William Kidd

From New World Encyclopedia

William Kidd
c.1645—May 23, 1701
William Kidd.jpg
William Kidd
Type: Privateer
Place of birth: Flag of Scotland Greenock, Scotland
Place of death: Flag of England Wapping, England
Allegiance: Flag of England Kingdom of England

William "Captain" Kidd (c. 1645 – May 23, 1701) is remembered for his trial and execution for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean. Some modern historians deem his piratical reputation unjust, as there is evidence that Kidd acted only as a privateer. As long as he was harassing the French, the British authorities were happy to turn a blind eye. He was commissioned on several different occasions by the colonial government to clear pirates from the shipping lanes. In 1696, he was dispatched to the Indian Ocean to protect the ships of the British East India Company. It was after this voyage that he was accused of being a pirate. He was sensationally questioned before the English Parliament then tried for murder, found guilty and hanged. His exploits on the high seas, whether piratical or not, were both less destructive and less lucrative than those of many other contemporary pirates and privateers. However, his legacy passed into myth, legend and literature and will forever be associated with hidden treasure and adventure on the high seas. Despite his trial and execution, Kidd is mainly remembered as a likeable rascal and rogue rather than as a criminal or dangerous outlaw. His career was lived out in the early days of the imperial expansion of British power when the French and the Spanish especially were rivals. Even Walter Raleigh effectively engaged in piracy. What brought about kidd's downfall was the fact the the captain of the ship his crew pillaged was English, although the ship was Armenian. The authorities were happy provided that the victims were their competitors. Captain Kidd trod a thin line, as did others, betweem privateering and piracy.

Early life

According to most scholars, Kidd was born into a reputable family in Greenock, Scotland in 1645. However, recent genealogical research suggests that Kidd was born in Dundee, despite his 'death-row' claim to be from Greenock. After the death of his father when he was five, he moved to the colony of New York. He appears to have gone to sea as a youth, and to have engaged in privateering against the French in the Caribbean. In 1689, he may have been encouraged to harass the French by the British Governor of Navis. By 1690, he was captain of a vessel operating out of New York. He appears to have been recruited by the New York and Massachusetts colonial authorities to patrol the coastline and to clear it of pirates. Certainly, he enjoyed good relations with prominent colonial citizens, including three governors.[1]

In New York City, Kidd was also active in the building of Trinity Church, New York. The first building to house Trinity's worshipers was a modest rectangular structure with a gambrel roof and small porch. According to historical records, Captain Kidd lent his runner and tackle for hoisting the stones.[2]

During the War of the Grand Alliance, on orders from the province of New York, Massachusetts, he captured an enemy privateer on the New England coast and was also awarded £150 for successful privateering in the Caribbean. One year later, "Captain" Culliford, a notorious pirate, stole Kidd's ship while he was ashore at Antigua in the West Indies. In 1695, William III of England replaced the corrupt governor Benjamin Fletcher, known for accepting bribes of one hundred dollars to allow illegal trading of pirate loot, with Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont.

Preparing his expedition

On December 11, 1695, Coote, who was now governing New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, asked the "trusty and well beloved Captain Kidd" [3] to attack Thomas Tew, John Ireland, Thomas Wake, William Maze, and all others who associated themselves with pirates, along with any enemy French ships. This preceded the voyage which established his reputation as a pirate, and cemented his image in history and folklore.[4]

Four-fifths of the cost for the venture was paid for by noble lords, who were amongst the most powerful men in England; the Earl of Orford, The Baron of Romney, the Duke of Shrewsbury and Sir John Somers. Kidd was presented with a letter of marque signed personally by King William III of England. This letter reserved 10 percent of the loot for the Crown, and Henry Gilbert's The Book of Pirates suggests that the King may have fronted some of the money for the voyage himself. Kidd and an acquaintance, Colonel Robert Livingston, who orchestrated the whole plan, paid for the rest. Kidd had to sell his ship Antigua to raise funds.

The new ship, the Adventure Galley, was well suited to the task of catching pirates; weighing over 284 tons, it was equipped with 34 cannons, oars, and 150 men.[5] The oars were a key advantage as they would enable the Adventure Galley to maneuver in a battle when the winds had calmed and other ships were dead in the water. Kidd took pride in personally selecting the crew, choosing only those he deemed to be the best and most loyal officers. Unfortunately, soon after setting sail he was stopped by the HMS Duchess, whose captain was offended by Kidd's failure to fire the customary salute to his vessel, and retaliated by pressing much of Kidd's crew into naval service, despite rampant protests.[6] Thus short-handed, Kidd sailed for New York City, capturing a French vessel en route (which was legal under the terms of his commission). To make up for the lack of officers, Kidd picked up replacement crew in New York, the vast majority of whom were known and hardened criminals, some undoubtedly former pirates.

