Pirates: William Kidd

William Kidd was born in around 1645 in Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland. His parent’s names are unknown, but his father was thought to have been a Church of Scotland minister. It has also been suggested that Kidd’s father died when Kidd was just five years old, the family’s reduced circumstances prompting Kidd to go to sea as he reached an appropriate age.

Historical record makes no mention of Kidd until 1689. He was a member of a pirate crew turned privateer by joining the service of the Governor of the Leeward Islands, Christopher Codrington, against the French in the West Indies. He was made captain of the Blessed William, but his men mutinied and took Kidd’s ship to New York, a known pirate haunt, taking £2000 of Kidd’s booty with them. Kidd followed them to New York. Once in New York, Kidd married a rich widow named Sarah Oort (late Cox, formerly Bradley). Kidd had two daughters with Sarah, Elizabeth and Sarah Kidd, and remained in New York City until 1695, indulging in occasional small privateering acts. In 1695, however, Kidd and fellow Scottish landowner Robert Livingston began plotting. Securing the funding of Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont and several of his Whig patrons, Kidd was to sail for the Indian Ocean where pirates were said to have been a particular danger. Kidd obtained the necessary commissions to legally hunt these pirates, and was provided with a ship the Adventure Galley. Weighing 284 tons and equipped with 34 cannons, she was a formidable ship indeed.

Kidd sailed initially from London to New York, losing a large portion of his crew to the HMS Duchess, who commandeered them for the Royal Navy. This forced Kidd to replenish his crew in New York City, and he undoubtedly picked up many criminals and several pirates here. Kidd underwent many more misfortunes – upon sailing for the Cape of Good Hope in 1696, his lost a third of his crew to cholera. His new ship began to leak and become unstable, and the promised pirates which were to make Kidd his fortune and pay back his financiers failed to appear. Kidd was desperate, attempting to attack several ships including a New York privateer. This was indeed considered an act of outright piracy and well outside of his commissions.

Tensions within Kidd’s crew grew, causing some desertions and the continual threat of mutiny. The situation reached a head when, in 1697, Kidd killed one of his gunners, William Moore, by striking him with a bucket hoped with iron. The blow fractured Moore’s skull, and he subsequently died. With this, Kidd’s fortunes changed, and he successfully captured six ships – only two of these were legally within his commission, however. Particularly notable was the Quedah Merchant, an Armenian ship which Kidd took whilst flying French colours. Although the ship was Armenian, its Captain was English. When word reached England, Kidd became a wanted pirate.

Although Bellomont and Kidd had originally been accomplices, Bellomont had received direct orders from England to arrest Kidd. While Kidd returned home, selling his cargo and purchasing a smaller ship, the San Antonio, he learnt that he was a wanted pirate. Kidd deposited some of his treasure at Gardiner’s Island, hoping to later use knowledge of it as a bargaining tool. Kidd and Bellomont were in communication – but Bellomont could not afford to ignore direct orders, and wished to divorce himself from any possible charges of piracy that might be levelled at him. He had Kidd arrested on 6th July 1699, held in Boston for a year, and sent back to England for trial.

Kidd was tried without representation for piracy and the murder of William Moore. Kidd was found guilty of five charges of piracy and for the said murder of Moore, and sentenced to death. He was hung at ‘Execution Dock’ at Wapping, London. Two attempts were made to do this, as the first rope used split and had to be replaced. Kidd’s body was then suspended in an iron cage from a gibbet over the River Thames as a reminder and deterrent to other would-be pirates.

Kidd is most famous for the possibility that he had left buried treasure, prompting treasure hunts all over the world, searching for his fortune. It is likely that this myth has stemmed from the haul left on Gardiner’s Island, removed by Bellomont and sent to England as evidence in Kidd’s trial. However, it is unknown whether Kidd’s remaining fortune was transferred to his wife, to Livingstone, or perhaps hidden away for safe keeping.

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