“Captain Kidd”


Captain Kidd tells the tale of his wicked life. His early sins include the murder of William Moore and one of his ship's gunners. He repents for a time, but slides back into piracy. Finally captured, he has been sentenced to death


One of the tunes for this song is also used for the American hymn "Wondrous Love"; another is used for the English hymn "Come Ye that Fear the Lord." -PJS, RBW

The Missouri Harmony has a song, "Captain Kid" (sic.), which has still another set of lyrics (not "Wondrous Love"), but the sheet music is so cramped that it is literally impossible to match the text with the tune. It's the standard tune, though. - RBW

Several of the ballad versions note that, after murdering William Moore, Kidd killed the gunner. According to Friedman, Moore *was* the gunner; Kidd killed him because he was allegedly planning a mutiny. - PJS

There is, indeed, a lot more to this story than we find in this song. For the references cited in this note, see the Bibliography at the end.

Although the British hung Captain Kidd as a pirate, the view of him here is probably too harsh. In his own mind he was a privateer, if perhaps an overly zealous one. Herman comments on p. 247, "Kidd had fallen victim of a new, less tolerant attitude toward the time-honored tradition of theft at sea. A few years earlier, Kidd's exploits would have been business as usual." Similarly, Cordingly, p. xiv, described the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) as the period when buccaneers were most active in the Caribbean. But by 1701, Britain was doing all it could to stop piracy; the gibbeted bodies of pirates were displayed all along the Thames to try to discourage potential pirates (Ritchie, p. 1)

The truth is, there was a long history of piracy in the British navy. Francis Drake, the second man to circumnavigate the globe, made his profit by preying on the Spanish, e.g. (Cordingly, pp. 28fff.; Rodger, p. 244). As long as England was a self-sufficient nation, without colonies, and its enemies such as Spain had colonies, this made perfect sense. It was only in the seventeenth century that Britain began to find trade more profitably than raiding, and so started to suppress piracy (Ritchie, p. 128).

William Kidd (or Kid; this is the spelling preferred by Firth) was born in the middle of this transition period. Few details of his early life survive, but he was said to come from Greenock, Scotland, and to have been born around 1645 (so Ritchie,p. 27; DictPirates; and all three biographical dictionaries I checked; Zacks, p. 9, makes him 42 in 1696, and on p. 60 says he was born in 1654. Clifford, p. 5, also gives the date 1654, and lists his birthplace as Dundee). His father is said to have been a Presbyterian minister (so Ritchie, p. 27; Clifford claims Kidd's father was "a sea captain who died when Kidd was very young"), which would accord with the statement in the song that Kidd's parents "taught me well to shun the gates of hell." But the extent to which that influenced his early career simply cannot be known; we don't have the information.

Clifford, p. 5, believes Kidd spent time as a petty officer in the Royal Navy -- but it is worth noting that no petty officer would know how to navigate a ship.

By 1689, Kidd was a buccaneer in the Caribbean (Ritchie, p. 29). In that confused region, with different islands ruled by different powers, semi-official piracy still flourished. In that year, seemingly with some official encouragement, he took command of the _Blessed William_, technically a privateer (Kidd in fact had helped capture her, and she was manned, in effect, by volunteers; Zacks, pp. 62-63) but part of a relatively regular navy flotilla (the lines between regular and irregulars were much less clearly drawn in remote stations); Ritchie, p. 30. But his crew didn't like how he ran his ship, and soon deposed him (Ritchie, p. 32; Zacks, p. 72).

Kidd and his former vessel ended up chasing each other around the Atlantic. But Kidd did good work in New York during the confusion resulting from the ouster of James II in 1689 (Zacks, p. 79ff.); he used his new ship to help bluff the old governor out of his post. He went on to marry a well-to-do young New York widow in 1691 (Ritchie, p. 36; Zacks, pp. 82-83, describes the complications of their courtship and her inheritance, and Clifford, p. 23, notes that they married only four days after her previous husband died, but none of that affects Kidd's story much). They would have a daughter, Sarah, named for her mother (Zacks, p. 11). Kidd seems to have been a respectable citizen at the time, among other things, he served on a Grand Jury for a time (Zacks, pp. 90-91). Though it was hard to be entirely respectable in New York at this time; the place was a favorite pirate hang-out, where no one asked many questions about where goods came from (Clifford, pp. 32-33).

Eventually life on land paled, though we have no clue as to why (Clifford, p. 23); in 1695 Kidd went to England to seek a privateer's licence (Ritchie, p. 40; Zacks, pp. 91-93, thinks he actually tried to gain a captain's commission in the Royal Navy, but this is almost too absurd an idea to contemplate). He did not get either warrant at this time; a shortage of trained sailors forced the British navy to grab every hand it could find. So no letters of marque were issued during this period (Ritchie, pp. 42-43).

