Privateer or Pirate?

William Joseph Kidd, the 8th great-granduncle of my niece’s husband, was, by all accounts, an accomplished seaman. He was born around 1654 in Scotland at a time when sailing was fraught with dangers. England was at war with France and piracy was common. Kidd, recognized for his skill and bravery, was given a privateering contract by high-ranking English investors. He was also given the 34-gun Adventure Gallery as well as the license to attack and seize French ships along with any pirate ships he came across. The spoils were to be split between the crew and his backers.

He set sail for Madagascar and the Indian Ocean, known to be a hotbed of pirate activity, but for the next two years found little action. A third of his crew died of disease and the rest were becoming surly. His luck changed in 1698 when he captured the Queddah Merchant, a Moorish ship with cargo owned by Armenians and captained by an Englishman. While it was not covered under the terms of his contract, it was allegedly sailing with French papers so Kidd decided it was fair game. He seized the ship and its contents, selling them off and dividing the proceeds with his crew. Their gain would be the equivalent of about two million dollars by today’s standards.

Kidd moved onto the Caribbean but news of his actions reached British shores and his investors, now influential members of the government, moved quickly to distance themselves from him. They labeled him a pirate and worked to keep their involvement with him a secret. Meanwhile, Kidd, learning of this, went to New York to clear his name. But first, as pirates are now known to do, he buried his treasure on Gardiner’s Island off of Long Island.

He was arrested and though he vehemently proclaimed his innocence, he was convicted and executed on May 23, 1701. While his treasure off the shores of New York was recovered, there are tales of a second treasure Captain Kidd may have buried “in the Indes” which, to this day, remains to be found.

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