One of the most common misconceptions regarding USS KIDD (DD-661) is that of her namesake. She was in point of fact named after Rear Admiral Isaac Campbell Kidd, Sr., who was killed aboard USS ARIZONA at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on the U.S. Fleet on December 07, 1941.
But when KIDD’s first crew was busy outfitting the ship in the Brooklyn Navy Shipyards in March and April of 1943, they quickly adopted the legendary pirate William Kidd as their mascot. The image of a swashbuckling pirate was painted on both sides of the ship’s forward smokestack and the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger often flew from her mast. Throughout the course of World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War, the crews of USS KIDD became known as “the Pirates of the Pacific”. Many a sea story revolve around the antics that transpired which led to that salty and rambunctious reputation.
Little is known of William Kidd’s early life prior to 1689. He was born in Scotland, reputedly in or near Greenock, around 1645. At some point in his youth, he took to the sea, eventually emigrating to America. By 1689, he was captain of the BLESSED WILLIAM, a privateer in the king’s service, sailing against the French in the West Indies. He became a land-owner in the British colony of New York through his marriage to the twice-widowed Sarah Oort. A member of the congregation at Trinity Episcopal Church, he was a wealthy man who was also a confidant of the colonial governor, Colonel Benjamin Fletcher.
In 1695, King William III of England relieved Colonel Fletcher of his duties as governor of New York. A contributing factor to his removal may have been his past dealings with well known pirates Thomas Tew and Henry Every. In his place, the King appointed the Earl of Bellomont, tasking him with the effort to remove piracy on the American coasts from New Jersey to Maine. Piracy, however, was rampant on the eastern seas (i.e. the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf), with the East India Company losing vessels month after month. The King wished to end this crisis by striking at the pirates, yet war with France prohibited the Royal Navy from sending warships to chase them down.
Enter William Kidd on the scene, arriving in London in the summer of 1695 aboard his sloop ANTEGOA on a trading run from New York. While there, he chanced upon a meeting with Colonel Robert Livingston, a prominent New Yorker and an ambitious entrepreneur. Aware of the problems plaguing the Crown with regard to piracy, Livingston concocted a scheme for ending the piracy and, at the same time, making a profit. His proposal involved outfitting a specially built privateer to seek out the pirates, bring them to justice, and confiscate their booty. To do this, he needed two things: 1) financial backers to outfit the ship, who would recoup their investment in the form of profits from the captured pirate booty, and 2) a qualified privateer captain who could be trusted.
For his ship captain, Livingston chose William Kidd. Kidd was an honest merchant sea captain, and a former privateer in service to the King who knew the ways of pirates. For his backers, Livingston was able to entice five of the most powerful men in
England: the Earl of Bellomont (governor of the colonial New York), the Earl of Romney (Master General of Ordnance), the Earl of Orford (First Lord of the Admiralty), Sir John Somers (Lord Keeper of the Great Seal), and the Duke of Shrewsbury (Secretary of State).
Bellomont, Livingston, and Kidd signed the Articles of Agreement for the enterprise in October, 1695. Bellomont was to provide four-fifths of the cost of the project (which he obtained from the other four noblemen, who remained anonymous in these transactions), totalling £6,000. Kidd and Livingston together provided the remaining £1,500. As was tradition, the first 10 per cent of any profits from the venture went to the Crown. The remaining amount would be split three ways: 60 per cent to the anonymous backers, 15 per cent to Kidd and Livingston together, and 25 per cent to the ship’s crew. Normally, the crew was obliged to 60 per cent of any profits on a privateer vessel. Another stipulation also was added onto the Agreement: should no booty be obtained, Kidd and Livingston were to pay back every bit of the £6,000 that the backers had invested.
Not long after signing the Agreement, Kidd received two special commissions. One was a letter of marque empowering him to capture any ships or goods belonging to France. The other was a commission from the King to seize pirates, but also included a warning that “. … you do not, in any manner, offend or molest any of our Friends or Allies, their Ships or Subjects.”