There were ways around this. According to Bryant, p. 34, "By 1698, the loss of revenue and trade brought about by the smugglers and pirates had reached such large proportions that the English government was moved to action. But since the Royal Navy was fully occupied in the war with Louis XIV, a private company was organized to hunt down and destroy some pirates.... [Among its stockholders] were King William [of Orange], Lord Bellomont.... Lord Chancellor Somers, [and] the Duke of Somerset...." What it really came down to was, Kidd and some acquaintances came up with a way around the restrictions on privateers: They would offer up their ship for purposes of hunting the pirates. In return, they wanted to have a much freer hand in dealing with the booty they captured (Zacks, pp. 102-104).

We will meet Bellomont again; he was not born a member of the nobility, but was a soldier who had helped bring Charles II back to the throne; he had been rewarded with a title, but had little property to support it (Clifford, p. 34). His poverty, and his desire to do something about it, would play a large role in what followed.

(In an interesting aside, the man who dreamed up this scheme, and who introduced Kidd to his other patrons, was one Robert Livingston. According to Zacks, p. 100, he was of the Livingston family that, a century and a half earlier, had produced Mary Livingston, one of the "four Maries" who went with Mary Stewart when Mary went to wed the king of France.)

Initially, the goal seems to have been to have a relatively small number of shareholders, to keep the profits high. This proved unfeasible; too many people, including King William, had to approve the venture. So more partners were brought in and the charter rewritten (Ritchie, pp. 50-55). To get King William's assent to the whole deal, he was given a 10% stake.

Raising the money was difficult enough that Kidd sold his old ship, the _Antigua_ (Zacks, p. 105). What's more, he signed what Zacks, p. 104, describes as a performance bond for twenty thousand pounds. Apart from his land in New York, much of which was really his wife's property, he was betting everything he had -- and if he failed, even the land might be forfeit, unless his wife could have the marriage dissolved. (Zacks thinks this is proof that Kidd either intended to cheat or to turn pirate. He ignores the possibility that Kidd was tricked -- which, given that Kidd was starry-eyed enough to hope for favors from the British government, seems to me quite possible.) And his backers were slow to come up with their parts of the funding, meaning that he lost a significant amount of his capital to interest on debts he piled up while he waited (Zacks, p. 106).

Kidd's ship, the _Adventure Galley_, was still new; it was designed for it task and built in 1695. It was, by the standards of the time, quite an unusual vessel; in the century since the Spanish Armada had seen its oared vessels thoroughly out-maneuvered by the race-built English sailing ships, oared ships had almost disappeared from the seas. And the _Adventure Galley_ did have a full sailing rig -- but it also had oars, and was designed for rowing (Ritchie, p. 58; Zacks, p. 105). This would make it easier to maneuver in combat and close with a pirate, which was its purpose (Clifford, p. 6, calls it the "first ship ever built by the British to hunt pirates") -- but it also probably resulted in a cramped, slow ship in ordinary conditions. And she was ill-equipped for sailing in the tropics, where wooden hulls were constantly under attack; her planking was thin, and there was no metal coat (Zacks, p. 119). One suspects, given how leaky she was, that the wood was also of low quality.

But she could certainly fight, being armed with over 30 cannon (32, according to Zacks, p. 9; 34, according to DictPirates, Paine, and Clifford, p. 45). On the other hand, Clifford seems to say that her guns were four-pounders -- very light artillery indeed; even field artillery was usually in the six-pound to twelve-pound range, and a ship of the line would carry 24-pounders or heavier. (On the other hand, Zacks, p. 119, believes at least some were sixteen-pounders.) Paine estimates her at 285 tons, DictPirates at 300; Zacks and Clifford give the improbably precise figure of 287 tons -- a fairly large ship for the time; even a ship of the line was generally under 1500 tons.

The problem was the crew. Given the naval crisis, Kidd was only allowed to take 70 men from England, and only half of them were permitted to be experienced sailors (Ritchie, pp. 58, 63; Zacks, pp. 105-106). This was more than enough to sail the vessel, but not nearly enough to fight her efficiently; for that, Kidd needed about 150 men. So it was decided that she would sail to his old stomping grounds in New York to pick up more crew. (In the process, Kidd showed some of the arrogance that would eventually get him in trouble; as he was leaving England, he refused to accord proper recognition to naval vessels. He nearly lost his ship as a result; Ritchie, p. 61, and did lose some of his better crew members; Zacks, pp. 107-108; Clifford, p. 50. Plus the whole business was starting to look pretty under-the-table; Zacks, pp. 106-107, thinks Kidd's backers were trying to get him out of the country fast so he could be out making money rather than get stuck in something as tedious as fighting off a French invasion fleet intent on restoring James II.)

