These days, the word ‘piracy’ is used simply to define criminal activity at sea. In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, piracy was a weapon that could be used by a government to harass the enemy and turn a tidy profit. Privateering (as government-commissioned piracy was termed) became established as a potent way of attacking a rival nation’s lines of communication and supply – and, being a private enterprise, it paid for itself. Government sponsors even expected a profit back from this activity.
That this government-approved robbery at sea could come back to embarrass all those involved was demonstrated on numerous occasions – but perhaps most infamously by the case of William Kidd (c.1645-23 May 1701), the Scottish sea captain who would become one of the most notorious of all pirate characters.
Captain Kidd was 50 years old when he stepped into the situation that would transform the rest of his life. Born in Dundee, he was by the 1690s a respectable and prosperous citizen of New York, and the captain of his own ship, Antigua. He was also an experienced privateer, having operated with distinction against French vessels in the West Indies. During those war years, he had impressed a certain Colonel Robert Livingston, a prominent New York merchant and government official, with his daring seamanship.
The political backdrop to what followed was that in 1695 the colonial administrator Richard Coote, 1st Earl of Bellomont, was appointed Governor of New York and Massachusetts, replacing the corrupt Benjamin Fletcher, who was in league with the pirates who frequented New England to dispose of their plunder. New York and other ports on America’s eastern seaboard had waxed fat on the proceeds of piracy, and Bellomont was given express instructions to stamp out the piracy that infested the coast.
Early in 1695, Kidd took a cargo in the Antigua to London, where he met Livingston – who introduced him to Bellomont. On Livingston’s recommendation, Bellomont saw in Kidd the right kind of man to command a privateer and hunt down pirates. It appears that Kidd was not that keen on the notion, his great ambition being to command a Royal Navy man-of-war. However, he took up the commission.
Bellomont approached King William III with his plan. The king favoured the idea – for not only would piracy be suppressed, but there would also be cash benefits for the Treasury. At that time, England was waging an expensive war against France, and required all the money it could get – from French as well as pirate ships. King William passed the plan to the Admiralty, but their lordships pointed out that all warships fit for service were already in use. They added that difficulties in obtaining seamen meant the Admiralty itself could not implement Bellomont’s scheme. This elicited a further idea from Livingston, who proposed that it might be profitable to finance the scheme privately. Bellomont agreed.
No prey, no pay
A syndicate was organised – with prominent shareholders such as Lord Orford, First Lord of the Admiralty; Lord Romney, Master of the Ordnance; and Lord Somers, the Lord Chancellor. All were to share the plunder taken from captured ships. A suitable fast ship of 260 tons was purchased and fitted out. Mounting 34 guns, the Adventure Galley was crewed by 150 seamen, engaged on the usual privateer understanding of ‘no prey, no pay’.
Kidd himself was given two separate commissions. The Admiralty granted him ‘letters of marque’ – authorising him to seize any ship flying the French flag. The King issued the other commission, which allowed Kidd to ‘apprehend, seize, and take unto your custody… all such Pirates, freebooters and sea rovers, being either our subjects, or of other nations… which you shall meet upon the seas.’
The Adventure Galley set sail on her long pirate-hunting voyage in April 1696. She never returned. What really happened during the four years that Kidd roved the high seas will never fully be known. But we can piece together a certain amount. After the ship’s departure, a Royal Navy press gang boarded her in the Thames estuary, and dragged off 80 of Kidd’s best hands for the King’s service (despite the fact that Kidd himself was in the King’s service). So when he put into New York early in July, he had to recruit more men, all virtually pirates, from the dregs of the waterfront.
In September 1696, the Adventure Galley sailed for Madagascar, a favourite pirate haunt. Over the next two years, complaints reached England that Kidd had turned pirate on his own account. Instead of capturing only French or pirate vessels, he was now taking any ship that came his way. This news shook the members of the syndicate: all were prominent Whig politicians who feared the scandal that it would surely drum up. Now that the privateer scheme had turned sour, the syndicate members endeavoured to wash their hands of it. Bellomont was ordered to arrest Kidd if he ever set foot in New England. Kidd, however, had no idea of the furore that he was causing, and was unaware that he had been branded a buccaneer. So what had he been doing in those two years?
