Now Kidd made the decision he must have dreaded.
He moved to intercept.
He ordered Adventure Galley’s topsails set and the crew to man the oars. Then, in an act that was certainly a gratuitous violation of his commission, he ran up a red ensign. Kidd certainly knew that among Eastern pirates, the red flag signified a demand for surrender—or no quarter given. Then Kidd flung himself in among the Mocha merchants like a wolf seeking a likely victim. Soon he picked out a slow Moorish merchantman as target and began maneuvering to come alongside her.
As other ships of the convoy became aware of Kidd’s presence in their ranks, scattered shots began to ring out. Kidd, ignoring the desultory firing, loosed a broadside at the Moorish vessel he had targeted as his victim. His cannon damaged the rigging of the merchant but did not halt her.
Now the big East Indiaman that had been running ahead of the convoy came about and began making for Adventure Galley. This was the Sceptre, under the command of Captain Edward Barlo, a tough old sea dog. Sceptre now hoisted English colors. She fired at Adventure Galley with her bow guns.
Kidd, realizing that it was an English ship bearing down upon him, now decided to break off the action. It was one thing to attack and rob a Moorish vessel, but it would not only be an open breach of his commission to engage an English ship, it would be treason as well.
Adventure Galley thrashed away from the scene in full retreat.
But aboard Sceptre, Captain Barlo wrote a report of the incident in his log. There was no doubt in his mind that Kidd had intended piracy against the convoy—and from now on Indian Ocean mariners would consider him no better than any other pirate.
For Kidd the aborted attack on the Mocha convoy only worsened his situation. It made it impossible for him now, or in the future, to call upon the East India Company for aid or provisions as he had planned. Despite his commission, the company would now regard him as an enemy. The incident also demonstrated to Kidd that capturing sufficient prey to pay off his backers would be even more difficult than he had thought. Even Mogul shipping, it seemed, could only be taken at the risk of a fight with English or Dutch escorts. And Kidd was not yet desperate enough to risk such an open violation of his commission.
But he had to get results somehow. It was now eighteen months since he had left England, and he had absolutely nothing to show for it. He was already six months overdue on his contract with Bellomont. Furthermore, after the ignominious failure against the Mocha convoy, his prestige among his crew was lower than ever. Talk of mutiny was spreading. Added to all these troubles, the ship was beginning to leak.
Kidd now decided that, whether it constituted a technical transgression of the king’s charge or not, he had no alternative but to widen his choice of prey to include Moorish and neutral ships as well as pirates and Frenchmen. He would just have to rely on his backers to put everything to rights later—after the successful completion of his mission.
Now Kidd headed Adventure Galley westward into the Indian Ocean.
Early in September he captured a small Moorish barkentine, captained by an Englishman. Kidd and his men got only a handful of coins, a bale of pepper, and a bale of coffee for their trouble.
Kidd now made for the Malabar Coast of India. But his luck continued bad.
He ran into two Portuguese warships near Goa. Although one of the Portuguese never got close enough to fire, the other fought Adventure Galley for most of a whole day. When the Portuguese warship finally drew off, Kidd had sustained eleven casualties—and his ship was splintered, her sails cut to ribbons.
Adventure Galley limped on. Tensions between Kidd and his crew seethed. Kidd seemed to be acting now without any clear purpose in mind. Nor did he seem to understand that by now all the traders on the Malabar Coast saw him as a pirate. At one point Kidd put in at the trading station of Calicut and—despite all that had happened—demanded that the local East India manager provide him with food and water. When the company representative refused the demand, Kidd imperiously informed the man that “he was sent out by the King of England.” The company man still refused to help.
Kidd also called at the East India Company post at Karwar. Here, too, he demanded—but did not receive—supplies. The company representative at Karwar later reported that at this time Kidd’s men still went in awe of him because of his special commission from the king, but that the crew “are a very distracted company, continually quarrelling and fighting amongst themselves, so it is likely they will in a short time destroy one another, or starve, having only sufficient provisions to keep the sea for a month or more.”
