Back in 1701, one dark, windswept night, a young man hastened up the coast road to Tilbury Point. As he got nearer, a dark shape came into view. He raised his lantern to take a closer look and a gruesome sight met his eyes. It was a body, well rotted and covered in tar. The body was held in a metal cage attached to an iron gibbet. As the wind blew, the cage swung and the old chains creaked and groaned, almost as if the body itself was moaning.
The young man looked away. Although this was what he had come to see, he was still trembling. The fearful spectacle was all that remained of William Kidd, a pirate who had sailed the seas in search of riches. One question, however, remained unsolved; exactly where had Captain Kidd buried the treasure he had acquired?
William Kidd had not set out to be a pirate. In fact, he had been employed to rid the seas of piracy. Born in 1645, in Greenock, Scotland, William was just a youth when he first went to sea. For many years he sailed the seas, in various ships, until he became the Captain of the English privateer vessel, The Blessed William.
Governments authorised privateers to attack ships of countries seen as enemies (unlike pirates that attacked every ship for personal gain).
In this role, William sailed the Caribbean hunting for illegal pirates and French shipping. He attacked several French ships near Nevis, but one day Kidd's crew, fearing for their safety, stole the ship while Kidd was ashore. Captain Kidd was given another ship, the Antigua, and chased them to New York, a city then in the grip of civil war.
Kidd joined the winning side and, in 1691, married a wealthy young widow - Sarah Bradley Cox Oort. The marriage brought him plenty of money and power but he could not settle down. Together with Robert Livingston, an ambitious businessman, he sailed to London to meet Richard Coote, the Earl of Bellomont, who had recently become Governor of New York and Massachusetts.
These two persuaded some of most powerful noblemen in England to give the captaincy of a new powerful ship, The Adventure Galley, to their 'trustworthy and beloved' friend, William Kidd. Captain Kidd's mission was to capture enemy French vessels and all involved with piracy around Madagascar.
Standing on the ship's deck, Captain Kidd looked around with pride at the 300 tonne vessel, which was equipped with 80 men and 34 powerful battle cannons. However trouble lay ahead, for he was not the luckiest or wisest of men.
In May, 1696, the ship set sail. Almost immediately, it was stopped by a Royal Navy frigate that press-ganged many of the hand-picked crew into service. Captain Kidd decided he needed a more battle hardened crew for his dangerous mission. So he recruited a gang of cut-throats in New York and, unwisely, offered to give them 60 percent of all the booty they captured as privateers.
His new crew were hard, fighting men; many had been pirates. They were loyal to the pirate code but soon came into conflict with their captain. He had promised them a share of the booty but they were forbidden to attack most of the ships that passed by.
As ship after ship passed by unharmed, the men became more restless. Then more bad luck struck: cholera raged through the ship killing over a third of the crew and the brand-new ship developed many leaks.
By the time they reached the Malabar Coast, the men were becoming very angry indeed, especially the ship's gunner William Moore.
One day, while Moore was on deck sharpening a chisel, a British Merchant vessel sailed into view. The gunner rounded on Captain Kidd, "Well cap'n", he said; "tis your choice. We either take that ship or your ship".
The crew fell silent.
"Well, we're waiting", said the gunner.
"You lousy dog," Kidd retorted.
"If I'm a lousy dog, you have made me so; for you have brought me to ruin, and many more," replied the gunner.
The argument raged and soon came to blows. Suddenly the Captain snatched up a heavy iron ship's bucket and heaved it at Moore. The gunner fell to the deck, dead. The revolt was over but not forgotten.
Shortly afterwards, a huge Armenian treasure ship, The Quedagh Merchant, sailing under the French flag came into view. Although the captain of the much larger vessel gave the sign of surrender, it was a trap.
As Kidd's ship neared, the merchant vessel fired. Luckily, a sudden ocean swell meant the shot missed its mark. Reacting with great speed, the pirates threw grappling hooks to bring the two ships together. They boarded the ship with cutlasses and knives drawn.
