Biography of Captain William Kidd, Scottish Pirate

Cigarette Card Captain Kidd
Heritage Images / Getty Images

William Kidd (c. 1654–May 23, 1701) was a Scottish ship’s captain, privateer, and pirate. He started out on a voyage in 1696 as a pirate hunter and privateer, but he soon switched sides and had a brief but moderately successful career as a pirate. After he turned pirate, his wealthy backers back in England abandoned him. He was later convicted and hanged in England after a sensational trial.

Fast Facts: William Kidd

  • Known For: Kidd was a Scottish ship's captain whose adventures led to his trial and execution for piracy.
  • Also Known As: Captain Kidd
  • Born: c. 1654 in Dundee, Scotland
  • Died: May 23, 1701 in Wapping, England
  • Spouse: Sarah Kidd (m. 1691-1701)

Early Life

Kidd was born in Scotland sometime around 1654, possibly near Dundee. He took to the sea and soon made a name for himself as a skilled, hardworking seaman. In 1689, sailing as a privateer, he took a French vessel: the ship was renamed the Blessed William and Kidd was put in command by the governor of Nevis.

He sailed into New York just in time to save the governor there from a conspiracy. In New York, he married a wealthy widow. Not long after, in England, he became friends with the Lord of Bellomont, who was to be the new governor of New York.

Setting Sail as a Privateer

For the English, sailing was very dangerous at the time. England was at war with France and piracy was common. Lord Bellomont and some of his friends suggested Kidd be given a privateering contract that would allow him to attack pirates or French vessels.

The suggestion was not accepted by the government, but Bellomont and his friends decided to set up Kidd as a privateer through a private enterprise: Kidd could attack French vessels or pirates but he had to share his earnings with the investors. Kidd was given the 34-gun Adventure Galley and he set sail in May 1696.

Turning Pirate

Kidd set sail for Madagascar and the Indian Ocean, then a hotbed of pirate activity. Nevertheless, he and his crew found very few pirate or French vessels to take. About a third of his crew died of disease, and the rest became surly because of the lack of prizes.

In August 1697, Kidd attacked a convoy of Indian treasure ships but was driven off by an East India Company Man of War. This was an act of piracy and clearly not in Kidd’s charter. Also, about this time, Kidd killed a mutinous gunner named William Moore by hitting him in the head with a heavy wooden bucket.

The Pirates Take the Queddah Merchant

On January 30, 1698, Kidd's luck finally changed. He captured the Queddah Merchant, a treasure ship heading home from the Far East. It was not really fair game as a prize, though. It was a Moorish ship, with cargo owned by Armenians, and was captained by an Englishman named Wright.

It was allegedly sailing with French papers. This was enough for Kidd, who sold off the cargo and divided the spoils with his men. The holds of the merchantman were bursting with a valuable cargo, and the haul for Kidd and his pirates was 15,000 British pounds, well over $2 million today). Kidd and his pirates were rich men.

Kidd and Culliford

Not long after, Kidd ran into a pirate ship captained by a notorious pirate named Culliford. What happened between the two men is unknown. According to Captain Charles Johnson, a contemporary historian, Kidd and Culliford greeted each other warmly and traded supplies and news.

Many of Kidd's men deserted him at this point, some running off with their share of the treasure and others joining Culliford. At his trial, Kidd claimed that he wasn't strong enough to fight Culliford and that most of his men abandoned him to join the pirates.

He said he was allowed to keep the ships, but only after all the weapons and supplies were taken. In any event, Kidd swapped the leaking Adventure Galley for the fit Queddah Merchant and set sail for the Caribbean.

Desertion by Friends and Backers

Meanwhile, news of Kidd becoming a pirate had reached England. Bellomont and his wealthy friends, who were very important members of the government, began distancing themselves from the enterprise as quickly as they could.

Robert Livingston, a friend and fellow Scotsman who knew the king personally, was deeply involved in Kidd's affairs. Livingston turned on Kidd, trying desperately to keep secret his own name and those of the others involved.

As for Bellomont, he put out a proclamation of amnesty for pirates, but Kidd and Henry Avery were specifically excluded from it. Some of Kidd's former pirates would later accept this pardon and testify against him.

Return to New York

When Kidd reached the Caribbean, he learned he was now considered a pirate by the authorities. He decided to go to New York, where his friend Lord Bellomont could protect him until he was able to clear his name. He left his ship behind and captained a smaller ship to New York. As a precaution, he buried his treasure on Gardiner's Island, off of Long Island.

When he arrived in New York, he was arrested and Lord Bellomont refused to believe his stories of what had transpired. He divulged the location of his treasure on Gardiner's Island and it was recovered. He spent a year in prison before being sent to England to face trial.

Death

Kidd's trial took place on May 8, 1701. The trial caused a huge sensation in England, as Kidd pleaded that he had never actually turned pirate. There was plenty of evidence against him, however, and he was eventually found guilty. He was also convicted of the death of Moore, the rebellious gunner. Kidd was hanged on May 23, 1701, and his body was put into an iron cage hanging along the River Thames, where it served as a warning to other pirates.

Legacy

Kidd and his case have generated a great deal of interest over the years, far more than other pirates of his generation. This is probably due to the scandal of his involvement with wealthy members of the royal court. Then, as now, his tale has a lurid attraction to it, and there are many detailed books and websites dedicated to Kidd, his adventures, and his eventual trial and conviction.

This fascination is Kidd's real legacy because, frankly, he wasn't much of a pirate. He didn't operate for very long, he didn't take a great many prizes, and he was never feared the way other pirates were. Many pirates—such as Sam Bellamy, Benjamin Hornigold, or Edward Low, to name just a few—were more successful on the open seas. Nevertheless, only a select handful of pirates, including Blackbeard and "Black Bart" Roberts, are as famous as William Kidd.

Many historians feel that Kidd was treated unfairly. For the time, his crimes were not truly terrible. The gunner Moore was insubordinate, the meeting with Culliford and his pirates may have gone the way Kidd said it did, and the ships he captured were at the very least questionable in terms of whether they were fair game or not.

If it were not for his wealthy noble backers, who wished to remain anonymous at all costs and to distance themselves from Kidd in any way possible, his contacts probably would have saved him, if not from jail then at least from the noose.

One other legacy Kidd left behind was that of buried treasure. Kidd left behind some of his loot, including gold and silver, on Gardiner's Island, which was later found and cataloged. What intrigues modern treasure hunters is that Kidd insisted until the end of his life that he had buried another treasure somewhere in the "Indies"—presumably in the Caribbean. People have been looking for that lost treasure ever since.

Sources

  • Defoe, Daniel. "A General History of the Pirates." Dover Publications, 1972.
  • Konstam, Angus. "The World Atlas of Pirates: Treasures and Treachery on the Seven Seas, in Maps, Tall Tales, and Pictures." The Lyons Press, 2010.