My sources disagree about exactly what happened in New York. Ritchie says that the war with France had caused something of a depression in New York, making it easy to recruit crew. But he was signing crewmen to the standard privateer's "no prey, no pay" contract: They received a percentage of the booty, but no other pay except in the event of injury (Ritchie, pp. 58-59). And, of course, a fairly high percentage of the profit had already been promised away to the people who financed the expedition (including that 10% promised to King William). Ritchie implies that this wasn't a problem; Kidd found his crew. But DictPirates says that Kidd promised 60% of the booty to his men, and 60% to his backers -- obviously not a possibility. Clifford, p. 36, also says the backers were promised 60%. Zacks, p. 14, has an even more extreme equation: All the crew combined were to be granted only a quarter of the booty; Clifford, p. 47, also says the crew would get only 25% (with no data on the other 15%) -- and notes that privateering crews usually would get 50% of the take. Since there were 150 men, a 25% share for the crew meant 1 part in 600 for each man. So when Kidd, on the voyage over, captured a French vessel judged to be worth 350 pounds, each man would have gotten just over half a pound. Given the length of the voyage, that works out to pennies a day at best. Few sailors were interested.

Zacks, p. 14, claims that Kidd then turned the arrangement on its head: The sailors would get 75%, the backers 25%. This, we note, was cheating the crown -- hardly a good idea. But, whatever Kidd did, he finally pulled together a crew -- though, according to Zacks, p. 16, quite a few of them were "known pirates."

One of the key members of this crew was William Moore, who was appointed gunner. This meant that he was responsible for training the ship's crew in the proper handling and use of the ship's guns (Ritchie, p. 70). Zacks, p. 16, describes him as a known troublemaker, who had attacked his captain at age 18; he also spent time in prison in the Caribbean. Zacks speculates that Kidd wanted a "belligerent" gunner.

On September 6, 1696, the _Adventure Galley_ left New York bound for Madeira, the first stop on the way around the Cape of Good Hope (Ritchie, pp. 69-70). In this period, he seems to have followed the rules against piracy scrupulously; he could have attacked several ships safely (Ritchie, page 70), but refrained when they proved to be from friendly countries. In fact, he gave one disabled British ship sails and a mast (Zacks, p. 24) that he would later sorely miss (Ritchie, p. 90).

He first found himself in trouble a little later, when he ran into a naval squadron in the South Atlantic commanded by Commodore Thomas Warren. The squadron had gotten lost, and suffered heavily from scurvy, and had been under-manned even before that; they wanted to requisition some of Kidd's crew (Clifford, pp. 62-63). Kidd managed to slip away (apparently by rowing when the fleet was becalmed; Clifford, p. 64) -- but he didn't dare stop at the Cape of Good Hope, since that was where the fleet was headed. Needing supplies himself, and also facing an outbreak of scurvy, he set sail for Madagascar (Ritchie, pp. 77-79). The crew, who hated the idea of being impressed into the Navy, was probably thrilled. But Warren would remember being abandoned... (Zacks, p. 38).

Madagascar, at this time, was a haunt mostly of pirates; European attempts at colonization had largely failed (Ritchie, p. 82). And there was enough trade with India to support a fair number of predators.

Kidd stopped at the island of Mohilla to careen his ship -- and lost about thirty of his men to disease (Ritchie, p. 91; Zacks, p. 120, describes it as bloody dysentery, and says about 40 men died). The tropics at this time were still very deadly for Europeans. Kidd managed to find a few replacements, but Ritchie hints (p. 92) that the new men were even rougher than the old; Clifford, p. 66, believes they were veteran pirates, and that they changed the feelings of the crew: The majority were now in favor of actual piracy.

This was most unfortunate. So far, the expedition had been a financial disaster: With no prizes taken since they left New York, Kidd would be in trouble with his bosses. And the absence of loot also made the crew restless. Clifford, p. 70, notes that at the end of her first year at sea, the men had made effectively nothing -- less than a piece of eight per man. Bryant, p. 35, writes, "As their search in the Indian ocean for pirates and booty proved futile, the crew became mutinous, demanding that the ship devote its time to a little pirating on its own account...." According to Ritchie, p. 94, "When Kidd rounded the horn [of Africa -- the region now known as Somalia] and turned due west into the Gulf of Aden, he was all but announcing he had turned pirate." He first tried stalking an East India convoy, but it was too strong to attack (Ritchie, pp. 97-98).

By this time, the _Adventure Galley_ "was now 'leaky and rotten' and the men pumped water daily" (Ritchie, p. 99) -- this even though they had made several stops to careen and repair the ship. Between the loss of men, the hot weather, the lack of prizes, and the state of the ship, Ritchie is of the opinion that morale was terrible. Clifford, p. 69, says that a visitor to the ship saw a crew very disrespectful of their captain. Zacks, p. 127, notes that Kidd didn't have any authorization from anyone of importance in the Indian Ocean (e.g. the East India Company or one of the local Moslem rulers), so it was almost impossibly for him to visit a decent port; that can't have helped morale either. Under all these pressures, Kidd stopped an English ship in Indian waters. He took her captain hostage as a guide, and his men, by abusing the crew, managed to find a small amount of cash (Ritchie, pp. 99-100). It was a relatively minor act, but it was piracy.

