Folk Hero?

Kidd’s legacy lives on, a controversial character long after his death, Kidd’s Greenock lineage was recently called into question, and Dundee claimed the pirate as their own. A shrewd move on the part of Dundee city council’s tourist board! Yet most folk would maintain that Kidd’s birthplace is Jamaica Street in Greenock. We even have a direct descendant still living in the town. One local legend suggests that Kidd’s father was a covenanting minister, responsible for some of the baptisms at the Covenanters Well in Larkfield. Perhaps Kidd himself was baptised there. Today, at the site of execution dock you can find “The Captain Kidd”, a pub dedicated to his immortal memory. London folk legends talk of his ghost still wandering at the Wapping dockside. Treasure hunters sail around the Caribbean in search of his ill gotten gains and in Boston, schoolchildren are taken on “treasure tours” which use stories of Kidd’s journeys to teach history and geography. For too long Kidd has been Greenock’s very own buried treasure, appreciated far beyond the shores of his hometown. Perhaps now, we can start to celebrate our links with this legendary character.

Captain Kidd
Man and Myth

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“I have nothing to say, but that I have been sworn against by perjured and wicked people.”

conclusion almost as Kidd came knocking on the door, asking for a ship to command. Kidd was intially unwillingly to accept, wishing to hold out for a more legitimate commission in the Royal Navy. However his reluctance was interpreted as a sign of disloyalty towards the King and it was hinted that shoud he refuse, he would have no hope of ever obtaining a post in the Kings Navy. Thus Kidd was persuaded to accept the position of an officiated privateer. This commission, issued by King William himself, granted Kidd the power to apprehend “pirates, free-booters, and sea-rovers, being our subjects or of other nations associated with them.” The booty taken from these pirates would be returned to Boston, where it would be divided among the principals in this venture. This idea would be backed by the king, because an alarming rise in piracy was putting a crimp in England’s supply line. If the King could see a way of reducing piracy while contributing to

his own dwindling money supply, he would surely take it. If Kidd encountered any resistance from the pirates, he was encouraged “by force to compel them to yield.” He was also given a special “commission of reprisals” that justified his taking French ships, an authorization given to him because England was involved in a war with France. There was one condition to the agreement; Kidd was ordered never to attack the ships of an country allied with the English. The Board commissioned the building of the now famous Adventure Galley, a 287-ton, 34-cannon ship, for £6,000. With a crew of 80, Kidd left Plymouth in February 1696 and by August, there were eight wealthy partners reaping the benefits of Kidd’s reprisals against piracy, including King William, who received 10 percent of the divided booty in an underhand deal struck with the partners. His eventual destination would be Madagascar, home of the most

William James Kidd was the son of a strict Presbyterian minister, and it has often been suggested that Kidd’s piracy was an act of rebellion against his overbearing father. Certainly, the fact that he lived in such a busy seaport town like Greenock would have made a life on the open sea a more tempting proposition. No exact date is known for the beginning of Kidd’s seafaring career, although by 1690 he had become established as a shipowner in colonial New York, presumably having spent the intervening years on the high seas. In 1695 Kidd, known only as a well-todo New York colonist, returned to Britain hoping to serve his King as captain of a Royal Navy warship. While Kidd waited in England for a vessel to command, the Whig-dominated Board of Trade pondered a related concern--the pirates who were disrupting commerce between England and her Indian colonies. The King’s advisors decided that what was needed was an aggressive privateer who could battle the pirates on their own terms, and perhaps prey on a few French merchantmen as the opportunity arose. Fatefully enough the Board reached this

notorious pirates in the world. Avoiding the normal pirate haunts, he arrived by February 1697 at the Comoro Islands off East Africa. Some time after his arrival there, Kidd, still robbed of the glory of having taken a prize ship, decided to turn to piracy. In August 1697 he made an attack on ships sailing with Mocha coffee from Yemen, which proved unsuccessful, although he later captured several small ships. His crew came close to mutiny two months later, when Kidd refused to attack a Dutch ship, and in an angry exchange Kidd mortally wounded one of his crew. A most vocal member of the crew, gunner Willam Moore, had long complained about Kidd’s lack of aggression. The two argued constantly about the nature of their commission - an angry exchange which finally ended in Kidd dealing a fatal blow to the man with a wooden bucket. The murder decreased Kidd’s popularity among the crew and he realised that his reign as captain would soon come to an end if he did not start raiding ships and bringing in the booty. Thus he threw caution to the wind in his reckless pursuit of treasure. His first victim was the Armenian ship “Quedagh Merchant”, taken by Kidd in January 1698. This was the final straw for Kidd, and when he reached the West Indies in April 1699, he learned that he had been denounced as a pirate. Taken into custody in New York, Kidd was sent back to England for trial, where he was unable to convince the authorities of his innocence.

