Sayyida al Hurra (1485-1561) Born in the Muslim kingdom of Granada in the Iberian peninsula, she fleet to North Africa after the christian conquest. She governed the state city of Tetouan and became the leader of pirates in the western Mediterranean, wreaking havoc on Spanish and Portuguese shipping lines. By Ananda C. Arán
Little is known about Sayyida al Hurra – even her real name.
Her designated title means `noble lady who is free and independent; the woman
sovereign who bows to no superior authority’. Born in Granada, she fled to
Morocco as a child after the city was sacked by Christian forces, and she later
turned to piracy against them, along with many other Muslims. She allied with
Hayreddin Barbarossa as she attacked Spanish and Portuguese shipping in the
Nobody had more reason to despise the Spanish than the
pirate queen of the Barbary Coast, Sayyida al-Hurra. Originally from Granada, Sayyida
and her family were forced to flee following the Reconquista in 1492. She
married the governor of Tétouan, a family friend, and through him assumed a
position of power. After his death, Sayyida inherited the position of governor
and allied with Oruç Barbarossa to attack the Spanish and Portuguese – together
they controlled the Mediterranean Sea. Sayyida remarried to the sultan of
Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi, but famously refused to travel to Fez to marry him,
instead insisting he come to her.
From 1515 to 1542, sayyida al-Hurra bint `ali ibn rashid
governed Tétouan and, with her associate the Ottoman pirate Barbarossa,
launched raids against the Spanish and Portuguese. Andalusians returning to
Morocco in the late 15th century, as the Muslim control of even Granada slipped
away, rebuilt Tétouan. Although sources disagree about whether al-Hurra’s
husband was `ali al-mandri, the founder of the rebuilt Tétouan, or if perhaps
her husband was his son (another al-mandri), they agree that from 1510 al-Hurra
and her husband ruled Tétouan, she initially as prefect and he as governor, and
that on his death in 1515 she assumed the title of governor. Spanish and
Portuguese sources agree that it was with al-Hurra that their governments
negotiated for the release of prisoners and that she was both the ultimate
authority in Tétouan and behind the raids on their shipping.
In the late 15th century, al-Hurra’s Andalusian family (banu
rashid) settled in Chefchaouen, and it was there that she married al-mandri,
who belonged to an elite Andalusian family in Tétouan. After almandri’s death
al-Hurra married the Wattasid sultan of Morocco, aHmad bn muHamad
al-burtughali, who took the unprecedented step of leaving Fes to go to Tétouan
for the marriage ceremony. Although remarried, al-Hurra continued to rule in
Tétouan. The unusual degree of acceptance of al-Hurra as a ruler may have
benefited from Andalusian familiarity with powerful female monarchs in Spain
such as Isabelle of Castille (1474-1504).
The Action of the Kingfisher with Seven Algerine
Ships, 22 May 1681 under command of Captain Morgan Kempthorne. She was
specially designed to counter the attacks of Algerine corsairs, or pirates, in
the Mediterranean by masquerading as a merchantman, which she achieved by
hiding her armament behind false bulkheads. She also was provided with various
means of changing her appearance. Kingfisher was rebuilt at Woolwich in 1699,
as a Fourth Rate of 46-54 guns. She was hulked in 1706, and was broken up in
4th rate ship of the line – HMS Kingfisher was an
amazing pirate hunter frigate masqueraded as a merchant ship. In the battle
that made her famous where she fought Algerian 3 sail ships and 5 galleys for
12 hours and won with 8 casualties and somewhat 30 wounded. Same year she have
sank Moroccan pirate and few years later captured Sophia a 12 gun ship.
Carrick Castle is a late fourteenth/early fifteenth
century Tower House built by the Campbell clan and replaced an earlier
fortification that had served as a Royal hunting lodge. It was constructed upon
a rocky promontory overlooking the entrance into Loch Goil. The castle was
attacked by the Royal Navy during the rebellion of Archibald Campbell in 1685.
THE BATTLE WITH ALGIERS
France’s duc de Beaufort somewhat redeemed his humiliating
defeat at Djidjelli by finding a glorious death fighting the Turks in the last
stages of the seemingly endless siege of Candia in 1669. His body, and the
French force he was leading, was then returned to France. The other foreign
Christian contingents, especially the knights from Malta, also departed.
Finally the last Venetian commander surrendered Candia to the Ottomans on terms
and went home. The war for Crete was finally over. With the Ottoman sultan
finally victorious, the Barbary corsairs would no longer have to send ships
every year to join his fleet, and would have more vessels available to go in
pursuit of Christian merchant ships. Algiers in particular stepped up its
corsairing activities, just as the European sea powers, at peace with each
other once more, were sending their battle fleets back to the Mediterranean.
An English fleet under Sir Thomas Allin commenced operations
against Algiers in late 1669. Allin’s attempts to blockade Algiers necessitated
a base much closer to the enemy city than Tangier, so he used anchorages in the
Balearic Islands with the tacit approval of the Spanish. Tangier was, however,
useful as a base for English warships mounting patrols in or near the strait of
Gibraltar, a favourite cruising ground of the Algerine corsairs. An increasing
number of corsairs were captured or driven ashore, while even large groups of
them might be driven off by single English warships.
Battle of Cádiz, 18–19 December 1669. Engraving of the battle by Wenceslaus Hollar, an eyewitness
An example of the latter event occurred in December 1669. Earlier that year the famous artist and engraver Wenceslaus Hollar had been sent by King Charles II to Tangier to make drawings of the crown’s newest possession. After completing his work, Hollar boarded the warship HMS Mary Rose, commanded by Captain John Kempthorne, for passage back to England. First Kempthorne had to convoy some merchant ships to Cadiz in Spain. Soon after the convoy left Tangier it was attacked by a force of seven Algerine corsairs. They concentrated on trying to capture the Mary Rose, but for many hours Kempthorne’s crew beat them off. Eventually, after heavy damage had been inflicted on the Algerine flagship, the corsairs withdrew, and the Mary Rose and its convoy reached Cadiz safely. Kempthorne was rewarded by Charles II with a knighthood, while Hollar immortalized the event in an engraving.
Despite having fought two bitter naval wars against each
other, England and the Netherlands could on occasion co-operate in the fight
against the Barbary corsairs. In 1670 Admiral Willem van Ghent brought a Dutch
fleet of thirteen ships, drawn from the admiralties of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and
Zeeland, to the Mediterranean and cooperated with Allin in the war against
Algiers. An English squadron under Captain Richard Beach was detached to
accompany van Ghent’s ships in patrolling the strait of Gibraltar and its
approaches. In mid-August 1670 the allies encountered an Algerine squadron near
Cape Spartel, and in the ensuing battle they drove six enemy ships ashore,
burning them, killing several noted Algerine captains and freeing 250 Christian
In September 1670 Allin handed over command of the English
Mediterranean fleet to Sir Edward Spragge and returned home. Spragge continued
aggressive operations against the Algerines and achieved his greatest victory
over them in May 1671. Seven Algerine warships were in the harbour at Bougie,
and Spragge sent in fireships which successfully burned them all. This further
heavy blow to the navy of Algiers led to a revolution in the city. The old
ruler was overthrown and the new one was anxious to make peace with England,
which was soon agreed. From this point onwards, the ruler of Algiers was known
as the `dey’ (literally `uncle’), a title peculiar to that city.
The English and the Dutch had inflicted notable defeats on
the Barbary corsairs, and the French had also carried out lesser naval
operations against them in these years. However, just as the Barbary corsairs
were beginning to feel real pressure from the European sea powers, that
pressure was suddenly relaxed. Louis xiv was determined to destroy the Dutch
republic, and he enlisted the aid of Charles II to launch an Anglo-French
assault on the Netherlands in 1672. England would fight the Dutch until 1674,
while the French continued the war against them until 1678. Once again the
Barbary corsairs were left largely unopposed while the European sea powers
fought among themselves.
Although the Dutch finally beat back the French invasion of
1672 which almost destroyed their country, and other states, including Spain,
later joined their struggle against France, there was little doubt that this
war weakened Dutch power. This was especially true in the Mediterranean. The
French encouraged a revolt in Sicily against Spain, and the Dutch sent a fleet,
under Admiral de Ruyter, to the Mediterranean to assist the Spanish. In a
series of sea battles around the shores of Sicily in 1676 the French, under
Admiral Abraham Duquesne, eventually got the better of the Dutch-Spanish fleet
and the famous de Ruyter was killed in one of the encounters. The French were
now masters of the western and central Mediterranean.
France and the Netherlands made peace in 1678. Dutch
seaborne commerce had largely been excluded from the Mediterranean since 1672
and Dutch shipowners were desperate to regain the trade they had lost to French
and English ships. Attacks by the Barbary corsairs might help those two
countries in preventing a Dutch trade revival in the region. When Dutch
negotiators came to the Barbary regencies in 1679 aiming to obtain new treaties
from them, they came as supplicants. As usual the treaty agreed with Algiers
would set the tone for those with Tunis and Tripoli. The terms the Dutch
eventually agreed with Algiers were to horrify their English and French rivals.
Although the Netherlands still had a significant navy and most of its merchant
ships went to the Mediterranean in well protected convoys, the Dutch
effectively capitulated to the Algerines.
In the treaty of 1679, ratified in 1680, the Dutch agreed,
among other things, to provide what was in effect an annual tribute payment to
Algiers. It did not take the form of money, but of a free gift of cannon, firearms,
gunpowder and naval stores such as masts, cordage and shipbuilding timber. In
effect the Dutch were providing the material to equip Algerine corsairs to
attack the ships of other nations and in return the Algerines agreed not to
attack Dutch merchant shipping. The Dutch had calculated it was cheaper to send
regular tribute to Algiers than to face the cost of sending punitive naval
expeditions against the corsair city. The 1679 treaty was to be the basis of
Dutch relations with Algiers for the next hundred years and more.
The English and the French were loud in their condemnation
of what they saw as a Dutch surrender, and they resolved to bring the Barbary
regencies to terms through further aggressive action by their navies. England
led the way, and from 1677 to 1682 waged a fierce naval war with Algiers.
However, when an English fleet, under Sir John Narbrough, returned to the
Mediterranean in 1675 after King Charles ii had ended his participation in
France’s war against the Dutch, its first target was not Algiers but Tripoli in
For most of 1675 Narbrough tried to maintain a naval
blockade of Tripoli. The knights allowed him to use Malta as his forward base,
but most of his supplies came from the more distant port of Livorno (called
Leghorn by the English) in Tuscany, the principal base for English merchants in
the central Mediterranean. Narbrough became more aggressive in the following
year. In January 1676 a force of boats from the English fleet, led by
Narbrough’s protégé Cloudesley Shovell, entered Tripoli harbour and burned four
ships of the Tripoli fleet. Soon afterwards Narbrough’s ships encountered a
Tripoli squadron at sea and destroyed all four vessels. After these heavy blows
to his fleet, the ruler of Tripoli made peace in March 1676, freeing all his
English captives and promising to pay a financial indemnity. The people of
Tripoli revolted, overthrew their ruler and forced his replacement to denounce
the treaty. Narborough quickly returned, threatening to bombard Tripoli unless
the new ruler confirmed the treaty, which he duly did.
This success might have encouraged the other regencies to be
more respectful towards England, but the Algerines were angry because so many
foreign ships were using false English flags to avoid capture by their
By 1679 the new commander of the Mediterranean Fleet Vice-Admiral (brevet) Arthur Herbert (later Lord Torrington) was less interested in a blockade of Algiers, preferring to escort English trade convoys through the corsair danger areas, mostly in or near the strait of Gibraltar, and to mount patrols in the same areas. Not only did his ships begin to take a steady toll of Algerine vessels, captured or destroyed, but they also accounted for some Sallee rovers from Morocco as well. In the past the corsairs had always been able to outrun English warships, but since the 1660s English shipyards had produced a number of fast, well armed vessels, often of shallow draught. They were equally useful operating among the sandbanks of the North Sea off the Dutch coast or going into the shallows near headlands like Cape Gata where Barbary corsairs lurked waiting for their prey.