‘A lousy dog’
Cruising off the coasts of Madagascar and Malabar (south-west India), then roaming the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, Kidd initially met with little success, taking a few small vessels of no account. This lack of fortune made his corsair crew mutinous, and apparently under pressure from his men, Kidd attempted his first act of piracy. He lay in wait for an Indian fleet of merchantmen, with the intention of singling out a rich prize – but the gambit was a failure, and he was chased off by English and Dutch escort ships. The Adventure Galley was identified by her rigging, and the powerful East India Company lodged a complaint.
Next, Kidd tangled with two Portuguese coastguard ships off Goa, coming out badly damaged. His crew now pressured him to take and plunder an English vessel called the Loyal Captain, but Kidd steadfastly refused. This led to an altercation with one William Moore, a gunner. Kidd called Moore ‘a lousy dog’. The gunner replied, ‘If I am a lousy dog you have brought me to it.’ In the heat of the moment, Kidd struck Moore on the head with an iron-bound wooden bucket, causing his death the following day.
The next vessel to come Kidd’s way was a Moorish merchantman. As this ship flew no colours, Kidd gave chase, running up the French flag as a ruse. The other vessel responded by showing French colours. As the two ships came within hailing distance, Kidd instructed a Frenchman he had on board to come on deck and pretend to be captain of the Adventure Galley. The trick worked and the French master of the Moorish ship revealed that he was sailing under French orders. Kidd quite properly captured the vessel and took her to Madagascar, where he sold the cargo and paid his disgruntled men.
Over the following months, Kidd managed to capture Moorish, Dutch, and Portuguese ships – but his most celebrated victim was the Quetta Merchant, a large Indian-owned vessel, which he captured in February 1698 off the Malabar coast. The Quetta Merchant was a handsome prize indeed, laden with gold, jewels, silks, and other riches. She was crewed by Arabs and captained by an Englishman who carried a French pass. Therefore, she was a legal prize for a British privateer, and Kidd took her to Madagascar.
There, he encountered the notorious pirate Robert Culliford, whose frigate Mocha lay at anchor. Now was the chance for the erring Kidd to put himself right within the terms of his commission – but, unfortunately for Kidd, his dissatisfied crew took this opportunity to desert him and join Culliford, taking with them as much plunder from the Quetta Merchant as the Mocha could hold. According to Kidd, they also burnt the all-important log of the Adventure Galley – a factor that weighed against him at his eventual trial.
Kidd was left fuming while the pirates sailed away. Over some months, he managed to gather another makeshift crew and, destroying the now-unseaworthy Adventure Galley, put out in the Quetta Merchant, still laden with booty. He headed for North America – but on arrival at Hispaniola in the Caribbean in April 1699, he learned that he had been proclaimed a pirate, with a warrant issued for his arrest.
‘Come safely hither’
Anxious to explain his actions to Bellomont, Kidd left the Quetta Merchant at Hispaniola, transferred part of the plunder to a sloop and sailed for Boston. With Kidd out of the way, the men he had left behind sold off the remaining cargo. On the way to Boston, Kidd considered his dangerous situation, and decided to take precautions. He stopped at Gardiner’s Island, off Long Island, where he buried some of the treasure. He then sent a letter to Bellomont, requesting reassurance of safety.
The governor, eager to get the renegade privateer in his grasp, wrote back comfortingly, ‘You may come safely hither… and I make no manner of doubt but to obtain the King’s pardon for you and those few men you have left.’ Kidd duly arrived in Boston, but despite his fulsome explanation and the hard evidence of the two French passes, he was promptly arrested, and put in chains to await transportation to England.
The ill-fated captive arrived in London in April 1700, and stood trial the following year at the Old Bailey charged with the murder of William Moore and piracy. Abandoned by the Whig syndicate, Kidd was prevailed upon by the Tories to implicate his backers – but he refused to do so, causing one Tory to splutter, ‘The fellow is a fool as well as a rogue.’ In the end, it was Kidd’s lot to be the scapegoat for the Whig ‘Corporation of Pirates’. Already condemned by the Establishment and the public, he never stood a chance.
