Captain Kidd by Rowan Stevens

An Overrated Pirate

Of all the pirates whose dreaded top-sails appeared along the coast of America in the old days of the colonies none has left a more grewsome and romantic reputation behind him than Captain William Kidd, the New York ship-master, who was born in 1650. Legends abound of his boldness, his craftiness, and his savage and blood-thirsty disposition, and stories of the immense treasure that he accumulated, the dreadful murders that he committed in its acquisition, and when and with what ghastly accompaniments he buried it are still told over the firesides of ’longshore hamlets from Maine to the Carolinas.

 Fiction has not neglected to turn this pirate’s career to its own purpose, and one of Poe’s most imaginative and thrilling tales is based upon the discovery on Sullivan’s Island, in Charleston Harbor (South Carolina), of a parchment which, on being held to the fire, revealed a cryptogram of Kidd’s that led to the discovery of buried wealth amounting to millions of dollars.

It seems almost a pity to tamper with the halo of romance and mystery which posterity has drawn about this worthy’s brow, but the fact is that Kidd was an unready, unwise, and vacillating character, and that there was little truth in the romances told about him. Beside such dreadfully famous buccaneers as Blackbeard, Roberts, and Avery he appears a pygmy in his own “profession,” and his career, when contrasted with theirs, seems colorless and contemptible.

As to the vast riches that he was supposed to have acquired, it is doubtful if in his whole course of piracy he was able to accumulate more than a hundred thousand dollars. One thing is assured—the only money that he buried on the coast of America amounted to not more than seventy-five thousand dollars, which he hid on Gardiner’s Island, over against New London, and the last penny of this was recovered by Bellamont after Kidd’s execution.

During King William’s War Kidd, who was a handsome man of somewhat pleasing address, made the acquaintance of Lord Bellamont, the Governor of Barbadoes. The two were in New York at the time of the meeting, and as Kidd was a member of a good family and moved in the limited aristocratic circle of that day, the new acquaintances saw much of each other. Kidd’s plausible tongue, fund of anecdote, and agreeable manner impressed the Governor so pleasantly that his liking for the shipman developed into esteem, and esteem into friendship. Through Bellamont’s influence Kidd obtained command of a privateer, and a series of lucky events contributed to his reputation, so that when he returned to New York, after his cruise in the Gulf, Bellamont and his other fine friends hailed him with adulation as a conquering hero. He was wined and fêted, was toasted by prominent men and noble dames, and over many a steaming bowl and long-stemmed pipe loosed his glib speech in a way to impress his hearers with a fine notion of his indomitable character. Through the thick clouds of the Virginia tobacco smoke a great idea was born in Bellamont’s hazy brain. Complaints were made daily of the pirates that infested the shores of the colonies. These pirates were rich with plunder. True, they were skilful and bold and crafty, but here was a man who by his own confession was more skilful and bolder and craftier than any of them. Then, should Kidd be fitted out with a fine ship and a good crew to chase these pirates and capture them, great glory would come to Bellamont’s name, and great good to Bellamont’s pocket.

The idea was acted upon, and the Governor and some other wealthy gentlemen purchased the Adventure galley, equipped her, and armed her with thirty carronades, while Kidd went down among the docks and the sailors’ lodging-houses, picking out for his crew sturdy two-handed mariners, men long of the sea, blowzed by the weather, browned by the wind, used to the pike and cutlass—men like ducks on the shore and like monkeys in the rigging.

The ship was fitted out at Plymouth, and the great day of the sailing arrived at last. The Adventure pushed out into the stream, Kidd smirking and bowing and striking attitudes on the quarter-deck, the busy sailors swarming aloft to loose sail, the good ship heeling over farther and farther as canvas after canvas was spread to a quartering breeze, and an assemblage of fine ladies and gorgeous beaux waving scarfs and fluttering handkerchiefs from the end of the pier.

Armed with a commission from King William to apprehend the noted Captains “Thomas Tew, John Ireland, Thomas Wake, and William Maze, or Mace, and other subjects, natives or inhabitants of New York and elsewhere in our plantations in America, who have associated with others, wicked and ill-disposed persons, and do, against the laws of nations, commit many and great piracies, robberies, and depredations on the seas, upon the parts of America and in other parts, to the great danger of our loving subjects, our allies, and all others navigating the seas upon their lawful occasions,” he steered from New York on his way to the Guinea coast, where his hunt was to begin. By the terms of his commission he was to take the aforenamed pirates by force if necessary, with all the pirates, freebooters, and rovers associated with them, wherever they were found. He was to bring them into port, with all such merchandise, money, goods, and wares as should be discovered on board. But he was strictly charged and commanded, “As you will answer the contrary at your peril, that you do not in any manner offend or molest our friends or allies, their ships or subjects, by whom or pretence of these presents or the authority thereby granted.”

