William Kidd: Hunter then Hunted! Part I

The idea of sending a specially equipped and crewed privateer against the Madagascar pirates had actually originated with King William himself.

William understood very well the cost in wealth and influence to England if the East India Company should fail. He was not as insensitive to the company’s plight as he sometimes appeared to the directors. But he was a man with a mission. All his energies and all his powers of persuasion were directed toward one aim: the defeat of France and the curbing of the power of Louis XIV. With Dutch stubbornness and almost-fanatical commitment, he had pressed his war against Louis, excluding from his thoughts anything not relevant to that war. No amount of pleading from the wealthy men of the East India Company would cause him to alter his policy and dispatch elements of the Royal Navy to the East. The war against Louis came first. But there was a second factor that contributed to the king’s stubborn attitude: He genuinely doubted that warships were necessary to reduce the brigands of Madagascar. Pirates, the king was convinced, were mere thieves—a rabble that would scatter at the approach of the law. To deal with such scum, you did not need the navy, you needed only a few seaborne policemen. If some private gentlemen of means prepared such a police force—a well-armed privateer, for example—and sent it against the pirates of Madagascar, the king was certain it would quickly clean up that nest of thieves.

In making his suggestion, William had indicated that he himself might be willing to buy a share in such a privateering venture. But despite the fact that the privateer proposal had originated with the sovereign himself, the idea had borne no fruit. It would have required some enterprising individual with the ability to sell the scheme to men of influence and wealth to organize the venture and get it off the ground—and no such person had come forward. The king’s suggestion had languished.

Then, in August 1695, Thomas Livingston arrived in London from New York.

Livingston, forty, was a prominent landowner and merchant of New York, connected by marriage to many of the colony’s oldest and richest families. A broad, powerful man, Livingston possessed a tenacious will and a clever, conspiratorial mind. From humble beginnings he had risen high in the world, and like many men who claw their way to fortune, he had developed a hard, grasping, vindictive, and self-righteous character in the process. Born in Scotland of a poverty-stricken family, Livingston had emigrated to New York where he had found employment as a bookkeeper. Energetic and self-disciplined, he had saved his money until he had accumulated enough to invest in shipping ventures. By the time he was thirty, Livingston had amassed a considerable fortune. While attending to business, he had also devoted much of his energy to creating a position for himself in New York society. By virtue of a marriage that was as shrewdly thought out as any of his business deals, Livingston had formed marital ties with both the Van Rensselaers and the Schuylers, families that had long been prominent in New York. To go with his business success and social prominence, Livingston had acquired 160,000 acres of prime Hudson Valley real estate—and was the lord of a magnificent home known as Livingston Manor.

In the course of his business career, Livingston had somehow made an enemy of New York’s corrupt colonial governor Benjamin Fletcher. The pithy Fletcher liked to refer to Livingston as “the little bookkeeper,” adding that Livingston had “screwed himself into one of the most considerable estates in the province.”

Livingston despised Fletcher in turn. In fact, Livingston had even filed a lawsuit against Fletcher in London, claiming that the colonial governor owed him money for services rendered to the colony—and had refused to pay.

When Livingston learned that Lord Bellomont was to replace Fletcher, he was extremely gratified. He decided to sail to London in order to introduce himself to Bellomont—and to ingratiate himself with the new colonial governor. At the same time he would press his lawsuit against Fletcher.

For Lord Bellomont, dealing with the thousand-and-one details involved in arranging the affairs of his estates and business interests preparatory to taking up his new post across the Atlantic, it had been a very difficult summer. His gout had been acting up. His young wife seemed unhappy about the prospect of going to America. Almost every day reports of pirate depredations arrived from the East. Moreover, he was beginning to comprehend the full complexity of the task he faced in trying to suppress the trade in pirate contraband in America—a trade long established and generally approved by the colonials.

Further, the summer itself had been gloomy and full of portents. The weather had been wet and cold, more like November than August. Forged banknotes had been circulating throughout the town, making every shopkeeper suspicious of every customer. A wild-eyed soldier had appeared in the City, crying out that King William had died in Flanders, and snarling that he would shoot anyone who denied the news he had brought. The authorities had taken the poor man into custody, but not until he had spread panic in the streets. He was later found to be certifiably insane. The king, the City was assured, was alive and well, and as determined as ever to bring down Louis. But the crazy soldier, with his message of royal demise, had seemed to symbolize the gloomy strangeness of the summer.

In his fine London home, Lord Bellomont must have occasionally regretted his decision to forsake his comfortable Irish estates to accept the king’s commission.

