In early 1698, the Adventure Galley came upon a large merchant ship called the Quedagh Merchant rounding the tip of India on its way to Bengal. Though the ship was owned by Armenians, captained by an Englishman named Wright, and crewed by Moors, who were Muslim inhabitants of North Africa, the ship was carrying a French Shipping License. This was obviously enough for Captain Willliam Kidd, and though the Quedagh was much larger, weighing 400 tons, Kidd and his men attacked the ship and looted it for its Persian cargo, which included a treasure trove of gold, silk, spices, opium, sugar, and other riches, rumored to have been worth 70,000 pounds.
Having made a great achievement in Kidd’s mind, he abandoned the damaged Adventure Galley and ordered his crew to set sail for New York on Quedagh Merchant.
But, the attack was one of a series of mistakes that Kidd had made during the voyage. A great deal of the booty on the Quedagh belonged to the powerful British East India Company and other goods were owned by a minister at the court of the Indian Grand Moghul, who had powerful connections. Further, his disrespect of the Royal Navy of England would come back to haunt him, as the Navy Captains reported the confrontations and accused him of piracy.
Captain Kidd and his crew then made their way to the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean in April 1699, where he learned that he and his crew had been accused of piracy. Sure that he could prove his innocence, he convinced his crew to return with him to New York, but rather than taking the Quedagh, he purchased a smaller ship called the Antonio and left the larger ship behind with some of the crew. Captain Kidd ordered the remaining crew to strip the Quedagh of her plunder, bury the goods, and burn the ship, which they did.
Once in New York, Kidd visited his wife and step-children and hired a lawyer. But, he had underestimated his bad decisions and the reaction of his financial backers and the public. He had taken far longer than what was planned for the expedition, he had failed to capture several pirate ships and had returned without treasure to pay his financial backers. And what he couldn’t have known, was that privateering, in general, had become a disfavorable practice.
Circumstances turned worse when Captain Kidd turned over the French licenses from the Quedagh to his lawyer, who promptly gave them over to Governor Bellomont, who just happened to be one of the backers of the expedition. Afterward, the licenses mysteriously disappeared.
Making matters worse, Kidd, who was obviously worried by this time, clumsily tried to bribe various people and hinted that he had buried vast riches.
William Kidd then tried to convince the British governor, the Earl of Bellomont, that he was innocent of the accusations against him. But, by this time, Kidd had already been viewed by the governor and other high-profile investors as a liability. In November 1698 orders were sent to arrest Captain William Kidd. In June 1699, Bellomont sent a message to Kidd, promising clemency. Kidd responded that he would come and arrived in Boston on July 3rd and Bellomont demanded that he provide a written account of his travels by the morning of July 6th. For whatever reason, Kidd was delayed that morning and was on his way to see Bellomont, when the governor issued a warrant for his arrest.
After Captain Kidd was arrested, he attempted to negotiate his freedom, by providing secret locations of his treasure and a captured prize ship as bargaining chips. Although some of the treasure was recovered, Kidd was shipped to London, England in April 1700.
Captain Kidd remained in prison in England for over a year before he was brought to trial and then not for piracy, as he had expected, but for having killed William Moore upon the high seas. Kidd’s defense was that Moore was the leader of a mutinous crew, but it is evident from the minutes of the trial that there was no question as to what the verdict would be. Though he should only have been convicted of manslaughter, the jury found him guilty of murder.
Having made certain that Kidd would be hanged, the Court next ordered him brought to trial under an indictment of piracy. Kidd asked for a postponement until his papers and particularly the two French Shipping Licenses could be obtained and submitted as evidence, but the request was denied. The trial began on May 8, 1701, and Kidd expected Lord Bellomont and others would come to his defense, but they didn’t. He also anticipated that the French Shipping Licenses would be admitted as evidence that the ship was lawful spoil under his commission. But, the licenses had mysterious disappeared.
After the sentence had been pronounced, Captain Kidd said:
“My Lord, it is a very hard sentence. For my part I am innocentest of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons.”
On May 23, 1701, he was hanged at Execution Dock, on the Thames waterfront at Wapping, and his body was placed in chains and gibbetted on the shore to serve as a warning against other pirates.
In the years after his conviction, some historians questioned whether the evidence was sufficient for guilty verdicts.
Captain William Kidd is often called the “the most famous pirate” in history. But he was never the typical swashbuckling pirate of popular fiction. Rather, it appears that he should be mentioned as a famous privateer. For years he had successfully sailed and served his country before his final voyage on the Adventure Galley.
In the end, a few bad choices, coupled with the secrecy of the backers of the final voyage, and the powerful influence of the East India Company, seemingly doomed the expedition from the start.
His fame in history comes more from the mystery of his hidden treasures than his actual exploits. Numerous stories have been told over the years of where he buried his loot and despite generations of people who have looked for it, nothing has ever been found.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, January 2019.
Dow, George Francis and Edmonds, John Henry; The Pirates of the New England Coast, 1630-1730; Marine Research Society, 1923