The situation aboard Adventure Galley had in fact become so tumultuous that Kidd was able to maintain such discipline as still existed aboard her only by going armed and threatening crew members into performing their duties. Screaming orders, using physical force, and—like a deranged man—forever flaunting his king’s commission, Kidd seemed to be nearing a mental breakdown.
It was now November 1697—almost twenty-one months since Adventure Galley had set out on her voyage—and the rich prizes so desperately needed still eluded Kidd.
Then one sultry day, as Adventure Galley cruised off India, a rich prize at last hove into sight. She was a large merchant ship traveling alone and evidently fully loaded, judging by how low she rode in the water.
Adventure Galley pursued. But when she overhauled the merchant, the ship proved to be English: the Loyal Captain. Kidd, desperate as he was, still could not bring himself to attack an English ship.
But all at once the tensions aboard Adventure Galley boiled into the open.
Some of Kidd’s men drew their pistols and leveled them at their captain. If Kidd would not take the English merchant, they would take her themselves.
Kidd, never lacking in courage, faced them down.
“I have no commission to take any but the King’s enemies and pirates,” he growled at the mutinous men who confronted him. “If you attempt to do any such thing, you will never come on board the Galley again. I will attack you and drive you into Bombay, and will carry you before the Council there.”
Kidd then disarmed the would-be mutineers. The English merchant ship sailed on. The brief uprising was ended, but not the rancor that seethed aboard Adventure Galley.
Only two weeks later, the hostility between Kidd and his crew again flared into the open.
A gunner named William Moore, one of the most disaffected of Kidd’s men and one of those who had wanted to take the Loyal Captain in spite of her English nationality, was sitting on deck grinding a chisel when the captain appeared.
Moore, who was surrounded by some of his sullen shipmates, suddenly called out to Kidd that they could have taken the Loyal Captain and “never been the worse for it.”
Kidd glowered at the gunner and his mates, fury building within him.
But Moore went on berating Kidd for his failure to take the Loyal Captain.
“You have brought us to ruin, and we are desolate,” cried Moore.
Now Kidd, furious, screamed back at Moore, calling him, according to one later account, “a lousy dog.”
Now it was Moore who became infuriated.
“If I am a lousy dog,” he shouted to the captain, “you have made me so. You have brought me to ruin, and many more!”
Now all the tension and anguish of the previous weeks and months seemed to erupt in Kidd. He trembled with rage at the insolent gunner who dared to upbraid him aboard his own ship. At that moment Moore must have appeared to Kidd the very embodiment of all his troubles.
“Have I ruined you, you dog?” Kidd howled at Moore.
Then he suddenly caught up an ironbound wooden bucket and smashed it against the side of Moore’s head. The gunner pitched over into the scuppers. His mates carried him below to the surgeon.
“Damn him, he is a villain,” Kidd cried after them.
When the gunner died the next day, Kidd was unrepentant. He told his surgeon that he did not fear legal reprisals for the death of a mutinous crewman, adding that he had “good friends in England that will bring me off that.”
Now, in the wake of the killing of the gunner, an uneasy stillness descended on Adventure Galley.
But it was soon broken by an incident that marked Captain Kidd’s first irrevocable descent into genuine piracy.
Adventure Galley was still sailing off the Malabar Coast at the end of November when her lookout sighted a sail.
Adventure Galley swept off after the potential prey. Kidd ran up the French flag as a subterfuge to encourage his quarry to show her own colors. As Kidd had hoped, the strange ship also ran up a French flag in answer to Adventure Galley’s pennant.
Adventure Galley now rapidly overtook the other ship. She was the Rouparelle, bound for Surat on the Malabar Coast. Her captain and officers identified themselves to Kidd as Dutch. Her crew were mostly Moors. The Dutch skipper came aboard Adventure Galley and explained to Kidd that the Rouparelle was owned by Moors and carried a cargo of baled cotton, quilts, and sugar. There were also two horses aboard her. The Rouparelle’s captain also produced a pass issued by the French East India Company—a fact that Kidd now seized on to claim that the vessel was French and therefore a legitimate prize according to his commission.
“By God, have I catched you?” he shouted, brandishing the pass. “You are a free prize to England!”