And men were starting to jump ship (Ritchie, pp. 101-102). "Confronted with a desperate situation, Kidd had to do something quickly, and it appears he set out to make a big strike as fast as possible" (Ritchie, p. 102). He blundered into a fight with a small Portuguese squadron (Zacks, pp. 139-141), fled, then managed to capture the smaller Portuguese ship (which had out-sailed its larger companion; Ritchie, p. 103). This too was piracy, since Portugal was not at war with England -- though fighting a ship from a Catholic nation wasn't likely to get Kidd in trouble, and he could at least argue that the Portuguese started it.

By this time, reports of Kidd's piracy were common and very exaggerated (Zacks, pp. 142-143). Yet when Kidd met an actual English ship, the _Thankfull_, he once again let it pass (Ritchie, p. 104). And when he encountered an East India Company ship, the _Loyal Captain_, he again refused to attack her -- though the crew wanted to seize the ship (Ritchie, p. 105; Clifford, p. 71; Zacks, p. 147, gives a substantial but undocumented account of how he faced the crew down).

It was in this context that the problem with William Moore arose. Moore had already caused a little trouble. When the _Adventure Galley_ overtook a small ship named _Mary_, Kidd had stopped her and spent much time talking to her captain in his cabin. While his back was turned, members of the crew, including Moore, had ransacked the _Mary_. It didn't yield much, and according to Zacks, p. 134, Kidd actually made them return much of what they had taken (evidence that Kidd was not yet committed to piracy). But refusing them even this small bit of booty can't have made the crew any happier.

Later, the _Adventure Galley_ spotted a Dutch ship, and Kidd refused to attack it. Moore was discussing with some of the crew how it might be taken. Kidd overheard and flew into a rage. "Moore... when called a 'lousy dog,' had the temerity to reply, 'If I am a lousy dog, 'tis you who have made me so! [Kidd] ...hit Moore such a smart blow on the head with a wooden bucket that next day the gunner died" (Bryant, p. 35; there are circumstantial accounts in Zacks, p. 149, and Clifford, pp. 72-74, though they do not entirely agree with the accounts in other sources. Certainly there is no authentic and contemporary record of what was said that day; all is from later recollection.)

If the description in Clifford, pp. 73-74, is correct, it sounds as if Kidd was formally in the right: Moore was openly mutinous. Properly, Kidd should have given orders for Moore's execution -- but this raises the possibility that his orders might not have been obeyed (according to Zacks, p. 148, the agreement Kidd had signed with his sailors gave him relatively limited; he had to get a vote of the men even to punish a mutineer!). It was a dreadful situation, thought Kidd's response was certainly unwise.

With the crew more upset than ever, Kidd finally got lucky -- or so he thought. Kidd's mistake arose in part because of the tendency at the time to fly false flags. Soon after, while himself flying French colors, he encountered a ship called the _Rupparell_ (Ritchie, pp. 106-107). He stopped the ship and tricked the captain into showing a French pass. The ship in fact wasn't French, but since she had passed herself off as such, Kidd felt entitled to take her. Finally his men earned something worth having -- it even gave him a second ship, which eventually was renamed the _November_. But it was rather a sharp bit of business.

It wasn't the last time false colors would get Kidd in trouble. It was on January 30, 1698 that they spotted the _Quedah Merchant_ (Ritchie, p. 108; the ship is sometimes called simply the _Quedagh_; so Herman, pp. 246-247, or the _Quedagh Merchant_, Clifford, p. 84, contra Ritchie, Bryant, Paine, p. 6). It was quite a prize -- Zacks, p. 155, calculates it at at least fifty thousand pounds, or twice the amount supplied by Kidd's investors. Of course, there was also the crew to pay....

Since Kidd was flying a French flag, the _Quedah Merchant_ did the same, and sent over a French pass when called upon to show her papers (Clifford, p. 84; Zacks, pp. 151-152). Kidd took her -- but in fact she was carrying Indian cloth. So he was arguably guilty of again attacking a British ship. Certainly a ship of a British ally. (According to Clifford, p. 86, he came to realize this, and later tried to return it, and Zacks, p. 156, says he tried to talk the crew into not holding the ship. But this sounds like an after-the-fact apology to me.)

Worse, the ship had been under the control of Muklis Khan, a high official at the Indian court (Ritchie,p. 127; Clifford, pp. 134-135). Taking it didn't just cost the East India Company money; it got them in trouble with the locals they had to deal with. They were already in trouble with the locals, and struggling to maintain their monopoly (Ritchie, pp. 128-134); Kidd made their problems much worse. They would not forget -- and they wanted a scapegoat. Kidd apparently was the one chosen (Ritchie, p. 137; Clifford, p. 136).

