Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pathetic Pirates: Painful Agonizing Failure

It saddens me somewhat to have to tell you, Brethren, the tale of William Kidd, privateer, businessman and convicted pirate. When people think of Captain Kidd they seem to get a very Robert Lewis Stevenson sort of "International Talk Like A Pirate Day" picture in their minds. He's a swarthy, mean-spirited sort who peppers his speech with "Ahoy", "Matey" and "Arrr!" while swilling rum by the onion bottle-full. The watercolor above, by Howard Pyle, pretty much sums it up. Toward the end of his life, I'm betting the real William Kidd wished it were so.
Above is the only known portrait from life of Kidd. As you can see, he looks far more like a New York gentleman - which indeed he was at one point - than a hardened criminal. In fact what Kidd was might surprise the general population. Indecisive, incapable in command and easily duped, William Kidd may very well have been the most pathetic pirate of all time. Certainly, he was the most unlucky.

Kidd was of Scottish descent and born some time between 1650 and 1655. He first makes his appearance on the broad map of history in 1689 when he is captaining an English privateer in the Caribbean. The ship, which Kidd is said to have taken as a prized, was named Blessed William and saw a number of cruises. By 1691, however, Kidd's crew was fed up with their Captain. Robert Culliford, with the backing of his mates, staged a mutiny. They took Blessed William, left Kidd stranded and made for the West Coast of Africa.

Somehow Kidd managed passage to New York where he set his sights on a career as a merchant. The one big break in his life came in 1692 when he married the lovely, genteel and filthy rich widow Sarah Oort. They lived in her ritzy mansion on Wall Street and owned a pew at the trendiest house of worship in town, Trinity Church. In late 17th century New England it did not get any better than that.

Kidd, who probably went to sea as a very young man, seems to have felt constrained by his life on land. In 1695 he booked passage to London to try and use his wife's influence to secure himself another privateering commission. In the halls of government he met Richard Coote, Earl of Bellamont, and the horrible downhill spiral that would be the rest of Kidd's life was set in motion.

Bellamont was the newly appointed Governor of New England. He would replace Benjamin Fletcher who had famously backed the colonial privateer Thomas Tew, and gotten quite rich for it. King William was no longer of a mind to put up with privateers who turned pirate in the Indian Ocean and stirred up trouble by taking Arab and Indian ships while England was trying to strike up trade bargains with their princes. Bellamont was charged with stopping the "Roundsmen" and putting an end to their seafaring predations.

But why not get a little something for all the trouble, Bellamont reasoned, and his Whig friends agreed wholeheartedly. In an under-the-table deal Bellamont along with at least four high ranking officials agreed to back Kidd anonymously and get him a commission and a ship. In return they would then be given a cut of any prize money Kidd accrued. Kidd himself was rather left out of the deal, with no percentage stipulated specifically for himself or his crew.

Kidd set out for the Indian Ocean in 1696. He had a letter of marque signed by the King, a fresh off the blocks 300 ton, 34 cannon, three mast ship named Adventure Galley ("galley" because she shipped oars as well as sails) and a hand picked, seaworthy crew. What could go wrong?

Before even clearing the Nore, Kidd's ship failed to dip her flag to an oncoming Navy sloop. The Navy retaliated immediately, sending a press gang onto Adventure Galley and spiriting away all Kidd's best men. Kidd had no choice but to put in and round up a new crew, this time an assorted bunch of miscreants who could probably all be labelled pirates.

Kidd's cruise to the Indian Ocean was a disaster. No potential prizes were sighted, tainted water killed one third of the crew via cholera, scurvy crippled the rest and the ship began to leak. By the time Kidd reached Madagascar, fresh water and food the crew was starting to discuss dumping Kidd and turning pirate. Adventure Galley took on more ex-rovers to replace the sick and dead crewmen and continued on.

At this point, Kidd appears to have lost his capacity to lead. He became indecisive, calling for his ship to give chase to a potential prize and then reversing his order. Adventure Galley bobbed about the Indian Ocean, taking on water but catching no prizes. The crew's thoughts turned to mutiny. Off the southern coast of India a potential prize was finally seen but when it was found to be an English merchant, Kidd again called off the chase. His gunner, William Moore, called him a coward and Kidd cracked a wooden bucket over the man's head. Moore died of his wound the following day. The crew's moral was now as bad as it could get.