Then, on August 10, Thomas Livingston came to call on the new governor.

The tough, self-made American merchant and the haughty, often-irascible Establishment peer discovered that they had much in common. Both were shrewd men of business. Both enjoyed good wines and good horses. And both loved intrigue.

As the two men discussed colonial affairs, the king’s idea of sending a privateer to the East came up. Livingston pounced on the proposal. There were great possibilities in such a project, he told Bellomont. In one stroke, he pointed out, and at little cost, Bellomont could please the king, give the East India Company the immediate action against the pirates that it was clamoring for, and show the American pirate brokers that he really meant to suppress the pirate trade. What better way for Bellomont to launch his career as governor? Furthermore, and not incidentally, said Livingston, the plan could bring considerable profit to investors.

Livingston suggested that Bellomont approach some of his powerful and wealthy friends in the British government to form a syndicate that would privately finance the “pirate killer” ship. Livingston suggested to Bellomont that he might point out to potential backers that the pirate killer would no doubt recover great piles of loot from captured vessels—and that most of this plunder would go to the backers of the enterprise. Bellomont, now fired with enthusiasm for the venture, felt confident that he would have no trouble finding investors in a plan that would accomplish the laudatory goal of reducing piracy while bringing profit and praise to its sponsors.

In the event, Bellomont brought four of England’s most powerful political figures into the syndicate. They were Sir John Somers, lord keeper of the great seal; the Duke of Shrewsbury, secretary of state; Sir Edward Russell, first lord of the admiralty; and the Earl of Romney, master general of ordnance. A wealthy London merchant, Edmund Harrison, was also allowed into the consortium in exchange for lending Bellomont enough cash so that the new colonial governor could buy into his own proposal.

The powerful men whom Bellomont had recruited into his pirate-killer syndicate were not only highly placed figures in the English government, they were also close personal friends of the king himself. All of them had been in the forefront of the parliamentary “bloodless revolution” of 1688 that had deposed the Catholic King James II and had brought William to England. The participation of such high-ranking men would have cloaked the project with a respectibility beyond dispute if the syndicate members had been willing to make their names public. However, Bellomont’s partners insisted that they must remain anonymous—a proviso to which Bellomont and Livingston readily acceded.

Although Bellomont and Livingston had quickly secured the necessary financial backing for their pirate killer, they still lacked the one component they deemed essential to the enterprise: a trustworthy and skilled commander. The captain of this very special vessel, Livingston felt, must not only be an outstanding seaman, he must also understand how pirates operated and—probably more important than any other requirement—he must be discreet enough to keep confidential the identities of his backers and sensible of the need for prudence and circumspection in carrying out his mission.

Livingston fretted that lacking a suitable captain, the venture that Bellomont and he had now set their hearts on might never come to pass.

Then, as if the fates were at work on his behalf, Livingston encountered an old acquaintance who had just arrived in London: a fellow New Yorker, a knowledgeable man of the sea, and a man of substance. Livingston was elated. This old colleague, he felt certain, would be the perfect man to captain the enterprise to the East. He was William Kidd, master of the merchant sloop Antegoa.

Kidd was then about fifty years old, not tall but solidly built, with wide shoulders and powerful, seaman’s hands. Broad-faced, blue-eyed, brown from the sun, he had a beak of a nose that gave his bluff sea-captain’s face an almost Roman look. Slow of speech and cautious in manner, he seldom smiled. He was never considered a clever man. But when he spoke, he spoke plainly and directly, holding to a seaman’s rather simple view of the world: fair or foul, full or empty, friend or foe, honest or false. He was an honest man, too, a man of good repute—and a man of courage. (Some thought him too easily led by others, however, and for all his outward tranquillity, he was capable, when provoked, of outbursts of rage.)

In 1695 William Kidd was one of New York’s most successful merchant captains, due in no small measure to his habit of plain speaking, his courage, and the simple integrity he brought to his dealings with others.

Born to poverty in Scotland, Kidd had gone to sea as a lad.2 Nothing is known of his early career, but in 1688, when he was about forty-three, he had risen high enough in the world to be the owner of his own ship and to buy a fine house in New York City.

Around this same time he had also become involved in the political affairs of New York, and the colony’s assembly had thought well enough of him to award him a purse of £150 in recognition of his services in helping to quell a short-lived political upheaval in the port.

The New York council also thought well of him. In a resolution the council had called him “gentlemanly,” and had gone on to say: “Neither in his domestic relations nor in his personal history…could aught be said against him.”