Although the long breakwater built by the English at Tangier
was said to be almost complete by the late 1670s, it had done little to improve
the city’s harbour. Like his predecessors, Herbert was reluctant to make much
use of Tangier as a naval base and it usually only received occasional visits
from patrolling warships. This situation changed dramatically in 1680 when
repeated Moroccan attacks on the defences of Tangier compelled Herbert to take
the fleet there, landing sailors and cannon to assist the garrison in beating
off the Moroccan assault. Nevertheless, once the danger was past, Herbert
looked elsewhere for a fleet base and found it in Gibraltar. In April 1680 the
Spanish gave Herbert permission to use Gibraltar as his main base and he
continued to use it until his return to England in 1683. Among the young
officers in Herbert’s fleet was George Rooke. Almost a quarter of a century
later, as Admiral Rooke, he would capture Gibraltar for England in 1704.
Herbert soon began to accumulate many Muslim slaves, mostly
taken from captured Algerine vessels. Like his predecessors, he was under
orders not to bring them back to England. Some were used as labour in Tangier,
working on the defences or constructing the breakwater. The rest were sent to
the various slave markets in Christian Mediterranean countries, such as those
at Cadiz and Livorno. In 1679 alone Herbert was said to have made a profit of
16,862 pieces of eight from the sale of 243 Muslim captives. Not all Muslim
captives passed unresisting into slavery. At least two ships carrying Muslim
slaves away from Tangier experienced revolts among the captives. The ships were
seized and run ashore on the coast of North Africa.
By the start of 1681 Herbert’s ships were maintaining a
steady rate of success against the Algerines. In March 1681 two English
warships captured the noted Algerine corsair Golden Horse. (Algerine vessels
did not have names like Christian ships, and they were usually identified by
the name of their captain. When captured, they were often named after some
feature of the carving at the stern of the vessel.) Some 500 Muslim crew,
including the captain, a Dutch renegade, were taken prisoner and 90 Christian
slaves were freed. In May history repeated itself when the warship HMS
Kingfisher was attacked by eight Algerine corsairs near Sardinia. The ship’s
captain was Morgan Kempthorne, son of John Kempthorne who had found himself in
a similar position in HMS Mary Rose in 1669. Like his father, Morgan beat off
his assailants, but in the battle he was fatally wounded. In September another
Algerine corsair fell to the English warships. An English renegade was found
among the officers of the captured vessel. He was immediately hanged.
Although Herbert was bringing increasing pressure to bear on
the navy of Algiers, the city’s ruler became favourable to peace with England
for other reasons. Algiers had been at peace with the Dutch and the French, but
at war with the English. By late 1681 the Algerines were being drawn into
conflict with France. Since the traditional policy was to avoid being at war
with more than one of the main European sea powers at a time, war with France
meant peace would have to be agreed with the English as soon as possible. In
1682 Algiers made a peace treaty with Herbert, and this treaty was to be the
basis of England’s relations with Algiers until 1816.
In February 1685 Charles II died and was succeeded by his
Catholic brother James II. Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll, was in exile
in Holland and already plotting a Protestant revolt in tandem with Charles’s
illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth. He raised a few thousand pounds among
the Scottish exiles and hired three ships – the Anna of 30 guns, the David of
12 and the Sophia of 6. Evading the half-hearted attempts of the Dutch
authorities to stop them, they sailed north intending to round Scotland and
land in the Argyll territories in the west, which had been confiscated after
the Earl was accused of treason in 1681.
Carrying 300 men and 400 sets of back armour, breast-plates
and head-p ieces, the ships made a very fast passage and arrived off the Moray
Firth on 5 May. They missed the passage between Orkney and Shetland in fog and
found themselves in Scapa Flow, where they anchored in Swanbister Bay. Spence,
the Earl’s chamberlain, had connections in the islands and went ashore with Dr
Blackadder, but they were quickly arrested by the Bishop and magistrates of
The leaders of the expedition were undecided about what to
do. Some wanted to land and rescue their comrades, some suggested reprisals and
a party was sent ashore and took six hostages. But the ships sailed on without
Spence and Blackadder. They spent the night of 11 May at anchor in Tobermory
Bay, then largely undeveloped, and mad e a specious attempt to salvage guns
from the famous Spanish galleon wrecked there. They sailed down the Sound of
Mull, unchallenged by Duart Castle, and on the 15th they arrived at Islay, on
the edge of Argyll’s clan territory. Th e Earl expected that his authority as
chief of the Clan Campbell would instantly raise thousands of men, but Islay
had already been visited by government troops who imposed an oath of loyalty.
About eighty men were recruited to the rebellion, but half of them soon
The Anna and her consorts sailed on to Campbeltown, solid
clan territory as its name suggests. On 22 May they raised the standard of
revolt, bearing the slogans ‘For the Protestant Religion’ and ‘Against, Popery,
Prelacy and Erastianism’. Again there was indecision about what to do next.
Some wanted to develop a base in the Highlands, others to seize what they
believed was an opportunity to exploit discontent in Ayrshire and Galloway
across the firth of Clyde. Instead, the fiery cross was sent through
Argyllshire to raise the Campbells, and Tarbert, further up the Kintyre
peninsula, was chosen as the rendezvous. The three ships sailed up the firth
and the troops from Campbeltown marched. A force of about 2,500 men was
assembled at Tarbert.
Argyll wanted to move further up the coast to his former
seat at Inveraray, where 500 government troops were in control and were
reportedly terrorising the population. His advisers pointed out the danger of
the ships being trapped in the cul-de-sac of Loch Fyne with English warships
approaching. Since supplies were short at Tarbert, it was decided to land on
Bute. It took three days to transport all the men to Rothesay, using the Dutch
ships plus about forty local fishing 4 – boats.) Rothesay Castle was burnt as a
reprisal for the government’s burning of Argyll’s castle on Loch Goil. The tiny
island of Eailean Greig in the Kyles was set up as a base. It was hoped that
the narrow and winding channels would prove unnavigable for English warships.
Meanwhile the government was preparing its own forces. HMS
Kingfisher of forty guns under Captain Hamilton was in the Clyde near Dumbarton
and was joined by other ships from Leith. On shore, the Earl’ s close relations
and supporters were arrested and troops were mobilised.
The rebels landed a small party at Toward Castle opposite
Rothesay while another small force sailed to Greenock, where they defeated some
ineffective government opposition. They gained about thirty recruits and
retired across the firth. On 11 June, the same day as Monmouth belatedly began
his revolt in the south-west of England, Argyll left Eailean Greig with most of
his army and crossed the mainland of Cowal. He advanced up Glendaruel and
reached Ardentinny. But in the meantime the Kingfisher succeeded in navigating
up the Kyles of Bute and the rebel base came under arrack, Captain Hamilton
We got up to them yesterday with an intention to beat his
men out of the fortifications they had built there by the castle, but they did
not stay for our coming up with them, but run their ships on ground and abandoned
the castle. They had laid a train of matches with an intention to blow up the
castle but I sent a boat on shore and prevented the blowing Up.
This was deeply demoralising to the rebel army, but they
used local boats to cross Loch Long from Ardentinny to Coulport. They marched
round the head of the Gareloch and took a circuitous route towards Glasgow,
hoping to avoid conflict with government forces. The army was slowly dispersing
and by the time it reached the Clyde at Kilpatrick there were only about 150
weary, dispirited men left. Argyll crossed the Clyde and was arrested by
government forces at Inchinnan while trying to cross the River Cart. He was
taken to Edinburgh and executed on 30 June, while Monmouth faced the same fate
two weeks later.
Having served as lieutenant of the Rupert in 1666, and of
the Mary in the following year, was, in 1668, promoted to be commander of the Deptford
ketch, and very soon afterwards removed into the Nightgale. In 1671-2 he was
appointed captain of the Mermaid; and being removed, in the course of the
following year, into the Constant Warwick of thirty-six guns, a small fourth
rate, behaved very gallantly in a very smart encounter with a Dutch privateer, as
given in a letter written at the time. In 1673, the spirit he had manifested on
the former occasion procured him to be promoted to the Mary Rose of fifty guns.
In the account given by Prince Rupert, of the engagement
between the English fleet under his command, and that of the Dutch, on the 28th
of May in this year, he mentions a Colonel Hamilton, as having lost his leg. We
have not been able to identify precisely, but we believe him to have been this
gentleman, the appellation of Colonel being indiscriminately applied both to
officers of the navy and army, at that day, and there being no other person at
that time in the service of the same name. He was not appointed to any other
ship till the 18th of June, 1675, when he was made captain of the Margaret
Galley; the first of these appellations appears to have been a misnomer, as it
is imagined there was no vessel of that name in the service.
We find him commanding the Charles, on the Mediterranean
station, on the 26th of October 1677; at which time he captured, in company
with the James, Captain Canning, who was killed, a very large Algerine ship of war,
after a desperate battle. On the 4th of March 1682, he was appointed to the
Kingfisher. In the month of June 1685, having with him the Falcon frigate, he
attacked and carried almost without resistance, the castle of Ellengreg, on the
eastern coast of Scotland. The unfortunate earl of Argyle had taken possession
of it a few days before, and fortified it, as well as time and circumstances
would permit him, intending it as his grand magazine, and place of final retreat.
Captain Hamilton’s success appears to have given the decisive blow to this
petty invasion, for on this occasion he not only made himself master of all the
stores, spare arms and ammunitions, but, pursuing his
good fortune, took possession of the three ships which the earl brought with
him, and in which only he could place his last hope of escape for himself and
We meet with nothing farther relative to Captain Hamilton
till the month of May 1689, some months after the revolution had taken place;
he then commanded a ship of war, whose name we have not been able to learn, on
the Irish station, and performed a notable piece, of service in destroying a
considerable number of boats intended for the use of the late King James’s
During the 1590s there were an average of 14 English expeditions to the Caribbean every year, with as many as 25 in 1598. That led by Francis Drake and John Hawkins in 1595- 96, aimed at San Juan de Puerto Rico and Panama, was the largest, comprising 27 ships, 1,500 seamen, and 2,500- 3,000 soldiers, but it met with even less good fortune than Drake’s solo foray a decade earlier. Hawkins died on the outward passage, and the Spaniards, long since forewarned of the impending English attack, had time to reinforce Puerto Rico with 1,500 fresh troops from Spain. When his attack was consequently driven off with considerable loss Drake sailed for Nombre de Dios, raiding along the coast of the mainland as he went. Nombre de Dios was found largely deserted, and he seized the fort and burned the town. He then despatched 900 men, organised into five or seven companies under his lieutenant, Thomas Baskerville, to traverse the Isthmus and take Panama, but after marching through torrential rain for three days these encountered stiff Spanish opposition on the fourth and, with their provisions and powder ruined by the downpour, they were obliged to withdraw. Re-embarking its landingparty, the fleet then sailed along the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua, its crews contracting dysentery en route after landing to find water. When Drake himself died of the `bloody flux’ in January 1596 command devolved on Baskerville, who called an end to the disastrous expedition and sailed for home with the remaining 14 or 15 ships (several having either been lost to the enemy or scuttled in consequence of having insufficient men left to crew them). It was left to another celebrated English corsair, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland – author of a dozen raids between 1586 and 1598 – to succeed where Drake had not in capturing San Juan de Puerto Rico, which he did in 1598 with a fleet of 18 ships and 1,000 men. He had intended to hold the port permanently, but once again unsustainable losses to tropical disease obliged the English to withdraw without installing a garrison. The frequency of such semi-official English ventures subsequently declined, there being only ten altogether between 1600 and 1603, when the long-running Anglo-Spanish conflict effectively came to an end.