Despite his elated outburst, Kidd as an experienced ship’s master knew very well that his claim that the Rouparelle was French would not hold water. While it was true that her Dutch captain carried a French pass, he also carried a number of additional passes—issued by other countries trading in the area. It was routine for merchant vessels to obtain such passes as a means of facilitating their movement from port to port and from trading station to trading station.
Nevertheless, Kidd claimed the Rouparelle as a prize. He turned her Moorish crew out of her, putting them into the ship’s longboat. Then, with the connivance of her Dutch captain and officers, Kidd brought the Rouparelle’s cargo ashore where he sold it to traders who asked no questions. He then shared the proceeds among his crewmen, something his commission did not empower him to do but the normal procedure among pirates.
Kidd renamed his “French” prize the November, marking the month he had captured her. He then put a prize crew aboard her—and she sailed away with Adventure Galley.
Now, having at last committed an authentic act of piracy, the tortured Kidd seemed to lose all his inhibitions. Starting at the end of December 1697, he seized a number of Moorish and Portuguese vessels off the Indian coast. But the plunder from these ships amounted to very little—barely enough to keep his crew appeased.
Kidd began to hunt for larger game. Apparently still viewing himself as “an honest man,” still the “well-beloved captain” of his king, who had been forced against his will to engage in some minor piracy, Kidd clung to the belief that even at this late date he could satisfy his sponsors, win their promised protection, and even earn the gratitude of his monarch—if he could only find a rich, and legitimate, prize. (Clearly, despite all his setbacks, Kidd’s tendency to believe a thing possible because he wished it so was still operative—and was soon to lead him even deeper into the morass.)
On January 30, 1698, Adventure Galley sighted a ship off the Malabar Coast that carried a load of destiny for Captain Kidd.
She was the 500-ton Quedah Merchant, bound from Bengal and flying an Armenian flag. Adventure Galley gave chase and fired a warning shot across her bow, at which point the Quedah Merchant hove to and waited for Adventure Galley to come abeam of her.
The Quedah Merchant carried a rich cargo that included chests of gold, silver, jewels, silks, sugar, iron, saltpeter, and guns. Owned by Armenians, she was captained by an Englishman named Wright. As Kidd approached her, he hoisted a French ensign, as he always did to conceal his true identity and to induce any potential French prize to identify herself in turn.
But when Captain Wright of the Quedah Merchant saw Kidd’s French colors, he attempted a clever trick that backfired on both him and Kidd: In an effort to pose as French, which he supposed Kidd to be, he ran up his own French flag and he persuaded an old French gunner in his crew to pose as the captain of the Quedah Merchant. The old gunner went aboard Adventure Galley, where he showed Kidd a pass issued by the French East India Company. At this point, convinced by the French accent of the gunner and by the French pass that he had finally come across a legitimate French prize, Kidd ran up his English flag and seized the Quedah Merchant.
Now the two Armenian owners of the Quedah Merchant, who happened to be aboard her, offered to ransom their ship for £3,000. Kidd, however, spurned their offer. By this time he knew that Quedah Merchant was worth much more than that. In fact she was, he felt sure, the great prize he had been seeking.
Kidd sold some of Quedah’s cargo ashore for £10,000 and divided the proceeds among the crew to assuage their mutinous greed. Overjoyed with his good fortune, Kidd felt sure that having at last made a rich and lawful score, he would be able to satisfy his backers—and salvage his career.
Then, to his horror, Kidd discovered that the Englishman, Captain Wright, was the actual master of the Quedah Merchant. His joy turned to a ghastly fear. He had captured a ship under English command. He wanted to hand the Quedah Merchant back to her captain, pointing out to his crew that the “taking of that ship will make a great noise in England.” But the crew howled him down. After all their travail they were in no mood to surrender a ship full of treasure.
Kidd caved in.
With Quedah Merchant and November sailing in consort with Adventure Galley, Kidd made for the pirate’s haven of St. Mary’s Island. It was an odd destination for the king’s own pirate catcher to choose. It may be, however, that Kidd had no other choice available to him. Perhaps his men demanded that he take them to St. Mary’s. But it is possible that Kidd himself selected St. Mary’s as the only refuge open to him in the Indian Ocean where he might rest and refit for the long voyage home without fear of interference by warships or armed merchants of the East India Company. Furthermore, St. Mary’s lay along Kidd’s homeward route.
