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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in