His trial can hardly be called a fair one. In those days, prisoners were not allowed to give evidence in their own defence, and his counsel did next to nothing to save him. The only witnesses against him were two of his crew, who had turned King’s Evidence to save themselves. And the vital French passes that could have helped Kidd’s case were never produced. He had delivered them to Bellomont, but they had then vanished.
Kidd was found guilty of all charges and hanged on 23 May 1701 at Execution Dock, Wapping, before a large crowd. His body was afterwards hanged in chains as an example to others. In 1910, an American historian, Ralph D Paine, found the missing French passes in London’s National Archives. On this at least, it seems Kidd had been telling the truth.
The greatest prize
Kidd was not the only privateer to turn his hand to outright piracy. Indeed, one of the greatest prizes ever captured by pirates was the treasure ship of the Great Mughal of Delhi, plundered by the former privateer Henry Every (some historians refer to him as John Avery) in September 1695 – a sensational outrage that earned him the title ‘Arch Pirate’. Every was also known among buccaneers as ‘Long Ben’, though he was not a tall man, being ‘middle sized, inclinable to be fat, and of a jolly complexion’. Born in Plymouth about 1653, he also served as a midshipman and master’s mate in the Royal Navy, and as a slave trader along the Guinea coast, before embarking on his bold new criminal career.
An excellent navigator and seaman, Every was serving as first mate on the privateer Charles II, acting for Spain against the French, when on 7 May 1694 he led a mutiny in the Spanish harbour of Corunna and stole the ship. His confederates elected him captain, renamed the vessel The Fancy and went a-pirating. They headed for Madagascar and captured a number of ships with lucrative cargoes. Putting into the island of Johanna (now Anjouan) in the Comoros, Every left a curious letter of intent with the island’s native king. In the letter, dated February 1695, he wrote: ‘I have never as yet wronged any English or Dutch nor never intend whilst I am commander.’ But, he added, if any ship should approach him, then his men were ‘hungry, stout and resolute. And should they exceed my desire I cannot help my self.’ He signed the letter, ‘An Englishman’s friend’.
Despite Every’s claims of patriotism, however, his first act of piracy was to plunder three English vessels off the Cape Verdes. His letter – which was eventually delivered to the authorities in Bombay – may have been a device to protect himself if he was ever brought to trial in Britain.
At the narrow entrance to the Red Sea, Every lay in wait for the fleet belonging to the Great Mughal, ships carrying pilgrims going home to India from the holy city of Mecca and heavily laden with gold and silver. While waiting to pounce, Every was joined by the English corsair Thomas Tew, in his ship the Amity, along with others. During the night, however, the Mughal fleet passed unseen by the waiting predators.
When dawn came, the pirates raced after the stragglers. Tew caught up with the Fateh Mahomed, which gave fierce resistance, and he was killed by a cannonball that disembowelled him. Then Every came up and captured the ship, leaving it to be secured by others. ‘Long Ben’ now crowded on sail and pursued the lagging ship, the mighty Gung-I-Suwaie, described by the Indian historian Khafi Khan as the ‘greatest ship in all of the Mughal’s dominions’. She was three times the size of The Fancy, mounting 62 big guns and carrying 400 soldiers as well as the crew and 600 passengers. But she was slow and ponderous.
Boarding the leviathan
When The Fancy came within range, the Indians fired a devastating broadside that killed 20 pirates. A two-hour gun battle ensued, ending when The Fancy damaged the Mughal ship’s mainmast. Every now seized his chance to board the larger vessel. Though outnumbered, the pirates’ sheer ferocity made the difference. With cutlass ringing against scimitar and the decks running with gore, the Indians panicked and were vanquished.