It was about the end of his voyage. Already the ship had been out longer than he planned, and between the state of his ship, and the fact that everyone was after him, it would be hard to take another major prize. Kidd managed to pick up a few more small ships after the _Quedah Merchant_ (Ritchie, p. 109), meaning he by now had a small fleet at his disposal -- but only the _Adventure Galley_ was really a fighting ship. And she was no longer in fighting shape; her pumps were always active (manned mostly by slaves; Clifford, p. 85), and Ritchie, p. 110, thinks she was now too slow to catch a merchantman. And she might not survive even a moderate storm (Ritchie, p. 111. It makes you wonder a bit about Kidd's ship-handling if he couldn't keep her in seaworthy shape for just two years. Though Zacks, p. 105, notes that she was built in five weeks and may not have been properly constructed and caulked.)

Kidd took his motley fleet out of the Indian Ocean and headed for the pirate haunt of Madagascar. This is a noteworthy point, because if Kidd had really been trying to work with the authorities, he could have gone to a British port. (To be fair, every time he had tried that in India, he had gotten in trouble.) Instead, he arrived at the island of Saint Marie, off Madagascar, in April 1698, and assured the pirates who watched the entrance to the harbor that he was "as bad as they" (Ritchie, p. 116). It took some time for all his ships to arrive (Clifford, p. 120, says that the _Quedah Merchant_ arrived some five weeks after the _Adventure Galley_), but they all showed up eventually.

At this point the crew insisted on a distribution of the spoils (Clifford, p. 121), and there was much grumbling at how much Kidd held back for his sponsors. The crew went to far as to loot one of their own smaller vessels, which ended up sinking (Ritchie, pp. 118-119).

The crew did more than just take their money. They also quit. Maybe they were sick of Kidd, maybe they didn't think they were getting paid enough; maybe they just wanted more treasure. But a large majority (nearly 100 of the 117 remaining sailors, according to Ritchie, pp. 124-125) left Kidd to serve aboard the pirate ship _Resolution_, commanded by Robert Culliford. Ritchie describes it as if they just voted to quit, but Clifford, pp. 122-123, describes it in terms of mutiny: The men raided the property, threatened Kidd, and headed off to join Culliford. You have to give them a certain credit for foresight, because Culliford was to be very successful -- and even managed to cop a pardon when he arrived home. (This part of the story seems to have been pretty obscure; Firth, p. 348, thought Culliford followed Kidd to the gallows, as he probably should have.)

Whatever Kidd had hoped to do at this point, the loss of his crew meant he didn't have much choice now but to head for home; although he could and did recruit local slaves to do most of the shipboard work, he didn't have enough sailors to do any more fighting.

It also meant he had to give up on the leaky _Adventure Galley_, There wouldn't be enough men to man the pumps (Clifford, p. 124). The crew beached the ship, burned it to recover the relatively valuable iron fittings and cannon, and set out for New York in the former _Quedah Merchant_, now renamed the _Adventure Prize_ (Ritchie, p. 126). It was a curious decision: The loss of his specialized ship would surely not go over well with his backers, and the design of the _Adventure Prize_ was highly recognizable as an Indiaman (meaning that, unless Kidd had taken it from pirates, he must have captured it by his own piracy; Clifford, p. 124).

It was a while before he was able to sail, though we don't know the exact date (Ritchie, p. 160). Ritchie thinks that Kidd fabricated a narrative during this time to explain his deeds (cf. Clifford, p. 125): He admitted to taking two legal prizes, and beyond that, every action forced upon him had been at the behest of his crew. And he destroyed his log so it could not be used against him (Ritchie, p. 125; Clifford, p. 161, says Kidd claimed the crew stole it). Clifford, however, notes a major problem with this line of argument: Kidd still had a significant amount of loot (Clifford, pp. 145, 148). If the crew had truly mutinied, would they have left him with so much? And could he, as he apparently claimed, have realized so much money for selling the fittings of the _Adventure Galley_ after she was abandoned (Clifford, p. 161)? Kidd, it seems to me, was on a cleft stick: If he came back with money, he was in trouble with the Crown; if he came back with none, he would answer to his investors. It is, perhaps, a measure of his devotion to his family that he came home at all.

While Kidd was gone, the laws against piracy, which previously had been difficult to enforce, had been made much stiffer (Ritchie, pp. 151-155, etc.). And Kidd's was only the first of many ships sent to stop the pirates (Ritchie, p. 159). The government might have forgiven mere failure; it would not forgive a privateer turned pirate. And, in fact, Kidd was officially declared a pirate at this time.

There are many rumors about Kidd's return voyage -- Clifford mentions stories of men murdered and a mutiny suppressed. There does not seem to be any hard evidence of this, and Kidd probably didn't have enough men for the costly mutiny described.