Among Kidd's officers was his quartermaster, Hendrick van der Heul. Among pirates of that era, the quartermaster was second in command to the captain; however it is not clear if van der Heul exercised this kind of responsibility because Kidd was nominally a privateer. Van der Heul is also noteworthy because he may have been African or African-American; a contemporary source describes him as a "small black Man." However, the meaning of this is not certain, as in late seventeenth-century usage the phrase "black Man" could mean either black-skinned or black-haired. If van der Heul was indeed of African ancestry, that would make him the highest ranking black pirate so far identified. Van der Heul went on to become a master's mate on a merchant vessel, and was never convicted of piracy.

Hunting for pirates

In September 1696, Kidd weighed anchor and set course for the Cape of Good Hope. However, more bad luck struck, and a third of his crew soon perished on the Comoros due to an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, the brand-new ship developed many leaks, and he failed to find the pirates he expected to encounter off Madagascar. Kidd then sailed to the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, one of the most popular haunts of rovers on the Pirate Round. Here he again failed to find any pirates. According to Edward Barlow, a captain employed by the British East India Company, Kidd attacked a Mughal convoy here under escort by Barlow's East Indiaman, and was beaten off. If the report is true, this marked Kidd's first foray into piracy.

As it became obvious his ambitious enterprise was failing he became understandably desperate to cover its costs. But, once again, Kidd failed to attack several ships when given a chance, including a Dutchman and New York privateer. Some of the crew deserted Kidd the next time the Adventure Galley anchored offshore, and those who decided to stay behind made constant open-threats of mutiny.

Howard Pyle's fanciful painting of Kidd and his ship, the Adventure Galley, in New York Harbor.

Kidd killed one of his own crewmen on October 30, 1697. While Kidd's gunner, William Moore, was on deck sharpening a chisel, a Dutch ship hove in sight. Moore urged Kidd to attack the Dutchman, an act not only piratical but also certain to anger the Dutch-born King William. Kidd refused, calling Moore a lousy dog. Moore retorted, "If I am a lousy dog, you have made me so; you have brought me to ruin and many more." Kidd snatched up and heaved an ironbound bucket at Moore. Moore fell to the deck with a fractured skull and died the following day.[7][8]

While seventeenth century English admiralty law allowed captains great leeway in using violence against their crew, outright murder was not permitted. But Kidd seemed unconcerned, later telling his surgeon that he had "good friends in England, that will bring me off for that."[9]

Accusations of Piracy

Acts of savagery on Kidd’s part were reported by escaped prisoners, who told of being hoisted up by the arms and drubbed with a naked cutlass. In truth, many of these acts were committed by his disobedient and mutinous crew. On one occasion, crewmembers ransacked the trading ship, Mary and tortured several crewmembers while Kidd and the other captain, Thomas Parker, conversed privately in Kidd's cabin. When Kidd found out what had happened, he was outraged and forced his men to return most of the stolen property.

Kidd was declared a pirate very early in his voyage by a Royal Navy officer to whom he had promised "thirty men or so."[3]Kidd sailed away during the night to preserve his crew, rather than subject them to Royal Navy impressment.

On January 30, 1698, he raised French colors and took his greatest prize, an Armenian ship, the 400-ton Quedah Merchant, which was loaded with satins, muslins, gold, silver, an incredible variety of East Indian merchandise, as well as extremely valuable silks. The captain of the Quedah Merchant was an Englishman named Wright, who had purchased passes from the French East India Company promising him the protection of the French Crown.[10] After realizing the captain of the taken vessel was an Englishman, Kidd tried to persuade his crew to return the ship to its owners, but they refused, claiming that their prey was perfectly legal as Kidd was commissioned to take French ships, and that an Armenian ship counted as French if it had French passes. In an attempt to maintain his tenuous control over his crew, Kidd relented and kept the prize.[11] When this news reached England, it confirmed Kidd's reputation as a pirate, and various naval commanders were ordered to “pursue and seize the said Kidd and his accomplices” for the "notorious piracies"[3] they had committed.