The majority of pirate flotillas operating in American waters initially consisted of no more than a single ship equipped for both fighting and trading, accompanied by a smaller vessel of a type called a pinnace or patache, which, having a shallow draft and being provided with up to 18 oars a side as well as sails, was better suited to the inshore work called for in coastal operations. The pinnace might displace as little as 20 tons and could have a crew of as few as 20 men or as many as 70, but carried little or no armament beyond a number of small versos (1-11/2 pdr breech-loading swivels). No raiding force recorded in the first half of the century ever comprised more than 800- 1,000 men and six vessels, of which two at the very least were pinnaces. During the 1550s, however, the French despatched larger fleets which included royal warships as well as privateers, and carried sizeable contingents of troops for deployment ashore. The ten ships which sailed under François le Clerc in 1553-54 constituted the first of these more substantial ventures, and included two royal warships and three or four pinnaces. Most English expeditions of the period 1572-1603 were of three ships or less. Only those which received royal backing were any larger, being sometimes accompanied by royal warships (two served under Drake in 1585-86, and five in 1595-96). Drake’s expedition of 1572-73 appears to have been unique in carrying three prefabricated pinnaces aboard one of its two ships, which were unloaded and re-assembled when he arrived at his destination in the Gulf of Darién. Pinnaces were sufficiently important to the success of a privateering enterprise that expeditions were generally abandoned if the larger ships lost touch with them for any reason, while the pinnace commander sometimes decided to utilise the advantages of his vessel for his own profit, abandoning the accompanying ship to go a-roving on his own.
Drake knew from experience that a surprise assault was
critical to their success. They laid in wait, crouching by the side of the
jungle path for what must have seemed an eternity before the tinkling of mule
bells rang sweetly in their ears. Suddenly, the gallop of a lone horse coming
from the wrong direction warned Drake that all was not as it should be. Before
the rider could be stopped he had alerted the muleteers to head back, and that
the pirate Drake would pounce on them any moment. The Spanish cleverly
separated out the silver shipment from the more valuable gold—estimated at some
£35,000 ($12.32 million or £6.66 million today)—and sent the mules carrying the
silver on into Drake’s arms. Realizing that they had been discovered, Drake and
Pedro decided that it would be too risky to return to base the same way they
had come, and opted instead to boldly take Venta Cruces. The raiding party
marched through the town, burning and pillaging as they went. Any casualties
incurred were in defense of property, not in brutal murder, according to
reports both Spanish and English. Drake had also ordered his men that the women
must remain “inviolate,” and he even entered homes to reassure the women
personally that none of them would be raped. While there is no excuse for the
terror Drake and his raiders inflicted on their victims, this level of humanity
in the sixteenth century—let alone in the twentieth or twenty-first—is
Now that he had made his strike, Drake once again lay low,
hoping to trick the Spaniards into believing that he had left the Caribbean
with his paltry treasure. While his good “Plymouth lads” grumbled about the
heat, humidity, and their ill-luck, the Cimarrones tended the sick and injured
and made moccasins for the foot-sore rovers. Drake marveled at their strength,
their courage, and above all their loyalty. “Yea many times when some of our
company fainted with sickness or weariness,” Drake wrote later, “two Cimarrones
would carry him [the sick] with ease between them two miles together, and at
other times (when need was) they would show themselves no less valiant than
industrious and of good judgement.”
After their retreat, there was little else to do than plan
their next raid for the spring of 1573, and capture a prize that would
hopefully keep them well provided in victuals and water. Then, nearly a month
after they had rejoined their ships following the Venta Cruces raids, a large
French ship bore down on them just off Cativas Headland near Nombre de Díos.
Her captain, who had been looking for Drake for some five weeks, was none other
than the Huguenot corsair Guillaume le Testu. Le Testu was no ordinary pirate.
He had been the personal protégé of Admiral de Coligny, and was captaining a
ship for the merchant adventurer Philippe Strozzi.
Le Testu was well known to Drake. After all, Le Testu had
taken part in the French colonial adventure to Brazil, and Drake admired the
French challenge in South America to the Spaniards. So when the Frenchman asked
for water, and explained some of his men were ill, Drake ordered provisions to
be sent aboard; then he asked Le Testu to follow him to one of his storehouses
so that they could be fully replenished. When they finally anchored, the
Huguenot captain gave Drake a gilt scimitar that had been a gift of his dear,
now butchered, leader, Admiral de Coligny. This devastating news, and the
carnage that had ensued in France, shocked and angered Drake, making the gift
all the more dear.
The two men had already respected each other before they
ever met, but once in the same cabin together, that respect grew into mutual
admiration. Le Testu showed Drake his invaluable folio atlas of fifty-six maps
that he had drawn based on his own experiences, and which had been dedicated to
Coligny some years earlier. This treasure of experience would have driven home
the fact to Drake of how poor English knowledge of the seas had truly been. Le
Testu had been a royal pilot at Le Havre, and had been born and bred with the
sea coursing through his soul like Drake. The main difference between the two
was that Le Testu had high-level contacts in Coligny and, lately, André Thévet,
Catherine de’ Medici’s chaplain. Drake had to make his own way through hard
graft. What is striking from this encounter of great “pirates” is that Le Testu
would have not been a corsair or outlaw if he had adhered to the Catholic
Naturally, Drake and Le Testu fell in together, and agreed
on how to mount another raid on the trajín. Le Testu believed that if they
attacked closer to Nombre de Díos, after the gold and silver shipments had been
separated at the Chagres River, the soldiers would be more relaxed as their
journey was nearing its end. It would be easier to box them in or, preferably,
disperse the mule train’s defenders more easily, he ventured. Drake agreed.
On March 31, 1573, the combined Cimarrone, English, and
Huguenot forces stole into the jungle. Cimaroon scouts edged forward in the
night, returning to their positions before daybreak. The trajín had nearly two
hundred mules in all and an escort of around forty-five poorly armed, barefoot
The assault was rapid and deadly. The Cimaroons led the
charge. Within the first few seconds, a Negro harquebusier fired at Le Testu,
wounding him in the stomach, and killing a Cimaroon. The attackers surged
forward regardless, shouting fierce battle cries and shooting off their
weapons. The Spaniards quickly recognized that if they stayed and defended the
trajín, it would be a turkey shoot, and they would be the turkeys. While they
turned tail and ran, the raiders leapt onto the baggage and prized open the
chests. The mules were carrying more than 200,000 pesos de oro ($23.24 million
or £12.56 million today). What made the prize sweeter was that 18,363 pesos de
oro ($2.13 million or £1.15 million today) personally belonged to the King of
The fifteen tons of silver looted was hastily hidden in
burrows made by land crabs, or under fallen trees. They had to be quick about
it, though, since again, they were only two leagues from Nombre de Díos. Half
of the gold was loaded back onto the mules and carried to the mouth of the
Francisca River, where their pinnaces were waiting. But Le Testu was mortally
wounded, and he knew it. He told Drake to go ahead and leave him, that he would
guard the silver until they could return. The last thing Le Testu wanted was
for Spanish soldiers to cut off their retreat to the sea, and Drake reluctantly
agreed. Two of his men volunteered to keep him company, while the others
marched laboriously away.
Two days later, after yet another torrential downpour in the
jungle, the raiders arrived at their rendezvous. But instead of their own
pinnaces, they found Spanish shallops. Had the pinnaces been captured? How
would they escape back to their pirate’s haven? the men asked. Had the
Spaniards wrecked the Pasco and dashed their hopes of returning home? Drake
knew from experience that action would keep these worries from overpowering his
men. As ever ingenious, he instructed them to make a raft from fallen trees,
binding the trunks together and using a slashed biscuit sack for its puny sail.
It wasn’t pretty, but it just about floated. After the Spaniards rounded the
headland, Drake and three men waded out in their ludicrous tree raft, at times
sailing waist high in seawater, before they spotted the Bear and the Minion,
nestled in a safe harbor nearby. As Drake boarded the ship, he broke into a
sudden smile and brought out a quoit (disc) of gold from his shirt. Their
voyage had been made.
After his men had been brought safely on board, the
Cimarrones came forward with the sad news that captain Le Testu had been
killed. Drake said a prayer for the Frenchman’s soul and gave the order to
weigh anchor. It was unsafe to return for the silver. Their voyage had been
made, thanks in large part to the Cimaroons and the Huguenots, with whom he
gladly shared their prize. They had been away for more than a year, and more
than half of them were dead, including Drake’s two brothers.
In an incredibly swift and uneventful crossing of only
twenty-three days, Drake and his remaining crew pulled into Plymouth harbor on
Sunday, August 9, 1574. All the good men and women of the town were at prayer
in St. Andrew’s Church, listening to their vicar’s sermon, when a murmuring
among the parishoners grew into a roar. Drake had returned, they whispered to
one another. One by one they left, until finally the entire flock deserted its
preacher and raced to the waterfront to welcome home their heroes.
In the absence of their own navigational charts, early
French raiders depended heavily on the knowledge and experience of disaffected
Spanish pilots, Benzoni recording in the 1540s that `it was some Spaniards,
practised in that navigation, who led the enemy, so that the French also became
as familiar with those waters as the Spaniards themselves’. It was, for
instance, a Spaniard who guided five French ships into Cartagena harbour in
1544, where they landed 100 men and sacked and burnt the town. Before long,
however, French corsairs knew as much about navigating in the Caribbean and the
Atlantic sea-lanes as their Spanish counterparts, and had accumulated
sufficient intelligence of Spanish strength in the region to enable them to
launch their attacks with impunity. Benzoni noted that `although in the
beginning they restricted themselves to the vicinity of Hispaniola and San Juan
de Puerto Rico, yet when those districts ceased to yield rich prizes, they
frequented more of the islands, and even some of the provinces on the
mainland’, pillaging towns and capturing ships wherever they went. The
audiencia of Santo Domingo reported in 1541 that French corsairs `knowing the
weakness of these ports landed in many of them, in full daylight, [and] burned
and robbed some without meeting any resistance’. Very few Spanish attempts to
repel pirate landing-parties were ever successful, and at least some of those
that were owed their success more to bribery than force of arms. Indeed, Blasco
Nuñez Vela (1539) considered that 300 corsairs could seize any coastal town on
the Spanish Main that they cared to, regardless of its size or strength, and it
is readily apparent from the sources that the Spaniards’ poor leadership and
lack of adequate arms virtually guaranteed the pirates success on land. So long
as they managed to avoid the larger and more heavily-armed Spanish warships
sometimes despatched against them there was also very little that they needed
to fear at sea.
Normal French raiding practice, as recorded by a Spanish
eye-witness in 1571, was for the crew of the pinnace to make the attack while
the larger ship stood offshore, the booty being subsequently transferred to the
ship, which would periodically return to Normandy to sell it. This is exactly
how Sores went about attacking Havana in 1555, when he landed the bulk of his
men by means of his pinnaces and ships’ boats to outflank the town’s defences
and launch an overland attack from the rear. On this particular occasion the
French set fire to the fort’s gates to smoke out its garrison after several
hours of fighting. The Spanish governor had meanwhile rallied the population
(which, as was customary under such circumstances, had fled inland with the
greater part of its portable valuables at first site of the corsairs) and
returned with such armed men as he could muster, but was beaten off. Drake
employed much the same tactics in his attack on Santo Domingo in 1586, putting
his landing-party ashore several miles away to launch a surprise attack from
the rear while his main fleet kept the town’s defences occupied from the
seaward side. This became the characteristic modus operandi of English
The idea of sending a specially equipped and crewed
privateer against the Madagascar pirates had actually originated with King
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Bellomont and Livingston brushed off these objections. They
told Kidd that the commission they would arrange for him to receive from the
king would also empower him to capture French ships, since England and France
were at war. Thus, they assured their chosen captain, there would be plenty of
opportunity for him to capture plunder even if pirate vessels eluded him.
It seems very clear that as his private conversations with
Bellomont and Livingston proceeded, Kidd gained the distinct impression that he
would be given great latitude in carrying out his mission. If he should find it
necessary to commit any “irregularities” in the course of it, such as
“requisitioning” supplies from the East India Company, the great men backing
the project would protect him.
“Lord Bellomont assured me again and again,” Kidd later
wrote, “that the noble lords would stifle all complaints.”
Whether Bellomont or Livingston deliberately fostered this
impression in Kidd’s mind, or whether it was due to Kidd’s own propensity for
fooling himself and for misconstruing the intentions of others, it is
impossible to tell. It was probably a combination of Kidd’s fantasy and
Bellomont and Livingston’s guile that created the perception that the mission
would be carried out under special auspices and that the captain’s role in that
mission would be a lofty one: He would be, in effect, the king’s own privateer.
