- Dundee History Archive, People & Politics
- 17th century, people of Dundee, pirates, treasure, William Kidd
Although piracy has been around almost as long as the act of sailing itself, the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy was between the 15th and 18th centuries. Our tale lands us near the end of this era, with the rise and fall of a man from Dundee called William Kidd. William Kidd was born in January of 1645, as identified by Dr David Robson, who found records of his baptism naming his birthplace as Dundee. It is not known whether or not Kidd and his family remained in Dundee after Kidd’s birth, but if they did, then they would have undoubtedly bore witness to the siege of General Monck in 1651. William would have only been 6 years old at the time the town was laid to waste by English forces.
What is known is that his father, Captain John Kyd, was lost at sea and his family were supported by a local society (perhaps a religious society?) in the years following the disappearance. It should be of no surprise that William found himself following in his father’s footsteps, turning to a life at sea. As an apprentice aboard a pirate’s ship, he quickly found his feet, gaining valuable skills that would serve him well in years to come. Kidd eventually became captain as the result of a mutiny aboard the ship on which he was sailing, which saw him rise to the position over his peers. Under new rule, the ship was renamed Blessed William and became part of a small fleet of ships tasked with defending the British colony of Nevis from French attacks.
Kidd’s new life as a privateer served him very well, and he found himself in a world of influential and very powerful people. By rights, privateers were not pirates. They were given special dispensation by their governments to attack enemy ships, without fear of reprisal. In doing so, the privateers were allowed to keep whatever items, artefacts and jewels they found upon boarding. It was whilst in New York at the age of 46 that he happened to cross paths with a young English woman called Sarah. Although she was only in her early twenties, Sarah had already been widowed twice, and was one of the wealthiest women in New York at the time, mainly due to an inheritance from her dead husband. The fact that they applied for a marriage license merely 2 days after the death of her most recent husband sent the rumour mills into overdrive. With her reputation as somewhat of a black widow, you would have thought Kidd may have thought twice about marrying her, but that wasn’t that case. It wasn’t much of a leap in thinking for people to assume Kidd may have worked with his new bride to kill her husband, but despite this, they still maintained their circle of influence.
A few years after this, in 1695, he was tasked with hunting the seas with the intent of attacking anyone who associated with pirates, as well as any French ships (whom we were at war with at the time). His skills as a privateer were highly thought of, and he had access to financial backers in the form of English aristocracy. His papers, signed by King William III laid out the terms and conditions of his privateering, guaranteeing no legal ramifications (provided he stay within the terms of the King’s wishes). With his finest men prepared, Kidd almost managed to get the ship into open waters until an incident involving a Navy vessel saw many of the men pressganged off the ship and forced into naval service. It seems that Kidd and his men did not show respect to the Navy yacht at Greenwich and instead, slapped their backsides at them when a warning shot was fired over their hull for their disregard of naval custom. In another later altercation, Kidd agreed that some “thirty or so men” would be surrendered to the Navy, but, as soon as he could, he set sail, saving those of his crew who had not been forced off the ship. This act would soon come back to haunt him in ways he could not have imagined.
Undeterred by his unexpected decline in men, Kidd sailed for New York, where he picked up a new crew – a real motley bunch if ever there was one. With his newly-acquired crew of hardened criminals with highly dubious credentials, Kid set sail for South Africa in a French ship he had captured on his travels to New York. Despite his best efforts in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, Kidd failed to find any pirates. Many of his crew died of cholera on a small archipelago off the East coast of Africa. These setbacks are alleged to have angered the crew, who tried to coax Kidd into attacking ships over which he had no Royal protection. Kidd murdered one of his own crew in broad daylight with a metal bucket for daring to suggest they attack a Dutch ship, then calling Kidd out on his cowardice when he refused. Murder of a crewmember was most definitely not permissible under admiralty law, but Kidd seemed to think that his supporters in England would not see him charged for it, under the circumstances. Unfortunately for Kidd, his reputation was already beginning to take a turn for the worse and his crew were beginning to get out of control, irrespective of his best efforts to contain them.
In early 1698, he captured the Armenian ship Quedagh Merchant, laden with fine materials, metals and jewels. Under normal circumstances, the capture of an Armenian ship would have been acceptable, especially as the crew were carrying papers offering them protection under the French Crown. Once Kidd realised that the captain was travelling under English, he tried to convince his crew to return the ship, but they refused to comply, stating that the ship was travelling on French passes and was therefore French. Kidd relented, keeping the vessel. What happened to the crew, we don’t know, but judging by some reports of what happened to the crew of ships Kidd’s men boarded, the outcome was probably fairly grim. Regardless of Kidd’s logic in his handling of the Quedagh Merchant fiasco, news quickly travelled back to England that Kidd had captured and kept the Armenian vessel, and an order was given to pursue and seize the piratical Kidd and his criminal crew.