Kidd kept the French passes of the Quedah Merchant, as well as the vessel itself. While the passes were at best a dubious defense of his capture, British admiralty and vice-admiralty courts (especially in North America) had often winked at privateers' excesses into piracy, and Kidd may have been hoping that the passes would provide the legal "fig leaf" that would allow him to keep the Quedah Merchant and her cargo. Renaming the seized merchantman the Adventure Prize, he set sail for Madagascar.

On April 1, 1698, Kidd reached Madagascar. Here he found the first pirate of his voyage, Robert Culliford, (the same man who had stolen Kidd’s ship years before) and his crew aboard the Mocha Frigate. Probably realizing that his men would not attack Culliford's powerful vessel if ordered, Kidd anchored near the Mocha Frigate and made peaceful overtures to Culliford, promising him that he meant his fellow pirate no harm. Most of Kidd's men now abandoned him for Culliford. Only 13 remained with the Adventure Galley.[12]

Deciding to return home, Kidd left the Adventure Galley behind, ordering her to be burnt because she had become worm-eaten and leaky.[13] By burning the ship, he was able to salvage every last scrap of metal, for example hinges. With the loyal remnant of his crew, he returned home aboard the Adventure Prize.


Prior to Kidd returning to New York City, he learned that he was a wanted pirate, and that several English men-of-war were searching for him. Realizing that the Adventure Prize was a marked vessel, he cached it in the Caribbean Sea and continued toward New York aboard a sloop. He deposited some of his treasure on Gardiners Island, hoping to use his knowledge of its location as a bargaining tool with Bellomont.[14]

Bellomont (an investor) was away in Boston, Massachusetts. Aware of the accusations against Kidd, Bellomont was justifiably afraid of being implicated in piracy himself, and knew that presenting Kidd to England in chains was his best chance to save his own neck. He lured Kidd into Boston with false promises of clemency, then ordered him arrested on July 6, 1699.[15] Kidd was placed in Stone Prison, spending most of the time in solitary confinement. His wife, Sarah, was also imprisoned. The conditions of Kidd's imprisonment were extremely harsh, and appear to have driven him at least temporarily insane.[16]

He was eventually (after over a year) sent to England for questioning by Parliament. The new Tory ministry hoped to use Kidd as a tool to discredit the Whigs who had backed him, but Kidd refused to name names, naively confident his patrons would reward his loyalty by interceding on his behalf. Finding Kidd politically useless, the Tory leaders sent him to stand trial before the High Court of Admiralty in London for the charges of piracy on high seas and the murder of William Moore. Whilst awaiting trial, Kidd was confined in the infamous Newgate Prison and wrote several letters to King William requesting clemency.

He was tried without representation and was shocked to learn at trial that he was charged with murder. He was found guilty on all charges (murder and five counts of piracy) and was hanged on May 23, 1701, at "Execution Dock," Wapping, in London. During the execution, the hangman's rope broke and Kidd was hanged on the second attempt. His body was gibbeted—left to hang in an iron cage over the River Thames, London, as a warning to future would-be pirates for two years.[17]

Poems were written to commemorate the event and distributed widely. Below is one rumored to have been Kidd's farewell speech:

My name was Captain Kidd, when I sail'd, when I sail'd, And so wickedly I did, God's laws I did forbid, When I sail'd, when I sail'd. I roam'd from sound to sound, And many a ship I found, And then I sunk or burn'd, When I sail'd. I murder'd William Moore, And laid him in his gore, Not many leagues from shore, When I sail'd. Farewell to young and old, All jolly seamen bold, You're welcome to my gold, For I must die, I must die. Farewell to Lunnon town, The pretty girls all round, No pardon can be found, and I must die, I must die, Farewell, for I must die. Then to eternity, in hideous misery, I must lie, I must lie.

His associates Richard Barleycorn, Robert Lamley, William Jenkins, Gabriel Loffe, Able Owens, and Hugh Parrot were convicted, but pardoned just prior to hanging at Execution Dock.

Kidd's Whig backers were embarrassed by his trial. Far from rewarding his loyalty, they participated in the effort to convict him by depriving him of the money and information which might have provided him with some legal defense. In particular, the two sets of French passes he had kept were missing at his trial. These passes (and others dated 1700) resurfaced in the early twentieth century, misfiled with other government papers in a London building. These passes call the extent of Kidd's guilt into question. Along with the papers, many goods were brought from the ships and soon auctioned off as "pirate plunder." They were never mentioned in the trial. Nevertheless, none of these items would have prevented his conviction for murdering Moore.