With this fantasy before his eyes, Kidd consented to captain
On October 10, 1695, Lord Bellomont, Livingston, and Captain
Kidd met to sign a final agreement covering their project. The contract called
for Bellomont and his high-ranking partners to put up 80 percent of the cost of
the venture. Livingston and Kidd would put up the rest, some £1,500. The
document also spelled out how the booty was to be shared: 10 percent to the
Crown; 55 percent for Bellomont and his backers; 22.5 percent to the crew; and
12.5 percent for Kidd and Livingston. If there should be no booty, Kidd and
Livingston agreed to pay back all the money put up by their sponsors, retaining
the ship as their own compensation.
There were other clauses as well: Kidd was to sign his crew
on a “no prey, no pay” basis. He was to complete his cruise and report to
Bellomont in Boston no later than March 20, 1697, with all his booty intact—at
which time the spoils would be properly assessed and divided by an Admiralty
court. Kidd was also required to put up a good conduct and performance bond of
£20,000. A similar bond for £10,000 would be posted by Livingston.
As a veteran privateer captain Kidd must have realized that
this agreement placed him in a dangerously vulnerable position: He had to find
booty—or he would suffer grievous financial harm, since he and Livingston would
have to make good any losses to their backers if the venture failed.
Furthermore, if anything went wrong—if his crew mutinied, for example, or a
friendly ship was attacked in error, he alone would be responsible.
Moreover, as a more than competent seaman, Kidd must also
have recognized that it would be impossible for him to accomplish his mission
by the deadline spelled out in the agreement. It was simply not feasible to
prepare a ship, sail to the Indian Ocean, capture elusive pirates laden with
spoil—almost all as well as or better armed than he would be—and then bring his
prizes halfway around the world again to Boston—and do it all in fourteen
months. Why, it would take at least two months just to reach the Cape.
What is more, it could not have escaped Kidd’s notice that
because of King William’s War, much of France’s merchant fleet was concentrated
in European waters and operating as privateers against the English. Potential
French prey in the eastern seas would not be plentiful.
Finally, topping all these negative factors was one further
reality: To finance his share of the expedition Kidd would have to sell his
sloop, Antegoa. From Kidd’s point of view, the whole scheme seemed a poor risk
Nevertheless, he signed the agreement proffered by
Why did he accede to so dubious and unfair a contract? No
doubt he felt trapped by Bellomont’s veiled threats against him, as well as
flattered by the thought that he would be serving the king and the great men of
the realm. He may also have been confident that the strictures written into his
agreement would not apply in reality, and hopeful that completion of his
mission to the East would bring that which he hungered after: a command in the
Captain Kidd, it would seem, was blinded by the peculiar
defect in his makeup that caused him to believe a thing true because he wished
it so. There is no other way to explain Kidd’s acceptance of the deal offered
to him by Bellomont and Livingston, except to say that he refused to
acknowledge the reality of his situation.
Now, with Kidd signed up for the voyage, events moved
rapidly. In December 1695 the Admiralty issued a commission to Kidd, empowering
him to “apprehend, seize, and take the Ships, Vessels, and Goods belonging to
the French King or his Subjects or Inhabitants within the dominions of the said
French King; and such other Ships, Vessels, and Goods as are or shall be liable
In January 1696 Kidd received a special commission signed by
the king himself.
“To our Trusty and well-beloved Captain Kidd,” it began. It
then instructed Kidd to seize pirates wherever he found them, but added: “We do
hereby jointly charge and command you, as you will answer the same at your
utmost Peril, That you do not, in any manner, offend or molest any of our
Friends or Allies, their Ships or Subjects.”
During this time Kidd also had had audiences with the Earl
of Romney and with Admiral Sir Edward Russell, the first sea lord. These great
dignitaries, both investors in the privateer scheme, applauded Kidd’s mission.
Their attentions no doubt further fed Kidd’s fantasy of present protection and
As Kidd himself wrote later about his state of mind during
this period: “I, thinking myself safe with a King’s commission and protection
of so many great men, accepted, thinking it was in my Lord Bellomont’s power as
Governor of New York, to oppress me if I still continued obstinate. Before I
went to sea I waited twice on my Lord Romney and Admiral Russell. Both hastened
me to sea, and promised to stand by me.”
For William Kidd the die was now cast.
He had already chosen his ship for the voyage. She was a
287-ton three-masted vessel named Adventure Galley that had been specially
designed for speed, maneuverability, and armament. Ship’s carpenters at
Deptford on the Thames, where she was being fitted out, had equipped her with
special adaptations for her mission: oars, for example, to allow her to
maneuver during notorious Indian Ocean calms, and an enormous spread of sail to
give her extra speed. Under full sail Adventure Galley could make fourteen knots.
Even becalmed, her forty-six oars would give her three knots of speed. Only 124
feet from stem to stern, she had been built flush-decked, adding to her
nimbleness when under way and permitting her to carry a greater spread of sail.
She carried thirty-four guns, and Kidd was confident that she would prove the
equal of any vessel she was likely to encounter in the Indian Ocean.
Kidd chose his crew with great care. He wanted no potential
mutineers, no officer who would, like Robert Culliford, seize Adventure Galley
and go off “on his own account.”
Kidd carefully recruited 70 honest sailors, most of them
married men with families in England. With this crew, less than half the ship’s
full complement of 150, he intended to sail across the Atlantic to New York
where he would settle his personal business, visit briefly with his family,
explain his mission to associates, and recruit an additional 80 men.
At the end of February 1696, Adventure Galley slid down the
Thames to begin her fateful voyage.
Matters went wrong from the start.
As Adventure Galley proceeded downriver she encountered a
Royal Navy yacht near Greenwich. Kidd failed to dip his colors to the naval
vessel as custom dictated. The yacht then fired a shot across Adventure
Galley’s bow as a reminder of the respect that a privateer owed to any ship of
the Royal Navy. Kidd’s crew then delivered an incredible insult to the naval
vessel: They turned and slapped their backsides derisively in the direction of
It was a stupid and gratuitous affront. It was probably
traceable to Kidd’s delusion that his commission made him the equal of an
officer in the Royal Navy, and Adventure Galley the equal of a Royal Navy
man-of-war. Thus he did not consider it necessary to salute the yacht—and his
crew’s insolent mockery had been no more than a sailor’s rude statement in
support of his captain. The incident, however, was to cost Kidd dear.
When he later anchored, still in the Thames, a Royal Navy
press gang, probably under specific orders, came aboard Adventure Galley and
carried off more than twenty of Kidd’s handpicked crew. Furiously Kidd
brandished his commission at the press-gang’s officer. Angrily he protested
that he was on the king’s business and was not to be treated with such
high-handed contempt. But the Royal Navy officer directing the press gang
ignored all Kidd’s protestations. He had his duty—and no doubt he took great
pleasure in discomfiting the arrogant privateer who had insulted His Majesty’s
After the loss of his best men, Kidd, certain that his
special commission exempted Adventure Galley from the ravages of a navy press
gang, hurried off to complain to one of his powerful patrons, Admiral Russell.
While he might not have agreed with Kidd that Adventure Galley was the equal of
a navy frigate, Admiral Russell did order that Kidd’s abducted crewmen be
returned to him. In the event, the Royal Navy delivered twenty seamen back to
Adventure Galley—but they were not the same men whom Kidd had earlier lost to
the press gang. Instead they were a score of hardcases and troublemakers whom
the Royal Navy was glad to get rid of.
Realizing that he was not likely to get any satisfaction
from the Royal Navy, Kidd set sail for New York. On the way he captured a
French fishing boat, a lawful prize that he took to New York with him.
Arriving in New York in July, Kidd sold the French fishing
boat and used the proceeds to purchase additional provisions for the long
cruise to eastern waters.
Obtaining the additional eighty men he needed, however,
turned out to be more difficult than Kidd had anticipated. New York was at that
time a major port in the Pirate Round, a place where seamen were more
interested in sailing as pirates than in sailing as pirate catchers. There was
little interest in an expedition in which the crew’s share would amount to less
than one quarter of whatever booty they took.
In order to attract new hands, therefore, Kidd—in conscious
violation of his agreement with his backers and acting on his own
authority—drastically revised the ship’s articles of Adventure Galley: The crew
would now receive 60 percent of any profits rather than the 22.5 percent
stipulated in Kidd’s agreement with Bellomont and Livingston. Probably Kidd
convinced himself that he could explain away this arbitrary decision when the
time came. Perhaps he also felt that as the king’s privateer, his mission was
so important he was justified in changing the terms of his agreement with his
backers in order to carry it out.
Eventually Kidd managed to sign on enough men to fill out
his crew of 150. Many of them were the dregs of the New York waterfront:
drifters, ex-privateers, deserters, and a variety of toughs. Benjamin Fletcher,
who was still governor pending Lord Bellomont’s appearance in the New World,
observed the new crewmen of Adventure Galley with a cynical eye. “Many flocked
to him from all parts, men of desperate fortunes, and necessities in
expectation of getting treasure,” Fletcher wrote of Kidd’s New York recruits.
“It is generally believed here, that if he misses the design named in his
commission, he will not be able to govern such a villainous herd.”
Although some observers, like Fletcher, suspected that there
were outright pirates among Kidd’s New York enlistees—and that many of these
had signed aboard with the secret aim of seizing the ship for piracy—there is
no clear evidence that this was the case. It is hard to believe that Kidd, an
experienced privateer and a New Yorker himself, would be taken in by a
conspiracy of ordinary pirates. He was too old a hand for that. It is equally
hard to believe that any cabal of semiliterate pirates, no matter how
desperate, would choose to sign on with the king’s own privateer for purposes
of fomenting a mutiny. There were far less risky ways to steal a ship.
Very probably Kidd knew full well that his New York crewmen
were a bad lot. But he also must have known that there were no out-and-out
brigands among them—and he must have felt confident of his ability to control
them. In any case, he had no choice. He had to make do with the men available.
Throughout this period, while Kidd was provisioning
Adventure Galley and signing up his new hands, he seemed to feel no urgency to
get away from his home port and on to the task ahead. Instead he took advantage
of this time to enjoy the company of his wife and children, spending many long
summer days at the family’s farm overlooking the East River. It was as if Kidd,
dreading the voyage ahead, wished to put off his departure as long as possible.
But July turned into August and August into September—and
finally the day arrived when Kidd could no longer delay. On September 6, fully
provisioned and with a full crew of 150 aboard, Adventure Galley slipped her
cable and drifted on the tide out of New York harbor, under way at last for the
It was a nine thousand mile run to the Indian Ocean. Kidd’s
course took Adventure Galley first due east across the Atlantic to Madeira off
the northwestern coast of Africa. From there, by easy stages, Kidd sailed south
along the west coast of the continent, slowly—almost reluctantly—making for the
Cape of Good Hope. Now that the reality of the voyage was upon him, there must
have been many times when Kidd confronted the chill secret knowledge that he
carried deep within himself: His mission, so lightly agreed to in London, could
not possibly succeed. But he must have just as often submerged that awful
realization again, persuading himself that, somehow, he would find a way to
bring it off. If his commission was a burden, it was also an opportunity. By
accomplishing his task, even if only partially, would he not be proving to men
of quality and power that he was indeed worthy of a Royal Navy command?
As the weeks passed, Kidd—with such thoughts no doubt
boiling in his mind—brought Adventure Galley farther and farther south of the
equator, closer and closer to the Cape. Then Kidd once again affronted the
The incident began on December 12, 1696, when Adventure
Galley encountered a squadron of four Royal Navy warships, under the command of
Commodore Thomas Warren, off the western coast of Africa only one hundred miles
north of Capetown. Kidd went on board Warren’s flagship, where he showed the
commodore his royal commission and demanded that Warren provide him with new
sails to replace sails that Adventure Galley had lost in a storm. When Warren
refused, Kidd again brandished his commission, claiming that he had a right to
the navy’s help. If Warren refused such help, Kidd would be forced to seize the
sails he needed from the first merchant vessel he came across, but his actions
would be Warren’s responsibility. Kidd’s high-handedness infuriated the
commodore. Angrily, Warren informed Kidd that far from supplying him with
sails, he intended to impress thirty of Kidd’s men the following morning to
fill out shorthanded crews in his own squadron.
