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Captain Kidd - Man and Myth

Captain Kidd - Man and Myth

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Published by Paul J Bristow
A short booklet giving a colourful overview of the life and legend of notorious pirate and privateer, Captain William Kidd. The leaflet was produced in 2005 and dstributed freely to local schools and libraries. Supported by Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland.
A short booklet giving a colourful overview of the life and legend of notorious pirate and privateer, Captain William Kidd. The leaflet was produced in 2005 and dstributed freely to local schools and libraries. Supported by Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland.

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Published by: Paul J Bristow on May 09, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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“I have nothing to say, but that I have beensworn against by perjured and wicked people.
Folk Hero?
Kidd’s legacy lives on, acontroversial character longafter his death, Kidd’s Greenocklineage was recently called intoquestion, and Dundee claimedthe pirate as their own. A shrewdmove on the part of Dundee citycouncil’s tourist board! Yet mostfolk would maintain that Kidd’sbirthplace is Jamaica Street inGreenock. We even have a directdescendant still living in the town.One local legend suggests thatKidd’s father was a covenantingminister, responsible for some of the baptisms at the CovenantersWell in Larkfield. Perhaps Kiddhimself was baptised there. Today,at the site of execution dock youcan find “The Captain Kidd”, apub dedicated to his immortalmemory. London folk legends talkof his ghost still wandering atthe Wapping dockside. Treasurehunters sail around the Caribbeanin search of his ill gotten gainsand in Boston, schoolchildren aretaken on “treasure tours” whichuse stories of Kidd’s journeys toteach history and geography. Fortoo long Kidd has been Greenock’svery own buried treasure,appreciated far beyond the shoresof his hometown. Perhaps now,we can start to celebrate our linkswith this legendary character.
Keep Your Heritage Alive
William James Kidd was the son of a strictPresbyterian minister, and it has oftenbeen suggested that Kidd’s piracy was anact of rebellion against his overbearingfather. Certainly, the fact that he lived insuch a busy seaport town like Greenockwould have made a life on the open seaa more tempting proposition. No exactdate is known for the beginning of Kidd’sseafaring career, although by 1690 hehad become established as a shipownerin colonial New York, presumably havingspent the intervening years on the highseas.In 1695 Kidd, known only as a well-to-do New York colonist, returned to Britainhoping to serve his King as captain of aRoyal Navy warship. While Kidd waitedin England for a vessel to command,the Whig-dominated Board of Tradepondered a related concern--the pirateswho were disrupting commerce betweenEngland and her Indian colonies. TheKing’s advisors decided that what wasneeded was an aggressive privateer whocould battle the pirates on their ownterms, and perhaps prey on a few Frenchmerchantmen as the opportunity arose.Fatefully enough the Board reached thisconclusion almost as Kidd came knocking onthe door, asking for a ship to command.Kidd was intially unwillingly to accept,wishing to hold out for a more legitimatecommission in the Royal Navy. Howeverhis reluctance was interpreted as a signof disloyalty towards the King and it washinted that shoud he refuse, he would haveno hope of ever obtaining a post in the KingsNavy. Thus Kidd was persuaded to acceptthe position of an officiated privateer.This commission, issued by King Williamhimself, granted Kidd the power toapprehend “pirates, free-booters, andsea-rovers, being our subjects or of othernations associated with them.” The bootytaken from these pirates would be returnedto Boston, where it would be divided amongthe principals in this venture. This ideawould be backed by the king, because analarming rise in piracy was putting a crimp inEngland’s supply line. If the King could see away of reducing piracy while contributing tohis own dwindling money supply, he wouldsurely take it.If Kidd encountered any resistance fromthe pirates, he was encouraged “by forceto compel them to yield.” He was alsogiven a special “commission of reprisals”that justified his taking French ships, anauthorization given to him because Englandwas involved in a war with France.There was one condition to the agreement;Kidd was ordered never to attack the shipsof an country allied with the English. TheBoard commissioned the building of thenow famous Adventure Galley, a 287-ton,34-cannon ship, for £6,000. With a crewof 80, Kidd left Plymouth in February 1696and by August, there were eight wealthypartners reaping the benefits of Kidd’sreprisals against piracy, including KingWilliam, who received 10 percent of thedivided booty in an underhand deal struckwith the partners. His eventual destinationwould be Madagascar, home of the mostnotorious pirates in the world. Avoidingthe normal pirate haunts, he arrived byFebruary 1697 at the Comoro