Kidd did not sail back directly to either England or New York; his first stop in the New World was the island of Anguilla, where he picked up water and some fresh food (Ritchie, p. 165). He then headed to the Dutch port of Saint Thomas, apparently to avoid the Royal Navy. After some more flitting around the Antilles, he sold his ship an some of his goods (Ritchie, pp. 166-167) and transferred to a vessel he bought, the _Saint Antonio_. The _Quedah Merchant_ was finally fired in the islands (Ritchie, p. 168).

Kidd then headed for New York, occasionally stopping along the coast to get rid of cargo, and apparently negotiating with Lord Bellomont, one of his original financial backers and now colonial governor. (Ritchie, pp. 177-180). His official post seemed to have done something to Bellomont's memory; he certainly did not welcome Kidd with open arms. He had an interesting problem: He could accept Kidd's account of what happened, take his share of Kidd's profits, and try to get Kidd a pardon for whatever crimes he was considered to have committed -- or he could turn Kidd in.

Ritchie, p. 180, estimates that Bellomont could make on the order of a thousand pounds for cooperating with Kidd, and on the order of 13,000 if he himself turned Kidd in. Plus he would strengthen his political position by making himself look tough on piracy (Clifford, pp. 156-157). A scrupulous man might have hesitated -- but a scrupulous man probably wouldn't have gotten tied up in Kidd's adventure anyway. As Kidd arrived to present his case to the colony's council, Bellomont had him seized (Ritchie, p. 182) and imprisoned in Boston (Ritchie, p. 183; Clifford, p. 162). So strictly was he guarded that not even his wife was allowed to see him (Clifford, p. 178)..

So great was government interest in making Kidd a symbol that a special ship was sent to transport him to England (Ritchie, p. 184), though it had to turn back before crossing the Atlantic (Ritchie, p. 185). He finally was sent to England in 1700 aboard the _Advice_ (Ritchie, p. 192). The trip being urgent, the ship sailed in winter, and a harsh winter at that (Clifford, p. 179), with the result that Kidd became very sick (Ritchie, p. 193). Clifford adds that he was kept in solitary confinement to make sure he didn't reveal any of his high-placed backers' embarrassing secrets.

By this time, Kidd had even been discussed in Parliament (Ritchie, p. 188-192) -- he came to be a pawn in the contest between Whigs and Tories (Ritchie, pp. 202-203).

In April, Kidd's testimony was taken by a Board of Examiners. He was asked to sign off on the transcript, then placed in solitary confinement in the notorious (and thoroughly unsanitary) Newgate Prison, unlike most other naval captives, who were sent to Marshalsea (Ritchie, pp. 196-199). His confinement nearly killed him; after a while, he had to be granted somewhat more liberty to keep him alive (Ritchie, pp. 200-201). After a time, he was called upon to testify before Parliament. What he said is unfortunately not recorded, since the MPs eventually washed their hands of him (Clifford, p. 181), but it ended with him being ordered to stand trial (Ritchie, pp. 203-205).

It wasn't much of a trial; it lasted only two days: May 8-9, 1701 (Ritchie, p. 206). Under the rules of the time, Kidd was not given a lawyer (Ritchie, p. 206). Nor was he given full access to the documents used against him; the government did give him access to some, but others that might have helped his cause could not be found, and Kidd was given no help in searching for them (Ritchie, p. 208).

Kidd was charged with piracy and murder, and was tried along with several others accused simply of piracy. (Ritchie, p. 211, who notes that the "judges were activists -- in Kidd's case, active on the side of the prosecution").

The trial did not, however, proceed according to the script, because the procedures of the time required a prisoner to plead innocent or guilty first, without benefit of a lawyer or anything else. Kidd didn't want to play this game; he wanted details of the case, and assistance, before entering a plea (hardly unfair, given that he had not been given particulars of the charges against him! -- Ritchie, p. 212). After much jousting, and being informed that not pleading was equivalent to a guilty plea, he gave in and said "not guilty" -- which meant that the trial could proceed and Kidd's needs basically ignored (Ritchie, p. 213).

Kidd was tried initially for the murder of William Moore (Ritchie, pp. 213-216; Clifford, p. 198, notes that the indictment charged him with murder with "malice aforethought" -- i.e. first degree murder, which of course was absurd). Kidd could hardly contest that Moore was dead; his arguments were that he had the right to discipline his sailors (which was true, and the discipline could even include death, particularly in the case of mutiny) -- yet, at the same time, that he was sorry Moore had died. But witnesses were presented showing that Moore was not engaged in mutiny at the time Kidd killed him, and that Kidd killed him in passion. Kidd disputed this (Clifford, p. 210), but was told "You will not infer that if he was a mutineer it was lawful for you to kill Moore" (Clifford, p. 213). Since this was the basis of Kidd's defence, he hadn't much to say after that. He tried again to make is point during the summary made by one of the justices, and that was what we would call the instructing of the jury. But further statements by the defence were not allowed.

