William Kidd is perhaps not as well known as some other pirates, but he can lay claim to probably being the unluckiest one to have ever sailed the seven seas!
William Kidd was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1645. The accounts of his early life are mostly confused, but it is generally accepted that he went to sea as a youth, so that by 1689 he had become the Captain of the privateer ship The Blessed William. He was tasked to sail the Caribbean hunting illegal pirates and French shipping. He was generally successful in his efforts; however, at some point in February 1690 Kidd's crew decided to mutiny while he was on shore. Fortunately for Kidd, he was able to take another ship to give chase, and he pursued the mutineers into New York harbour. Whether he ever captured the mutineers is unknown, as New York was in the middle of a huge turf war at the time. Kidd managed to side with the winning party in this war, and he ended up becoming quite a successful merchant. In 1691 while still in New York he married the 20-year-old, twice-widowed Sarah Bradley Cox Oort. This marriage brought him plenty of money, but the early privateer days were still in his blood.
The Adventure Galley
In 1695 he travelled to England with business acquaintance Robert Livingston. The pair soon met Richard Coote, the Earl of Bellomont and recently appointed Governor of New York and Massachusetts. The three planned to enter into the privateering business together. To raise money for the venture, Coote supposedly contacted a number of rich and powerful men, from the Earl of Orford to possibly even the King himself. Kidd was awarded his commission and Coote staked £6,000 on buying and outfitting the 300-ton, 34-gun ship the Adventure Galley. In May 1696 Kidd left England, and straight away he was stopped by a Royal Navy ship that press-ganged many of his hand-picked crew, leaving him short of men. Making do with the remains of his crew, he continued on to New York where he recruited replacements. Perhaps unwisely, he volunteered to give the crew 60% of all the booty they captured as privateers, as he'd also contracted to give the same amount to Coote. After setting sail with his new crew, he headed straight for the Indian Ocean.
The Quedah Merchant
After months of patrolling the Indian Ocean with little to show for it, Kidd's crew were getting restless. He was being pressured into attacking any ship that contained valuables, even though his commission stated that he should only attack the French or pirates. One particularly nasty incident occurred when the ship's gunner tried to pressure Kidd into attacking a British merchant. A fight broke out and Kidd is reported to have beaten William Moore to death with a ship's bucket. Just before things completely boiled over, an Indian merchant ship flying under the French flag was spotted. The Quedah Merchant was soon captured, and the crew sailed south to Saint Mary's Island in April 1698. At Saint Mary's they discovered pirate Robert Culliford's ship the Mocha at anchor. Instead of attacking, most of Kidd's crew - who were after all really pirates themselves - abandoned him and joined Culliford instead. Kidd had even more reason to hate Culliford, as he was among those who had mutinied and stolen Kidd's ship Blessed William in 1690. However, he was unable to do anything without a crew, and Kidd's crew proceeded to share out the rich cargo of muslins, silk, iron, sugar, saltpetre, guns, and gold coins from the Quedah Merchant. Kidd burned the rotten old Adventure Galley, taking instead the newly renamed Quedah Merchant which was now known as the Adventure Prize. Kidd left Saint Mary's in November 1698 and sailed straight into trouble.
The trouble was being stirred up by the British East India Company. The Indian authorities were threatening to expel European interests on the subcontinent; they had also lost a huge amount of valuables that happened to be stored on the Indian ship Kidd captured. As a sop to the Emperor of India, the East India Company agreed to compensate the Indian ship's owners and to fund patrols of the ocean. They were also able to support the opponents of Kidd's backers. Under this pressure Kidd's backers abandoned him. He was labelled a pirate, and when the general pirates' amnesty of 1698 was issued he was excluded from it. Kidd learned of all this in April 1699 when he was refused protection by the Danish governor of Saint Thomas.
Kidd sailed to Hispaniola1 where he narrowly escaped from the authorities sent to hunt him down. In Hispaniola he exchanged the Adventure Prize for a small sloop, St Antonio, that he had purchased, and he set sail for New York, hoping to get a pardon from his original backer, the Governor Richard Coote. After stopping at New Jersey and Long Island where he is rumoured to have buried some of his treasure from the Quedah Merchant, Kidd went on to Boston. Unfortunately for him, Coote had him arrested in July 1699 and transported back to London to stand trial for piracy in 1700. He was convicted of piracy and the murder of William Moore on 8 May, 1701 and his hanging scheduled for 23 May. Even Kidd's death went wrong. The first rope snapped under Kidd's weight so they had to haul him back up and hang him again. After his death his body was covered in pitch and hung up on a gibbet at Tilbury. A ballad was written about Kidd that is supposedly based on his last words. This is the first verse:
My name was William Kidd,
As I sailed, as I sailed,
My name was William Kidd,
When I sailed,
My name was William Kidd;
God's laws I did forbid,
And so wickedly I did,
As I sailed.
There are two reasons that Kidd has become a much more famous pirate than his success would warrant. The first is his possible innocence. A document was found in the early 20th Century that seemed to show that Kidd's Whig backers could have become politically embarrassed had the truth come out. It is possible that they helped in the prosecution to silence Kidd, as the documents certainly seem to show that the ships he was accused of raiding were in fact French and consequently covered by his privateer commission. The more romantic legacy of Kidd is his influence on the author Edgar Allen Poe and Poe's story 'The Gold Bug', as well as his fellow Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Kidd is the pirate with the buried treasure; he is supposed to have buried a vast fortune on an island somewhere in the world. Many places have claimed to be such a location; Oak Island in Canada and Long Island in New York to name just two. However, the treasure has never been found, and this has inspired many treasure hunters the world over, especially after two maps purporting to be Kidd's were found hidden in some old furniture in the 1930s.