“My name is Captain Kidd
As I sailed, as I sailed,
Oh my name is Captain Kidd as I sailed,
My name is Captain Kidd
And God’s laws I did forbid,
And most wickedly I did as I sailed.”
-Great Big Sea
The wail of a newborn filled a home in Greenock, Scotland sometime in the mid sixteen fifties. This baby would grow from a boy, to a rambunctious teenager and finally into a young man that would leave his native land, cross the Atlantic multiple times, captain and capture ships, seal his name in history and conclude his life at the end of a rope. His name was Captain William Kidd.
William Kidd grew up well accustomed to the sea, sailing and its corresponding company. Settling in New York, America, he lived as a mariner and was known to often associate with pirates. However, he also kept more socially acceptable company, which caused a certain Colonel Levingston to recommend him to Lord Bellamont who spoke with King William III of England and the Board of Admiralty concerning Kidd becoming a privateer. Kidd’s thorough knowledge of pirate berths made him a strong candidate.
Little choice is offered when dealing with the Monarchy, and so Kidd accepted and became an official privateer under the King of England. He began his voyage from England and set sail in the ship Adventure Galley in the later part of 1695. Prior to his travels as a privateer, Kidd had been nicknamed “Wizard of the Seas” for his experience, knowledge and navigational skills. His trips under the English flag only served to cement this title.
Captain Kidd sailed south to the Portuguese Madeira Islands and then Northwest through the Strait of Gibraltar to Bonavista, on Spain’s Eastern coast. He then headed back out to the Atlantic and turned South, entering one of his longest stretches as he made his way around Africa to Madagascar. After making berth for a short while he continued at sea to the Gulf of Aden, and then further East to Calicut, India.
It was here off the coast of Malabar that Kidd committed murder. His gunner, a man by the name of William Moore died after being struck in the temple by an iron-ringed bucket at the hands of Captain Kidd. Apparently there was talk on board that some wanted to take over a Dutch ship within proximity but the Captain had refused, as it was not within their allowance. An exchange of words happened ending in Kidd calling Moore a “Lousy dog” and Moore responding straightforwardly, “If I am a lousy dog, you have made me so; you have brought me to ruin, and many more.” Then Kidd paced and delivered the fatal blow. Moore died the following day on October 31, 1698. The Adventure Galley sailed on.
Laying capture to an encountered ship, Kidd returned to Madagascar, sold it and ventured on to take an English-captained ship called the Quedah Merchant. The Quedah became Kidd’s new flagship and he burned the Adventure Galley at St. Mary’s, an island in close proximity to Madagascar. These acts seemingly marked Kidd’s entrance into piracy.
Setting sail now for the West Indies, a part of the Caribbean Ocean hosting Porto Rico and the Isle of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Kidd was refused at a few ports. Eventually he moored at the Island of Mona located in between the aforesaid Islands. It was here that he sold the Quedah to a man by the name of Bolton. Eighteen members of his crew stayed behind with the ship. Kidd traveled on to St. Mary’s, Jamaica in a sloop he had purchased from Bolton in Mona. While in St. Mary’s, ninety members from his crew joined an East India ship titled the Mocha Merchant, which sailed under a pirate flag. Kidd then made a few more stops, selling and trading many of his prizes from captured ships before ridding himself of the sloop and sailing as a passenger up to Boston, New England (Massachusetts).
Meanwhile, Bolton had sold the Quedah Merchant and set sail to Boston unbeknownst to William Kidd. Connecting with Lord Bellamont in regards to the Quedah and its affairs as he had learned from the eighteen crewmembers, Bolton sealed the Captain’s fate. When Kidd arrived in Boston, he was immediately seized for investigation. Bellamont had contacted England and though it was not clearly proved that the Quedah Merchant had been wrongly taken, other clear acts of piracy and the murder of William Moore warranted Kidd be shipped back to England.
Back in the King’s land, Captain William Kidd stood trial for murder and other acts of piracy on May 8 and 9, 1701. At the beginning of his trial, Kidd refused to plead, as he had sent for his French passes that would have excused his taking of certain ships believed to be part of his piracy. Unfortunately, these were not present for his trial, nor did the judge allow for a delay in the proceedings. Finally, Kidd consented and pled “not guilty” and the trial commenced, ending with him being found guilty. The following trials convicting him of piracy also found him guilty though he claimed his innocence all the while.