Chastened, Kidd pretended to agree to Warren’s demand for
his men—and he returned to Adventure Galley. During the night, however, with
the seas calm, Kidd used Adventure Galley’s oars to sneak away from Warren’s
squadron. By morning he had an insurmountable lead over Warren’s ships and
easily got away. But he had deeply offended the Royal Navy again and his
arrogance had earned him a negative reputation even before Adventure Galley
rounded the Cape into the Indian Ocean.
In February 1697, Adventure Galley, after sailing past the
Cape and beating her way north through the Mozambique Channel, arrived at the
island of Johanna to take on fresh water.
While she was anchored in the harbor of Johanna, a
well-armed East Indiaman also arrived to take on water. The East Indiaman was
flying a naval pennant—a circumstance that seemed to vex Kidd greatly. He
demanded that the East Indiaman’s captain lower the pennant since he alone, as
the king’s privateer, was entitled to fly a navy ensign. The captain of the
East Indiaman did not know what to make of Kidd, but he was deeply suspicious
of this oddly arrogant pirate catcher with his crew of New York wharf rats—and
he kept his guns trained on Adventure Galley, letting it be known that if Kidd
was not soon gone from Johanna, he would be attacked.
Chastened again, Kidd filled his water casks and then made
for the nearby island of Mohéli in the Comoros, northwest of Madagascar in the
Mozambique Channel. But the captain of the East Indiaman soon carried the word
far out into the Indian Ocean about the insolent privateer, William Kidd, and
his evil-looking crew. Thus, before she had even well begun her mission,
Adventure Galley was regarded with suspicion among East India Company merchant
captains as well.
It was now March 1697, and Kidd careened Adventure Galley on
the beach at Mohéli in preparation for the long voyage still ahead. Kidd was
now in the general area where he intended to operate, but it was more than a
year since Adventure Galley had departed Deptford, and although Kidd could
claim his tardiness had been due to events outside his direct control—such as
the difficulty in recruiting crewmen in New York—the fact was that his supplies
were beginning to run low and his men (not to mention his backers) were growing
impatient for the plunder they expected to earn.
At this point some of the hardcases Kidd had recruited in
New York began to mutter against their captain, grumbling that Adventure Galley
ought to forgo her original objective and turn to open piracy, earning equal
shares for those who actually sailed in her. Why, they asked, should they
further enrich wealthy men in London with their labor? Why not go on the
account, and be done with it?
Kidd heard the grumbling. But it seemed, so far at least,
only the grousing of a disgruntled few—and he dismissed it.
While they were careened at Mohéli, plague struck the crew.
Within a week Kidd lost fifty of his men.
Apparently regarding this loss as just one of the
unavoidable hazards of life at sea, Kidd and his surviving crew returned to
Johanna where Kidd recruited thirty men “off the beach” to replace those who
had died. These new crewmen were genuine pirates, a far tougher and more brazen
lot than Kidd’s New Yorkers.
Finally, with his crew replenished and his ship refitted,
Kidd sailed northward in late April 1697 to seek the prey his commission
entitled him to take: pirates or French shipping.
In July Kidd took up his station at the mouth of the Red
Sea. Here, he knew, he would be well placed to intercept the pirates who preyed
on the Moorish and East India Company ships that plied between the Arab port
cities and India. Here he would also be in good position to attack any French
merchants that might be in the area.
Day after day the Adventure Galley plowed back and forth at
the narrow mouth of the Red Sea, fruitlessly seeking a prize. Every day now,
with the new men aboard, the grumbling among the crew increased.
Kidd began to fret. Here, under the burning sun, looking out
over an empty sea, the reality of his situation struck him with renewed force.
How would he fulfill his financial obligations to his sponsors if—as seemed
certain—he failed to find French or pirate shipping to attack? And how could he
keep his increasingly mutinous crew in hand if he failed to find a ship? Was he
justified, under the circumstances, in undertaking some illegal act, some act
not permitted by his commission? But how could he reconcile such an act with
his own vision of himself as Sailor of the King?
Then word reached Adventure Galley that a big convoy of some
fourteen or fifteen ships, both Moorish and European, was forming up in the
port of Mocha preparatory for the run to India.
Perhaps, the torn Kidd now thought, this convoy would
provide the solution to his dilemma. Suppose he attacked one of the Moorish
vessels of this convoy? Would such action, under the circumstances, really
constitute a violation of his commission?
Now Kidd’s propensity to fool himself must have come into
play again. Surely his sponsors on the other side of the world would understand
if—to satisfy his mutinous crew and preserve his command—he took a Moorish
prize. After all, no one in England really gave a damn about Muslim losses, did
they? Surely his powerful backers would protect him from censure if he
overstepped his commission out of necessity. Surely his partners in the
enterprise would look past his deeds toward his motives. They had promised him
as much, had they not? And was the taking of a Moorish ship true piracy, in any
case? Did the Great Mogul of India really qualify as a “friend or ally” of the
king of England—whom Kidd was forbidden by his commission to attack?
Such questions must have plagued Kidd continually as
Adventure Galley patrolled the mouth of the Red Sea, waiting for the Mogul convoy
to appear. Kidd must have prayed fervently that a suitable prize would
materialize before the Mocha ships got under way so that he could avoid making
the terrible decision their appearance would force on him.
But the convoy came into view first.
On August 14, 1697, lookouts spotted the fleet of fifteen
ships moving slowly and ponderously down the narrows right toward Adventure
Galley. The convoy appeared to consist mainly of merchant ships belonging to
the Great Mogul. Three armed escorts were accompanying it. Two of the escorts,
both flying Dutch colors, were sailing close to the merchant vessels, while the
third, an East Indiaman, was running out ahead of the clustered cargo ships.
He ordered Adventure Galley’s topsails set and the crew to
man the oars. Then, in an act that was certainly a gratuitous violation of his
commission, he ran up a red ensign. Kidd certainly knew that among Eastern
pirates, the red flag signified a demand for surrender—or no quarter given.
Then Kidd flung himself in among the Mocha merchants like a wolf seeking a
likely victim. Soon he picked out a slow Moorish merchantman as target and
began maneuvering to come alongside her.
As other ships of the convoy became aware of Kidd’s presence
in their ranks, scattered shots began to ring out. Kidd, ignoring the desultory
firing, loosed a broadside at the Moorish vessel he had targeted as his victim.
His cannon damaged the rigging of the merchant but did not halt her.
Now the big East Indiaman that had been running ahead of the
convoy came about and began making for Adventure Galley. This was the Sceptre,
under the command of Captain Edward Barlo, a tough old sea dog. Sceptre now
hoisted English colors. She fired at Adventure Galley with her bow guns.
Kidd, realizing that it was an English ship bearing down
upon him, now decided to break off the action. It was one thing to attack and
rob a Moorish vessel, but it would not only be an open breach of his commission
to engage an English ship, it would be treason as well.
Adventure Galley thrashed away from the scene in full
But aboard Sceptre, Captain Barlo wrote a report of the
incident in his log. There was no doubt in his mind that Kidd had intended
piracy against the convoy—and from now on Indian Ocean mariners would consider
him no better than any other pirate.
For Kidd the aborted attack on the Mocha convoy only
worsened his situation. It made it impossible for him now, or in the future, to
call upon the East India Company for aid or provisions as he had planned.
Despite his commission, the company would now regard him as an enemy. The
incident also demonstrated to Kidd that capturing sufficient prey to pay off
his backers would be even more difficult than he had thought. Even Mogul
shipping, it seemed, could only be taken at the risk of a fight with English or
Dutch escorts. And Kidd was not yet desperate enough to risk such an open
violation of his commission.
But he had to get results somehow. It was now eighteen
months since he had left England, and he had absolutely nothing to show for it.
He was already six months overdue on his contract with Bellomont. Furthermore,
after the ignominious failure against the Mocha convoy, his prestige among his
crew was lower than ever. Talk of mutiny was spreading. Added to all these
troubles, the ship was beginning to leak.
Kidd now decided that, whether it constituted a technical
transgression of the king’s charge or not, he had no alternative but to widen
his choice of prey to include Moorish and neutral ships as well as pirates and
Frenchmen. He would just have to rely on his backers to put everything to
rights later—after the successful completion of his mission.
Now Kidd headed Adventure Galley westward into the Indian
Early in September he captured a small Moorish barkentine,
captained by an Englishman. Kidd and his men got only a handful of coins, a
bale of pepper, and a bale of coffee for their trouble.
Kidd now made for the Malabar Coast of India. But his luck
He ran into two Portuguese warships near Goa. Although one
of the Portuguese never got close enough to fire, the other fought Adventure
Galley for most of a whole day. When the Portuguese warship finally drew off,
Kidd had sustained eleven casualties—and his ship was splintered, her sails cut
Adventure Galley limped on. Tensions between Kidd and his
crew seethed. Kidd seemed to be acting now without any clear purpose in mind.
Nor did he seem to understand that by now all the traders on the Malabar Coast
saw him as a pirate. At one point Kidd put in at the trading station of Calicut
and—despite all that had happened—demanded that the local East India manager
provide him with food and water. When the company representative refused the
demand, Kidd imperiously informed the man that “he was sent out by the King of
England.” The company man still refused to help.
Kidd also called at the East India Company post at Karwar.
Here, too, he demanded—but did not receive—supplies. The company representative
at Karwar later reported that at this time Kidd’s men still went in awe of him
because of his special commission from the king, but that the crew “are a very
distracted company, continually quarrelling and fighting amongst themselves, so
it is likely they will in a short time destroy one another, or starve, having
only sufficient provisions to keep the sea for a month or more.”
The situation aboard Adventure Galley had in fact become so
tumultuous that Kidd was able to maintain such discipline as still existed
aboard her only by going armed and threatening crew members into performing
their duties. Screaming orders, using physical force, and—like a deranged
man—forever flaunting his king’s commission, Kidd seemed to be nearing a mental
It was now November 1697—almost twenty-one months since
Adventure Galley had set out on her voyage—and the rich prizes so desperately
needed still eluded Kidd.
Then one sultry day, as Adventure Galley cruised off India,
a rich prize at last hove into sight. She was a large merchant ship traveling
alone and evidently fully loaded, judging by how low she rode in the water.
Adventure Galley pursued. But when she overhauled the
merchant, the ship proved to be English: the Loyal Captain. Kidd, desperate as
he was, still could not bring himself to attack an English ship.
But all at once the tensions aboard Adventure Galley boiled
into the open.
Some of Kidd’s men drew their pistols and leveled them at
their captain. If Kidd would not take the English merchant, they would take her
Kidd, never lacking in courage, faced them down.
“I have no commission to take any but the King’s enemies and
pirates,” he growled at the mutinous men who confronted him. “If you attempt to
do any such thing, you will never come on board the Galley again. I will attack
you and drive you into Bombay, and will carry you before the Council there.”
Kidd then disarmed the would-be mutineers. The English
merchant ship sailed on. The brief uprising was ended, but not the rancor that
seethed aboard Adventure Galley.
Only two weeks later, the hostility between Kidd and his
crew again flared into the open.
A gunner named William Moore, one of the most disaffected of
Kidd’s men and one of those who had wanted to take the Loyal Captain in spite
of her English nationality, was sitting on deck grinding a chisel when the
Moore, who was surrounded by some of his sullen shipmates,
suddenly called out to Kidd that they could have taken the Loyal Captain and
“never been the worse for it.”
Kidd glowered at the gunner and his mates, fury building
But Moore went on berating Kidd for his failure to take the
“You have brought us to ruin, and we are desolate,” cried
Now Kidd, furious, screamed back at Moore, calling him,
according to one later account, “a lousy dog.”
Now it was Moore who became infuriated.
“If I am a lousy dog,” he shouted to the captain, “you have
made me so. You have brought me to ruin, and many more!”
Now all the tension and anguish of the previous weeks and
months seemed to erupt in Kidd. He trembled with rage at the insolent gunner
who dared to upbraid him aboard his own ship. At that moment Moore must have
appeared to Kidd the very embodiment of all his troubles.
“Have I ruined you, you dog?” Kidd howled at Moore.
