This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
When the hangman’s rope snapped and a choking William Kidd fell to the ground beneath the gallows, he must have thought for a moment that he would be spared the noose. For the first time since he sailed from London six years earlier, he was literally being given a break. The reprieve was short-lived. The bound man was hauled back to the gallows, and a new rope was found. For Captain Kidd, notorious pirate and murderer, there would be no mercy. The irony of it was, just as he proclaimed from the gallows, he was an innocent man.
Even though he committed no crime, Kidd was forced to endure 18 months of solitary confinement, a thorough character assassination, a farcical show trial, and a botched execution. Kidd had become a dangerous pawn in the game of British politics – a man with the potential to embarrass or even bring down the government, tarnish the reputation of the king, and cause the downfall of his shadowy aristocratic backers.
Until recently, it was generally assumed he was guilty as charged. This has all changed in the past century, as historians have taken a fresh look at the evidence, and unearthed crucial documents that reveal that the trial was rigged against the unfortunate Kidd.
The call of the sea
His troubles began in August 1695 when he first arrived in London. Kidd was a respectable 40-year-old sea captain from New York, a man of family and property, with a reputation as a successful privateer. He was a Scot, born in Dundee, but as a young man he moved to New York colony, and since childhood had followed the call of the sea. By 1691 he commanded his own privateer, or ‘private warship’.
There was a big difference between a privateer and a pirate. In times of war, privateering licences were issued by governments, allowing captains to hunt down enemy merchant ships. In return the Admiralty kept a share of any plunder. In effect it was a form of legitimised piracy. Without the licence, you were a pirate.
In London Kidd met fellow New Yorker Robert Livingston, a wealthy merchant who had the ear of an English peer. After meeting Kidd, Livingston approached his acquaintance Lord Bellomont, hoping to get backing to build a privateer to hunt down Frenchmen and pirates in the Indian ocean. Kidd would be her captain.
Lord Bellomont sounded out four others in his circle. The five noblemen decided to put up £6,000 between them to build the ship, and to serve as a stake in the venture. Apart from the Irishborn Lord Bellomont, Kidd’s new backers were the Earl of Romney, the secretary of state the Duke of Shrewsbury, the future attorney general Lord John Somers, and the first lord of the Admiralty Admiral Edward Russell. All of them were leading members of the Whig government – men at the very heart of the English political establishment. In this period there were two political parties – the liberal Whigs and the more conservative Tories. When Kidd arrived in London it was the Whigs who held the reins of power.
The purpose-built privateer Adventure Galley of 34 guns was built in Deptford in just five weeks. Privateering licences were duly issued by King William but, unusually, the Admiralty wasn’t to get its share. Instead the plunder went to the backers, save a percentage that was to be divided up among Kidd and his crew. Kidd’s backers were to remain secretive about their involvement – and with good reason: this was a highly questionable arrangement, and one that could potentially reap a huge return. Kidd was playing for high stakes indeed.
In April 1696 Kidd left London for America, and six weeks later he was back in New York, where he recruited additional crewmen. He set sail in September, and all went well until he encountered a convoy of ships licensed to the East India Company, escorted by Commodore Warren of the Royal Navy.
Warren wanted to press some of Kidd’s crew, and so to protect his men Kidd fled in the night. When dawn revealed his departure Warren wrote a damning report to the Admiralty, describing him as a pirate. Based on no evidence at all, Kidd was a criminal in the eyes of the British authorities. Worse, the East India Company would repeat this slander in India.
For the next year, Kidd roamed the Indian ocean in search of prey, but despite his honest intentions the East India Company remained convinced he had ‘turned pirate’, and denied him access to their ports. His crew were frustrated, and mutiny seethed beneath the surface.
When Kidd encountered a Dutch ship the crisis came to a head. The ringleader of the mutineers was the gunner, William Moore. He wanted to ransack the Dutchman, and during the confrontation that followed Kidd hit the gunner on the head with a wooden bucket. Moore died of concussion the next day.
After that, things began to improve. In November Kidd captured a genuine prize, the Rouparelle, whose captain carried a ‘pass’ on behalf of French merchants, making her a legitimate prize. Then, on 30 January 1698, he hit the jackpot. Kidd captured the Quedagh Merchant, an Indian ship carrying another French pass. Her hold was filled with silks, muslins, as well as gold, silver and jewels, all worth an estimated £75,000. That was enough to pay for the ship, pay off the crew, and still leave enough for Kidd’s backers to double their money.
Denied a safe haven in India, Kidd decided to head home. On the way though, he put into the pirate haven of St Mary’s off Madagascar, hoping to capture a pirate prize. The pirate Robert Culliford was there with his ship, but by then Kidd’s hurriedly-built Adventure Galley was rotten, and in no condition to fight. He was also short of men, as his two prize ships had become separated in a storm. When the ships finally appeared Kidd ordered his men to attack. Instead they mutinied, and most of them joined the pirate crew. Culliford sailed off in search of plunder. Kidd abandoned the Adventure Galley, and with 12 loyal crewmen he patched up the Quedagh Merchant and sailed for home, together with what remained of his plunder.
