The Mysterious Treasure of the Unlucky Pirate - origins
What did it mean to be a Pirate and how did they differ from Privateers?
Howard Pyle's painting of Kidd
A pirate is somebody who carries out an act of violence or plunder (taking goods by force) for their own gain. Pirates have been around since people first took to sailing the seas.
The term 'pirate' came into use in Roman times, when they caused so much trouble in the Eastern Mediterranean that a commander, named Pompey, was sent to put a stop to their activities around 60 BC.
However, the 'Golden Age' of piracy occurred between the 15th to the 18th Centuries. It is from this period that most of the Pirate tales come. During this time, pirates operated in the Mediterranean, the Far East and the Caribbean.
Nearly every pirate ship had a code, laid out in the Articles of the ship. Anyone who wanted to be a part of the crew was required to sign the Articles, which outlined the rules of the ship and the punishments for breaking them. The captain of a pirate ship was usually voted into office and could be voted out if he did a poor job.
Most pirates' ships flew their own flag, intended to strike fear into other ships. Prisoners were not forced to walk the plank but were often treated very cruelly. The most severe punishment for a crew member was marooning. A marooned pirate was usually given his sword, a pistol and one bottle of water. It meant a slow death by dehydration, unless he chose to use the pistol.
A 'Privateer' was a legal type of pirate that operated with the blessing of a government. They were commissioned to attack ships from countries seen as enemies of the nation they represented. Technically, a privateer could not be prosecuted as a pirate because he was protected by international law.
Privateers were often given a document called a 'Letter of Marque'. However, these were often forged by pirates to avoid prosecution and an equal number of privateers became pirates.
If captured, pirates could expect to hang. The hanging was usually a very large event which people would gather to watch. After death, the body of a particularly notorious pirate would often be covered in tar and hung in a cage near the port, as a deterrent to other pirates.
Who was William Kidd?
William Kidd, also known as Captain Kidd, was a 17th century British privateer. He was convicted for piracy and murder and hung on May 23, 1701, at Execution Dock, Wapping, London. His body was later placed on the Gibbet at Tilbury Point.
Little is known of his early life, even his place and date of birth is disputed. It is generally listed as Greenock, Scotland in 1645 (the date estimated by an official at his execution). However, when giving evidence at an earlier court case in 1695, Kidd gave his age as 41 and his place of birth as Dundee.
In 1689, as a member of a privateer crew in the Caribbean, he successfully commandeered a French ship and sailed it into the harbour at Nevis, then an English Colony. This led to his appointment as Captain of the "Blessed William". Shortly after, he was asked to join a squadron of ships making attacks on French plantations; it was dangerous work and of no benefit to the men, as they were paid from the proceeds of looting and pillaging. When Kidd went ashore in the middle of the night, his angry crew cut cable and stole the "Blessed William", along with Kidd's booty in the hold.
As in the story, he chased them to New York. Here he joined forces with the newly appointed Governor, Col. Henry Sloughter and ferried guns and ammunition to help put down the rebellion. He became a well known New Yorker, marrying Sarah Bradley Cox Oort, the widow of John Oort, a wealthy landowner and businessman. William and Sarah applied for a marriage license on May 16, 1691 - just two days after John Oort had suddenly and mysteriously died. Rumour was rife, with both Kidd and Sarah suspected of causing his death.
In 1695, he met Robert Livingston in New York, a fellow Scotsman and confidant of King William III. Livingston suggested approaching financial backers in England, to fund the fitting out of a privateer ship. The investment would be repaid from the profits made from booty plundered in the Indian Ocean. And so, as in the story, he set out on his mission to rid the seas of pirates and to attack French ships.
Was he a Pirate and did he deserve to hang?
William Kidd on the Gibbet at Tilbury Point
Captain Kidd has been portrayed as a cruel and bloody pirate and has been accused of every crime in pirate history. But if he was a pirate, in reality, he was not a very successful one.
So was William Kidd just one of the unluckiest people to ever sail the seas or did he really turn to piracy?
To judge this you have to look at the terms of his mission. Kidd was ONLY authorised to attack ships from countries at that time seen as enemies (such as France) and Pirates.
Under an agreement signed in October 1695, Bellomont was to provide 80% of the cost, totalling £6000, which he obtained from four secret backers, in reality four very powerful men:- The Earl of Romney, the Earl of Orford (First Lord of the Admiralty), Sir John Somers (Lord Keeper of the Great Seal) and the Duke of Shrewsbury (Secretary of State). The remaining 20% (£1500) was to be invested by Livingston and Kidd who sold the Antigua to raise funds.