In 1691 William Kidd, ship captain, had taken a step that had transformed him from a respectable merchant mariner to one of New York’s leading citizens: he had married a young, beautiful—and very wealthy—wife.

She was Sarah Oort, widow of shipping magnate John Oort, who had been her second husband. Sarah, born Sarah Bradley in less than affluent circumstances, was described by all who knew her as “lovely and accomplished.” She had married her first husband, a city alderman named Cox, when she was only fifteen. Cox had died three years later, leaving Sarah well off. Subsequently Sarah had married the rich Mr. Oort, who had died on May 5, 1691, leaving Sarah all he possessed, which was considerable. Only eleven days after Mr. Oort’s demise, the grieving young widow had married Captain William Kidd.

Although the beautiful Sarah could neither read nor write, signing all her documents with her own peculiar “S.K.” mark, she owned some of the finest properties in New York, including a beautiful house on Pearl Street and a farm called Saw Kill Farm, overlooking the East River.

Thanks to Sarah’s fortune, Kidd was able to live in exceedingly comfortable circumstances. His tall, gabled house looked out over New York’s magnificent harbor. Sarah furnished the place luxuriously, with finely carved furniture and Turkish carpets for the floors, and saw to it that there was always plenty of good food and fine wine for the captain and his guests.

Kidd and his family became pillars of the church. It was William Kidd who donated the block and tackle with which Wall Street’s historic Trinity Church was built—and Kidd and his family had their own pew in the finished edifice.

But even though he had won the love of a beautiful wife, had earned the esteem of his community, and possessed a comfortable home, William Kidd was not a happy man. He yearned to fulfill a dream—a dream that seemed to belie his blunt practical nature—that seemed so fanciful and so obviously unattainable that it rendered him absurd in the eyes of those to whom he had revealed it.

William Kidd, merchant master, who had had barely enough education to write a comprehensible letter, longed to captain one of His Majesty’s men-of-war—hungered for the prestige and the dignity of a command in the Royal Navy.

Although he lacked virtually all the requirements necessary to attain such a post in that age of snobbery—social graces, political connections, and the proper background—Kidd would not allow such mundane considerations to dissuade him from his goal. He had convinced himself that he could become a captain in the Royal Navy—and he traveled to London in the summer of 1695 to persuade the Admiralty to grant him his heart’s desire.

Toward that end Kidd carried a letter of recommendation from James Graham, attorney general of New York, addressed to William Blathwayt, a political figure who had a reputation as a man able to obtain “favors” for friends. Unfortunately for Kidd, Blathwayt was away from London—in Flanders with the king—when Kidd arrived in the city. Consequently, Kidd found himself at loose ends in London. Then Thomas Livingston happened upon him.

To Livingston, Kidd seemed the ideal man for the privateer voyage he had in mind. He was a respected man of property, and a more than competent seaman, who had considerable experience dealing with the moneyed classes and whose discretion could therefore be relied upon.

There was still another, most important reason why Livingston considered Kidd the right man for the job. The New York captain had successfully commanded privateers in the past. With the outbreak of King William’s war with France in 1689, Kidd, in a sloop he had then owned—the Blessed William—had fought as a privateer auxiliary with the English fleet in the West Indies—and had participated gallantly in several actions. In fact, the fleet commander, Thomas Hewson, had later said of Kidd: “He was with me in two engagements against the French, and fought as well as any man I ever saw, according to the proportion of his men.” (Perhaps it was this experience with the professional fleet in the West Indies, plus Hewson’s praise, that had convinced Kidd that for all his lack of schooling and background, he did possess sufficient natural merit to realize his dream of a Royal Navy command.)

After action with the fleet, Kidd and Blessed William had put in at Antigua for provisions prior to returning to New York. While Kidd was conducting his business ashore, however, his crew, stirred up by the mate, Robert Culliford, had mutinied and sailed away with the ship. (Culliford eventually made his way to Madagascar and was elected captain of several pirate ships. The fate of the Blessed William is unknown.)

If this event embarrassed Kidd, at least it had cost him no financial loss. The British governor of the Leeward Islands, in recognition of his services to the fleet, had presented Kidd with a captured barkentine, the Antegoa, to replace the stolen Blessed William. Thereupon the grateful captain had sailed home to New York.

A few months later, the Massachusetts colony—mindful of Kidd’s good work against the French in the West Indies—had hired him to chase a notorious French privateer away from the American coast—and Kidd had succeeded in that mission.

Although the intriguing Livingston probably saw Kidd as the commander of his pirate killer from the first moments of their meeting in London, he was careful not to broach the subject of his eastern enterprise too abruptly. Instead, he concentrated on ingratiating himself with the bluff seafarer, succeeding so well that Kidd even testified on Livingston’s behalf in his suit against the retiring Governor Fletcher.

