As the above title implies, Kidd, like many of the pirates who followed in his footsteps, was particularly unlucky. His lack of luck or good fortune and, indeed, his ultimate undoing can be attributed to both his crew and to his royal financial backers.
Most historians feel that William Kidd was born in Greenock, Scotland, around 1645. His poor minister father died when he was still a young child; and as soon as he was able, he fled to the sea to seek his livelihood. He spent his first years as a member of the crew of the pirate ship Blessed William. Eventually the Blessed William surrendered to the British Navy, and Kidd was among the crewmembers who received a royal pardon (presumably in return for his promise to renounce his buccaneering ways). He next turned to privateering and he served the Crown with skill and distinction during King William’s War in the West Indies.
His privateering (and, perhaps, occasional pirateering) activities in the West Indies and the New York area led to his amassing a substantial sum of money by the time his commission expired. Thereafter, he settled in New York, purchasing a home on fashionable Pearl Street, becoming a successful merchant, and joining the general social scene.
Shortly after commencing his new lifestyle, Kidd met the beautiful Sarah Cox in 1688 (according to Terrance Zepke, author of the Pirates of the Carolinas). She was the wife of a prominent New York alderman and merchant, who fell overboard from his own ship and drowned during this same time period. Apparently the feelings that were eventually to exist between William and Sarah had not yet fully developed, and she chose another wealthy merchant, John Oort, to replace her first husband. (Again, see Zepke.) However, when he also died in 1691, he was in the ground for only eleven days before Sarah and William were finally wed.
In addition to their shared affection, they also shared considerable wealth that allowed them to circulate freely in the best of society. They were active members of Trinity Church, where they had their own pew, which they eventually shared with their two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth. However, as Zepke so aptly states, “William Kidd had a restless soul and a darker side that struggled with this puritanical lifestyle.” By 1695 he could or at least he chose to struggle no longer.
In that year he met a fellow Scot, Robert Livingston, who persuaded him once again to become a privateer with a consortium of royal and wealthy backers or silent partners. Among the most famous were Richard, Earl of Bellomont (or Bellamont according to Angus Konstam, author of The History of Pirates), the new Governor of Massachusetts and New York, Lord Chancellor John Somers, and even his royal majesty William III.
Under the terms of the privateer agreement, Bellomont and his fellow backers would bear most of the costs of building and outfitting a ship for the venture, for which they would receive more than half of all treasure taken. King William signed a Letter of Marque, which entitled Kidd and his crew to capture all pirates (and their booty) as well as any French vessels they encountered. In return, the King was to receive 10% of the proceeds from the venture. Finally, Kidd and Livingston were to bear the remainder of the costs and to share, along with the crew, the remainder of any treasure taken. A critical clause of the agreement stated that Kidd and his fellow privateers were to re-imburse the backers for their expenses if no treasure was taken.
The Adventure Galley, which was specifically built in London for this mission, was a 34-gun, 300-ton vessel with three massive sails and 32 oars to be used when the sea was becalmed. A full compliment of crew required 150 sailors. Kidd recruited 70 skilled seamen and then set sail for New York where he intended to take care of some personal business and recruit the remainder of his crew. Unfortunately, his first encounter at sea occurred when he passed a British man-of-war returning to England. Not only did Kidd refuse to lower his colors in recognition of the man of war as tradition required, but also his crew turned away from the man-of-war and repeatedly slapped their backsides. In response to these insults, the British boarded the Adventure Galley and made off with many of Kidd’s most skilled seamen. Upon reaching New York he apparently was forced to replenish his diminished crew with some of the most undesirable specimens available in the taverns of the city.
