William Kidd: Hunter then Hunted! Part II

Bellomont and Livingston brushed off these objections. They told Kidd that the commission they would arrange for him to receive from the king would also empower him to capture French ships, since England and France were at war. Thus, they assured their chosen captain, there would be plenty of opportunity for him to capture plunder even if pirate vessels eluded him.

It seems very clear that as his private conversations with Bellomont and Livingston proceeded, Kidd gained the distinct impression that he would be given great latitude in carrying out his mission. If he should find it necessary to commit any “irregularities” in the course of it, such as “requisitioning” supplies from the East India Company, the great men backing the project would protect him.

“Lord Bellomont assured me again and again,” Kidd later wrote, “that the noble lords would stifle all complaints.”

Whether Bellomont or Livingston deliberately fostered this impression in Kidd’s mind, or whether it was due to Kidd’s own propensity for fooling himself and for misconstruing the intentions of others, it is impossible to tell. It was probably a combination of Kidd’s fantasy and Bellomont and Livingston’s guile that created the perception that the mission would be carried out under special auspices and that the captain’s role in that mission would be a lofty one: He would be, in effect, the king’s own privateer.

With this fantasy before his eyes, Kidd consented to captain the enterprise.

On October 10, 1695, Lord Bellomont, Livingston, and Captain Kidd met to sign a final agreement covering their project. The contract called for Bellomont and his high-ranking partners to put up 80 percent of the cost of the venture. Livingston and Kidd would put up the rest, some £1,500. The document also spelled out how the booty was to be shared: 10 percent to the Crown; 55 percent for Bellomont and his backers; 22.5 percent to the crew; and 12.5 percent for Kidd and Livingston. If there should be no booty, Kidd and Livingston agreed to pay back all the money put up by their sponsors, retaining the ship as their own compensation.

There were other clauses as well: Kidd was to sign his crew on a “no prey, no pay” basis. He was to complete his cruise and report to Bellomont in Boston no later than March 20, 1697, with all his booty intact—at which time the spoils would be properly assessed and divided by an Admiralty court. Kidd was also required to put up a good conduct and performance bond of £20,000. A similar bond for £10,000 would be posted by Livingston.

As a veteran privateer captain Kidd must have realized that this agreement placed him in a dangerously vulnerable position: He had to find booty—or he would suffer grievous financial harm, since he and Livingston would have to make good any losses to their backers if the venture failed. Furthermore, if anything went wrong—if his crew mutinied, for example, or a friendly ship was attacked in error, he alone would be responsible.

Moreover, as a more than competent seaman, Kidd must also have recognized that it would be impossible for him to accomplish his mission by the deadline spelled out in the agreement. It was simply not feasible to prepare a ship, sail to the Indian Ocean, capture elusive pirates laden with spoil—almost all as well as or better armed than he would be—and then bring his prizes halfway around the world again to Boston—and do it all in fourteen months. Why, it would take at least two months just to reach the Cape.

What is more, it could not have escaped Kidd’s notice that because of King William’s War, much of France’s merchant fleet was concentrated in European waters and operating as privateers against the English. Potential French prey in the eastern seas would not be plentiful.

Finally, topping all these negative factors was one further reality: To finance his share of the expedition Kidd would have to sell his sloop, Antegoa. From Kidd’s point of view, the whole scheme seemed a poor risk indeed.

Nevertheless, he signed the agreement proffered by Bellomont.

Why did he accede to so dubious and unfair a contract? No doubt he felt trapped by Bellomont’s veiled threats against him, as well as flattered by the thought that he would be serving the king and the great men of the realm. He may also have been confident that the strictures written into his agreement would not apply in reality, and hopeful that completion of his mission to the East would bring that which he hungered after: a command in the Royal Navy.

Captain Kidd, it would seem, was blinded by the peculiar defect in his makeup that caused him to believe a thing true because he wished it so. There is no other way to explain Kidd’s acceptance of the deal offered to him by Bellomont and Livingston, except to say that he refused to acknowledge the reality of his situation.

Now, with Kidd signed up for the voyage, events moved rapidly. In December 1695 the Admiralty issued a commission to Kidd, empowering him to “apprehend, seize, and take the Ships, Vessels, and Goods belonging to the French King or his Subjects or Inhabitants within the dominions of the said French King; and such other Ships, Vessels, and Goods as are or shall be liable to confiscation.”

In January 1696 Kidd received a special commission signed by the king himself.

“To our Trusty and well-beloved Captain Kidd,” it began. It then instructed Kidd to seize pirates wherever he found them, but added: “We do hereby jointly charge and command you, as you will answer the same at your utmost Peril, That you do not, in any manner, offend or molest any of our Friends or Allies, their Ships or Subjects.”