Even though word had reached him that he was to be tracked down and brought before the courts to face charges of piracy, Kidd still managed to have a couple of wee adventures before he eventually sneaked back to New York. He managed to have a bit of a showdown with one of his old enemies, which resulted in most of his mutinous crew abandoning him for his rival, and, with a severe lack of crewmen, found himself sailing the Caribbean in another, smaller vessel, the Adventure Prize, before sailing to New York aboard an even smaller sailboat called a sloop. It was whilst on this journey that Kidd famously deposited some of his loot, inspiring generations to come with tales of buried treasure and fictitious pirates of the High Seas. Kidd is the only pirate ever known to have actually buried treasure. Whether every pirate did it or not, we will never know, but Kidd is the only one on record to say he had buried his loot.
Kidd was tricked into meeting an old “friend”, who, unknown to Kidd, had become disillusioned and fearful of their continuing relationship. He was captured and arrested in Boston, where he was taken to the Boston Gaol (Stone Prison) and subjected to extremely harsh conditions. In addition to this, his wife, Sarah, was also arrested and imprisoned in an attempt to get Kidd to confess who his financial backers were amongst the English government. After a year in Boston, he was transferred to England for further questioning. What happened to Sarah at this point, we do not know. Despite their attempts to get Kidd to divulge the names of his elite shadow-partners, he refused to budge, probably believing that his backers would reward his silence with the granting of a pardon. None of the men involved with Kidd said a word in his defence, and Kidd found himself on trial for five counts of piracy and one for the murder of his crew member, William Moore.
He wrote to the King for clemency, realising no-one was coming to help him, but his requests were denied. Those who had initially backed him had now turned against him, ensuring that evidence was lost and monies were not made available to him to continue to pay for good legal support. Kidd’s reputation as a pirate, whether justified or not, had cast him in an unpleasant and untrustworthy light. With the Golden Age of piracy coming to an end, and a crackdown on such activities, Kidd found himself at the end of a very sharp stick. Two of his own crew testified against him in William Moore’s murder trial in exchange for pardons from the King for their participation in any acts of piracy. Documentation that could have proved, or at least cast doubt on the charges set against Kidd were either lost or were simply not produced. Kidd knew his case was failing, and, as he expected, he was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death. The “lost” documents mysteriously turned up almost 300 years later, which could have helped towards clearing Kidd’s name, with many claiming he should be granted a posthumous exoneration.
Kidd was sentenced to be hung at Execution Dock on 23rd May 1701 – an execution that, in itself, was not without drama. On the first attempt, the rope around Kidd’s neck broke as he hanged, offering him only a moment’s reprieve before he was subjected to the process again. This time, the rope held and Kidd was executed for his “crimes” against the Crown. Not only was his body hung up in a gibbet over the River Thames at Tilbury Point, but it remained there for 3 years, slowly rotting away as a constant reminder to those who would consider piracy or disloyalty to the King. After Kidd’s death, his crew, who had all been charged with piracy, were conveniently pardoned before their executions. Many believed (and still do) that Kidd was made a scapegoat and was set as an example in a time when the Golden Age of piracy was drawing to a close.
Many have searched for Kidd’s lost treasure over the centuries, inspiring tales of secret maps and buried bounties, but it hasn’t been until the last few decades that things really got interesting. In 2000, one of Kidd’s ships, the Adventure Galley was found off the coast of Madagascar. Further searching uncovered at least 13 other pirate ships in the area. In 2007, the Armenian Quedagh Merchant – the ship that literally turned the tides against Kidd, was found in shallow waters off the coast of Antigua. Barry Clifford found a huge 120 pound silver ingot during an excavation expedition of the Adventure Galley in 2015. Barry believes that not only is this part of Kidd’s alleged buried loot, but it is not the only piece of treasure at the site. This is just Barry’s belief, however, as there are a lot of other pirate ships in the watery graveyard with the Adventure Galley, so it could very well have come from one of those ships, too.
Whatever you think of Captain William Kidd, whether you think he is a pirate, or whether you think he was just doing his job as a privateer is entirely up to you. There is a ton of research and a mountain of writings on the subject, for you to read over if you ever feel the need. But there is one thing we can probably all agree on – William Kidd certainly had a pretty wild life for a wee laddie from Dundee!