It is likely that Livingston encouraged Kidd’s preposterous conviction that he could become the captain of a Royal Navy man-of-war. In doing so, however, Livingston further excited in Kidd a hitherto-inconsequential propensity for self-delusion, which was a basic, if not obvious, aspect of the captain’s character. For there seems to have been in William Kidd a deep streak of stubborn fantasy, a penchant to believe a thing possible because he desired it, an inclination to regard something as true simply because he wanted it to be true. This tendency toward magical thinking, so clearly exposed in his dream of a Royal Navy command, seems to have operated by blinding Kidd to the reality of his situation when his deepest desires were engaged. It also seems to have led him often to misinterpret the intentions of others, as he had for example misinterpreted the character of the mate, Culliford, who had made off with his ship. It seems likely that this inclination toward wishful thinking also made it difficult for Kidd to see himself as others saw him. Thus, in his fantasy, he was able to envision himself with ease as the polished and dashing commander of one of His Majesty’s men-of-war.

Probably, in his rough world of privateers and cutthroat merchants, this facet of Kidd’s personality had not mattered very much. More than likely it was usually dismissed as a quirk, a rather laughable inclination of the captain’s to put on airs. It did not, in any case, interfere very much with his professional performance as either a self-employed privateer or as a merchant captain.

But for a project like Livingston and Bellomont’s, a commander was needed who was not only discreet and competent but also capable of acting on his own in remote waters, capable of weighing the reality of his situation, capable of making critical judgments under pressure. To put in command of such an enterprise a man whose view of reality might be determined by his desires was a prescription for disaster. Yet Livingston, although a shrewd man of experience, apparently failed to perceive this flaw in Kidd—or if he did recognize it, he did not believe it would adversely affect his enterprise, for he had now fixed on William Kidd as his captain.

Livingston waited for an appropriate moment—and then put forward his privateer proposition to his fellow New Yorker. Kidd professed himself uninterested. He had no wish to command a privateer, he explained to Livingston, even one with so lofty a mission as suppression of the Madagascar outlaws.

Livingston, however, refused to accept Kidd’s negative response. Perhaps, as a crafty salesman, he sensed that the bluff sea captain could be pressured or cajoled into accepting the post offered.

Perhaps Kidd himself created this impression in Livingston’s mind in order to retain Livingston’s friendship. Like many unsophisticated people with ambitions beyond their talents, Kidd often thought himself more clever than he really was. He probably believed that if he did not entirely close the door to Livingston’s project, he would be better able to cultivate Livingston and Bellomont, and perhaps even secure their help in obtaining his commission in the Royal Navy. In this sense Kidd himself opened the door to the pressure that, with single-minded tenacity, Livingston now exerted on him.

Livingston began his campaign by taking Kidd to see Lord Bellomont himself. The great man suggested to the duly impressed captain that perhaps the best way to achieve his life’s dream of a Royal Navy career would be to accept the special privateering commission he and Livingston were now offering to him. It was a mission, after all, that had been proposed by the king himself, Bellomont no doubt pointed out, and it had the backing of some of the most influential men in the realm, not the least of whom was himself, soon to be governor of Kidd’s own province and in a position to do him a great deal of good. On the other hand, Bellomont no doubt implied, to refuse such a service to the Crown might be construed by some as a disloyal act unworthy of a Royal Navy captain.

Even Kidd must have understood the message: Take the proposition offered to him by Bellomont and Livingston, and he would prosper; refuse, and his dream of a navy command might come to nothing.

The pressure on Kidd to accept immediately was enormous. But he did not buckle under. He pointed out that as an experienced privateer, he saw a number of major flaws in the proposed venture to the East.

Foremost among these flaws was the fact that even with a pirate-killer vessel, pirate ships would be most difficult to capture. Pirates were not only fast sailers, well armed, and crewed by tough fighting men, they were impossible to identify at sea unless they attacked or broke out a black flag. No pirate would be fool enough to willingly engage a fighting ship like Bellomont and Livingston’s privateer. Nor would any pirate ever be stupid enough to show his true colors to such a fighting ship.

Moreover, even if the pirate killer did manage to overtake a pirate on the high seas, there would be little likelihood of finding booty aboard her since it was not the pirate custom to remain long under sail after making a big score but rather to get quickly to some safe haven and there share out the plunder. As for rooting the pirates out of their bases on Madagascar, no single ship, no matter how well armed, could possibly accomplish that objective.

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