Whatever the case, Adventure Galley arrived at St. Mary’s on April 1, 1698. Quedah Merchant and November arrived a few days later.
While his little flotilla lay anchored in the harbor, a real pirate arrived at St. Mary’s loaded with spoils for sale.
She was the Mocha Frigate, a former East India Company vessel now under the command of Robert Culliford—the same man who had stolen Kidd’s own brigantine Blessed William eight years earlier in the West Indies.
Culliford, who had only forty men with him, took one look at the guns aboard the Adventure Galley and her two companions and decided that he was no match for Kidd. Like most of the Madagascar pirates, Culliford had heard of Kidd’s pirate-hunting expedition, and he did not intend to fall into Kidd’s hands. Furthermore, Culliford thought that Kidd would naturally want to take revenge for the Blessed William incident. Culliford, of course, could not know that Kidd—despite appearances—was in fact weaker than he. Adventure Galley was by now all but unseaworthy, and Kidd’s crew, though still aboard, were openly mutinous.
Ignorant of the true situation, Culliford and his men, rather than face Kidd, went ashore and took shelter.
In the meantime Kidd imagined that Culliford’s presence offered him a further opportunity to redeem his mission: If he could capture the Mocha Frigate, as his royal commission entitled him to do, he might still be able to claim that he had fully accomplished his task by taking both a French prize and a pirate loaded with plunder. Certainly the taking of the Mocha Frigate would help silence those who were calling him pirate.
But when he proposed seizing Culliford’s ship, Kidd’s crew laughed in his face, saying they would rather fire two shots at him than one at the pirate. The crew now also insisted on sharing out the spoils from the Quedah Merchant. Kidd could do nothing to stop them. Oddly enough, they stuck by the agreement they had made with Kidd in New York, taking 60 percent of the booty for distribution among themselves and leaving the other 40 percent for Kidd to dispose of as he wished. Supposedly, the share of the loot left to Kidd amounted to some 1,200 ounces of gold, 2,400 ounces of silver, several chests of precious stones, and bales of silks and other fabrics—a fortune.
After the share-out, ninety-seven of Kidd’s men joined Culliford, who had by now come out of hiding after discovering Kidd’s weakness. Kidd’s former crew burned the November and stripped both the Quedah Merchant and Adventure Galley of all arms, guns, gear, supplies, sails, and anything else they could move, transferring all this material to the Mocha Frigate. Warning Kidd that if he tried to make trouble for them, they would put a bullet in his brain, Kidd’s former crew now deserted entirely to the Mocha Frigate—leaving Kidd and thirteen honest crewmen holed up on the defenseless Adventure Galley.
During the ensuing weeks, Kidd endured a bizarre purgatory. In constant fear of his life, he remained locked in his cabin aboard Adventure Galley, with bales of goods barricading his door and loaded muskets at his side, while all around him the pirates of Madagascar, together with Culliford and his men and Kidd’s own former crewmen, indulged in an orgy of drinking and sex with native women.
Eventually Kidd must have recognized that he could not continue indefinitely under siege in his cabin. He must also have seen that Culliford was the dominant figure among the pirates—a circumstance that must have seemed to offer Kidd a chance to extricate himself from his little Hell.
In any event Kidd eventually emerged from his cabin and sought out Culliford, assuring his one-time mate that he had long ago forgiven him for the theft of the Blessed William. At one point Kidd gave Culliford a pair of pistols as a present—and went aboard Mocha with Culliford where the two enjoyed themselves, drinking and chatting like old friends.
Kidd even swore an oath of friendship with Culliford, “swearing that his soul might fry in hell-fire e’er he harmed his old comrade, and new found companion.”
Did Kidd behave this way because he was tempted by the freedom and license he saw all about him to renounce his previous life and become, at last, the pirate that honest men said he was anyway? Or was he playing possum to save his life and the lives of his few loyal crewmen?