The ship that Kidd and Livingston had outfitted was named the ADVENTURE GALLEY. She was launched at Deptford on the Thames River in December of 1695. At 287 tons, she mounted 34 guns, a large amount of sail, and carried 23 pairs of oars for maneuvering when the seas were calm with no wind. For his crew, Kidd took great care in selecting men who would not turn to piracy. Nearly all 70 of them were married, with families in England. He planned to recruit the remaining 80 men in New York prior to sailing for the East.
Bad luck, it seems, began with the onset of the voyage for Kidd. On March 01, 1696, barely a day out of London, the ADVENTURE GALLEY failed to salute a Royal Navy yacht at Greenwich (as custom dictated) as she sailed down the Thames to the sea. When the yacht fired a shot to make him show respect, Kidd’s crewmen, up in the yardarms handling sail, responded by slapping their backsides. Not long afterward, a man-of-war stopped him, boarded the ship, and impressed nearly all of his crew.
With barely enough crew to man the ship, Kidd made landfall at New York in July, where he recruited more crewmen. However, the caliber of these men was far less than those he had lost to the Royal Navy. At this time, New York was still a hotbed of piracy. To entice enough crewmen to sign on for the voyage, Kidd promised them 60 per cent of the booty—more than he was entitled to under the terms outlined in the Articles of Agreement. He sailed for the east coast of Africa in September of 1696.
On December 12, 1696, after a long transatlantic voyage, Kidd encountered a Royal Navy squadron off the Cape of Good Hope, roughly 100 miles northwest of Capetown. He demanded of the squadron commander, Commodore Thomas Warren, some new sails to replace those lost in a storm during the voyage to Africa. When his demand was refused, he informed the commodore of his royal commission, which entitled him to aid. If the Navy refused to aid him, he continued, he would seize the sails from the first merchant vessel he encountered. After a heated debate, Commodore Warren threatened to impress 30 of his seamen the following morning. Not wishing to lose more crewmen as he had on the Thames, Kidd slipped away in the night via the use of the ADVENTURE GALLEY’s oars. He continued his voyage on into the Eastern Seas without making port at Capetown, for fear of being arrested.
Upon reaching Johanna Island, an East Indiaman drew near the ADVENTURE GALLEY. The ship flew the Royal Navy pennant from her mast. Kidd somewhat arrogantly—and untactfully—informed the ship’s captain to strike the pennant, as only he, Kidd, had the right to fly the pennant due to his royal commission. The Indiaman’s crew were suspicious of Kidd, so much so that they kept their guns trained upon the ADVENTURE GALLEY throughout his stay, eventually warning him to leave harbor before they boarded him. After taking on water, he followed their suggestion and left port.
Kidd’s next stop was the nearby island of Mehila, in the Comoros. It was here, while work was being down on the ship, that 50 of his men fell ill and died in the space of a week. To this point, nearly a year after sailing from England, not a single penny had been earned from the voyage. With provisions beginning to dwindle, the crew—particularly the New York recruits—began openly advocating piracy. Kidd refused. On April 27, 1697, they set sail northward toward the Red Sea.
In July, the ADVENTURE GALLEY anchored off the island of Perim at the mouth of the Red Sea, a favorite ambush point for pirates looking to take prizes from the Arab convoys leaving nearby Mocha. Mocha, at that time, was the chief port in Yemen for the coffee trade. From here, Kidd could strike at either pirates or foreign prizes. He sent several scouting parties in a small boat through the straits to Mocha. Finally, he received news that nearly 14 or 15 ships were making ready to sail. For three weeks, he waited, but no ships appeared. Finally, on August 14, the fleet sailed from Mocha.
It was here that Kidd’s quandary became evident. The problem with privateering was that most vessels flew whatever flag was convenient at the moment. Its true identity was near impossible to determine until the captain and crew felt comfortable in revealing their allegiance. Should Kidd sack a supposedly enemy vessel and find it to be Dutch or English, rather than French, he would have committed an illegal act in the eyes of British law. However, if he did not act aggressively and pursue such opportunities, he would come home empty-handed and be obligated to repay his financial backers. And the sacking of Moorish vessels was itself a gray and questionable area. It was this gray area that Kidd sailed into the moment he entered into the agreement with Bellomont and Livingston nearly two years prior. Sailing after the Mocha fleet now, Kidd’s dilemma grew only worse.
