In defence of Captain Kidd

My name was William Kidd; God's laws I did forbid, And so wickedly I did, When I sailed. The Ballad of Captain Kidd

HE IS renowned as one of the most notorious pirates in history, was a source of inspiration for both Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Edgar Allen Poe's The Gold Bug, and is said to have left priceless treasure buried across the globe.

Born about 1645 in the Dundee area, Captain William Kidd was hanged for piracy in London in 1701, his body left to rot above the Thames for 20 years as a warning of the grisly fate awaiting any would-be pirates. However, for years historians have protested his innocence, and now SNP MSP Bill Kidd – no relation – has tabled a parliamentary motion to try to clear the name of one of the world's most infamous pirates.

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In 1695, the "trusty and well beloved Captain Kidd" was appointed by the Crown as a privateer to fight piracy and to capture and loot enemy French ships. His expedition was financed mainly by a handful of English noblemen, and Kidd was presented with a letter of marque, signed by William III, reserving 10 per cent of the loot for the Crown.

Kidd embraced his appointment with gusto, and in 1698 he looted the Armenian ship the Quedagh Merchant, which is said to have been sailing under a French pass. The ship's captain, however, was English and, as such, a number of naval commanders were subsequently ordered to "pursue and seize the said Kidd and his accomplices" for the "notorious piracies" they had committed. Kidd was captured and executed three years later.

However, new research by American writers Dan Hamilton and Chris Macort – authors of the forthcoming book The Most Innocent of Pirates; the Quest for Captain Kidd's Lost Treasure Ship – supports the argument that Kidd was innocent of the charge of piracy, and it is on the back of this research that the Glasgow MSP is calling for the seafarer's name to be cleared.

"There's evidence to suggest that his trial was a fix-up by the Crown, who wanted to make an example of him," Mr Kidd says.

"An injustice is an injustice, no matter when it happened, and as far as I'm concerned, it's still very much a current case. People have been looking at the case for three centuries now, and I'm going to keep going at it."

Hamilton is also clear an injustice was committed. "Analysis of existing documents and reports from Kidd's trial show that he was the victim of politics," he says.

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"King William III had an enormous conflict of interest. He had to appear to be tough on piracy – an international problem that was inaccurately portrayed around the world as an English one – but, on the other hand, he was an investor in Kidd's mission to hunt pirates and stood to profit from it."

However, it was not just piracy for which Kidd was executed, but also for the murder of a member of his own crew. In 1697, he killed a mutinous gunner, William Moore, by hitting him over the head with a bucket, fracturing his skull. But Hamilton and Macort's latest research suggests that under Admiralty law – under which Kidd might have been, at worst, scolded for attempting to suppress a mutiny in such a violent manner – he should have been exonerated of that charge.

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"The newest development is our examination of the key difference between civil and Admiralty law in the early 18th century," says Hamilton. "Our research reveals that if Kidd had been tried under Admiralty law, in a maritime court where virtually all other pirates were tried, he would probably have been exonerated on the charge of murder and perhaps even the charge of piracy.

"When Kidd threw a bucket at his gunner, he was within the rights granted to British navy captains, especially because Moore was stirring up a mutiny. But under civil law, the fatal blow helped cost him his life."

Over the years, many historians have argued that Kidd was simply a scapegoat, that he was used by some of the most powerful men in England to advance their wealth, then abandoned by those very men when the scheme imploded.

"What this was really about was some very powerful lords who had been frozen out of the English East India Company hiring a captain to chase pirates and bring back the wealth of the Indies – even if some of that wealth happened to be recently stolen from the English East India Company and some other very wealthy Englishmen," says Richard Zacks, author of The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd.

"Kidd's mission was to bring stolen goods back to New York and then divvy up the profits. The origins of the items were not very important to the lords until the whole scheme blew up when Kidd was accused of piracy."

The captain of the Quedagh Merchant may have been an Englishman, but he had purchased passes from the French East India Company, promising him the protection of the French Crown. These passes, which may have saved Kidd from the hangman's noose, were suppressed at his trial and were not to surface again for more than a century.

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"The irony is that, a year earlier, those documents had been read into the official record of the House of Commons and can still be found there. But the judges and lawyers at his trial treated Kidd like a conman or madman when he referred to them," says Zacks. "The Quedagh Merchant was an Armenian ship, but the letters of passage justified Kidd's actions.