Soon Captain Kidd was in possession of one of the greatest pirate treasures ever.
The ship was loaded with silks, satins, muslins, gold coins, silver, iron, guns and an incredible variety of East Indian merchandise. Unfortunately, the Armenian ship's Captain was an Englishman named Wright, sailing under French protection, and a great deal of the booty belonged to the powerful British East India Company.
Despite that, to maintain his control over his crew, Kidd decided to keep the prize. The British East India Company was very angry and spread rumours of Kidd's exploits far and wide. With each retelling, his actions grew more vicious. Kidd's backers abandoned him and he was declared a pirate. Naval commanders were ordered to pursue and seize Captain Kidd and his crew.
Unaware of the trouble brewing, Kidd burned the leaky Adventure Galley and set sail in the Quedah Merchant, renamed the Adventure Prize. Kidd's crew shared out the rich cargo.
On reaching Madagascar, Kidd found the pirate, Robert Culliford, and his crew sailing the Mocha Frigate. Kidd ordered his men to capture the Frigate. Instead his men (themselves mostly pirates) mutinied and joined the others. Only 13 of Kidd's crew remained loyal.
Captain Kidd left in November 1698 and sailed homewards, towards New York, and into more trouble. He narrowly escaped capture in Anguilla, in the West Indies, where he learned that he had been declared a pirate. Leaving the Adventure Prize at the island of Hispaniola, he set sail in a small sloop, The Antonio, to New York City, hoping to get a pardon from his old friend, Governor Coote.
But, worried about the safety of his booty, one night he anchored off a deserted stretch of coast. With a few trusted men, he loaded up a small sailing boat with the rich plunder and a shovel. In the shadows of the moonlight, he rowed ashore and carefully carried the treasure inland. A while later, he returned to the ship and sailed on to New York.
Coote had him arrested when he entered town in July 1699. Kidd and his crew were thrown into Stone Prison until being shipped, in chains, to England, to await trial in Newgate Prison.
On May 8th 1701, Captain Kidd was tried for piracy on the high seas and the murder of William Moore.
To save their own lives, two of his crew turned 'Kings Evidence' and reported acts of savagery on Kidd's part. They claimed they were hoisted up by their arms and beaten with a cutlass - acts really committed by his mutinous, cut-throat crew. The rich noblemen, who had backed Kidd, were embarrassed by his trial and refused to help him. Kidd was convicted of all charges. His crew were also convicted but later pardoned.
It was late afternoon, on 23rd May, and a great crowd lined the Wapping streets eager to see the now infamous pirate meet his death.
Kidd drank a considerable amount of rum on the three-mile procession to Execution Dock. As the rope was placed around his neck, the excited mob screamed for his blood. Standing, arms bound on the gallows, he denounced his backers, Livingston and Coote, as villains.
As his slurred words died away, the cart was drawn from the scaffold. William Kidd dropped, the rope snapped and he fell to the mud flats below. Shocked, badly bruised and in great pain, the unfortunate Kidd was man-handled back on to the gallows, to be executed again. First though, they cut his fingers off, in payment for the bad things he had done. This time the rope held, to the cheers of the crowd.
His body was left on the scaffold for the River Thames to wash over it three times, as was the custom. Then his corpse was dipped in pitch tar and hung in an iron cage along the Thames at Tilbury point. Here it stayed for over two years, until it was totally rotted and picked clean by the birds: "As a great Terrour to all Persons from Committing ye like Crimes".
Rumour soon spread of the vast fortune Kidd was meant to have buried before reaching New York. And, just like the young man that visited his corpse that dark windswept night, many sailed in search of the treasure, often never to return.
For it seems that the gold and jewels that brought misfortune and death to Captain Kidd was a cursed cargo. The mystery still continues to this day. In the 1930's two maps, thought to be Captain Kidd's, were found hidden in some old furniture but the treasure itself has never been discovered.