The fleet, as it turned out, was neither composed of pirate nor French vessels. One of the escort vessels, an English East Indiaman by the name of SCEPTRE and commanded by Captain Edward Barlow, noticed one vessel too many in the convoy. As Kidd, now in the middle of the fleet, drew near, Barlow ordered the English colors hoisted, firing two or three shots at him. The ADVENTURE GALLEY, herself stalking a large Moorish merchant vessel, fired a broadside at her, hitting the merchant’s hull, sails, and rigging. SCEPTRE gave chase and Kidd quickly retreated under sail and oars. The ADVENTURE GALLEY was out of sight by morning.
At the end of August off the Malabar Coast, Kidd encountered a small Moorish barque. The ship was commanded by an English captain, with a Portuguese mate on board, and manned by a Moorish crew. Though it was not a legitimate prize, he allowed his crewmen to board the barque and take a bale of pepper and a sack of coffee. He also impressed the English captain to join him, making him the ADVENTURE GALLEY’s pilot, as well as the Portuguese mate, who was to serve as an interpreter.
When he put into port for water at Karwar, on the Malibar Coast between Calicut and Goa, two English officers from the East India Company boarded his ship, demanding the release of these two men. Kidd, however, had locked them away in the hold away from prying eyes, and denied their existence. The officers left and shortly thereafter, two of Kidd’s crewmen jumped ship, later making depositions to the East India Company in Bombay about Kidd’s actions.
By the time that SCEPTRE and Captain Barlow reached Karwar on October 15, everyone was talking about the pirate chaser who had himself turned to piracy. Kidd was turned down when he attempted to acquire fresh water at Calicut, even after informing the port authorities of his commission from the King of England. He continued his cruise unabated.
In early November, Kidd halted a cargo vessel sailing northward along the coast. The crew of the ADVENTURE GALLEY grew excited about the prospects of finally taking a prize. However, as they drew near, the merchantman, known by the somewhat ironic name of LOYAL CAPTAIN, was seen to be flying English colors. With all her papers in order, Kidd released the ship to go her own way. His crew was immediately infuriated, some drawing their weapons. Kidd faced them down, claiming that he had not come to take English nor lawful vessels. The mutiny faded out, but the ill temper of the crew did not. On October 30, 1697, Kidd and gunner William Moore—who had been quite vocal in his opposition to his captain—had a confrontation that ended with Kidd seizing an ironbound bucket and crashing it against Moore’s head. Moore died the next day of a fractured skull.
At the end of November, a ship by the name of MAIDEN, bound for Surat with a cargo of cotton, quilts, and sugar was stopped by Kidd and his crew. When Kidd hoisted the French flag as a ruse, MAIDEN responded in kind. Upon being boarded, the ship’s skipper produced a French pass. Though the ship’s officers were Dutch and her crew Moorish, their actions made Kidd believe that they were a legitimate prize. Setting the Moors free and selling the cargo on shore for cash and gold (which he passed out to his crew in direct abeyance of his contract), he renamed the ship NOVEMBER and took her along as a prize.
As it turned out, the MAIDEN—now known as the NOVEMBER—was actually Indian-owned. In spite of the grayness of the area in which he was operating, according to the strict letter of the law, Kidd had now committed piracy.
On December 28, 1697, Kidd seized a small ketch off the Malabar Coast. It was of Moorish allegiance. Twelve days later, he took a Portuguese ship. His take from these two vessels amounted to very little: a few tubs of candy, a sack of coffee, some gunpowder, opium, rice, iron, beeswax, and butter. But the most fateful prize was yet to come.
