Friday, February 21, 2014

New York's Own Pirate: The Mysterious Case of Captain Kidd

Location:   Execution Dock, London
Year:   1701

"A man neither very good nor very bad, the fool of fortune and the tool of politicians, a pirate in spite of himself."

Captain William Kidd

Captain William Kidd (1654?-1701) is considered one of the most notorious pirates in history, but history may not be telling us the truth.

To understand Captain Kidd, it is necessary to understand piracy. Legally defined as "An act of theft on the high seas" that definition has been stretched into all sorts of interesting shapes in order to allow for the punishment of accused pirates, some of whom never set foot on a ship. 

Piracy is as old as seafaring itself, and probably was invented just after the second person in history floated across a stream on a log. Deciding that the other log was better, either of the two original skippers stole it, becoming Arrrrr, the world's first pirate captain. 

Piracy has occurred from that day to this in all oceans. The so-called "Golden Age of Piracy" took place in the Caribbean Sea between 1600-1750. It was an era when colonial administrations in the New World were weak, authorities were on the take, the societal sense of communal responsibility was low but lip service toward the maintenance of personal morals was high---in short, not unlike our own time. Men and women with colorful monikers like Calico Jack, Blackbeard, and Anne Bonny struck out on their own to make fortunes, protect their own interests, settle grudges, and make their way as best they could in a vicious culture. Some of them were truly crazy, but most were just hardened. 

Pirate movies have always been popular. Penelope Cruz as a lady buccaneer

Many of them worked under license at one time or another. Although the world's Great Powers (Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and The Netherlands) all had standing navies, every country outsourced work to local skippers, who were paid to raid and harass the vessels and territories of rival nations. Such skippers were called "privateers," and privateering was an easy way for the sponsoring nation to save money (a ship's captain was responsible for outfitting and maintaining his own ship) while earning sometimes a good deal (the sponsor got a large share of the loot). 

Sponsors would issue to captains "Letters of Marque and Reprisal."  A Letter of Marque was a license to steal. A Letter of Reprisal was a license to attack other ships. If this sounds bizarre, it isn't. The United States Constitution authorizes Congress to issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal (Article I, Section 8), and this is the legal basis for outsourcing of military tasks to private companies such as Blackwater. 

The original Letter of Marque issued to Captain Kidd by King William III

Pirates and privateers use the same methods, and often Tuesday's naval officer became Wednesday's pirate and Thursday's privateer. Crews were tough, and scurrilous. They were also prone to mutiny (except aboard pirate ships where, in a kind of rough-hewn democracy, the captain was elected --- and could be unelected).

One of the vexing issues in this area of Admiralty Law is: When is a pirate a pirate and when is he (or she) a privateer?  Really, it depends on who you ask. Francis Drake, a famous seafarer (and privateer) was knighted and made an Admiral by Queen Elizabeth I of England. As she was touching her sword blade to his shoulder there is no question that the King of Spain would have preferred to see it drawn across his throat. Drake had sunk many Spanish treasure ships, seized their cargoes, acted as a slave-trader,  and burned the city of Cadiz, Spain.

And so history brings us to Captain Kidd. Kidd was "born to the sea" as they say, and commanded many vessels over the course of his career. In 1690, Captain Kidd and his wife settled into a comfortable house on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan, where he became a businessman, buying and selling cargoes from the ships along the quay. 

The Kidd home on Pearl Street in New York City

He remained a landlubber for five years, making important contacts and amassing a considerable personal fortune. Kidd contributed handsomely to the construction of Trinity Church. 

Trinity Church today

Around 1695, Kidd was approached by a New York businessman, Robert Livingston, who introduced him to Richard Coote, Lord Bellomont, a member of Parliament who happened to be making a visit to New York. Lord Bellomont advised Kidd that he represented King William III and a consortium of members of the House of Lords, the Earl of Romney, the Earl of Orford, Sir John Somers, and the Duke of Shrewsbury, who were seeking to privately fund a series of ventures against the French (and anybody else they could get away with robbing) . 

Who first suggested that Kidd return to the sea as the King's personal privateer is unknown, but it's clear that Kidd was tiring of life on land. Within a brief time, he acquired a ship, the Adventure Galley, and with Letters of Marque and Reprisal in hand began raiding French ships. And Spanish ships. And Portuguese ships. And Dutch ships. And Ottoman ships carrying Muslim pilgrims on the Hajj to Mecca, a particularly rich source of income.  For three years Kidd remained at sea, privateering. The take from Kidd's voyage for each of the investors (including Kidd himself) promised to be immense.  

Kidd's ship, the Adventure Galley

Then something happened. 

There are a number of versions of what occurred: 

In one version (which we'll call "Kidd The Crook") Kidd got involved with pirates, essentially throwing in his lot against the King. This story says that one of the pirate skippers, Robert Culliford, got angry when Kidd cheated him out of some spoils, and swore out a Complaint of Piracy against him.