The Trial Of Captain Kidd
Today, a mention of Captain Kidd brings the image of a swashbuckling pirate immediately to mind. Most film buffs can visualise Captain Kidd as played by Charles Laughton in the classic 1945 motion picture, which also included Randolph Scott, Barbara Brittion, and John Carradine in its all-star cast. In that mythological account, Captain Kidd was characterised as “the most ruthless pirate of all.” Others know Captain Kidd only as a metaphor for lawless piracy - a man bigger than life, 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 and considerably less swashbuckling. Essentially, Captain William Kidd was a buisnessman who devoted most of his career to conveying cargo across the seas. The charges which finally brought Kidd to trial and a gruesome end at Execution Dock all grew out of William Kidd’s brief interlude as an alleged “pirate” following a long and distinguished career as a lawabiding ship captain who served his nation well. Nor was it undisputed, either as a matter of law or history, that Kidd did, in fact, engage in piracy. At his trial, he defended himself on the ground that the ships he attacked were enemies of Great Britain and proper objects of hostility. He defended against the murder charge by claiming that the victim had engaged in mutiny. Not only were the trials not open and shut, 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 was denied a fair trial. Among the more interesting issues in the Captain Kidd affair is the blurred line between lawful hostility against enemy merchant ships and unlawful piracy. Captain Kidd was convicted on all charges and sentenced to be hanged. The bizarre circumstances accompanying his execution contributed mightily to his myth. When the trapdoor opened, the rope from which Captain Kidd was hanging broke. He fell to the ground alive and concious. The minister who was attending the execution declared the breaking of the rope to be a divine act demonstrating the “great mercy 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 Dershowitz Professor of Law Harvard University

Buried Treasure
Transcripts of the trial and Kidd’s last words were quickly distributed as pamphlets. Also published on the day of his execution was “Captain Kidd’s Farewell to the Seas”, a song which – ironically – records Kidd’s regrets on the gallows as he lists his many crimes and asks forgiveness for them all. It started life as an almost religious penitential ballad, but has darkened down the years to become a more lusty celebration of his crimes. These pamphlets, legends and ballads found wider appeal through Daniel Defoe – author of Robinson Crusoe. Defoe embellished Kidd’s legend, combining fact with fiction and attributing crimes to him that had been committed by other pirates. While tales of Kidd’s violent exploits were popular, no legend was more enchanting than the mystery of his buried treasure. These stories were particularly popular in America, indeed, while living in New York, Kidd himself had encouraged rumours of his “hidden wealth”. It was thought that Kidd had stashed his booty somewhere between India and Boston. By 1750, hopeful treasure hunters had dug up almost every point of land and island along the New York coast. The most likely candidate was thought to be Oak Island, the famous “money pit”, believed to be riddled with secret mines and booby traps, treasure aficionados still dig there to this day. Kidd was the first pirate to be associated with “buried treasure”, and it was these popularised legends Robert Louis Stevenson had in mind when he came to write Treasure Island.

My name was William Kidd; God’s laws I did forbid, And so wickedly I did, When I sailed. My parents taught me well, To shun the gates of hell, But against them I rebelled, When I sailed. I spied three ships from Spain, I looted them for gain, Till most of them were slain, As I sailed.

Pop Pirate
Stories of Kidd’s buried treasure were adapted into the new wave of American romantic literature in stories by Washington Irving, James Fenmore Cooper and later, Edgar Allan Poe. The work of Washington Irving was fundamental to bringing a sense of “mythology” to the new world of the Americas. “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” were among his most popular stories. Kidd – who had spent most of his life in America – became a part of this folk patchwork. For this reason, Kidd is better known in America than he is here, a legendary “bogeyman” who still finds his way into children’s stories. No surprise then, that Hollywood has plundered his legend before. Charles Laughton played the misguided Kidd in the 1945 film – recently re-released on DVD. A slew of sequels followed, “Captain Kidd and the Slave Girl”, “Captain Kidd Against All Flags” and the final indignity “Abbott and Costello meet Captain Kidd”.

I’d ninety bars of gold, And dollars manifold, With riches uncontrolled, As I sailed. Thus being o’ertaken at last, And into prison cast, And sentence being passed, As I sailed. My repentance lasted not, My vows I soon forgot, Damnation was my lot, As I sailed, Here lies William Kidd, A hero from Greenock town In spite of all the things he did He never let us down Here Lies William Kidd Come all ye young and old,, You’re welcome to my gold, For by it I’ve lost my soul, And must die. Take a warning now by me, And shun bad company, Lest you come to hell with me, For I must die.

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