Mythology and legend

The belief that Kidd left a buried treasure somewhere contributed considerably to the growth of his legend. This belief made its contribution to literature in Edgar Allan Poe's The Gold Bug, Washington Irving's The Devil and Tom Walker, Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, and Nelson DeMille's Plum Island. It also gave impetus to the never-ending treasure hunts on Oak Island in Nova Scotia, in Suffolk County, Long Island in New York where Gardiner's Island is located, Charles Island in Milford, Connecticut, and in the Thimble Islands in Connecticut.

Captain Kidd did bury a small cache of treasure on Gardiner's Island in a spot known as Cherry Tree Field; however, it was removed by Governor Bellomont and sent to England to be used as evidence against him.[18] [19]

Kidd also visited Block Island around 1699, where he was supplied by Mrs. Mercy (Sands) Raymond, daughter of the mariner James Sands. The story has it that, for her hospitality, Mrs. Raymond was bid to hold out her apron, into which Kidd threw gold and jewels until it was full. After her husband Joshua Raymond died, Mercy removed with her family to northern New London, Connecticut (later Montville), where she bought much land. The Raymond family was thus said to have been "enriched by the apron."

There is also a mention of Kidd attacking one of the Japanese islands of the Tokara archipelago, south of Kagoshima. It is the most southern island named Takarajima. The legend says that all the pirates requested food and cattle from the inhabitants of the island. Their offer was refused and thus 23 of the pirates landed and burned alive the inhabitants in a lime cave, while after, Kidd has hidden his treasure in one of the caves, for which he has never come back due to his execution in England.

In popular culture

  • The legend of Captain Kidd was made into a popular 1945 movie, Captain Kidd starring Charles Laughton as Kidd, Randolph Scott, Barbara Britton and John Carradine. The film portrays Kidd as a savvy and manipulative sociopath, ultimately undone by the son of a man whom he had killed. Laughton reprised his role in the comic Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952).
  • Anthony Dexter and Eva Gabor starred in the 1954 film Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl.
  • In J.M. Barrie's works on Peter Pan, the particular bay in the Neverland in which the pirate ship of Captain Hook lies, is called "Kidd's Creek."
  • Captain Kidd's legend is also the subject of a traditional English song, "Captain Kidd," which takes the form of Kidd reminiscing about a rather inaccurate version of his life. One recording of it may be found on the Waterson:Carthy album Fishes and Fine Yellow Sand. Another may be found on the Great Big Sea album The Hard and the Easy.
  • Children's author Robert Lawson wrote Captain Kidd's Cat (Little, Brown 1956), in which Kidd's cat McDermot tells the tale of Kidd's adventures on the high seas, arguing that Kidd was no pirate but was rather a victim of circumstances - and politics - beyond his control.
  • There are three heavy metal songs based on Kidd's adventures; two by Running Wild called "The Ballad of William Kidd" and "Adventure Galley," released on The Rivalry album (1998); and also by Scissorfight called "The Gibbetted Captain Kidd" on the album Balls Deep.
  • The time-travel card game Early American Chrononauts includes a card called Captain Kidd's Treasure Chest which players can symbolically acquire from the year 1699.
  • The 1980s British band Bucks Fizz recorded "The Land of Make Believe," a 1981 chart-topping song called which contains the line, "Captain Kidd's on the sand, with treasure close at hand."
  • The first single of the 2005 album The Hard and the Easy by Great Big Sea is "Captain Kidd" which chronicles the story of Captain William Kidd. The lyrics are derived from a traditional Newfoundland folk song supposedly sung during Kidd's time.
  • In the video game "Sid Meier's Pirates!," Captain Kidd is one of the nine other notorious pirates with whom the player competes.
  • Captain Kidd is also mentioned in the Relient K/Veggie Tales song "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything."
  • In Wildwood, New Jersey, the third weekend in May is known as "Captain Kidd's Weekend." During this weekend, children dig up small candy filled plastic treasure chests buried on the beach. Here, the name Kidd is a pun to the word "kid," meaning child.
  • In Corunna, Ontario, Canada, the first weekend in August is know as "Captain Kidd Days."
  • There is a pub, The Captain Kidd next to the Thames in the Wapping area of London, close to Execution Dock where Kidd was hanged.
  • Kidd is mentioned in Bob Dylan's 1965 song "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." In the fictional song, the Coast Guard asks Dylan/narrator his name, to which he replies: "And I said, 'Captain Kidd'/They believed me but they wanted to know what exactly that I did/I said for the Pope of Eruke I was employed/They let me go right away/They were very paranoid."
  • German pop band Dschinghis Khan recorded a song called "Käpt'n Kid (Wir sind Piraten)" in 1982, but released it on 2004's "Jubilee" album.
  • In 2006 the Celtic folk rock band [20]released an album called The Double Cross. The first song tells Captain Kidd's story from his point of view, with emphasis on how he was double-crossed by the English.
  • Kidd's buried treasure was uncovered in Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Gold Bug."
  • There is the Captain Kidd Bar that has been located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts for over 100 years.


