The Pirate Hunter

Richard Zacks’ Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd is a well-researched, protective account of William Kidd, a famous alleged pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. (I finished this book in the past week.)

Most important is the distinction between a privateer and a pirate: a privateer is commissioned by one country and is allowed to take enemy and pirate ships, e.g. the English and the French were enemies at the time, so an English privateer could take a French vessel; a pirate ship on the other hand has no commission and captures any ship it wants.

It was in this setting that Captain William Kidd, commissioned by the English to hunt pirates in the Indian Ocean, set off as a privateer in the Adventure Galley, a new ship with 34 cannons and oars, designed specifically as a hunter. When he returned, he was reputed a pirate, largely due to several dubious accounts (Kidd himself did not know of this until he had already returned from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean). Returning to his home port New York to clear his name, he was imprisoned in Boston with no charge, and then shipped to London, where he was jailed, given an unfair trial, and then hanged.

The earliest accusation of Kidd’s piracy comes from Commodore Warren, who was enraged that Kidd did not give up part of his crew. Before reaching the Cape of Good Hope, Kidd was stopped by an escort group of Royal Navy ships, led by Warren. The British had the policy of impressment at the time, and Warren demanded a number of sailors from Kidd’s crew; Kidd said he would let them have 30 or so, but then sailed away from the squadron at night, leading Warren to declare Kidd a pirate. Even before Kidd was able to capture ships, he was already labeled a pirate, and would have both Royal Navy and East India Trade Company ships, as well as pirates, against him.

Kidd’s major capture was the Quedagh Merchant, renamed to the Adventure Prize. He had at first not wanted to take it, but his crew threatened mutiny (not the first time); the ship did have French passes, so it was technically a legal capture under Kidd’s privateer commission.

After the seizure of the Quedagh Merchant, he met with Robert Culliford, a known pirate who had stolen Kidd’s ship several years earlier, before the pirate-hunting journey. The majority of Kidd’s crew defected to Culliford, and Kidd was left with only a 13-man crew including himself. They ditched the Adventure Galley, which was now not seaworthy, and sailed back in the Adventure Prize, only after Kidd’s former crew had taken much of the bounty aboard Culliford’s ship.

The real irony is that Culliford was eventually set free, while Kidd was hanged.

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