During this time Kidd also had had audiences with the Earl of Romney and with Admiral Sir Edward Russell, the first sea lord. These great dignitaries, both investors in the privateer scheme, applauded Kidd’s mission. Their attentions no doubt further fed Kidd’s fantasy of present protection and future preferment.

As Kidd himself wrote later about his state of mind during this period: “I, thinking myself safe with a King’s commission and protection of so many great men, accepted, thinking it was in my Lord Bellomont’s power as Governor of New York, to oppress me if I still continued obstinate. Before I went to sea I waited twice on my Lord Romney and Admiral Russell. Both hastened me to sea, and promised to stand by me.”

For William Kidd the die was now cast.

He had already chosen his ship for the voyage. She was a 287-ton three-masted vessel named Adventure Galley that had been specially designed for speed, maneuverability, and armament. Ship’s carpenters at Deptford on the Thames, where she was being fitted out, had equipped her with special adaptations for her mission: oars, for example, to allow her to maneuver during notorious Indian Ocean calms, and an enormous spread of sail to give her extra speed. Under full sail Adventure Galley could make fourteen knots. Even becalmed, her forty-six oars would give her three knots of speed. Only 124 feet from stem to stern, she had been built flush-decked, adding to her nimbleness when under way and permitting her to carry a greater spread of sail. She carried thirty-four guns, and Kidd was confident that she would prove the equal of any vessel she was likely to encounter in the Indian Ocean.

Kidd chose his crew with great care. He wanted no potential mutineers, no officer who would, like Robert Culliford, seize Adventure Galley and go off “on his own account.”

Kidd carefully recruited 70 honest sailors, most of them married men with families in England. With this crew, less than half the ship’s full complement of 150, he intended to sail across the Atlantic to New York where he would settle his personal business, visit briefly with his family, explain his mission to associates, and recruit an additional 80 men.

At the end of February 1696, Adventure Galley slid down the Thames to begin her fateful voyage.

Matters went wrong from the start.

As Adventure Galley proceeded downriver she encountered a Royal Navy yacht near Greenwich. Kidd failed to dip his colors to the naval vessel as custom dictated. The yacht then fired a shot across Adventure Galley’s bow as a reminder of the respect that a privateer owed to any ship of the Royal Navy. Kidd’s crew then delivered an incredible insult to the naval vessel: They turned and slapped their backsides derisively in the direction of the yacht.

It was a stupid and gratuitous affront. It was probably traceable to Kidd’s delusion that his commission made him the equal of an officer in the Royal Navy, and Adventure Galley the equal of a Royal Navy man-of-war. Thus he did not consider it necessary to salute the yacht—and his crew’s insolent mockery had been no more than a sailor’s rude statement in support of his captain. The incident, however, was to cost Kidd dear.

When he later anchored, still in the Thames, a Royal Navy press gang, probably under specific orders, came aboard Adventure Galley and carried off more than twenty of Kidd’s handpicked crew. Furiously Kidd brandished his commission at the press-gang’s officer. Angrily he protested that he was on the king’s business and was not to be treated with such high-handed contempt. But the Royal Navy officer directing the press gang ignored all Kidd’s protestations. He had his duty—and no doubt he took great pleasure in discomfiting the arrogant privateer who had insulted His Majesty’s navy.

After the loss of his best men, Kidd, certain that his special commission exempted Adventure Galley from the ravages of a navy press gang, hurried off to complain to one of his powerful patrons, Admiral Russell. While he might not have agreed with Kidd that Adventure Galley was the equal of a navy frigate, Admiral Russell did order that Kidd’s abducted crewmen be returned to him. In the event, the Royal Navy delivered twenty seamen back to Adventure Galley—but they were not the same men whom Kidd had earlier lost to the press gang. Instead they were a score of hardcases and troublemakers whom the Royal Navy was glad to get rid of.

Realizing that he was not likely to get any satisfaction from the Royal Navy, Kidd set sail for New York. On the way he captured a French fishing boat, a lawful prize that he took to New York with him.

Arriving in New York in July, Kidd sold the French fishing boat and used the proceeds to purchase additional provisions for the long cruise to eastern waters.

Obtaining the additional eighty men he needed, however, turned out to be more difficult than Kidd had anticipated. New York was at that time a major port in the Pirate Round, a place where seamen were more interested in sailing as pirates than in sailing as pirate catchers. There was little interest in an expedition in which the crew’s share would amount to less than one quarter of whatever booty they took.

In order to attract new hands, therefore, Kidd—in conscious violation of his agreement with his backers and acting on his own authority—drastically revised the ship’s articles of Adventure Galley: The crew would now receive 60 percent of any profits rather than the 22.5 percent stipulated in Kidd’s agreement with Bellomont and Livingston. Probably Kidd convinced himself that he could explain away this arbitrary decision when the time came. Perhaps he also felt that as the king’s privateer, his mission was so important he was justified in changing the terms of his agreement with his backers in order to carry it out.