Kidd had another commission, called Letters of Marque and Reprisal, to empower him to act against the French, with whom the English and their colonies were then at war, and under cover of these he captured a French merchantman off Fire Island on his way westward.

Upon arriving at New York he began to request more assistance from his owners, complained of the size of his ship and his few guns, and, as he “proposed to deal with a desperate enemy,” asked permission to increase his complement. This was granted, after some hesitation, and he finally sailed from New York with a ship’s company of one hundred and fifty-five men.

He made first for Madeira, thence to one of the Cape Verde Islands, and thence to St. Jago, in order to lay in salt provisions and other necessaries. He then rounded the Cape and bent his course towards Madagascar, whose waters were the known rendezvous of swarms of pirates. On the way he fell in with three English men-of-war, to whose commodore he imparted his errand with much pomp and circumstance. He dined aboard the flag-ship, and left behind him the same reputation for dare-devil recklessness and determination that his valiant speech had obtained for him elsewhere.

 He parted with these ships after a few days, and arrived at Madagascar in February, 1697, after a voyage of nine months.

At this time most of the pirate ships were out in search of prey, so, having spent some time in watering his ship and taking aboard provisions, Kidd tried the coast of Malabar, where he was equally unsuccessful in finding his quarry. He touched at Mohila and at Johanna, both famous resorts for pirates, but he did not succeed even in getting news of those whom he sought. The reason seemed obvious—the pirate of those days was a dangerous man to tackle. He had guns, and he knew how to use them; he fought with a halter round his neck, and was game to the last gasp. He was in the habit of beating the King’s ships sent to take him, and he had a bending plank through the lee gangway for their captured officers. A fat, rich merchantman was an easier victim. Why not sound the crew to see if they would agree to a change of policy?

Some such thoughts must have been passing through Kidd’s mind at this time, for with the gift of a brass farthing he could have purchased from the most guileless and affectionate native of Mohila or Johanna his entire confidence as to the whereabouts of his friends the sea-rovers, and yet after a cruise of many months in this infested neighborhood Kidd had no tidings of a single pirate craft.

But however disposed towards acts of violence, he had not yet the courage to put his wishes into execution. On his second voyage past the island of Mohila he passed several Indian ships, richly laden and too weak to offer him resistance, but he contented himself with casting envious eyes upon them and suffered them to go.

The first outrage that he committed was at Mabbee, in the Red Sea, where, after careening his ship, he took some corn from the natives by force. After this he sailed to Babs Key, near the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, where he first began to open himself to the ship’s company, and to disclose to them his change of policy. But instead of coming out like a man and saying that he intended to turn to piracy, he hinted and insinuated and beat about the bush. “Unlucky have we been hitherto; but courage, my lads, we’ll make our fortunes out of the Mocha fleet.” This was the closest his pygmy heart could come to broaching the subject that occupied his mind. But his mariners met him more than half-way, and he found himself committed to buccaneering before he knew it. By the advice of his quartermaster (the first mate or executive officer of those days) he sent a boat to go upon the coast and make discoveries, while he himself kept men in the tops of the Adventure to look out for the Mocha fleet.

The boat returned in a few days, bringing word that fifteen or a score of ships were about ready to sail, and that they were well laden and rich.

Four days after this the fleet appeared; the eager lookouts reported them, and the men rushed to the sheets and halyards, guns and ammunition-lockers.

Now was Kidd’s opportunity to dash in, seize a valuable prize, and get off with her; but he hung off and on, perplexed between timidity and cupidity, until by the time he had made up his mind to put his fortune to the touch his prey became alarmed and began to scatter. He then bore down on the nearest; but by this time he had been sighted by the two men-of-war of the convoy, and the sight of their black hulls speeding towards him, straight and steady and business-like through the flying merchantmen, was enough for Kidd. He fired a feeble shot or two, squared his yards, and made off before the wind for dear life, while the crew silently handled their tackle, and indulged in I know not what contemptuous thoughts of their commander.

But by the act of firing upon a friendly flag Kidd had determined his status; there was nothing for him now but to go on with his pirating. Soon he had an opportunity to show that desperate courage of which, by his own account, he was possessed. Off the coast of Malabar he met a small Moorish coasting-vessel. Having discovered that she was short-handed and unarmed, he became terrible indeed. He seized her and forced her Captain and quartermaster to take on with him as pilot and interpreter, the Captain being an Englishman, and the other, Don Antonio, a Portuguese. The men he used cruelly, hoisting them up by the arms, drubbing them with a bare cutlass, and putting them to other tortures to force them to disclose the whereabouts of their treasure; but all he got from them was a parcel of coffee and a bale of pepper.