"It is a grand and cruel cosmic joke that he has gone down with Blackbeard as a notorious pirate. There's no record he killed anyone during the taking of ships. And the only confirmed kill is of his own gunner, who was clearly plotting mutiny. And Kidd accidentally killed him with a bucket, and was convicted of premeditated murder. I love the premeditation: 'Ah yes, my weapon of choice is, of course, a bucket…'"

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Not everyone believes Kidd should have escaped the gallows, however. Kenneth Kinkor, a historian and the author of Real Pirates, believes that, while he should have been acquitted of charges of piracy, other crimes that Kidd is rumoured to have committed (legend has it, for example, that he attacked one of the Japanese islands of the Tokara archipelago and burned its inhabitants alive) are sufficient to have justified his execution.

"Under modern standards, Kidd would not have been found guilty of the specific piracy charges brought against him at his trial," says Kinkor. "Having said that, by the standards of the time, he was likely guilty of other crimes.

"That he was not charged with most of these was, in my opinion, the product of political decisions on the part of the government, which were made on the basis of considerations of foreign policy, as well as the desire to protect certain individuals in very high places. In other words, he fully deserved to hang, but he should not have been hanged alone."

Captain Kidd's hanging drew enormous crowds. After the noose was placed around his neck, the rope snapped and he had to be hanged a second time before his body was strung up in a gibbet over the Thames. His grisly and humiliating death may just be the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of piracy, but perhaps his legacy, as one of the most notorious pirates of all time, is the biggest injustice of all.


• KIDD is thought to have been born in Dundee in 1645, although some claim he was from Greenock.

• When he was five, his father died and Kidd moved to New York in America, possibly becoming a seaman's apprentice.

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• The first official records of Kidd's life date from 1689, when he was a member of a pirate crew that sailed in the Caribbean. Along with other members of the crew, he mutinied, renamed the ship the "Blessed William" and became captain.

• In 1695, he was asked by New York governor Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, to attack and loot pirate ships and enemy French vessels – the voyage that would lead to his eventual capture and execution.

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• Bellomont had Kidd arrested and imprisoned in 1699. After a year in prison, he was sent back to England to stand trial and was hanged in London on 23 May, 1701.

Scots pirates and privateers

Alexander Dalzeel

Born in Portpatrick in 1662, Dalzeel captained his own ship by the age of 23. While sailing in the Caribbean, Dalzeel ordered the crew to attack a Spanish war galleon, drilling a hole in the side of his own ship so that his crew would be forced to fight to the death. Against all odds, they took the ship. For more than 20 years, Dalzeel was repeatedly captured, then released or escaped, but was finally captured in Scotland and returned to London where he was hanged in 1715.

'Red Legs' Greaves

Greaves worked under the notoriously cruel pirate Captain Hawkins before killing him in a duel and being elected captain. He was known as something of a kind pirate, but was arrested and sentenced to hang. However, while awaiting his execution in the prison dungeon of Port Royal in 1680, he managed to escape following an earthquake. He went on to become a pirate-hunter, earning a royal pardon before retiring to a plantation and becoming a philanthropist in later life.

Thorbjorn Thorsteinsson

Nicknamed Thorbjorn the Clerk, Thorsteinsson was an Orcadian pirate, who was executed in 1158. He fought with Sweyn Asleifsson (to whose sister he was married) after Asleifsson attacked and burned down the tower of Thorbjorn's grandmother with the old woman inside. The two men reconciled, however, and sailed in the Hebrides, looting as they went. They fell out again over the distribution of their bounty, and Thorbjorn was later outlawed for murder and eventually put to death.

Alexander Selkirk

Born in 1676 in Lower Largo, Fife, Selkirk is said to have inspired Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. He spent four years marooned on an uninhabited island at his own request, after questioning the seaworthiness of the ship he was sailing on with his fellow privateers. He was rescued by a passing ship in 1709 and became something of a celebrity upon his return to the UK. In 1717 he went to sea once more but died in 1721, most likely from yellow fever.

John Gow, 1698-1725

A notorious pirate, John Gow's career on the high seas was relatively short. Born in Wick and raised in Orkney, he sailed as a pirate off the Iberian Peninsula before returning to Orkney. In early 1725, in an attempt to throw off the authorities, he went by the name of Smith, renamed his ship the George, and passed himself off as a wealthy trader. However, he was eventually recognised and captured. He was tried and hanged in London, his body left to hang over the Thames just like Kidd's.

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