Eventually Kidd managed to sign on enough men to fill out his crew of 150. Many of them were the dregs of the New York waterfront: drifters, ex-privateers, deserters, and a variety of toughs. Benjamin Fletcher, who was still governor pending Lord Bellomont’s appearance in the New World, observed the new crewmen of Adventure Galley with a cynical eye. “Many flocked to him from all parts, men of desperate fortunes, and necessities in expectation of getting treasure,” Fletcher wrote of Kidd’s New York recruits. “It is generally believed here, that if he misses the design named in his commission, he will not be able to govern such a villainous herd.”

Although some observers, like Fletcher, suspected that there were outright pirates among Kidd’s New York enlistees—and that many of these had signed aboard with the secret aim of seizing the ship for piracy—there is no clear evidence that this was the case. It is hard to believe that Kidd, an experienced privateer and a New Yorker himself, would be taken in by a conspiracy of ordinary pirates. He was too old a hand for that. It is equally hard to believe that any cabal of semiliterate pirates, no matter how desperate, would choose to sign on with the king’s own privateer for purposes of fomenting a mutiny. There were far less risky ways to steal a ship.

Very probably Kidd knew full well that his New York crewmen were a bad lot. But he also must have known that there were no out-and-out brigands among them—and he must have felt confident of his ability to control them. In any case, he had no choice. He had to make do with the men available.

Throughout this period, while Kidd was provisioning Adventure Galley and signing up his new hands, he seemed to feel no urgency to get away from his home port and on to the task ahead. Instead he took advantage of this time to enjoy the company of his wife and children, spending many long summer days at the family’s farm overlooking the East River. It was as if Kidd, dreading the voyage ahead, wished to put off his departure as long as possible.

But July turned into August and August into September—and finally the day arrived when Kidd could no longer delay. On September 6, fully provisioned and with a full crew of 150 aboard, Adventure Galley slipped her cable and drifted on the tide out of New York harbor, under way at last for the East.

It was a nine thousand mile run to the Indian Ocean. Kidd’s course took Adventure Galley first due east across the Atlantic to Madeira off the northwestern coast of Africa. From there, by easy stages, Kidd sailed south along the west coast of the continent, slowly—almost reluctantly—making for the Cape of Good Hope. Now that the reality of the voyage was upon him, there must have been many times when Kidd confronted the chill secret knowledge that he carried deep within himself: His mission, so lightly agreed to in London, could not possibly succeed. But he must have just as often submerged that awful realization again, persuading himself that, somehow, he would find a way to bring it off. If his commission was a burden, it was also an opportunity. By accomplishing his task, even if only partially, would he not be proving to men of quality and power that he was indeed worthy of a Royal Navy command?

As the weeks passed, Kidd—with such thoughts no doubt boiling in his mind—brought Adventure Galley farther and farther south of the equator, closer and closer to the Cape. Then Kidd once again affronted the Royal Navy.

The incident began on December 12, 1696, when Adventure Galley encountered a squadron of four Royal Navy warships, under the command of Commodore Thomas Warren, off the western coast of Africa only one hundred miles north of Capetown. Kidd went on board Warren’s flagship, where he showed the commodore his royal commission and demanded that Warren provide him with new sails to replace sails that Adventure Galley had lost in a storm. When Warren refused, Kidd again brandished his commission, claiming that he had a right to the navy’s help. If Warren refused such help, Kidd would be forced to seize the sails he needed from the first merchant vessel he came across, but his actions would be Warren’s responsibility. Kidd’s high-handedness infuriated the commodore. Angrily, Warren informed Kidd that far from supplying him with sails, he intended to impress thirty of Kidd’s men the following morning to fill out shorthanded crews in his own squadron.

Chastened, Kidd pretended to agree to Warren’s demand for his men—and he returned to Adventure Galley. During the night, however, with the seas calm, Kidd used Adventure Galley’s oars to sneak away from Warren’s squadron. By morning he had an insurmountable lead over Warren’s ships and easily got away. But he had deeply offended the Royal Navy again and his arrogance had earned him a negative reputation even before Adventure Galley rounded the Cape into the Indian Ocean.

In February 1697, Adventure Galley, after sailing past the Cape and beating her way north through the Mozambique Channel, arrived at the island of Johanna to take on fresh water.