Then he suddenly caught up an ironbound wooden bucket and
smashed it against the side of Moore’s head. The gunner pitched over into the
scuppers. His mates carried him below to the surgeon.
“Damn him, he is a villain,” Kidd cried after them.
When the gunner died the next day, Kidd was unrepentant. He
told his surgeon that he did not fear legal reprisals for the death of a
mutinous crewman, adding that he had “good friends in England that will bring
me off that.”
Now, in the wake of the killing of the gunner, an uneasy
stillness descended on Adventure Galley.
But it was soon broken by an incident that marked Captain
Kidd’s first irrevocable descent into genuine piracy.
Adventure Galley was still sailing off the Malabar Coast at
the end of November when her lookout sighted a sail.
Adventure Galley swept off after the potential prey. Kidd
ran up the French flag as a subterfuge to encourage his quarry to show her own
colors. As Kidd had hoped, the strange ship also ran up a French flag in answer
to Adventure Galley’s pennant.
Adventure Galley now rapidly overtook the other ship. She
was the Rouparelle, bound for Surat on the Malabar Coast. Her captain and
officers identified themselves to Kidd as Dutch. Her crew were mostly Moors.
The Dutch skipper came aboard Adventure Galley and explained to Kidd that the
Rouparelle was owned by Moors and carried a cargo of baled cotton, quilts, and
sugar. There were also two horses aboard her. The Rouparelle’s captain also
produced a pass issued by the French East India Company—a fact that Kidd now seized
on to claim that the vessel was French and therefore a legitimate prize
according to his commission.
“By God, have I catched you?” he shouted, brandishing the
pass. “You are a free prize to England!”
Despite his elated outburst, Kidd as an experienced ship’s
master knew very well that his claim that the Rouparelle was French would not
hold water. While it was true that her Dutch captain carried a French pass, he
also carried a number of additional passes—issued by other countries trading in
the area. It was routine for merchant vessels to obtain such passes as a means
of facilitating their movement from port to port and from trading station to
Nevertheless, Kidd claimed the Rouparelle as a prize. He
turned her Moorish crew out of her, putting them into the ship’s longboat.
Then, with the connivance of her Dutch captain and officers, Kidd brought the
Rouparelle’s cargo ashore where he sold it to traders who asked no questions.
He then shared the proceeds among his crewmen, something his commission did not
empower him to do but the normal procedure among pirates.
Kidd renamed his “French” prize the November, marking the
month he had captured her. He then put a prize crew aboard her—and she sailed
away with Adventure Galley.
Now, having at last committed an authentic act of piracy,
the tortured Kidd seemed to lose all his inhibitions. Starting at the end of
December 1697, he seized a number of Moorish and Portuguese vessels off the
Indian coast. But the plunder from these ships amounted to very little—barely
enough to keep his crew appeased.
Kidd began to hunt for larger game. Apparently still viewing
himself as “an honest man,” still the “well-beloved captain” of his king, who
had been forced against his will to engage in some minor piracy, Kidd clung to
the belief that even at this late date he could satisfy his sponsors, win their
promised protection, and even earn the gratitude of his monarch—if he could
only find a rich, and legitimate, prize. (Clearly, despite all his setbacks,
Kidd’s tendency to believe a thing possible because he wished it so was still
operative—and was soon to lead him even deeper into the morass.)
On January 30, 1698, Adventure Galley sighted a ship off the
Malabar Coast that carried a load of destiny for Captain Kidd.
She was the 500-ton Quedah Merchant, bound from Bengal and
flying an Armenian flag. Adventure Galley gave chase and fired a warning shot
across her bow, at which point the Quedah Merchant hove to and waited for
Adventure Galley to come abeam of her.
The Quedah Merchant carried a rich cargo that included
chests of gold, silver, jewels, silks, sugar, iron, saltpeter, and guns. Owned
by Armenians, she was captained by an Englishman named Wright. As Kidd
approached her, he hoisted a French ensign, as he always did to conceal his
true identity and to induce any potential French prize to identify herself in
But when Captain Wright of the Quedah Merchant saw Kidd’s
French colors, he attempted a clever trick that backfired on both him and Kidd:
In an effort to pose as French, which he supposed Kidd to be, he ran up his own
French flag and he persuaded an old French gunner in his crew to pose as the
captain of the Quedah Merchant. The old gunner went aboard Adventure Galley,
where he showed Kidd a pass issued by the French East India Company. At this
point, convinced by the French accent of the gunner and by the French pass that
he had finally come across a legitimate French prize, Kidd ran up his English
flag and seized the Quedah Merchant.
Now the two Armenian owners of the Quedah Merchant, who
happened to be aboard her, offered to ransom their ship for £3,000. Kidd,
however, spurned their offer. By this time he knew that Quedah Merchant was
worth much more than that. In fact she was, he felt sure, the great prize he
had been seeking.
Kidd sold some of Quedah’s cargo ashore for £10,000 and
divided the proceeds among the crew to assuage their mutinous greed. Overjoyed
with his good fortune, Kidd felt sure that having at last made a rich and
lawful score, he would be able to satisfy his backers—and salvage his career.
Then, to his horror, Kidd discovered that the Englishman,
Captain Wright, was the actual master of the Quedah Merchant. His joy turned to
a ghastly fear. He had captured a ship under English command. He wanted to hand
the Quedah Merchant back to her captain, pointing out to his crew that the
“taking of that ship will make a great noise in England.” But the crew howled
him down. After all their travail they were in no mood to surrender a ship full
Kidd caved in.
With Quedah Merchant and November sailing in consort with
Adventure Galley, Kidd made for the pirate’s haven of St. Mary’s Island. It was
an odd destination for the king’s own pirate catcher to choose. It may be,
however, that Kidd had no other choice available to him. Perhaps his men
demanded that he take them to St. Mary’s. But it is possible that Kidd himself
selected St. Mary’s as the only refuge open to him in the Indian Ocean where he
might rest and refit for the long voyage home without fear of interference by
warships or armed merchants of the East India Company. Furthermore, St. Mary’s
lay along Kidd’s homeward route.
Whatever the case, Adventure Galley arrived at St. Mary’s on
April 1, 1698. Quedah Merchant and November arrived a few days later.
While his little flotilla lay anchored in the harbor, a real
pirate arrived at St. Mary’s loaded with spoils for sale.
She was the Mocha Frigate, a former East India Company
vessel now under the command of Robert Culliford—the same man who had stolen
Kidd’s own brigantine Blessed William eight years earlier in the West Indies.
Culliford, who had only forty men with him, took one look at
the guns aboard the Adventure Galley and her two companions and decided that he
was no match for Kidd. Like most of the Madagascar pirates, Culliford had heard
of Kidd’s pirate-hunting expedition, and he did not intend to fall into Kidd’s
hands. Furthermore, Culliford thought that Kidd would naturally want to take
revenge for the Blessed William incident. Culliford, of course, could not know
that Kidd—despite appearances—was in fact weaker than he. Adventure Galley was
by now all but unseaworthy, and Kidd’s crew, though still aboard, were openly
Ignorant of the true situation, Culliford and his men,
rather than face Kidd, went ashore and took shelter.
In the meantime Kidd imagined that Culliford’s presence
offered him a further opportunity to redeem his mission: If he could capture
the Mocha Frigate, as his royal commission entitled him to do, he might still
be able to claim that he had fully accomplished his task by taking both a
French prize and a pirate loaded with plunder. Certainly the taking of the
Mocha Frigate would help silence those who were calling him pirate.
But when he proposed seizing Culliford’s ship, Kidd’s crew
laughed in his face, saying they would rather fire two shots at him than one at
the pirate. The crew now also insisted on sharing out the spoils from the
Quedah Merchant. Kidd could do nothing to stop them. Oddly enough, they stuck
by the agreement they had made with Kidd in New York, taking 60 percent of the
booty for distribution among themselves and leaving the other 40 percent for
Kidd to dispose of as he wished. Supposedly, the share of the loot left to Kidd
amounted to some 1,200 ounces of gold, 2,400 ounces of silver, several chests
of precious stones, and bales of silks and other fabrics—a fortune.
After the share-out, ninety-seven of Kidd’s men joined
Culliford, who had by now come out of hiding after discovering Kidd’s weakness.
Kidd’s former crew burned the November and stripped both the Quedah Merchant
and Adventure Galley of all arms, guns, gear, supplies, sails, and anything
else they could move, transferring all this material to the Mocha Frigate.
Warning Kidd that if he tried to make trouble for them, they would put a bullet
in his brain, Kidd’s former crew now deserted entirely to the Mocha
Frigate—leaving Kidd and thirteen honest crewmen holed up on the defenseless
During the ensuing weeks, Kidd endured a bizarre purgatory.
In constant fear of his life, he remained locked in his cabin aboard Adventure
Galley, with bales of goods barricading his door and loaded muskets at his
side, while all around him the pirates of Madagascar, together with Culliford
and his men and Kidd’s own former crewmen, indulged in an orgy of drinking and
sex with native women.
Eventually Kidd must have recognized that he could not
continue indefinitely under siege in his cabin. He must also have seen that
Culliford was the dominant figure among the pirates—a circumstance that must
have seemed to offer Kidd a chance to extricate himself from his little Hell.
In any event Kidd eventually emerged from his cabin and
sought out Culliford, assuring his one-time mate that he had long ago forgiven
him for the theft of the Blessed William. At one point Kidd gave Culliford a
pair of pistols as a present—and went aboard Mocha with Culliford where the two
enjoyed themselves, drinking and chatting like old friends.
Kidd even swore an oath of friendship with Culliford,
“swearing that his soul might fry in hell-fire e’er he harmed his old comrade,
and new found companion.”
Did Kidd behave this way because he was tempted by the
freedom and license he saw all about him to renounce his previous life and
become, at last, the pirate that honest men said he was anyway? Or was he
playing possum to save his life and the lives of his few loyal crewmen?
In the end it appears Kidd made some sort of deal with
Culliford, perhaps buying him off with part of his share of the Quedah
Merchant, for the pirate captain allowed Kidd to keep for his own use both the
captured Quedah Merchant and the no longer-seaworthy Adventure Galley—as well
as his share of the Quedah booty.
In mid-June Culliford decided the time had come to put an
end to the revelry of the previous weeks—and to get back to sea. Soon
thereafter, Mocha Frigate—with most of Kidd’s former crew aboard and bristling
with guns taken from Adventure Galley—sailed away from St. Mary’s, leaving Kidd
behind with his two ships, his thirteen honest crewmen, and his fortune in
With Culliford gone, Kidd resolved to return home as soon as
possible. If he had ever been genuinely tempted during his revels with
Culliford to go on the account, it was now forgotten. He stripped Adventure
Galley, already half full of water, of everything useful, even burning her hull
in order to get at her iron stays and spikes. He then recruited what additional
seamen were available among the Madagascar gentry and did what he could to
ready the Quedah Merchant for a transatlantic voyage.
In November 1698, having waited for the favorable monsoon
winds, Kidd, in Quedah Merchant, set sail from St. Mary’s harbor, homeward
No doubt he longed to be reunited with the beautiful Sarah
and his children. And he yearned for his comfortable home in New York.
Clearly Kidd felt confident that in spite of everything, he
would be able to explain away his questionable behavior, perhaps blame his crew
for his troubles, call upon his sponsors to protect him for the sake of their
own good names—and above all, be able to distribute sufficient spoils to quell
What Kidd, in his wishful ignorance, did not know was that
he was no longer in a position to excuse, or explain, or even buy his way out
of trouble. For Kidd and his cruise had become the subject of a vicious
political scandal in England.
As reports of Kidd’s depredations in the East had reached
England over the past three years, it had become clear that Bellomont’s
pirate-killer scheme had failed. Not only had piracy in the East not
diminished, it was obvious from reports submitted by the East India Company and
the Royal Navy that William Kidd had betrayed the king’s trust by turning
pirate himself. Kidd was being portrayed in England as an archcriminal.
At this point, the names of Kidd’s aristocratic backers had
become public. Suddenly these great men, among the highest dignitaries of the
realm, became fat targets of their enemies in Parliament. If Kidd was the worst
pirate in history, these parliamentary critics cried, his haughty sponsors were
at least as bad.