The Adventure Galley set sail from New York on December 12, 1696. It may well have been Kidd’s original intent to follow explicitly the terms of his royal Letter of Marque, i.e., to pursue only pirate ships and those flying the flag of France. On the other hand, many feel that given the makeup of the crew, the majority were likely to identify closely with any pirates they encountered and have little interest in engaging them. In any event, no pirate prisoners or booty were ever taken. Furthermore, French treasure ships were few and far between, and Kidd’s standing with the crew, who wanted to capture any ships encountered regardless of nationality, declined steadily. The situation became critical when Kidd became involved in a heated argument with gunner William Moore, whom he hit in the head with a heavy wooden, metal bound bucket. Moore suffered a serious skull fracture and died the next morning from his wounds. Realizing that he was on the verge of having a mutiny on his hands, Kidd either underwent a total change of heart or, at least, significantly broadened the list of potential prey to conform to the wishes of the crew. Shortly thereafter, Kidd (now eighteen months into his mission and essentially empty-handed) encountered a large, East Indian merchantman, the Quedagh Merchant, clearly loaded with a heavy cargo. After a brief struggle Kidd and his crew seized one of the richest treasures of silver, gold, precious jewels and silks ever known in the annals of piracy. I say “piracy” because the owner of the ship was on board and announced himself to Kidd as an Englishman. (Zepke notes than a wealthy American was also on board, and he attempted to ransom the Quedagh Merchant. By now Kidd realized that he had crossed a forbidden line, so he merely kept the American’s proposed ransom money as well as the captured East Indian treasure.)
Realizing that he might possibly be facing charges of piracy in England, Kidd decided to sail first to New York and seek the support of his backers in return for their share of his fabulous booty. Zepke suggests that he may have stopped and left a sizable cache of treasure at Sullivan Island, South Carolina, Money Island, North Carolina, and Gardiner’s Island, off the east end of Long Island, New York. (Zepke states that estimates of the total value of Kidd’s treasure range from 12,000 to 710,000 pounds.) If, as many believe, the upper end of the range is more accurate, Kidd’s treasure hoard was similar to that accumulated by “Long Ben” Avery.
Kidd landed in New York in June of 1699. According to Terrance Zepke, he quickly sent a lawyer friend, James Emmott, to plead his case with his backer, the newly appointed Governor of New York, Lord Bellomont. To bolster his case, Emmott also took Kidd’s royal Letter of Marque as well as a personal letter from him attempting to justify any actions he had taken that were forbidden by the Letter. The Royal Governor appeared to be very receptive to Emmott’s arguments and urged Kidd to come join him so they could plan his defense. On July 1 Kidd and his family were walking, with high hopes, up to the entrance of the Governor’s mansion when they were arrested by a contingent of troops. Up until then Kidd was apparently unaware of what a political liability he had become to Bellomont and his other backers. He was immediately sent to London where he was imprisoned at Newgate for two years awaiting his trial. (Zepke indicates that Newgate was such a filthy, foul establishment that prisoners often had to be dipped in vinegar just prior to their trials in order to make them tolerable to others in the courtroom.) During his stay, Kidd was denied access to visitors, news, and even pen and paper. He was ill prepared, both physically and mentally, for his trial, which was finally held on May 8-9, 1701. He was charged with several acts of piracy and the murder of William Moore, charges supported by two captured pirates who had formerly been members of his crew. He was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death by hanging. Upon the rendering of the verdict, Kidd is said to have cried out (see Zepke):
My Lord, it is a very hard sentence. For my part. I am the innocentest of them all, only I have been sworn against perjured persons.
Perjured testimony or not, Kidd was taken to Execution Dock on the Thames River to meet his final fate on May 23, 1701. Even the end did not come easy for Kidd. It took nearly two hours to get him through the assembled crowd and onto the gallows. Then, the rope broke either once or twice before he was finally hung successfully. His body, bound up in chains, was tarred and displayed over the Thames as a warning to would be followers.
We have now exhausted my knowledge of all pirates involved with the Carolinas. However, since many of you readers seem to appreciate these tales, we will now change the focus to pirates in general rather than selecting a new area to pursue. .....................end