Captain William Kidd

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PIRATE or privateer, peg-legged villain or respected seafarer wrongly put to death, there are almost as many legends about Captain William Kidd as there were weevils in the average ship's biscuit.

One thing is for certain: Kidd's place in history is secure as an audacious adventurer who commanded a gang of swarthy pirates as he captured ships on the Indian Ocean.

What is less secure is the truth behind the deluge of myths and legends, which has sprung a leak in documented history of Kidd's extraordinary life, death, and indeed his birth.

As Scots historian Dr David Dobson points out, history's skewing of Kidd's tale begins with his birth, which is placed by Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia among others as Greenock, outside Glasgow, in 1645.

However, peer-reviewed research by the former fellow at Aberdeen University proves that Kidd was born some nine years later in Dundee, in 1654.

Dobson's research, supported by birth and parish records, backs claims by an American author Richard Zacks of a litany of errors in the documented life of Kidd, who is usually portrayed as a rapacious Scottish seaman who was hanged after robbing the treasure-laden ships he was paid to protect.

"Many of these biographies are based on rubbish that just isn't true," says Dobson. "All the traditional stories came from Daniel Defoe, who of course wrote a lot of myth and legend."

Legends which are disputed by Dobson and Zacks, his research partner, include that Kidd was an uncultured psychopath, that he was justly put to death for the robbing of friendly ships, that he buried a substantial trunk of treasure somewhere in the China Sea and that he was a pirate at all.

"He was definitely a privateer, certainly not a blood-thirsty swashbuckler," confirms Zacks, the author of Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd.He adds that, by 1690, the seaman and trader who had found riches in the Caribbean after running away to sea over three decades before, was married to the richest widow in New York. Together they owned over 38 acres of land on what is now Manhattan Island. Such was Kidd's stature by then, he had been gifted his ship by a wealthy Caribbean governor.

Five years later, on his return to Britain, the well-travelled and literate Kidd - described by Zacks as "defiantly independent, a hard task-master, ambitious, distrustful" - was commissioned to protect the shipping interests of four powerful English lords, backed by King William. Though the deal essentially involved the splitting of the profits of booty that Kidd managed to recover from pirate ships, the Scots seaman "saw it as his patriotic duty to accept the honour".

Kidd's story from here is well known through numerous fictional portrayals in Hollywood and works of literature including Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Captain Kidd, as he was famously cast in the bawdy drinking song that also misrepresents his achievements, set sail for Madagascar, where he and his crew robbed several ships which turned out to be friendly.

But both Dobson and Zacks claim that Kidd did not have control of his crew, many of whom were pirates, and that a mutiny took place aboard the Adventure Galley, as his undisciplined seamen grew increasingly unhappy at Kidd's apparent unwillingness to rob ships on their own side.

Nevertheless, Kidd and his crew's endeavours fell foul of the London-based giant East India Company, whose allegations of criminality produced a widely disputed trial in London. On his return from sea, Kidd was sentenced to death after documents, which purportedly proved his innocence of the crime of piracy, were mysteriously "mislaid" by the prosecuting Crown.

True to grisly myth, Captain William Kidd's remains were displayed dangling at the mouth of the Thames for several years after his hanging in 1701, as a warning to other seafarers tempted towards piracy.

But what of Captain Kidd's legendary treasure, which has hunters even today scouring the globe in search of buried booty worth billions?

Zacks says: "We know for a fact when he sailed to America he left 45lbs of gold and silver on Gardner Island, but the [then New York] governor forced him to hand it all over. The rest of his treasure, and you can account for almost every gold bar, went to the British Crown.

"We also know that the documents that proved his innocence surfaced in 1911, having been mislaid by the Crown."

Zacks blames English prejudice against Scots at the time as just one of many reasons for a judicial "cover-up", while Dobson says Kidd was "the fall guy for vested interests in London and New York".

Myth or legend, the strange and extraordinary story of Captain Kidd and his life of bounty and booty will continue to be disputed to this day.