Captain Kidd was sentenced to death by hanging at Execution Dock on May 23, 1701. The first attempt to hang him went awry when the rope broke and he fell to the ground. Kidd was offered a chance to repent as the next noose was fixed, and he apparently did so. The second try was successful and his body was strung up over the Thames as a warning to other pirates. So concluded the life of Captain William Kidd: pirate.
There are many interesting insights into life in the eighteenth century from Captain Kidd’s tale. Service to country and King, separate social groups, the escape that the sea offered and the power testimonies had seem to be strong themes reflecting the society of the day.
Right off the bat we are faced with William the third, the King of England. There is a monarchy and it is clear who is in control. Whether Kidd wanted to become a privateer or not wasn’t really a question. The King made a decision and Kidd couldn’t really say no as that would be going against the absolute top-dog.
The chain of command is clear, Kidd, a mariner is at the bottom, but since he is knowledgeable in the ways of the country’s enemies, namely pirates, we find a Colonel takes notice of him. The colonel turns up the ladder to a Lord, who in turn converses with the King himself and the Board of Admiralty. If the Lord is conversing with the King, one can only assume that he is near the top of the social hierarchy. The Board of Admiralty is clearly just below the King as well and was most likely either appointed by the monarchy or just of very high ranking.
Kidd was enlisted by the head of England to serve, by policing the seas. This was not a glamorous, easy job, but it did provide a fully provisioned sloop, and the captain and his crew were allowed to keep a small percentage of the plunder they looted from captured ships while the rest was to be returned to serve England. Privateers provided a service to the public and contributed to society by the bounty they captured. The policing role aided in protecting the country’s ports from potential threats. For King and country.
William Kidd may have been at the bottom of the hierarchy concerning the King, but he wasn’t yet England’s bottom rung. The society even had a sub-gender-hierarchy in that it was strongly patriarchal. The social classes were great in England and Kidd’s account in the Newgate Calendar displayed his position clearly when it stated that he hung around with pirates. Pirates and sailors weren’t very high in the social order. Despite the lack of choice to become a privateer, Kidd may very well have thrilled at the chance to move up in the social ladder. The captain of a ship was a higher position than sailor, answered to Colonels and Lords and offered more security.
Not only did it offer more security in the sense that a captain was given a ship and provisions, but once away from the mainland, the ship and crew, in essence, became it’s own country. The only policing had to be within the crew or from another ship, which could be sunk or outrun. The ocean opened the world to sailors whereas on land, travel was still restricted and communities were more isolated. Laws on land were more plentiful and harder to escape. Hierarchies still found their way onto the ship, but there were less extreme separations between crewmembers’ statuses. It was more or less the captain and first mate at the top and the rest of the crew on par with each other. In a sense, mutinies were a form of violent democracy, rather different and dramatic compared to the dictatorial monarchy of the day.
It took but a word from the King for action to happen. Words were incredibly powerful in the eighteenth century. Should any law be violated, such as a planned mutiny, or in the case of Captain Kidd, his murder of William Moore and other piracy acts, all it took was someone’s account to seal the case. The main evidence court had to go on at the time was someone’s word. How easy it could be to create a false truth or testimony against someone. Such words could bring a person to their death at the end of a rope. Kidd was convicted because of verbally shared stories. Witnesses testified in court for and against him. A single word, “guilty”, sent Kidd to the gallows. It all began with word of mouth. The whole of his murder trials, Kidd begged “not guilty”. What if he was right? It could all be just an eloquent story created by his crew, the only persons of possible witness. The only evidence to the murder was someone’s story.
The eighteenth century was a time where someone’s word was not taken lightly. It mattered. It was also a time where one did not speak out or act against King and country. The King was the highest bidder and the rest of society followed in ladder-like order. Word watching and dictatorial style monarchies sitting at the top of a strongly separated social ladder kept society in firm hands making the sea a means of freedom, a route Captain William Kidd took until it all caught up with him. The eighteenth century was a tough time.
 The Library of Congress Online, Captain William Kidd Trial Transcript, P. 7 (p. 13)
Great Big Sea “Captain Kidd” Music Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hyhiqq-FzDU
1945 “Captain Kidd” Movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOdP20D4-Nc
Crude Land-Crossing Captain Kidd Map: http://www.travellerspoint.com/member_map.cfm#/map/32430