west monsoon. In the Comoros there was a certain amount of disagreement with East-Indiamen about who should salute whom, and it is clear that Kidd loved all the pomp he could come by: but it is equally clear that he had sailed into this ocean to make money and that, like Chaucer’s shipman, of nyce conscience took he no keep.

There were many pirates at the island of Sainte Marie, as he knew very well from general talk in New York and from the hands he took on in the Comoros, but when the wind served he stood north for the Red Sea. The great fleet from Surat carrying pilgrims and merchandise to Mocha and Jidda, the port for Mecca, passed into the Red Sea by the narrow and dangerous passage of the Bab el Mandeb. A little before this, Henry Avery, a very much more determined and whole-hearted pirate than Kidd, lay waiting for the fleet, and although it passed through the strait in the night, by earnest chasing he caught the Fath Mahmamdi, a splendid prize, and then the Ganj-i-Sawai, an even more splendid one that belonged to the Great Mogul Aurangzeb.

In August 1697 Kidd was waiting at the Bab el Mandeb to do as well or better: he had the red flag flying (the skull and crossbones came later) and he was already a pirate in intention. But the Mogul had insisted that the fleet should be escorted by Dutch and English East India Company ships, and one of these, the Sceptre, kept the Adventure Galley at a proper distance. Kidd relinquished the fleet but on the Malabar coast he did take and rob a small local trader. Much farther south he met a Company’s ship: his men very much wanted to take her too, but Kidd, clinging to the notion that if he preyed only on Indians (or Moors, as they were generally called) and enemies he would be safe from the law, refused. He did the same over a Dutch vessel, and this angered the crew still more. In a dispute with the gunner Kidd took a bucket and killed him.

In the end, the Adventure Galley did take a Moorish ship called the Rupparell, and then another, the Quedah Merchant, both of them provided, as usual, with French passes which they produced in response to Kidd’s French colours: in his view, this made them legal prizes. Apart from a small Portuguese vessel, this was the end of the campaign.

The Adventure Galley, by now scarcely seaworthy, returned to Madagascar, reaching Sainte Marie in April 1698 with the Rupparell, the Quedah Merchant following a little later. There were plenty of other pirates there, including Culliford, a former Blessed William man and now captain of the Resolution. He was determined and successful, and once Kidd’s crew had insisted on a division of the spoils, almost all of them shipped with Culliford for another voyage. They had little use for Kidd: he was a good navigator and brave enough, but he lacked natural authority, was rather foolish and was only half a pirate. Expert opinion in Sainte Marie was quite definite: Kidd had not made a good voyage.

After a while he sailed for America in the Quedah Merchant with a small crew, some slaves, and his share of the winnings – forty times as much as an ordinary hand. The agreement before he left London was that he should report to Bellomont at Boston on his return. One year’s piracy, with only two or three prizes and little in the way of bloodshed – nothing remotely to compare with Morgan’s – seems a strange basis for such a lasting reputation. But the reputation was founded on the enormous fuss raised in England, first by the East India Company, whose position was now even worse than before (much of the Quedah’s cargo had belonged to a high official of the Mogul’s court), and secondly by the Tories. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the party feeling of the late 17th century, and when the Tories found that some of the most important Whigs had clubbed together to send Kidd to sea, they seized upon the occasion with delight, describing the partners as ‘a corporation of pirates’.

Sailing slowly westward, Kidd spent much of his time concocting an elaborate tale. Perhaps by the time he reached America he believed it: his men had forced him into piracy – they threatened his life – he had taken only ships with French passes – his crew had destroyed his records. It is difficult to know whether Bellomont believed Kidd or not (he wrote letters to both effects), but he was clever enough to reckon the difference between what he would get as a vice-admiral seizing a pirate and as a part-owner receiving his share: the result of this comparison was that he arrested Kidd and sent him back to England, where the government was perfectly convinced of his guilt and where the Lords Justices had already proclaimed him a pirate.

Kidd was identified with the Whig Junto. The Tories now dominated the Commons and they were determined to bring the Junto down: Kidd was of no importance to the Whigs and they dropped him at once. The French passes on which his defence depended were mislaid at the Admiralty, perhaps by accident. As Sir James Vernon, the Secretary of State, observed, ‘parliaments are grown into the habit of finding fault, and some Jonah or other must be thrown overboard, if the storm cannot otherwise be laid ... Little men are certainly the properest for these purposes.’ Kidd was sentenced to death for murder and again for piracy. He was hanged at Execution Dock in Wapping on Friday, 23 May 1701, and it is said that he was drunk at the time.

Professor Ritchie’s account of Kidd’s last ten or twelve years is the result of an immense amount of reading: it goes deeply into the economic and cultural background of buccaneering and piracy, particularly in its colonial context, and it deals with the rivalry of Whigs and Tories during William III’s time in the greatest detail. Some readers may regret that although the author knows such a great deal about pirates he gives little notion of the sea they sailed upon, and that Kidd remains such a shadowy figure – no doubt for want of material to show him in the round. And then it is perhaps a pity that such a painstaking book should be written as it is, with colloquialisms coming next to stiff formality and an uncertain grasp of idiom: on page 45 we find Lord Wharton called a ‘fluid liar’. Transcribing the manuscript abbreviation for th as y is more appropriate for the proprietress of an Olde Tea Shoppe than for a historian.

Kidd left a name not only as a pirate but also as a great burier of treasure. Even in his lifetime the figure of £400,000 was often mentioned and it has not grown less in the intervening years. He himself told Bellomont that he had left £30,000 in the Quedah in the West Indies: but Ritchie gives very good reasons for supposing that this and the other tales are nonsense. Kidd may have left a certain amount of gold with friends in New York before he went to see Bellomont in Boston, but the valuables that were sent to England with him amounted to about £14,000 and after he was hanged his goods were condemned at £6472.1s.0d. When the legal wrangling was over, Queen Anne granted this sum to the commissioners for Greenwich Hospital and with it they bought the land needed for completing the splendid plan. But people love to believe, and in spite of all the sensible reasons against the existence of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure, many go in search of it. Some indeed find it, and the latest of these is Richard Knight, whose adventures are told by Glenys Roberts. It appears that Mr Knight, putting all the clues together, found three of the Captain’s buried chests on a small island off the coast of Vietnam. There was more to be found, but for the time being he took these chests (full of gold and jewels they were, too, and some china – he had time to observe that it was Ming) and he says he buried them on another shore. Before doing so he photographed the contents, but unfortunately the photographs were taken away from him. Some while later he went back to the island for the rest of the treasure. The Vietnamese captured him and kept him in prison for well over a year: but he still intends to go back to the unnamed strand to recover the chests.