On January 30, 1698, the ADVENTURE GALLEY encountered a 500-ton merchantman by the name of QUEDAH MERCHANT. She was Armenian-owned and captained by an Englishman by the name of Wright. Her cargo contained silks, muslins, sugar, iron, saltpeter, guns, and gold coin; a very rich prize. Lookouts aboard the ADVENTURE GALLEY spotted her in heavy seas off the Indian coast north of Cochin. Kidd pursued her for four hours before finally drawing alongside and firing a shot across her bow, the French flag raised in another ruse. Receiving a French pass from the Royal French East Indian Company when inspecting her papers, Kidd hoisted his English flag and claimed her as a prize. Her Armenian owners—who were aboard ship—offered to ransom the ship for roughly £3,000. Kidd, instead, sold the MERCHANT’s cargo on shore for £10,000 and divided the money amongst his crew. He then sailed for Madagascar, known to be a haven for pirates, with both the NOVEMBER and the QUEDAH MERCHANT.
When his ship was first taken, Captain Wright of the QUEDAH MERCHANT had sent a gunners mate over to the ADVENTURE GALLEY, posing as the MERCHANT’s master. However, en route to Madagascar, his true identity was revealed. Kidd was shocked and dismayed. He had compromised himself and taken a vessel commanded by an Englishman. He promptly summoned his crew, proposing that they return the MERCHANT to Wright’s command. His men, however, refused.
On April 01, 1698, the trio of vessels entered the harbor of St. Mary’s Island, . . . and came face to face with a pirate ship: the MOCHA FRIGATE, commanded by Robert Culliford, himself a privateer turned pirate. Kidd urged his men to seize the MOCHA. They refused. Instead, they split the takings from the QUEDAH MERCHANT. An odd note is that Kidd’s share was that usually accorded a privateer—40 shares—rather than that of a pirate captain—two shares.
Following the division of the booty, all but 13 of his crew deserted and joined Culliford. They sacked and burned the NOVEMBER, and then stripped the ADVENTURE GALLEY and QUEDAH MERCHANT of guns, small arms, powder, shot, anchors, cables, and other miscellaneous items. During this pillaging, they also burned Kidd’s log book and threatened him with murder. The captain, however, barricaded himself in his cabin. It is not known how long he remained barricaded inside, but eventually, Kidd surrendered to Culliford, saving not only his own life, but that of the men who remained loyal to him. When the pirate sailed from St. Mary’s nearly a month and a half later in mid-June, he left the ADVENTURE GALLEY and the QUEDAH MERCHANT unharmed, save for those items stolen from the deserting crewmen.
She rested on a sandbar in the shallows, leaking and half full of water. Kidd burned her, fitting out the QUEDAH MERCHANT with what he could salvage from his stricken vessel. He then spent the next five months scrounging up a crew for the voyage home while waiting for the northeast monsoons which could blow him around the Cape of Good Hope. He weighed anchor on November 15, 1698, for the return voyage home.
About this same time, a letter from the East India Company reached London, recounting several acts of piracy on Kidd’s part. A squadron of vessels from the Royal Navy was dispatched to the Indian Ocean to capture him. Orders went out to the American colonies to apprehend him should he turn up there. And the politicians now took the stage as the Tory opposition to Kidd’s Whig party backers saw an opportunity to discredit them. Kidd was viewed as guilty by the public and the press by the time he arrived off of Anguilla in the Leeward Islands in April of 1699.
Upon hearing of the devastating news that they had been declared pirates, Kidd’s crew wanted to scuttle the QUEDAH MERCHANT and disband rather than enter an English port and be arrested. Kidd, however, believed in his innocence and in the men who had hired him for this mission. Confident in the French passes as evidence that he did not betray his commission, he sailed for New York to contact Lord Bellomont.
Upon reaching the coast of Hispaniola, Kidd bought a trading sloop by the name of ANTONIO. He transferred much of the MERCHANT’s booty on board, and then with a crew of 12, sailed for New York, leaving the remainder of his crew to guard the QUEDAH MERCHANT up the Higuey River. The large merchantman had proven to be too conspicuous to approach the English-controlled American colonies. The ANTONIO offered a much-need anonymity.