He then touched at Malabar, but finding himself an object of suspicion he quickly went away.

The coast was alarmed by this time, however, and a Portuguese man-of-war was sent out after him. Kidd fought her for a while in a half-hearted way, but, though she was his inferior in men and metal, he soon had enough of honest combat, and got off by his superior speed.

He next ran down to Porca, where he took on board a number of hogs and other livestock for provisions, and paid for them in good British silver. He also watered his ship and otherwise provided for his ship’s company.

He then stood to sea again, and came up with a Moorish craft, the master of which, a Dutchman named Schipper Mitchell, hoisted French colors, as Kidd chased under that flag. The pirates hailed in French, and were answered in the same tongue by a Frenchman who was one of Mitchell’s passengers. Kidd then ordered the Dutchman to send a boat on board, and when it arrived at his gangway he asked the Frenchman if he had a pass for himself. The passenger replied that he had, whereupon Kidd told him to pass for the Captain, “For, by Heaven, you are the Captain, and if you say you’re not I’ll hang you!”

The Frenchman of course dared not refuse to do as he was ordered.

The object of the manœuvre is apparent. Kidd had not the pluck to go on openly with his high-sea robbery, but fancied that if he seized the ship as a prize, pretending that she belonged to French subjects, he would get into no trouble on account of her. He did not seem to take into account the fact that his previous conduct had already stamped him as a criminal, but appeared to think that as long as he did not openly hoist the black flag he might do as he liked with impunity. Indeed, his whole career as a sea-robber consisted of similar acts of fatuous and ostrich-like stupidity.

He landed on one of the Malabar islands for wood and water, and as his cooper was murdered by the natives he plundered and burned their village. He took one of the islanders and had him tied to a tree and shot, after which he again put to sea in quest of prizes. After being at sea less than a week he fell in with and captured the greatest prize that ever fell into his hands, the Moorish bark Quedah Merchant, of four hundred tons. From this vessel he got a cargo which he sold for more than ten thousand pounds.


The Indians came on board of him and trafficked, and he performed his bargains punctually for a time, until he was ready to sail; and then he took their goods and set them on shore with no payment, which was quite in accord with his despicable character. The Indians had been accustomed to deal with pirates, and had found them, as a rule, men of honor in the way of trade, so it was easy for Kidd to impose upon them.

The pirate put some men aboard of the Quedah Merchant, and in her company sailed for Madagascar. He had no sooner arrived there than off came a canoe in which were several old acquaintances of his who had long been “upon the account,” as they called buccaneering. They belonged to a ship called the Resolution, which was commanded by one Culliford, a notorious sea-robber. When they met Kidd they told him that they were informed he had come to hang them, which they would take very unkind in such an old friend. Kidd dissipated their fears by telling them that he was in every respect their brother, and as bad as they, and in token of amity drank their health in a bowl of grog.

Kidd then went aboard, Culliford promising his friendship and assistance; and Culliford in turn boarded Kidd, and the two worthies made a merry night of it in the cabin of the Adventure, spinning their yarns of the deep seas and laughing at their enemies; and as Culliford was in need of some necessaries, Kidd fitted him out from his spare tackle.

The Adventure was now so leaky that Kidd transferred her guns and stores to the Quedah Merchant and got to sea again, but not before more than half of his disgusted crew had left him.

He touched at Amboyan, and there learned that the news of his conduct had reached England and that he was outlawed. Indeed, the reports of his misdeeds were so exaggerated that the English merchants became greatly alarmed, and had Kidd, with one Captain Avery, excepted in a general pardon of freebooters which had just been promulgated. Kidd knew nothing of this, but relying on some French passes which he had found on one or two of his prizes, and deeming his brazen assurance enough to carry him through any peril from the law, he made for New York. Here, by the orders of Lord Bellamont, he was promptly seized, with all of his effects, and was sent to England to be tried.

Here his conduct was such as to destroy the last shreds of respect that one might have had for his character. Instead of meeting his fate like a man, he begged and implored and whined and promised, but all to no avail.

He insisted much upon his own innocence and the villainy of his men. He went out upon a laudable employment, he said, and had no occasion to go pirating, but the men mutinied against him and did as they pleased. As to the friendship shown to that notorious villain Culliford, Kidd denied it, and said that he would have taken him, but his own men, being a parcel of rogues, refused to stand by him, and several of them even ran from his ship to join the wicked pirate.

But the evidence was too strong against him, and he was condemned.

When asked what he had to say why sentence should not be pronounced upon him, he replied that he had nothing to say except that he had been sworn against by wicked people; and when sentence was pronounced he said: “My lord, it is a very hard sentence. For my part, I am the most innocent person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons.”

And so, in 1701, whining and protesting miserably, he was led away to the scaffold, and there paid the penalty of his crimes.