The embarrassment of Kidd’s backers was profound. Washing
their hands of William Kidd, they declared they were as determined as their
enemies were to condemn the terrible pirate.
Kidd was declared an outlaw. The Royal Navy was ordered to
capture him. The governors of the American colonies were also alerted to arrest
Kidd and his crew in order that they might “be prosecuted with the utmost
Rigour of the Law.”
Thus, even as Kidd was sailing confidently home, he had been
proclaimed a criminal, a traitor, a wanted man.
In April 1699 Quedah Merchant made landfall in Anguilla in
the Caribbean. Kidd and his crew discovered—to their horror—that they were
wanted in every port in the New World.
Some of Kidd’s men panicked. They wanted to drive the Quedah
Merchant against a reef and then flee as best they could. But Kidd refused. He
still clung to his belief that ultimately he would be vindicated or, barring
that, at least protected by his powerful friends. Furthermore, he did not
really feel like a pirate. He had been forced to contend with extraordinary
circumstances. He had had to quell a mutinous crew. And yet, had he not taken
two French prizes? Did he not have in his possession their French passes to
He decided his best course would be to make for New York
where he knew Lord Bellomont—his good friend—was now colonial governor. But
first he had to rid himself of Quedah Merchant, now too clumsy and worn for his
Luckily he found a sleek fast ship—the Antonio—becalmed out
at sea, and he bought her on the spot from her owner-captain. He then
transferred mysterious chests—rumored full of gold, coins, and jewels—from the
leaky old Quedah Merchant to the Antonio. After this he gave the former owner
of the Antonio some money to sail the Quedah Merchant to a secluded spot in
Hispaniola and to keep her there under guard for three months, or until Kidd
should contact him.
Then, with only twelve men still willing to sail with him,
Captain Kidd set out northward for New York.
Woodes Rogers and Alexander
Spotswood – Blackbeard’s Last Stand
After abandoning his flagship and most of his crew
Blackbeard sailed north-east along the Outer Banks of North Carolina to
Ocracoke Island. This was a remote and deserted place surrounded by shoals and
sandbanks. The southern shores of the island faced the breaking waves of the
Atlantic Ocean, but on the side facing the sheltered waters of Pamlico Sound
was the narrow channel of Ocracoke Inlet. Here, in the summer of 1718,
Blackbeard dropped anchor. For the next few months he used this as a base for
his sloop Adventure. He also took a house in Bath Town, then a small settlement
on the banks of a creek on the other side of Pamlico Sound. By the end of June
he had secured a meeting with Governor Eden and had obtained the royal pardon
for himself and his pirates. For about two months he seems to have lived a
settled and respectable life, dividing his time between Bath Town and Ocracoke,
but by August he had returned to plundering passing merchant ships. He was now
in the sights of Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant
Governor of the nearby colony of Virginia.
Spotswood, like Captain Woodes Rogers, was a resolute and
determined man with an interesting past. He was born in 1676, the son of an
army surgeon serving in the English military garrison at Tangier. At the age of
seven he came to England and was educated at Westminster School. He joined the
army in 1693 and spent the next seventeen years as an officer. He served under
Marlborough in Flanders, was wounded at the Battle of Blenheim and was captured
but later exchanged at the Battle of Oudenarde. In 1710 George Hamilton, Earl
of Orkney and one of Marlborough’s most able generals, was appointed Governor
of Virginia. Not wishing to leave Britain, he selected Spotswood as his
Lieutenant Governor with full authority to run the colony. Spotswood proved an
energetic Governor. As we have seen earlier, he had warned the British
Government of the growing danger to the American colonies posed by the pirates
and he now decided that Blackbeard was such a threat that he must be hunted
down. As he later wrote to the Council of Trade and Plantations, ‘I judged it
high time to destroy that crew of villains, and not to suffer them to gather
strength in the neighbourhood of so valuable a trade as that of this colony.’
There were two warships assigned to the Virginia station and
they were currently anchored in the James River, not far from Williamsburg, the
capital of Virginia. The largest of the ships was the 40-gun Pearl, commanded
by Captain Ellis Brand. The other ship was the Lyme, 24 guns, commanded by
Captain George Gordon. Both ships had orders from the Admiralty, ‘To correspond
and act in concert against the pirates.’4 When Captain Brand and Captain Gordon
were summoned to a meeting with Governor Spotswood and told that he wished to
mount an expedition against Blackbeard they were happy to give him their
support. The warships were too big to negotiate the shallows around Ocracoke,
so Spotswood hired two local sloops, the Ranger and the Jane, and the navy
provided the men – thirty-three from the Pearl and twenty-four from the Lyme.
They were put under the overall command of Robert Maynard, the first lieutenant
of the Pearl, and each sloop had a local pilot to guide them through the
channels of the Outer Banks. Lieutenant Maynard’s log survives and his entry
for Monday 17 November 1718 marks the day that the expedition set sail:
Modt. gales & fair
Weather, this day I recd. from Capt. Gordon, an Order to Command 60 men out of
his Majesties Ships Pearle & Lyme, on board two small sloops, in Order to
destroy some pyrates, who resided in No. Carolina. This day Weigh’d, &
Sail’d hence, with ye Sloops undr. my Command, having on board a month Proviso.
Of all species, with Arms, & Ammunition Suitable for ye Occasion.
It was not known whether Blackbeard was on his sloop at
Ocracoke or was staying in Bath Town, so while Maynard’s sloops sailed down the
James River and along the coast, Captain Brand led an overland expedition to
Bath Town. He had around 200 men under his command, including sailors from the
warships and a company of Virginia militiamen. As it happened, Blackbeard was
at Ocracoke with twenty-five of his pirates. (Israel Hands and the rest of his
crew were across the Sound in Bath Town.) When Lieutenant Maynard arrived on
the seaward side of Ocracoke Island on the evening of 21 November there was a
local trading sloop anchored in the channel near Blackbeard’s Adventure. Samuel
Odell, the master of the local sloop, and two or three of his crew were being
entertained by Blackbeard and his men. Maynard decided to delay his attack till
the next morning.
At dawn on 22 November Maynard commenced his approach. The
sea was calm, the sky overcast and there was only the lightest of breezes to
help them on their way. A boat was sent ahead with a sailor taking soundings.
If heavy casualties were to be avoided it was essential to surprise the pirates
because Maynard’s sloops had no guns and his men had weapons suitable only for
a boarding action: muskets, pistols, cutlasses and boarding axes. The Adventure
was armed with nine carriage guns which could do a great deal of damage before
the attackers were within musket shot of the pirates. Although the various
accounts of the action differ in many respects it seems that the element of
surprise was lost because the pirates spotted the attackers while they were
still some way off and fired a shot in their direction. A shouted exchange took
place between Maynard and Blackbeard with Maynard telling the pirate that he
intended to board him.
‘Teach understanding his design, told him that if he would
let him alone, he would not meddle with him; Maynard answered that it was him
he wanted, and that he would have him dead or alive; whereupon Teach called for
a glass of wine, and swore damnation to himself if he either took or gave
quarters.’6 Blackbeard ordered several of his carriage guns to be fired at the
approaching sloops. These apparently did less damage than a discharge from a
swivel gun loaded with swan shot, nails and pieces of old iron. The attacking force
was decimated. Midshipman Hyde, commanding the sloop Ranger, was killed
instantly and twenty other men were either killed or wounded. According to
Maynard, the Ranger, having no one to command her, fell astern and took no
further part in the action until it was almost over.
Blackbeard had cut his anchor cable and was intending to
sail out of the channel but the attackers managed to shoot away the jib and
fore halyards of the Adventure, which drifted on to a shoal and grounded. To
save further casualties Maynard hid most of his men below deck as he approached
the pirate sloop, so that Blackbeard, ‘seeing so few on the deck said to his
men, the rogues were all killed except two or three and he would go on board
and kill them himself’. It is not clear whether the final battle took place on
board the Adventure or the sloop Jane, but what is in no doubt is that
Blackbeard and Maynard engaged in a hand-to-hand fight as the rest of the
British sailors swarmed on deck and took on the pirates. Maynard attacked Blackbeard
with his sword but bent it on the pirate’s cartridge box. When Blackbeard’s
sword broke the naval officer’s guard and wounded his fingers Maynard was
forced to step back and use his pistol. His shot found its mark but had no
immediate effect on Blackbeard, who was now surrounded by Maynard’s men.
According to Captain Johnson’s vivid account of the action, ‘he stood his
ground and fought with great fury’. The final blow came from a Scottish
Highlander who struck Blackbeard with such force that he cut off his head.
There were several black Africans in Blackbeard’s crew and
one of them had remained below, ready to blow up the ship if the order was
given. He was prevented from doing so by two of the men from the trading sloop
who had also remained below during the fighting. Blackbeard’s death marked the
end of action. His headless body was thrown overboard and those pirates who
were still alive surrendered. Every account of the action gives different
figures for the casualties but it is evident that the fighting was exceedingly
fierce and the deck must have been running with blood. According to Maynard, ‘I
had eight Men killed and 18 wounded. We kill’d 12, besides Blackbeard, who fell
with five Shot in him, and 20 dismal Cuts in several Parts of his Body. I took
nine prisoners, mostly Negroes, all wounded.’
Maynard took command of the Adventure and, with Blackbeard’s
head hung from the bowsprit, he sailed back to Virginia to rejoin his ship and
report on the success of his mission. He reached the James River on 3 January
1719. It was a fine winter’s day with a light breeze. The warships Pearl and
Lyme were still lying at anchor in the river. Lieutenant John Hicks of the
Pearl recorded the occasion in his logbook, ‘Little wind & fair weather.
Tache ye Pyrate Sloop commanded by Lieut Maynard anch’d here & Saluted us
with 9 Guns we Answ’d with ye same number he brought Tache ye pyrates head undr
Displaying the pirate’s head so prominently as a war trophy
was an unusual action for a British naval crew but it was in line with the
custom of displaying the dead bodies of notorious highwaymen, thieves and
pirates in prominent public places as a warning to others. And Maynard needed
to bring back the head of the notorious pirate as proof of his death and to
enable him and his men to claim the reward. Back in November Governor Spotswood
had issued a proclamation to encourage the capture or killing of any pirate or
pirates within the vicinity of Virginia or North Carolina:
for Edward Teach,
commonly called Captain Teach, or Black-beard, one hundred Pounds, for every
other Commander of a Pyrate Ship, Sloop, or Vessel, forty Pounds; for every
Lieutenant, Master, or Quarter-Master, Boatswain, or Carpenter, twenty pounds;
for every other inferior Officer, fifteen pounds, and for every private Man
taken on board such Ship, Sloop, or Vessel, ten pounds.
Political considerations and bureaucratic delays held up the
payment of the rewards for several years. There was less delay in the trial and
execution of the pirates. Captain Brand had rounded up Israel Hands and one or
two others in the vicinity of Bath Town and on 12 March 1719 sixteen men were
put on trial in the Capitol building at Williamsburg. Samuel Odell, the captain
of the trading vessel which had been anchored alongside Blackbeard’s sloop, was
acquitted. Hands was allowed the benefit of the royal pardon, probably because
he had agreed to testify against his shipmates. According to Johnson, writing
in 1724, Hands ‘was alive some time ago in London, begging his bread’. The
fourteen remaining members of Blackbeard’s crew, including five black Africans,
were hanged on the road leading out of Williamsburg.
These executions, together with the executions of Stede
Bonnet and his crew at Charleston, and the executions at Nassau, were
significant events in the campaign against the pirates but they did not relieve
the pressure on Rogers. His reports and letters to London indicate the many
problems he was facing. He had been so ill for weeks after arriving in Nassau
that he had had difficulty in carrying out some of his duties. The local
inhabitants continued to prove lazy and so unproductive that it was hard to
find sufficient provisions to feed the soldiers of the garrison. But his chief
concern was the withdrawal of the naval ships which had accompanied him to the
Bahamas. In a letter to Secretary James Craggs he pointed out that the lack of
a ship of war was likely to have grave consequences ‘by encouraging the loose
people here and even some of my own soldiers’. He had uncovered a plot ‘to
seize or destroy me and my officers and then deliver up the fort for ye use of
the pirates’. He had dealt with the ringleaders of the plot by having them
severely flogged but he continued to worry that the former pirates in the
community would turn against him.