Islands off East Africa. Some time after his arrivalthere, Kidd, still robbed of the gloryof having taken a prize ship, decided toturn to piracy. In August 1697 he made anattack on ships sailing with Mocha coffeefrom Yemen, which proved unsuccessful,although he later captured several smallships. His crew came close to mutiny twomonths later, when Kidd refused to attacka Dutch ship, and in an angry exchangeKidd mortally wounded one of his crew. Amost vocal member of the crew, gunnerWillam Moore, had long complained aboutKidd’s lack of aggression. The two arguedconstantly about the nature of theircommission - an angry exchange whichfinally ended in Kidd dealing a fatal blowto the man with a wooden bucket. Themurder decreased Kidd’s popularity amongthe crew and he realised that his reign ascaptain would soon come to an end if hedid not start raiding ships and bringing inthe booty. Thus he threw caution to thewind in his reckless pursuit of treasure.His first victim was the Armenian ship“Quedagh Merchant”, taken by Kidd inJanuary 1698. This was the final straw forKidd, and when he reached the West Indiesin April 1699, he learned that he had beendenounced as a pirate. Taken into custodyin New York, Kidd was sent back to Englandfor trial, where he was unable to convincethe authorities of his innocence.
Buried Treasure
Transcripts of the trial and Kidd’s last wordswere quickly distributed as pamphlets.Also published on the day of his executionwas “Captain Kidd’s Farewell to the Seas”,a song which – ironically – records Kidd’sregrets on the gallows as he lists his manycrimes and asks forgiveness for them all. Itstarted life as an almost religious penitentialballad, but has darkened down the yearsto become a more lusty celebration of hiscrimes. These pamphlets, legends andballads found wider appeal through DanielDefoe – author of Robinson Crusoe. Defoeembellished Kidd’s legend, combining factwith fiction and attributing crimes to himthat had been committed by other pirates.While tales of Kidd’s violent exploits werepopular, no legend was more enchantingthan the mystery of his buried treasure.These stories were particularly popular inAmerica, indeed, while living in New York,Kidd himself had encouraged rumours of his“hidden wealth”. It was thought that Kiddhad stashed his booty somewhere betweenIndia and Boston. By 1750, hopeful treasurehunters had dug up almost every point of land and island along the New York coast.The most likely candidate was thought tobe Oak Island, the famous “money pit”,believed to be riddled with secret mines andbooby traps, treasure aficionados still digthere to this day. Kidd was the first pirate tobe associated with “buried treasure”, and itwas these popularised legends Robert LouisStevenson had in mind when he came towrite Treasure Island.
The Trial Of Captain Kidd
Today, a mention of Captain Kidd brings the image of a swashbucklingpirate immediately to mind. Most film buffs can visualise Captain Kiddas played by Charles Laughton in the classic 1945 motion picture,which also included Randolph Scott, Barbara Brittion, and JohnCarradine in its all-star cast. In that mythological account, Captain Kiddwas characterised as “the most ruthless pirate of all.” Others knowCaptain Kidd only as a metaphor for lawless piracy - a man bigger thanlife, whose long criminal career consisted solely of pirating dozens, if not hundreds of ships.The real Captain Kidd is both far more interesting and complex andconsiderably less swashbuckling. Essentially, Captain William Kidd wasa buisnessman who devoted most of his career to conveying cargoacross the seas.The charges which finally brought Kidd to trial and a gruesome endat Execution Dock all grew out of William Kidd’s brief interlude as analleged “pirate” following a long and distinguished career as a law-abiding ship captain who served his nation well. Nor was it undisputed,either as a matter of law or history, that Kidd did, in fact, engagein piracy. At his trial, he defended himself on the ground that theships he attacked were enemies of Great Britain and proper objects of hostility. He defended against the murder charge by claiming that thevictim had engaged in mutiny. Not only were the trials not open andshut, there is a plausible claim that Kidd may have been innocent of at least some of the charges, and there is a powerful claim that he wasdenied a fair trial. Among the more interesting issues in the CaptainKidd affair is the blurred line between lawful hostility against enemymerchant ships and unlawful piracy.Captain Kidd was convicted on all charges and sentenced to be hanged.The bizarre circumstances accompanying his execution contributedmightily to his myth. When the trapdoor opened, the rope from whichCaptain Kidd was hanging broke. He fell to the ground alive andconcious. The minister who was attending the execution declaredthe breaking of the rope to be a divine act demonstrating the “greatmercy of God.” Yet Kidd was hanged again and “died game.”The legend of Captain Kidd persists. The reality, as is usually the case,is more interesting, if less dramatic.Alan M DershowitzProfessor of LawHarvard University

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