In another version (which we can call "Kidd The Privateer")  Kidd overtook a British merchant vessel and went aboard to have dinner with its Master, Robert Culliford. While the two gentlemen were at dinner, some of Kidd's crew decided to steal valuables from the merchantman's cargo. After sailing away, Kidd discovered the theft, turned about, overtook the merchantman again, and tried to compensate the angry skipper for his losses. Culliford refused to deal with Kidd, and swore out a Complaint of Piracy against him.   

In yet another version (which we can call "Kidd The Pirate") Kidd overtook a British merchant vessel and went aboard to distract the Master of the vessel, Robert Culliford, by having dinner with him. While they were so engaged, some of Kidd's crew stole valuables from the merchantman's cargo. After sailing away, Kidd thought twice about it, turned about, overtook the merchantman again, and tried to bribe the angry Culliford to keep silent. Culliford refused to deal with Kidd, and swore out a Complaint of Piracy against him.  

One of the fuzzy facts of the story is that Culliford was a sometime legitimate Master, sometime privateer, and sometime pirate, so whether Kidd was robbing a pirate, robbing a skipper, scheming with him, scheming against him, being a pirate, being a privateer, being a skipper, upholding the King's Writ, undermining the King's Writ, or just innocently hobnobbing with another Captain will never be known.  
Whatever really happened between Kidd and Culliford, when the Complaint of Piracy became known, Kidd's investors quickly distanced themselves from Kidd. The King revoked his Letters of Marque and Reprisal. Lord Bellomont (who had become Governor of the Colony of New York in Kidd's absence), issued an arrest warrant for Kidd, all based upon the morally dubious Culliford's Complaint.*

But nobody went looking for Captain Kidd. Perhaps the investors feared that if their shady dealings became public knowledge they would suffer  public and embarrassing, and even international, consequences. 

Had Kidd stayed at sea for a time, still raiding Ottoman vessels its possible that the whole matter would have been forgotten. But Kidd didn't stay at sea. He acted as an honest man would, and sailed for New York to put his case before Lord Bellomont.

He did, however, do one odd thing. He anchored off Gardiner's Island, went ashore, had dinner with Lord and Lady Gardiner, and then asked their permission to  (in ridiculously stereotypical pirate fashion) bury some treasure on the island. Puzzled, and no doubt burning with curiosity they would not indulge, the Gardiners assented.  (It's also rumored that Kidd may have buried treasure on Robins Island, Shelter Island, the Forks, Florida, and in the Caribbean and in the Indian Ocean, but only the supposed Gardiner's Island cache has ever been found.)

A very fanciful picture of Kidd burying treasure on Gardiner's Island

When Kidd reached New York, Lord Bellomont had him arrested, shackled, and shipped off to the notorious Newgate Prison in London in a trice, where he was starved and tortured for two years. He was then dragged to the House of Lords, where the disoriented and battered Kidd failed to explain himself satisfactorily to the Upper House of Parliament. This marked the only time in history when a suspected pirate ever appeared before Parliament; clearly, Kidd had become a pawn in some high stakes political game, and his true crimes (if any) now mattered not at all. 

Some mysterious factor, unknown to this day, caused Kidd's backers to want him dead. Documents relating to Kidd's arrangements with the investors mysteriously disappeared (to be found years later), and the Lords involved in the privateering scheme all denied ever having given Kidd a commission. Perhaps most damning for Kidd was the fact that, if convicted, Kidd's substantial share of the loot would escheat to his accuser---Lord Bellomont.

Lord Bellomont swore out a Statement of Particulars against Kidd, accusing him of piracy against the Crown. Bellomont also attested that Kidd had threatened to "cut the throats" of Lord and Lady Gardiner. This was, of course, something he could not testify to, having not been there. The Gardiners, who came to London to testify on Kidd's behalf, denied any such thing. They described Kidd as a perfect gentleman in fact, but did admit that Kidd had buried treasure on their island.  What the original buried treasure consisted of is a mystery. Perhaps something incriminating to someone in a very high position?

Captain Kidd on the gibbet

Bellomont quickly sent men to retrieve the treasure, and used the loot (which may or may not have been the same stuff Kidd buried)  as evidence of Kidd's "piratical intent." That was all the Court needed. 

Twelve good men and true (and probably bribed) convicted Kidd, and he was hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames on May 23, 1701.  The political nature of  Kidd's execution is made crystal clear by the fact that, of all the crewmen who were sentenced to die with him, every man jack of them on the gallows with a noose around his neck was suddenly pardoned after Kidd himself had been hanged.

Captain Kidd's body in chains

Captain Kidd's corpse was hung in chains (a kind of pirate birdcage) along the Thames where it could be seen by passing sailors and subjects as a sort of billboard advertisement against piracy. Kidd's body hung in chains for almost three years, pestilential, stinking and foul, with his rotting organs falling to bits before everyone's eyes. 

While hanging a pirate in chains was not uncommon, leaving the corpse hanging for such a long time was uncommon --- another indication that there is more to the mysterious case of Captain Kidd than meets the eye.

Kidd's death notice in the London Times


  *As for Captain Robert Culliford, he was convicted of piracy on the same day and in the same dock as Kidd, but in a separate proceeding. Culliford somehow evaded the noose, and after serving several years of a life sentence was quietly pardoned by the Crown, after which he vanished into the mists of history. 

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