William Kidd did not appear a likely candidate to evolve into a feared and ruthless pirate later in life, but this would prove to be his exact fate. Kidd came from a well-to-do background and only turned to the life of a pirate as a middle-aged man. Some argue that he never considered himself a pirate, instead only attempting to function as a privateer. Clearly, many of the dashing tales for which he is remembered have been embellished, thus his life remains highly shrouded in myth and legend.

See also

Pirates and privateers
Flag of Edward England.svg

Pirates • Privateers
Buccaneers • Corsairs
Barbary pirates • Wokou

Jolly Roger
Golden Age of Piracy
Timeline of piracy
List of pirate films

Piracy in the Caribbean
Piracy in the Strait of Malacca
Port Royal • Tortuga • Saint-Malo
Libertatia • Barbary Coast

Famous Pirates and Privateers:

Sir Francis DrakeSir Henry Morgan
Bartholomew Roberts • Grace O'Malley
Blackbeard • Redbeard
Anne Bonny • Mary Read
Robert Surcouf • René Duguay-Trouin
Stede Bonnet • Jean Bart
François l'Ollonais • William Kidd
Calico Jack Rackham • Henry Every
List of pirates

Naval officers:

Robert Maynard • Captain Ogle
William Rhett

  • Gardiners Island
  • Oak Island


  1. Barry Clifford. Return to Treasure Island and the Search for Captain Kidd (New York: William Morrow, 2003 ISBN 9780060185091), 5.
  2. Trinity Church, Historical Timeline, Historical Timeline. Retrieved November 1, 2007.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Cochran Hamilton, and American Heritage. Pirates of the Spanish Main (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1961).
  4. Clifford, 6.
  5. Clifford, 6, 45.
  6. Clifford, 49-50.
  7. David Cordingly. Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995 ISBN 9780679425601).
  8. Clifford, 72-74.
  9. Clifford, 74.
  10. Clifford, 84.
  11. Clifford, 86-87.
  12. Clifford, 100-03.
  13. Clifford, 124.
  14. Clifford, 157.
  15. Clifford, 157-162.
  16. Clifford, 178-181.
  17. Clifford, 208-214, 228-231, 244-446.
  18. Richard Zacks. The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd (New York: Hyperion Books, 2002 ISBN 9780786865338), 241.
  19. Zacks, 260.
  20. Debi Segal Gold, Tempest, Tempest. Retrieved November 1, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Campbell, William W. An historical sketch of Robin Hood and Captain Kidd. New York: Scribners, 1853. online An+historical+sketch+of+Robin+Hood+and+Captain+Kidd.&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=QCtu-6gMuJ&sig=BeMKyQ-qlkPmy_5TElaC4eipFDo&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result. Google books. Retrieved July 3, 2008.
  • Clifford, Barry. Return to Treasure Island and the Search for Captain Kidd. New York: William Morros, 2003. ISBN 0060185090
  • Cordingly, David. Under The Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company. 1995.
  • Dalton, Cornelius Neale. The Real Captain Kidd: A Vindication. New York: Duffield and Co., 1911.
  • Gilbert, Henry. The Book of Pirates. London: Bracken Books, (original 1916) reprint 1986.
  • Hamilton, Cochran and American Heritage. Pirates of the Spanish Main. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1961.
  • Gold, Debi Segal. Tempest Tempest. Retrieved November 1, 2007.
  • Trinity Church. Historical Timeline Historical Timeline. Retrieved November 1, 2007.
  • Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd. New York: Hyperion Books, 2002. ISBN 0786884517

External links

All links retrieved May 10, 2023.


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