The first jury then left to decide Kidd's fate. A second jury was empaneled, and proceeded to try Kidd and others for piracy, primarily with regard to the _Quedah Merchant_. The jury was still hearing the charges when, after only about an hour, the first jury returned and convicted Kidd (Ritchie, p. 217; Clifford, p. 214). There was no appeals process, except for the King's mercy. Nonetheless, Kidd continued his defence on the other charge. Kidd offered his privateering commission, information about the false passes offered by the _Quedah Merchant's_ crew, and other evidence; some of the others on trial tried to claim that they had been under the King's pardon (Ritchie, p. 218-219).

Unfortunately for Kidd, much of his defence rested on the French passes offered by the _Quedah Merchant_ and other ships, and Kidd had given them to Lord Bellomont, and Bellomont wasn't about to given them back (Clifford, pp. 199-200).

The second jury came back even faster than the first one; in half an hour, Kidd had received his second conviction of a capital crime, and all but three of the others their first.

That still left two counts of piracy, meaning two more juries were empaneled and the trial went on. The result, of course, was more convictions, and finally the sentence (Ritchie, p. 220). When asked to give a reason why he should not die, all Kidd could reply was, "I have nothing to say, but that I have been sworn against by perjured and wicked people." All were sentenced to death (Ritchie, p. 220).

By modern standards, it was an absurdly unfair trial -- though it was not atypical of the justice of the day.

On May 10, King William III -- who earlier had held a share in Kidd's venture -- approved the death sentence (Ritchie, pp. 220-221). The execution was scheduled for May 23, 1701.

Kidd did try one more trick: He claimed to have a large sum hidden in the West Indies, and appealed to Robert Harley, Speaker of the House, and others to set him free to recover it for them (Ritchie, p. 221). The appeal went nowhere. Its main effect was to start a legend of buried gold that people keep hunting for (Ritchie, p. 232); indeed, it eventually gave rise to the whole notion of treasure maps and such, as exemplified in books such as _Treasure Island_. But Kidd's voyage did not take enough prizes to produce such a vast treasure (Ritchie, p. 238, has a list of other captains who earned far greater sums), and much of what he did take was recovered by the authorities (Ritchie, pp. 230-231). Ironically, British justice was so inefficient that Coji Babba, the many whose complaints against Kidd made the East India Company so angry at him, was unable to get satisfaction for his claim (Ritchie, p. 232).

It seems pretty clear that Kidd genuinely believed in his innocence; unlike most of the other pirates, he refused spiritual consolation and adamantly maintained his innocence (Ritchie, p. 225). The ordinary (chaplain) of Newgate was still after him for a confession as he started on his way to the gallows. He didn't give it. Herman, p. 247, reports that Kidd was thoroughly drunk when hanged (cf. Ritchie, p. 225, Clifford, p. 240) -- but still managed a thoroughly defiant proclamation of his innocence (Ritchie, p. 226; Clifford, p. 243). Luckily for him, this apparently didn't take long enough for him to sober up, since the first rope used to hang him broke (Paine, p. 7; according to Clifford, p. 244, the hangman was also drunk). Kidd fell dazed to the ground, supposedly finally repented, then was successfully re-stretched (Ritchie, p. 226; Clifford, pp. 244-245). From Wapping, his body was taken to the side of the Thames and tied into its gibbet (Ritchie, p. 227).

Ironically, the man who had gotten Kidd into most of his trouble, Lord Bellomont, had died weeks earlier, on March 5 (Ritchie, p. 229), though apparently word of this did not reach London until after Kidd's death. Bellomont had for a time imprisoned Mrs. Kidd, but she managed to regain her freedom, and even remarried; she lived until 1744 (Ritchie, p. 229).

Ritchie, p. 2, reports that a ballad about Kidd's death circulated immediately, but it is not clear which song is meant. Clifford, p. 245, quotes a broadside which is clearly this song, though not much like the common versions of the song. Not that it's much more accurate (e.g. it includes the error "Robert Kidd").

Versions of this song often print a line such as "Now to execution('s) dock I must go, I must go." This should read "Execution Dock"; Execution Dock was a place in Wapping where pirates were often hung (Zacks, p. 2). Clifford notes the irony that it was within sight of the spot where the _Adventure Galley_ started its ill-fated voyage (Clifford, p. 245).

Rumors about wealth left hidden by Kidd have of course been many, and the source of a lot of the pirate legends we know today. Poe's "The Gold Bug," for instance, is about decoding a message leading to Kidd's hidden gold (though it strikes me as almost impossible -- Kidd does not strike me as literate enough to produce Poe's message). But, as Clifford notes on p. 260, despite many hunts, "no gold was ever found" from Kidd's alleged buried treasure.