He reached the Caribbean in March 1699, and leaving the Quedagh Merchant there he sailed home to explain his actions. He took plunder with him, but as a precaution he buried it on an island in Long Island Sound. After meeting his wife he sailed to Boston to meet his backer Lord Bellomont, now the governor of New York and New England. When Kidd met him on 3 July the nobleman seemed reserved. The reason soon became clear. Three days later Kidd was arrested.
The problem was, Kidd had been so widely discredited by slander that his backers wanted nothing to do with him. Instead, Kidd was thrown to the wolves. Bellomont forced him to reveal where he had buried his plunder, and this was retrieved. Then, after six months of incarceration, Kidd was shipped to England to stand trial. First though, Kidd was expected to appear before the House of Commons, to answer questions posed by the Tory opposition. In London there was no doubt that Kidd was a pirate – the real question was whether his backers and even the king had encouraged him to go ‘a pirating’ on their behalf.
The answer would have to wait. When Kidd arrived in April 1700 parliament had just ended its sitting, and it would be almost a year before it reconvened. After an interrogation by the Admiralty, Kidd was thrown into Newgate prison. He would languish in solitary confinement for 12 months. Meanwhile the Admiralty prepared the case for his prosecution. When Kidd was given copies of the relevant documents, crucial evidence – those French passes – were withheld. The very cornerstones of his defence had been ‘mislaid’. Today they can be read in the National Archives. In the winter of 1700-01, Kidd wasn’t so lucky.
On 27 March 1701, Kidd was finally called before parliament. While he had been languishing in Newgate, elections had been held, and this time round the Tories were in power. After all that waiting the hearing was a disappointment for the Tories, who wanted Kidd to discredit their political opponents. Kidd steadfastly protested his innocence, and denied his backers had encouraged any wrongdoing. He was duly thrown back into his cell. The trial itself began on 8 May. Denied effective counsel, Kidd would have to mount his own defence.
What followed was a sham. The experienced Admiralty prosecutors opened with a murder charge – the killing of William Moore. Two of Kidd’s mutineers were produced – men who had recently been captured in the Americas – and they perjured themselves by claiming the assault was premeditated. If Kidd was guilty of anything, it was manslaughter, an action carried out to quell a mutiny. Instead he was found guilty of murder.
This was followed by five charges of piracy, beginning with the seizure of the Quedagh Merchant. Once again, the perjurers gave evidence. Kidd’s request to delay the trial until the passes were found was denied. The case was rigged – even the prosecutor described Kidd to the jury as an “arch pirate, and common enemy of mankind”. Kidd was again found guilty.
The trial continued the following day. By this time Kidd was refusing to play the game, saying: “I will not trouble this court any more, for it is folly.” Consequently he was found guilty on all three remaining counts. The judge went on to pass the death penalty. Only then did Kidd react, crying out; “My Lord, that is a very hard sentence. For my part I am the innocentest person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons.”
On 23 May 1701, William Kidd was hanged at Wapping. He died at sunset, and his corpse was tied to a stake, to let three tides wash over him, according to Admiralty custom. His bloated body was then taken by boat down to Tilbury, where it was squeezed into an iron cage. This was then suspended overlooking the Thames, as a grizzly warning to other would-be pirates.
After his death, the legend of Kidd ‘the pirate’ continued to grow. Lurid accounts of his ‘crimes’ were catalogued in Charles Johnson’s A General History of Pirates in 1724, and he came to be regarded as one of the most notorious cutthroats in history.
It was only in 1910, when those elusive French passes were discovered, that the real story began to emerge. Over the past 25 years, fresh detective work has revealed the manipulation, perjury, rumour-mongering and deal-making that underpinned the whole affair. Above all, it finally revealed the names of the five lords who were his secret backers but – not wanting to be associated with an affair in which they had diverted money from the Admiralty in order to line their own pockets – sacrificed the sea captain on the altar of political expediency.
Three centuries later, in 2009, a Dundee seaman’s foundation declared they wanted to have Kidd’s case reheard in the Court of Appeal. Finally, Kidd might be given the chance to clear his name.
Angus Konstam is a widely published historian who has studied piracy in the early 18th century. He is author of The Complete History of Piracy (Osprey Publishing, 2008).
Timeline: The life and death of Captain Kidd
22 January 1654
Kidd is born in Dundee in north-eastern Scotland, the son of a sea captain who dies when William is still an infant.
16 May 1691
Kidd marries Sarah Oort, the richest widow in New York, and the couple move into a substantial town house on Wall Street.
10 April 1695
The newly built Adventure Galley sails from London, with Kidd in command. He sets a course for New York, to recruit.
30 January 1698
Kidd captures the Quedagh Merchant, which carries a French-registered cargo of textiles, gold, silver and jewels, valued at £75,000 (£9m today).
12 May 1698
When Kidd orders his crew to attack the pirate ship of Robert Culliford they mutiny, and most join forces with the pirates.
6 July 1699
Kidd is arrested in Boston on the orders of his backer the Earl of Bellomont, now governor of New York and Massachusetts.
9 May 1701
After almost a year in prison Kidd is found guilty of murder and piracy, in a rigged and one-sided two-day trial.
23 May 1701
Kidd is taken to Execution Dock in Wapping, and hanged on a specially constructed platform built by the Admiralty on the Thames foreshore.