Meanwhile, Adventure Galley was so full of water that her pumps had to be worked 24/7. After taking three small merchants from various ports that yielded nothing in the way of the treasures the crew had been promised, Kidd turned toward port. In February of 1698, while heading for the Malabar coast, Kidd had a moment of luck. The Quedah Merchant, and Indian with a cargo of close to 710,000 English pounds in gold and gems, came under his lee. Too full of treasure to run, Quedah Merchant struck and Kidd's crew perked up.

Taking his prize into a local harbor, Kidd was surprised to find the mutinous Robert Culliford in port captaining the East Indiaman Mocha. Kidd exhorted his men to take Mocha but they taunted Kidd instead, saying that they would rather fire guns on him than on Culliford. Against his commission, Kidd tried to placate his crew by sharing out some of the Quedah Merchant's treasure with them. This unfortunate decision seems to have had the opposite effect; most of Kidd's crew took off with Culliford - and their share of Kidd's prize.

Disheartened, Kidd abandoned the derelict Adventure Galley and made for New York in Quedah Merchant. He made the Caribbean and anchored at Anguilla, a Dutch island, where he was informed of his new status as the "Scourge of the Indies". In London, the Tory party had found out about the Whig's deal with Kidd and branded their rivals a "Corporation of Pirates". The Whigs retaliated by selling Kidd out, saying he had gone pirate on his own and putting a price on his head. Kidd was now a wanted fugitive but it seems that the reality of his situation still didn't sink in. He decided to head straight for New York and a private audience with Bellamont.

Kidd ditched the Quedah Merchant on the coast of Hispaniola and transferred some of his prize cargo onto a sloop, leaving the remainder under guard with the Merchant. Later, he also left some of his treasure with his friend John Gardiner on Gardiner's Island not far from New York. The real problem was that, based on his commission, the prize goods were not his to dispose of. Kidd fell almost voluntarily into his former partners' trap.

Bellamont refused to meet with Kidd, despite the fact that Kidd showered the Governor's wife with fancy gifts from his prize. Finally, through a ruse, Bellamont lured Kidd to New York where he was easily arrested. While Bellamont rounded up the enormous treasures at Gardiner's Island and Hispaniola, Kidd sat in chains throughout the cold New York winter of 1699.

Kidd was finally transferred to London in the spring of 1700. By then he was a sick and broken man of about 45 abandoned by everyone, including the lovely Sarah Oort Kidd who washed her hands of her criminal husband. Kidd was treated to a series of four trials, one more disastrous than the other. Not only could he produce no evidence in his favor, but he became progressively more ill as the farcical proceedings went on. Finally, in May of 1701, his sentence of death by hanging was carried out.

Kidd's jailers took pity on him and got him blind drunk before the ordeal. Even in death his luck was lousy, though. The first attempt at hanging him failed when the rope broke and Kidd fell into the mud at Whapping. He was strung up a second time and strangled to death. His body was tarred, chained and returned to the gibbet where it hung for three years as a warning " all persons from committing ye like crimes".

In the end, Kidd was an unfortunate pawn in a political game so far over his head that it might as well have been played by the gods on Olympus. It seems that, like so many characters in Greek tragedies, Kidd failed because he was destined to. I'm sure that didn't make it hurt any less.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, talk about an "epic fail"... Not only was Kidd "Indecisive, incapable in command and easily duped" he was obviously a terrible negotiator as well: "no percentage stipulated specifically for himself or his crew"... What a marroon. But then he compounds his mistakes over and over again. I have to say that William Kidd is arguably the most pathetic of all the "Pathetic Pirates" you have written about, so far at least, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Even in the modern era the irony is compounded because people generally think of a classic, Golden Age rover when you say the guy's name. No such thing at all.

And think of the looks poor Mrs. Kidd must have gotten and Trinity Church every Sunday.

It's a bummer all around.

Ozarklorian said...

One interesting aside is that Capt. Kidd's New York business partner, Robert Livingston, was a direct ancestor of the Laffite's attorney, Edward Livingston.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Ozarklorian! I knew about the Robert Livingston who was Edward's older brother and one of the negotiators of the much misunderstood Treaty of Ghent, but not their ancestor. Good stuff; thanks!

Undine said...

Good grief, what a story. I'll have to keep poor Mr. Kidd in mind the next time I think I'm having a bad day.

If only there was some way to tack on a happy ending, it would all sound like something out of "The Pirates of Penzance," wouldn't it?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! Maybe the happy ending is his general fame. Everyone know the name "Captain Kidd". Many people don't know the tragic story, however, so that's something. I guess.

But, come to think of it, the whole thing has tragic opera written all over it too...