War Makes Thieves, Peace Hangs Them

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In those early years there was hardly a customs official in the colonies who enforced the unwelcome statutes. It was, of course, profitable to them to let the contraband through. Payment for protection was an item of the merchant’s budget. If there were officials who were above this sort of corruption they were rare characters indeed, and so unpopular that ways would surely have been found to force them out of office. Thus, all along the coast there developed an atmosphere of genial, easygoing disrespect for law that made it an ideal hunting ground for every kind of freebooter. If one contraband article could be smuggled, why not another? If a port inspector could be bribed, why not the man higher up? If the bribe was big enough, where, indeed, was the royal governor who could not be bought?

Almost any American school child, asked to name the most notorious pirate in American history, will automatically reply, “Captain Kidd.” William Kidd has become a legend. Boys of many generations living in the vicinity of Long Island Sound have dreamed of finding his buried treasure. As the historians George Francis Dow and John Henry Edmonds tell us in their Pirates of the New England Coast: “Captain Kidd as he is recalled today is a composite type. All the pirates who have frequented the New England coast have become blended into one and that one—Captain Kidd.” His death did much to nourish the legend. Hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames water front, his body was then bound in chains and left hanging in view of every ship on the lower river as a macabre warning.

Recent researchers have tried to debunk the legend. According to Kidd’s latest biographer, Willard Bonner, in his extremely readable Pirate Laureate he was “a reputable trader and navigator of old New York.” and Bonner presents evidence that the “unfair” trial given the Captain was part of a political conspiracy. That Kidd had admittedly killed a number of his crew was, however, the first charge against him.

Whatever may have been the whole truth—and it will perhaps never be disclosed—Kidd illustrates the sort of progress from privateering to other predatory operations that is typical. In September, 1696, he sailed out of New York with a royal commission to command a “private Man of War” and orders to capture and bring to justice “Pirates, Free booters, and Sea Rovers,” wherever he might find them. Specifically mentioned were the notorious villains, Thomas Tew of Rhode Island and Thomas Wake and Willaim Maze of New York, supposed at the time to be in the neighborhood of the international pirate headquarters on the island of Madagascar. In this enterprise. Kidd was financed by five peers of the realm and one New Yorker. As usual, all these gentlemen were to profit heavily from the patriotic venture.

Kidd disappeared entirely for three years. Apparently he had fallen on evil times. Cruising in the dreadful heat of the Red Sea, he had missed his prizes, and his men, who had expected to share in the booty, had become unruly. Finally, according to Kidd, they had mutinied, made him prisoner, and turned his ship, the Adventure Gallery , from a man-of-war into a pirate craft. This, at any rate, was Kidd’s story as he sailed into the home port with his ship loaded with treasure. Meanwhile, the story had circulated in England that the Captain had turned pirate. He was, therefore, arrested in Boston; not, however, until after he had buried part of the loot on Gardiners Island off Long Island where men and boys have been vainly digging ever since. The hidden treasure is the most probable part of the legend.

Kidd’s story of the mutiny was typical. Many an alleged pirate made a similar tale part of his defense. Often enough it was true. It was common practice for a pirate to force the master of a captured vessel to join him in further robberies. It may be doubted, however, that the prisoner was always as reluctant as he maintained to bow to his captor’s will. The temptation to turn from the dull life of a merchantman skipper to the fabled adventure of a buccaneer was usually irresistible as soon as he saw the tangible evidence of the rich rewards.

Among the pirates who entered the profession in this way wore Howel Davis, Captain England, “Red Legs” Greaves, David Herriott, Benjamin Jefferys, John Phillips, Bartholomew Roberts, John Upton, and Thomas White. It was surprising how many men had started life as respected citizens in their communities--lawyers, doctors, merchants, or well-to-do gentlemen--and had turned at last to piracy. Such, for example, was Stede Bonnet, a former major in the British Army and a wealthy landowner in the Barbados. Once started on his new career, however, he became one of the most brutal pirates of all—the only one, indeed, against whom it was proved that he made his prisoners walk the plank. So outrageous was his behavior and so complete the change from his former way of life that his island neighbors blamed his nagging wife for having driven him mad. According to the contemporary biographer Charles Johnson, Bonnet was “rather pitty’d than condemned, by those that were acquainted with him, believing that this Humour of going a-pyrating proceeded from a Disorder in his Mind … which is said to have been occasioned by some Discomforts he found in a married State….”