The profits were to be divided so that the first 10% went to the King's exchequer and, of the remainder, 60% was to go to the backers, 15% to Kidd and Livingston and 25% to the crew. If the venture proved a failure, Kidd and Livingston underwrote to repay the backers their full investment of £6000.
Whether Kidd was guilty of piracy and murder depends on if:
- He intended to abide by the articles of agreement with his backers.
- He only attacked legitimate targets.
- The death of William Moore was a result of suppressing a dangerous situation not murder.
Arguments can be put for both sides. There is some evidence that Kidd acted only as a privateer:
- His refusal to attack many richly-laden ships that passed, including the ship that led to the near mutiny of his crew and the death of William Moore.
- The Quedah Merchant WAS flying the French flag and the crew sailing under a French pass. The objections came from the East India Company at having to compensate the Indian Government for their losses, at a time when the Indian authorities were threatening to expel European interests. The company put pressure on the political opponents of Kidd's backers who abandoned him.
- A document was found in the early 20th Century that seemed to show that the other ships, he was accused of raiding, were in fact French and consequently covered by his privateer commission.
- Important evidence concerning two of the piracy cases was suppressed at the trial, it is thought because Kidd's backers could have become politically embarrassed had the truth come out.
However, if he is innocent there also are many questions that remain unanswered:
- Why did he offer his cutthroat crew 60% of the profits when legally, according to the agreement, they would only receive 25%? Did he have other ideas to make money by piracy?
- If the venture failed, Kidd and Livingstone would have had to pay back the full amount to the backers; with few suitable ships to attack, did he really resist the pressure from his mutinous crew?
- On arrival at St. Marie, how come the Pirate Robert Culliford managed to attack his much bigger ship and hold him captive (as Kidd claimed at his trial); and if the crew mutinied, how come both Kidd and the ship were left unharmed? Did he do some kind of deal with the pirates?
When asked at his trial if he had anything to say Kidd replied, "I have nothing to say, but that I have been sworn against by perjured and wicked people." Then the death sentence was pronounced. Kidd answered, "My Lord, it is a very hard sentence. For my part, I am the innocentest Person of them all..."* His eventual hanging was as grisly as described in the story.
Was there really any Treasure?
William Kidd and his Treasure
William Kidd is, perhaps, more famed in song and legend than any other pirate. But it was really the rumours of buried treasure that kept the legend alive.
Accounts given about Kidd refer to not one, but two, lots of buried treasure. It is known that Kidd buried treasure on Gardiner's Island, as this was later recovered. After arresting Kidd and his crew, Bellomont sent his men to Gardiner's Island to seize the concealed loot, estimated at the time to be worth £20,000 (around £2 million in today's value) including gold, gold dust and silver. However, there were rumours that he buried more than one stash in this area.
In addition, whilst being transported to England for trial, Kidd hinted of treasure, supposedly buried in the 'Indies', worth £100,000 (£10 million today). During the voyage to England, his hints were reported but ignored. Kidd continued to drop hints during his imprisonment and, whilst awaiting execution, even wrote to the House of Commons offering to take persons appointed by the House back to the Indies to recover the goods.
Was this his last desperate attempt to save his neck from the gallows? Kidd knew he would be required to declare plundered goods to Bellomont on his arrival in America, so did he decide to keep a slice of the wealth for himself, rather than declare everything? After all, at this time, he was not sure he would be arrested.
In the 1930s, two old charts reputed to be Kidd's were discovered. One 'Chart' was concealed in his wife's work box. He spent two weeks with his wife and step daughters in New York to prepare his account of events, before his meeting with Bellomont in Boston and ultimate arrest.
For many years, fortune seekers have hunted for his buried treasure in vain and Captain Kidd became the romantic, swashbuckling pirate of Western fiction. Among other stories concerning treasure he supposedly buried is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Gold Bug", as well as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Kidd is the pirate with the buried treasure.
Where exactly did Kidd mean when he referred to the "Indies"? Was there more undiscovered treasure on the coasts near America? Many places have claimed to be the treasure location; Oak Island in Canada and Long Island in New York, to name just two as well as the Mystery Island in the Indies. The questions will remain unanswered unless, one day, someone is lucky enough to find the hoard.