With the Gung-I-Suwaie captured, the bloodied pirates indulged in a terrible orgy of rape, slaughter, and pillage. According to Khafi Khan, the buccaneers did ‘do barbarously by the passengers to make them confess where their money was, and there happened to be [a woman] related to the Great Mughal… she they abused very much and forced several other women [to submit], which caused one person of quality, his wife, and nurse to kill themselves to prevent the husband seeing them ravished.’
The sexual debauchery was later confirmed by two members of Every’s crew, Dann and Middleton, who turned King’s Evidence at the trial of some of the pirates. It was said that Every took for himself a beautiful young princess, reputed to be the Great Mughal’s daughter, who tried to defend herself with a jewelled dagger. The pirates ransacked the ship, plundering precious stones, gold, silver, silks, and damasks estimated at a value of £200,000-£600,000 (equivalent to tens of millions today). In the share-out, each buccaneer received about £1,000, while Every himself took the customary double share.
When news of the outrage reached India, the Great Mughal and his people turned angrily on their English residents, threatening to wipe them out of their land. Members of the East India Company were put in irons, and goods and money seized to compensate for Every’s atrocious crime.
Hang the pirates
The East India Company endeavoured to pacify the Great Mughal by promising to catch and hang the culprits. The British Admiralty offered a reward of £500 for information leading to the arrest of any of the pirates, and the Company doubled the amount. It also offered to escort Indian ships across the Arabian Sea at its own expense. Every had certainly disrupted England’s tentative imperial grasp on India.
Every himself sailed for the Bahamas, where he bribed the Governor to allow his crew to come ashore unmolested. There, they disposed of some booty, but The Fancy was driven aground in a storm and wrecked. It seems strange that Every, now the most wanted of pirates, should desire to return to England to enjoy his loot, but that was his decision.
Now calling himself Henry Bridgeman, Every and a number of his men crossed the Atlantic in the sloop Seaflower, and he went immediately to ground. His mates were less clever, and one by one they were caught. Twenty-four were arrested and brought to trial in October 1696. As mentioned earlier, two turned King’s Evidence to save their necks. Six were hanged and the rest transported to the colonies.
‘Mr Bridgeman’ settled in Bideford, Devon, but his end was not a happy one. The story is told that, in order to dispose of jewels and gold taken from the great ship, he made contact with some shady merchants in Bristol, who cheated him out of the loot, threatening him with exposure if he complained. According to this version, he died soon after of ‘rage and vexation’, cursing the crooked merchants as ‘greater pirates than any I have known’.
End of an era
When privateers ceased to be of benefit to the emerging British Empire, the Royal Navy moved swiftly against them. Having broken the Spanish monopoly of New World trade, Caribbean pirates became a nuisance and were regarded as ‘vermin’ to be eradicated from the high seas. From the 1690s onwards, the British deployed a number of strategies. Robust governors were installed to bring law and order in Caribbean pirate havens. Jamaica was one of the first to become a centre for anti-piracy campaigns, with even South Carolina, the last notorious haunt of pirates in the British American colonies, pacified by 1720.
Strict new laws meant small courts of colonial governors or naval officers could dispense with juries and testify directly against pirate crews, encouraging them to inform on their comrades. Hundreds of pirates were found guilty between 1700 and 1730, and many were sentenced to death. Offering pardons to pirate captains proved attractive to some who could then live legitimately with their loot, but others were suspicious. Captain Woodes Rogers was a former privateer who used pardons to recruit pirates to hunt down their former colleagues. Made governor-in-chief of the Bahamas, by the time he died there in 1732, the islands had been transformed into a relatively trouble-free colony of sugar and cotton plantations.
Finally, with other methods exhausted, the Royal Navy dramatically increased its fleets to hunt down and destroy the pirates directly. But pirates were often one step ahead of their adversaries, with faster ships and a better knowledge of maritime geography. Persistence paid off, however, and it has been estimated that some 500-600 pirates were executed between 1716 and 1726 alone. Eventually, piracy faded into legend, and the Royal Navy was able to maintain tight control over law and order across the world’s seas.
Tim Newark is the author of numerous books about military history, and was the editor of Military Illustrated magazine for 17 years.