This month sees the launch of a new exhibition on the 17th-century privateer-turned-pirate Captain William Kidd at the Museum of London Docklands to mark the anniversary of Kidd’s execution. Visitors can discover the surprising truth of how London’s corrupt political activities were entrenched in piracy while taking a closer look at 17th and 18th-century English society. The display also looks at gruesome ritual executions of the day.
The exhibition features a number of items associated with Captain Kidd, including his last letter containing the promise of hidden treasure. Also on display is a real pirate flag and a gibbet cage of the type that would have held Kidd’s body after his execution.
Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story opens at Museum of London Docklands on 20 May and runs until 30 October 2011. To buy tickets and for more information, visit the Museum of London Dockland website.
Plus, look out for a feature on Captain Kidd in our June issue, which hits the newsstands on 26 May. We’ll also be airing a podcast interview with the feature’s author, pirate expert Angus Konstam – available from 28 May onwards.
The wreck of the fabled Quedagh Merchant has been located in waters off Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic, only miles from where Captain Kidd left it when he sailed to Boston to try to clear his name in 1699.
An English colony from 1664, the port of New York became a friendly haven for pirates by the 1680s.
This chart by the Wapping cartographer William Hack clearly shows reefs and other hazards to ships. The beautifully-drawn ship was the warship Norwich, which was wrecked in 1682. The vessel was found to be carrying ‘unofficial’ cargo to the merchants of Port Royal.
This small brass puzzle box is one of a number of brass tins that were used for tobacco or snuff in the 17th century. Sailors carried their tobacco in them while at sea to preserve the fibres from the wind and water. This one has a watch face on the lid and is inscribed ‘John Bond his box 1667’.
Following his execution, Kidd’s body was carried down to Tilbury; there his corpse was coated in pitch and squeezed into an iron gibbet cage. It hung there beside the river for several years as a warning to seamen until it was eventually buried secretly somewhere near Tilbury Fort.
This image is said to be that of Captain Kidd. It is thought that James Thornhill visited Kidd in Newgate just days before the condemned man’s execution in May 1701.
Dressed as a man, Anne Bonny joined the crew of pirate ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham and took up piracy. She wore men’s clothing and fought alongside them using both pistols and swords. Anne was captured and tried in 1720 but escaped the hangman because she was pregnant.
Whereas most London executions took place at Tyburn, pirates were usually hung at Execution Dock at Wapping. London’s maritime community was based along the Thames at Wapping and Limehouse, which is why the very public executions were held there.
Days before his execution Kidd attempted to bargain his way out. He wrote to Robert Harley, the leader of the Tories, offering to reveal the location of his hidden plunder, which was worth £100,000. Harley declined and Kidd took the secret to the gallows with him. The secret location of Kidd’s treasure – if it existed – was never found.
Pirates awaiting trial were normally held in the Marshalsea prison in Southwark. However, some pirates – including Captain Kidd – were regarded as being so important they were kept in Newgate.
This coin was recovered from the wreck of a Spanish ship, the Santa Maria de la Consolación. The legendary Pieces of Eight were made of silver mined by enslaved people from the Potosi Mountain mine in Bolivia. The silver was made into crude bars and chopped into rough disks; shears were then used to cut the disks to roughly the right size.
It is believed that this flag was captured by Midshipman Richard Curry when he was serving aboard the frigate HMS Phaeton in the Mediterranean in around 1789. Although small, the design is an excellent example of the dreaded ‘skull and crossbones’ flag of the pirate ship.