Robert C. Ritchie’s account of the brief and violent career of Captain William Kidd, the most famous (or notorious) pirate of the seventeenth century, separates him largely from the aura of romantic legend which attached to Kidd’s name after his death. There are gaps in the story because Kidd and most of the men who sailed and fought for or against him—and survived—were men of action and limited education who had either no interest in or ability at keeping orderly records of their actions and their lives. After Kidd’s capture he wrote about himself and what he had done, but he was trying then to save his neck and thus his writing is suspect. In his desperation, he found it easy to lie or to claim that others had lied about or double-crossed him.
Piracy had been practiced for centuries before Kidd took it up. Greek and Roman historians reported it. Viking piracy flourished in the North Atlantic during the Middle Ages. At the end of the seventeenth century, William Kidd was only one among many whose depredations endangered or snuffed out the lives of sailors, ship passengers, and slaves; who stole cargoes; and who burned or sank ships belonging to merchant companies in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
Piracy falls into three categories. These include officially sanctioned piracy, commercial piracy, and marauding.
Sir Francis Drake’s famed round-the-world voyage from 1577 to 1579, which included attacks on Spanish ships, was actually a pirate voyage, but he shared his rich plunder with Queen Elizabeth, and she honored him as an English patriot. Still, to the Spanish emperor he was a pirate. Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and secretary to both Elizabeth and James I, financed Richard Gifford’s piracy and received part of the spoils.
Piracy played a part in the early development of the empires of Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands as they followed in the wake of the earlier colonizers, Spain and Portugal. Since Spain could not guard all of its scattered territory in the New World, the English, French, and Dutch grabbed what they could get in the West Indies. Pirates roamed the Caribbean, usually avoiding the well-armed navy ships but attacking merchant ships, which lacked the firepower to protect themselves. The defeated ships were sometimes seized as prizes but were often destroyed after having been plundered.
The officially sanctioned pirates were dignified by the name privateers, and supposedly they were patriotically aiding their countries by privately supporting the hard-pressed navies during periods of war. Attacking merchant ships and removing their cargoes of varied goods and treasures could weaken an enemy country’s economy and hasten the end of a war. After peace had been achieved, though, many of the pirates were unwilling to give up actions which had produced excitement, adventure, and sometimes rich rewards. They had grown skillful, bloodthirsty, and greedy, and they turned to wholesale marauding.
The marauders first appeared in the Mediterranean about 1570. Later they cruised the Caribbean, around the southern tip of Africa, and into the Indian Ocean. Ritchie remarks that they “wandered the seas, dividing and coalescing like amoebas.”
Almost nothing is known of the life of William Kidd before he began his career of piracy, which lasted a little more than a decade and ended with his hanging in London in 1701. According to tradition, he was born in Greenock, Scotland, about 1645, into the family of a Presbyterian minister. When he first appeared in records he was a buccaneer in the Caribbean. A short time later, he was captain of the Blessed William (for the British king William of Orange), a twenty-gun ship renamed after having been stolen from the French members of a French-English crew by the English sailors, and serving as a privateer under orders from Captain Thomas Hewetson of the Royal Navy ship Lion.
Captain Kidd’s shift from privateering to marauding occurred during a time of political turmoil and the early economic and geographic development of England from a small island nation into a far-ranging and rich empire. England and France were at war, and the ships of the two nations often engaged in battles as they sailed to and from the New and the Old World. Some attacks were made on ships anchored in harbors while part of their crews were ashore, leaving the ships nearly defenseless either to fight or to flee. Both England and France were establishing colonies on Caribbean islands and on mainland America. The rapidly developing English navy needed increasing numbers of ships and men for the sea wars. Private ships frequently supplemented those of the regular navy in the warfare. Often sailors from either merchant or pirate ships were impressed into naval service after losses from battle, accidents, or disease.
Kidd fought successfully against several French ships in the Caribbean, but his men stole the Blessed William while he was ashore at Nevis. Then, given a new ship, the Antigua, by Christopher Codrington, governor of Antigua, Kidd sailed for New York and in 1690 aided the new governor there, Colonel Henry Sloughter, in capturing the city following an insurrection.
In 1691, in New York, Kidd married a rich widow, and for a time he settled down as a peaceful burgher, fathering two daughters. The lure of adventure and profit was too strong to resist, though, and in 1695 he set sail in the Antigua for London to seek a royal commission as a privateer.
Backed by several wealthy English partners and armed with a commission both to prey on enemy merchantmen and to hunt pirates, Kidd in 1696 sailed in a new ship, the Adventure Galley, in search of possible rich rewards. First, however, he returned to New...
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