Clifford's book, which was published in 2003, is about the hunt for the wreck of the _Adventure Galley_ at Saint Marie. Roughly half the book is about Kidd's history (and seems to feature no original research, though he uses sources I haven't seen); the other half is about the search for the ship -- or, rather, mostly about the fights Clifford had with the Madagascar government to get permits to search. In the end, Clifford found what he thinks was the _Adventure Galley_ (though the evidence he offers seems to me to fall slightly short of proof). There doesn't seem to have been anything of great value left on the ship, either, though Clifford's search was brief due to all those problems with the government.

You have to wonder, a little, if Britain knew what it was starting. Piracy in Kidd's day was still relatively gentlemanly, with pirates simply after wealth. But starting around the time of his death, nearly every country renounced it. Only in the eighteenth century did pirates start to fly the skull and crossbones, meaning that they truly had no allegiance to anyone, while England and other countries devoted significant naval forces to stopping pirates (Ritchie, pp. 234-238). Their success was, for a time, limited -- but the rise of steamers and the need for a coaling port meant the effective end of piracy by the mid-nineteenth century. (Though, ironically, it is reviving now, when oil is easy to divert to pirate ships.)

Modern debate about Kidd has, it seems to me, been rather irrelevant to the issue of how we should view Kidd, because most of it is, well, modern. Was he guilty of piracy by the standards of the day? Pretty definitely yes. But did he regard himself as a pirate? Probably not -- even his most extreme actions were done under pressure from the crew. I would have to say that he deserved some punishment, but hardly death. On the other hand, there were few punishments except death at this time....


Bryant: Samuel W. Bryant, _The Sea and the States: A Maritime History of the American People_, Crowell, 1947

Clifford: Barry Clifford with Paul Perry, _Return to Treasure Island and the Search for Captain Kidd_, Morrow, 2003

Cordingly: David Cordingly, _Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates_, 1995 (I use the 1997 Harcourt Brace edition)

DictPirates:Jan Rogozinsky, _Pirates_, Facts on File, 1995 (reprinted 1997 by Wordsworth as _The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pirates_; this is the edition I used). References are to the article on [Captain William] Kidd.

Firth: C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books).

Herman: Arthur Herman, _To Rule the Waves_, 2004; (I use the 2005 Harper Perennial edition)

Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, _Ships of the World_, Houghton Mifflin, 1997. References are to the article on the _Adventure Galley_.

Ritchie: Robert C. Ritchie, _Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates_, Harvard University Press, 1986

Rodger: N. A. M. Rodger, _The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain 660-1649_ (1997; I use the 1999 Norton edition)

Zacks: Richard Zacks, _The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd_, Theia, 2002 - RBW

Historical references

  • 1699 - Arrest of Captain William Kidd in Boston
  • May 23, 1701 - Execution of Captain Kidd

Same tune

  • Admiral Byng and Brave West (C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 210)

Cross references


  • LOCSinging, as101900, "Capt. Robert Kidd," unknown (Boston), 19C; also as101910, "The Dying Words of Capt. Robert Kidd: a Noted Pirate, Who Was Hanged at Execution Dock, in England"


  1. Laws K35, "Captain Kidd"
  2. BrownII 116, "Captain Kidd" (1 text)
  3. Chappell-FSRA 27, "The Pirate" (a single confused stanza, but clearly this song)
  4. Hudson 100, p. 238, "Kidd's Lament" (1 text)
  5. Gardner/Chickering 129, "Captain Kidd" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Linscott, pp. 131-134, "Captain Kidd" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Peacock, pp. 837-839, "Captain Kidd" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Colcord, pp. 141-144, "Captain Kidd" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Hugill, 449, "Captain Kidd" (1 text, 1 tune); "Samuel Hall" (1 text, 1 tune -- same tune and format as Kidd, but substituting other names and nonsense rhymes)
  10. Mackenzie 110, "Captain Robert Kidd" (1 text)
  11. Friedman, p. 366, "Captain Kidd" (1 text)
  12. PBB , "Captain Robert Kidd" (1 text)
  13. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 501-504, "Captain Robert Kidd" (1 text)
  14. Lomax-FSNA 5, "Captain Kidd-I" (1 text, 1 tune)
  15. LPound-ABS, 72, p. 160, "Captain Kidd" (1 text)
  16. Shay-SeaSongs, pp. 187-189, "The Ballad of Captain Kidd" (1 text)
  17. Gilbert, p. 43, "Captain Kidd" (1 partial text)
  18. JHJohnson, pp. 73-75, "The Ballad of Captain Kidd" (1 text)
  19. Silber-FSWB, p. 200, "Captain Kidd" (1 text)
  20. BBI, ZN1837, "My name is Captain Kid who has sail'd, &c."
  22. ADDITIONAL: C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 134, "Captain Kid's Farewel to the Seas; Or, The Famous Pirate's Lament" (1 very detailed text, with the tune listed as "Coming Down")
  23. Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; notes to #87, "Told How a Crew Was Cursed" (1 short text)
  24. Roud #1900
  25. BI, LK35


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1701 (broadside)
Found in: US(MW,NE,SE,So) Canada(Mar,Newf)