While she was anchored in the harbor of Johanna, a well-armed East Indiaman also arrived to take on water. The East Indiaman was flying a naval pennant—a circumstance that seemed to vex Kidd greatly. He demanded that the East Indiaman’s captain lower the pennant since he alone, as the king’s privateer, was entitled to fly a navy ensign. The captain of the East Indiaman did not know what to make of Kidd, but he was deeply suspicious of this oddly arrogant pirate catcher with his crew of New York wharf rats—and he kept his guns trained on Adventure Galley, letting it be known that if Kidd was not soon gone from Johanna, he would be attacked.

Chastened again, Kidd filled his water casks and then made for the nearby island of Mohéli in the Comoros, northwest of Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel. But the captain of the East Indiaman soon carried the word far out into the Indian Ocean about the insolent privateer, William Kidd, and his evil-looking crew. Thus, before she had even well begun her mission, Adventure Galley was regarded with suspicion among East India Company merchant captains as well.

It was now March 1697, and Kidd careened Adventure Galley on the beach at Mohéli in preparation for the long voyage still ahead. Kidd was now in the general area where he intended to operate, but it was more than a year since Adventure Galley had departed Deptford, and although Kidd could claim his tardiness had been due to events outside his direct control—such as the difficulty in recruiting crewmen in New York—the fact was that his supplies were beginning to run low and his men (not to mention his backers) were growing impatient for the plunder they expected to earn.

At this point some of the hardcases Kidd had recruited in New York began to mutter against their captain, grumbling that Adventure Galley ought to forgo her original objective and turn to open piracy, earning equal shares for those who actually sailed in her. Why, they asked, should they further enrich wealthy men in London with their labor? Why not go on the account, and be done with it?

Kidd heard the grumbling. But it seemed, so far at least, only the grousing of a disgruntled few—and he dismissed it.

While they were careened at Mohéli, plague struck the crew. Within a week Kidd lost fifty of his men.

Apparently regarding this loss as just one of the unavoidable hazards of life at sea, Kidd and his surviving crew returned to Johanna where Kidd recruited thirty men “off the beach” to replace those who had died. These new crewmen were genuine pirates, a far tougher and more brazen lot than Kidd’s New Yorkers.

Finally, with his crew replenished and his ship refitted, Kidd sailed northward in late April 1697 to seek the prey his commission entitled him to take: pirates or French shipping.

In July Kidd took up his station at the mouth of the Red Sea. Here, he knew, he would be well placed to intercept the pirates who preyed on the Moorish and East India Company ships that plied between the Arab port cities and India. Here he would also be in good position to attack any French merchants that might be in the area.

Day after day the Adventure Galley plowed back and forth at the narrow mouth of the Red Sea, fruitlessly seeking a prize. Every day now, with the new men aboard, the grumbling among the crew increased.

Kidd began to fret. Here, under the burning sun, looking out over an empty sea, the reality of his situation struck him with renewed force. How would he fulfill his financial obligations to his sponsors if—as seemed certain—he failed to find French or pirate shipping to attack? And how could he keep his increasingly mutinous crew in hand if he failed to find a ship? Was he justified, under the circumstances, in undertaking some illegal act, some act not permitted by his commission? But how could he reconcile such an act with his own vision of himself as Sailor of the King?

Then word reached Adventure Galley that a big convoy of some fourteen or fifteen ships, both Moorish and European, was forming up in the port of Mocha preparatory for the run to India.

Perhaps, the torn Kidd now thought, this convoy would provide the solution to his dilemma. Suppose he attacked one of the Moorish vessels of this convoy? Would such action, under the circumstances, really constitute a violation of his commission?

Now Kidd’s propensity to fool himself must have come into play again. Surely his sponsors on the other side of the world would understand if—to satisfy his mutinous crew and preserve his command—he took a Moorish prize. After all, no one in England really gave a damn about Muslim losses, did they? Surely his powerful backers would protect him from censure if he overstepped his commission out of necessity. Surely his partners in the enterprise would look past his deeds toward his motives. They had promised him as much, had they not? And was the taking of a Moorish ship true piracy, in any case? Did the Great Mogul of India really qualify as a “friend or ally” of the king of England—whom Kidd was forbidden by his commission to attack?

Such questions must have plagued Kidd continually as Adventure Galley patrolled the mouth of the Red Sea, waiting for the Mogul convoy to appear. Kidd must have prayed fervently that a suitable prize would materialize before the Mocha ships got under way so that he could avoid making the terrible decision their appearance would force on him.

But the convoy came into view first.

On August 14, 1697, lookouts spotted the fleet of fifteen ships moving slowly and ponderously down the narrows right toward Adventure Galley. The convoy appeared to consist mainly of merchant ships belonging to the Great Mogul. Three armed escorts were accompanying it. Two of the escorts, both flying Dutch colors, were sailing close to the merchant vessels, while the third, an East Indiaman, was running out ahead of the clustered cargo ships.

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