Kidd’s trust in his backers, it seems, was beginning to fade, however. Prior to his meeting with Bellomont, he dispersed the remaining treasure amongst several widely scattered caches, the largest of which was buried in the orchard of Gardiner’s Island at the eastern tip of Long Island. If taken into custody, the booty could serve to be a bargaining chip.
Kidd’s wife and two daughters joined him briefly for two weeks prior to his meeting with Bellomont. He made landfall in Boston on July 2, 1699. After interviewing the captain, Bellomont had him arrested and jailed at Stone Prison. His treasure was tracked down, recovered, and shipped back to London. On February 6, 1700, Kidd was brought aboard HMS ADVICE to be taken back to England for trial. He arrived on April 11, was transferred to the royal yacht KATHERINE, and taken to Greenwich. He was incarcerated at Newgate Prison in London for over a year while awaiting trial. Newgate was known at that time for its filth and the primitive conditions in which its prisoners were forced to live.
In March of 1701, Kidd was called before the House of Commons to testify. He was questioned about the involvement of the Whigs in his voyage. However, Kidd—possibly not sensing the political intrigue—continued only to proclaim his innocence. The House determined that he should be tried on May 08, 1701.
Probably the most devastating blow to Kidd’s case was the “misplacement” of the French passes that were to serve as the primary evidence that he had not turned to piracy, as the Prosecution claimed. His legal counsel was unable to consult with him until the morning of the trial. Whoever had “misplaced” the evidence had also neglected to forward to his legal advisors the £50 that the Admiralty had set aside to pay for his defense. Not only this, but Kidd could not testify in his own behalf. And court procedures allowed only Kidd himself to cross-examine the King’s witnesses (two crew members who had deserted him at Madagascar, joining the pirate Culliford) instead of his lawyers. Needless to say, Kidd was not a lawyer.
Kidd was convicted of the murder of gunner William Moore, first and foremost. Standing trial beside him on five counts of piracy were nine of his former crewmen. He was convicted of piracy of the QUEDAH MERCHANT, the MAIDEN (renamed NOVEMBER), two Moorish vessels, and a Portuguese ship. Six of his crewmen were also found guilty. Three men were acquitted.
Kidd maintained his innocence throughout the trial. At one point, following cross-examination of one of the two crewmen who had jumped ship and were now testifying against him, he asked “Mr. Bradinham, are not you promised your life to take away mine?” Upon the completion of the trial, he was asked if he could give any reason why he should not be put to death. He responded “I have nothing to say but that I have been sworn against by perjured and wicked people.”
Prior to his execution, Kidd was visited often by Chaplain Paul Lorrain at Newgate Prison. Lorrain found him unwilling to confess his crimes or ask forgiveness from God. When brought to the gallows, the captain still maintained his innocence. But bad luck followed him to the bitter end. When the trap doors sprang open, Kidd fell, only to have the rope snap under his weight, and send him crashing to the ground. He was brought up the ladder once more and hanged a second time.
Kidd’s body was tarred and bound in chains, with his head encased in an iron frame, and left to hang at Tilbury Point on the Thames as a warning to would-be pirates. Only one of his six convicted crewmen was hanged. The other five were granted reprieves. Two of them returned to Pennsylvania after their release and retrieved a portion of the treasure from the QUEDAH MERCHANT; one of the caches missed by Bellomont’s agents. The two crewmen who testified against Kidd were rewarded with pardons for their acts of piracy (both under Kidd and Culliford). Kidd’s family lived in seclusion for a time in New York, but his wife eventually remarried and his daughters grew to have families of their own.
The Seafarers Series: The Pirates, by Douglas Botting. Time-Life Books (1978).
The Book of Pirates, by Henry Gilbert. Crescent Books (1986).
“Swashbuckling Clifford Has New Irons In The Fire,” by Sally Rose. The Provincetown Banner (March 23, 2000).
“The Quest for Captain Kidd,” Discovery Channel (2001).