In the end it appears Kidd made some sort of deal with Culliford, perhaps buying him off with part of his share of the Quedah Merchant, for the pirate captain allowed Kidd to keep for his own use both the captured Quedah Merchant and the no longer-seaworthy Adventure Galley—as well as his share of the Quedah booty.
In mid-June Culliford decided the time had come to put an end to the revelry of the previous weeks—and to get back to sea. Soon thereafter, Mocha Frigate—with most of Kidd’s former crew aboard and bristling with guns taken from Adventure Galley—sailed away from St. Mary’s, leaving Kidd behind with his two ships, his thirteen honest crewmen, and his fortune in loot.
With Culliford gone, Kidd resolved to return home as soon as possible. If he had ever been genuinely tempted during his revels with Culliford to go on the account, it was now forgotten. He stripped Adventure Galley, already half full of water, of everything useful, even burning her hull in order to get at her iron stays and spikes. He then recruited what additional seamen were available among the Madagascar gentry and did what he could to ready the Quedah Merchant for a transatlantic voyage.
In November 1698, having waited for the favorable monsoon winds, Kidd, in Quedah Merchant, set sail from St. Mary’s harbor, homeward bound.
No doubt he longed to be reunited with the beautiful Sarah and his children. And he yearned for his comfortable home in New York.
Clearly Kidd felt confident that in spite of everything, he would be able to explain away his questionable behavior, perhaps blame his crew for his troubles, call upon his sponsors to protect him for the sake of their own good names—and above all, be able to distribute sufficient spoils to quell any criticism.
What Kidd, in his wishful ignorance, did not know was that he was no longer in a position to excuse, or explain, or even buy his way out of trouble. For Kidd and his cruise had become the subject of a vicious political scandal in England.
As reports of Kidd’s depredations in the East had reached England over the past three years, it had become clear that Bellomont’s pirate-killer scheme had failed. Not only had piracy in the East not diminished, it was obvious from reports submitted by the East India Company and the Royal Navy that William Kidd had betrayed the king’s trust by turning pirate himself. Kidd was being portrayed in England as an archcriminal.
At this point, the names of Kidd’s aristocratic backers had become public. Suddenly these great men, among the highest dignitaries of the realm, became fat targets of their enemies in Parliament. If Kidd was the worst pirate in history, these parliamentary critics cried, his haughty sponsors were at least as bad.
The embarrassment of Kidd’s backers was profound. Washing their hands of William Kidd, they declared they were as determined as their enemies were to condemn the terrible pirate.
Kidd was declared an outlaw. The Royal Navy was ordered to capture him. The governors of the American colonies were also alerted to arrest Kidd and his crew in order that they might “be prosecuted with the utmost Rigour of the Law.”
Thus, even as Kidd was sailing confidently home, he had been proclaimed a criminal, a traitor, a wanted man.
In April 1699 Quedah Merchant made landfall in Anguilla in the Caribbean. Kidd and his crew discovered—to their horror—that they were wanted in every port in the New World.
Some of Kidd’s men panicked. They wanted to drive the Quedah Merchant against a reef and then flee as best they could. But Kidd refused. He still clung to his belief that ultimately he would be vindicated or, barring that, at least protected by his powerful friends. Furthermore, he did not really feel like a pirate. He had been forced to contend with extraordinary circumstances. He had had to quell a mutinous crew. And yet, had he not taken two French prizes? Did he not have in his possession their French passes to prove it?
He decided his best course would be to make for New York where he knew Lord Bellomont—his good friend—was now colonial governor. But first he had to rid himself of Quedah Merchant, now too clumsy and worn for his purposes.
Luckily he found a sleek fast ship—the Antonio—becalmed out at sea, and he bought her on the spot from her owner-captain. He then transferred mysterious chests—rumored full of gold, coins, and jewels—from the leaky old Quedah Merchant to the Antonio. After this he gave the former owner of the Antonio some money to sail the Quedah Merchant to a secluded spot in Hispaniola and to keep her there under guard for three months, or until Kidd should contact him.
Then, with only twelve men still willing to sail with him, Captain Kidd set out northward for New York.