He was equally concerned that the absence of a warship in
the harbour left the settlement extremely vulnerable to an attack by the
Spanish. There had been growing hostilities between Spain and the other
European powers throughout the summer of 1718 owing to the territorial
ambitions of King Philip V of Spain and his forceful Italian wife Elizabeth
Farnese. A Spanish expedition sent to conquer Sicily prompted the British to
send a powerful naval force to the Mediterranean under the command of Sir
George Byng. Although there had been no formal declaration of war Byng attacked
the Spanish fleet off Cape Passaro on 31 July 1718. The Spanish were
outnumbered and outmanoeuvred and by the end of an extended action stretching over
several days twenty-two of their warships had been captured, burnt or sunk. War
was officially declared on 17 December. Known as the War of the Quadruple
Alliance, it pitched Spain against Britain, France, Austria and the
Netherlands. Brief as it was the war had repercussions in the West Indies and
the American colonies. By February 1719 Rogers had received news that the
Spanish intended to attack and conquer the Bahamas. In May a Spanish invasion
fleet sailed from Cuba. With four warships, eight sloops and around 3,000
troops this posed a formidable threat to New Providence, where the
fortifications were still incomplete and there was only the Delicia and a few
armed sloops to defend the harbour. Fortunately the Spanish fleet was diverted
to Florida because the French had seized a strategically important fortress at
Pensacola. Not till the following year did the Spanish make an attempt on the
Bahamas, by which time Rogers was in a much stronger position.
When the invasion force arrived off Nassau on 24 February
1720 Rogers had at his disposal 100 soldiers and nearly 500 local militiamen;
the fort was armed with fifty mounted guns and the 10-gun eastern battery had
been completed; and in addition to his 40-gun guardship Delicia, there was a
naval warship in the harbour – HMS Flamborough, 24 guns, which happened to be
paying a visit. The logbook of the Flamborough recorded the first sighting and
approach of the Spanish fleet: ‘at 6 AM saw 12 Sail in the Offing standing for
the harbour mouth, We made ’em to be 3 Ships, 1 Brigantine and the rest Sloops,
At noon the Ships anchored off the Bar and the Brig & Sloops sailed to the
E end of Hogg Island & there anchored, They all hoisted Spanish Colours.’
Later information revealed that the Spanish invasion fleet
was led by the flagship San José of 36 guns; she was accompanied by the San
Cristóforo, 20 guns; a third ship of 14 guns; a 12-gun brigantine; and eight
armed sloops. They were carrying a military force of between 1,200 and 1,300
men. In theory the Spanish were considerably superior in ships and men to the
British defenders, but an amphibious invasion force was invariably at a
disadvantage when faced with well-manned forts and gun emplacements; and on
this occasion the Spanish also had to contend with the weather. For some reason
the Spanish admiral decided against launching an immediate attack but waited
until the next day. And the next day a strong north wind built up during the
morning so that the fleet found itself on a lee shore with waves breaking on
the shoals and reefs off the harbour entrance. By 3 p.m. the situation had
become so hazardous that the vessels in the fleet cut their anchor cables and
headed for the open sea. The three ships never came back but at around eleven
that night the brigantine and the sloops returned and, according to the
Flamborough’s log, ‘attempted to land their men but two Negroes firing into
their Boats they put back again to their vessels’. That was the end of the
invasion. Some of the sloops remained off the coast for the next few days but
on 1 March they headed back to Cuba. Several weeks later Rogers received a
letter from two Englishmen in Havana who had been informed that the Spanish
fleet had been hit by a storm two hours after arriving off Nassau and had been
forced to lose their anchors and bear away. The Englishmen had some doubts
about this version of events and reported that most of the ships ‘have all
returned again to their safe harbour whether it was distress of weather or fear
(which we are more apt to believe) that hath thus baulked their attempt we
doubt not …’. However, the danger from the storm was very real because on the
return voyage the San Cristóforo was wrecked on the Bahama Banks.
Having successfully prevented a Spanish invasion and having
expelled the pirates from New Providence, Rogers had every reason to expect a
favourable reaction to the reports he sent home. He also deserved a sympathetic
and practical response to his requests for the reimbursement of the money he
and the copartners had spent on defending the island. Instead he heard nothing
and received nothing. There was no response from the Council of Trade and
Plantations to his first detailed report, and no replies to the many letters he
wrote to Secretary Craggs updating him on progress. It is little wonder that
the opening sentence of his second report to the Council, written two months
after the abortive Spanish invasion, revealed his sense of abandonment: ‘My
Lords, Its about twenty one months since my first arrival here attended with as
great disappointments, sickness and other misfortunes as almost can be imagined
of which I have continually advised in the best manner I could, and I have yet
no account from home what is or will not be done for the preservation of this
settlement.’ He went on to point out that ‘having no news of my bills being
paid at home I am forced to run into too much debt and its with great
difficulty that I have hitherto supported myself and the garrison’. In December
of the previous year Samuel Buck, on behalf of the copartners, had sent a
petition to their lordships pointing out that they had already spent £11,394 on
the fortifications, and further sums on the seamen’s wages for the guardship
Delicia and on commissioning the sloops and crews which had been despatched to
track down the pirates. The total sum to date was more than £20,000 and he
humbly besought their lordships to present the estimates to Parliament for
During the summer of 1720 an incident took place which was
minor in itself but revealed the tensions which Rogers was under. On the
evening of 10 July the sentry on the eastern bastion challenged a boat which
had set off from the shore and was heading across the harbour. The sentry
challenged fifteen times without receiving an answer, and was therefore ordered
by Rogers to fire two shots at the boat. The crew promptly yelled back that
they were from the Delicia. Rogers immediately summoned Captain Wingate Gale,
the commander of the guardship, to come ashore. When Gale refused to do so,
Rogers collected his Provost Marshal and twelve soldiers and went out to the
ship with a warrant to put its commander under arrest. Rogers’ justification
for this was that Gale had disobeyed his commands and ‘I was driven to
apprehend him myself by force to prevent the mischievous consequences of his
ill example, or his raising a mutiny against me.’ According to one witness,
Captain Gale armed his men in order to resist the soldiers coming on board but
several other witnesses denied that the captain or his men were armed and that
Captain Gale ‘offered no resistance until Governor Rogers called him a rascal
and struck him with his pistol upon the head’. Rogers ordered Gale to be put in
close confinement all night and the next morning called a Council, which agreed
that if Gale gave his word for his future good behaviour he could be released
The incident gives added credence to the remarks of Dr
Thomas Dover, who, it will be recalled, noted several instances of Rogers’ hot
temper and his violent threats to those who opposed him. But it is clear from
Rogers’ correspondence that it was not the Spanish, or problems with his
Council or his colleagues, which were proving an intolerable burden. It was his
grave concerns about the finances of the islands, and his own ever-increasing
debts, which were making him ill. Soon he would be driven to seek leave of
absence in order to recover his health. Before he did so the pirates caused
another diversion. It was a diversion which had its origins in the Bahamas but
would reach its much publicised conclusion on the island of Jamaica.
By the 1620s, Scilly’s defences were in need of repair and
improvement. Earthworks were built surrounding King Charles’ Castle, and the
magazine, still standing today, was built by the gate of the Garrison. Further
defences were added in the years up to 1651, particularly by the Royalist
garrison, who made good use of the coastal geography, placing batteries on
rocky points, making direct frontal assaults very difficult.
During the First Civil War (1642-1646), the Scilly Isles
were in Royalist hands, under the governorship of another Sir Francis Godolphin
(1605-1667; grandson of the builder of Star Castle). From here a small fleet of
Royalist privateers operated, and following the final surrender of Royalist
forces in south-west England in March 1646, it was to Scilly that Charles,
Prince of Wales, fled. Following Charles’ departure to Jersey, a Parliamentary
naval blockade led to the surrender of Scilly. But in 1648, the garrison
rebelled against the governor and declared for the King.
Sir John Grenville (1628-1701) was installed as Royalist
governor. Under his command, Scilly became a major privateering base, preying
on both Dutch and Commonwealth shipping. The Dutch dispatched a fleet under the
command of Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp – a threat which prompted a
Commonwealth expedition to retake Scilly in April 1651. (A bizarre diplomatic
relic of this conflict was that Scilly remained technically at war with the
Netherlands until 1986!)
invasion of the Scilly Isles
The fleet of Parliamentary warships dropped anchor off the
sandy shores of the Scilly Islands on 13 April 1651. Royalist pirates had
preyed on Parliamentary and Dutch shipping in the Western Approaches since a
mutiny three years before had transformed the tiny archipelago into a pirate’s
Admiral Robert Blake sent 40 boats full of musket-toting
marines against Tresco Island on 17 April, where he hoped to gain a foothold. The
strength of the fortifications on St Mary’s ruled out a direct assault, and
Admiral Robert Blake instead focused attention on Tresco. He eventually landed
on Tresco’s east coast, taking Old Grimsby and its blockhouse, before moving
inland and striking against Kings Charles’ Castle, whose defenders chose to
blow it up to prevent capture. By 20 April 1651, Tresco was in Commonwealth
This would allow him to prepare for an invasion of the main
island of St Mary’s, where Sir John Grenville’s Royalists benefited from the
strong ramparts of Star Castle. On the second night, a fierce melee with swords
and clubbed muskets drove the Royalist forces to St Mary’s.
Blake established a battery at Carn Near, the southernmost
point, from which he could bombard St Mary’s Pool and harbour.
Over the next two weeks, Blake maintained a steady pressure,
even as negotiations for surrender were under way. On 23 May, Grenville
surrendered after negotiating favourable terms that allowed his men to return
to Scotland or Ireland. He even received compensation for equipment left behind.
Following its capture, many of Scilly’s existing
fortifications were maintained, while on Tresco a new fortification was erected
in 1651/2, immediately below King Charles’ Castle. Cromwell’s Castle – as it
became known – was a tall, round, rubble-built, two-storey gun tower, with an
appearance that appears to anticipate the later Martello towers. The new work
could mount six roof-top cannon.
Following the Restoration, Scilly’s defences declined. In
1715 the engineer Colonel Christian Lilly found the island’s defences in a poor
state of repair, and set about a series of improvements as part of a wider
review of the defences of the south-west coast of England.
In 1651, two years after the beheading of Charles I, several
of the islands around England’s coast were still in the hands of Royalist
sympathisers. These were forced to make a living by piracy, and were
indiscriminate in choosing their prey. Sir John Grenville’s forces on the Isles
of Scilly were particularly successful as they effectively controlled the
western entrance to the English Channel. Eventually the Dutch Admiral Tromp
declared war on Sir John Grenville and moved a fleet against the islands. Perhaps
as a direct result of this (as the Commonwealth couldn’t let even a potential
ally occupy such a strategically important group of English islands) the
English admiral Blake was directed also to go to the islands, and in May he
succeeded in capturing them.
Tromp appears to have left the Scillies on or immediately
after the 12th June, 1651.
Tromp’s diary on page 63.
“On June 12th I arrived off the Scillies with 3 ships
and sent Capt. Cornelis Evertsen aboard Blake’s ship……. Blake declared that
the Scillies had capitulated on June 3rd…….. when I learned that
information and perceived that there was nothing more to be done, I went off on
a cruise around the Channel Islands and along the adjacent French coast, from
there past the Forelands into the north sea as far as off Yarmouth……. and
arrived myself off Brielle on June 30th.”
This is the true relation of the treacherous, mutinous, and
violent acts of the pirate Captain John Mucknell. It tells of how he came to
steal a brand new 44 gun flag ship, the John, only to loose her upon the rocks
of Scilly, where a pirate fleet he commanded were then based. Operating in the
name of King Charles I, Mucknells ships wreaked havoc upon shipping, of all
trading nations, in the western approaches during the English Civil War; until,
as it was then written that God, or the gallows, make an end of him The story
also incorporates a modern day hunt for the wreck.