Henry VI: Resurgence of Piracy I

The unusually peaceful conditions in the Channel left by Henry V were the result of English control of both shores, combined with the essential support of the Count of Flanders (otherwise known as the Duke of Burgundy) and a series of truces made with the other countries whose merchants used the waterway. Englishmen continued to be restrained from piracy and privateering by the 1414 Statute of Truces. In addition, any potential offenders were busily occupied ferrying soldiers, officers of the government, the new settlers and all their respective supporters and equipment across to Normandy, and were paid for doing so.

In the background, however, the premature and unexpected death of Henry V brought to light other circumstances which were both complex and threatening. The so-called ‘dual kingdom’ was ruled by one king, but nonetheless consisted of two distinct countries. Behind the veil of Henry’s ‘permanent’ settlement of Englishmen in Normandy, each of the two countries, England and Normandy, still had its own government, its own laws, its own customs, and its own language. Henry’s failure to include the Armagnacs in the Treaty of Troyes meant that he bequeathed an ongoing war being fought against them on several different fronts, but mostly in the general area round Paris. In England, there was mounting opposition to this continuing war. Overall, the political portents for longer-term stability were not good.

Henry’s heir was the nine-month-old Henry VI (1422–61), born to Catherine at Windsor the previous December. A long regency was inevitable and the responsibility for continuity of government lay with the remaining members of the royal family, who were now reduced to four, Henry V’s two youngest brothers and two Beaufort step-uncles (see below). Almost immediately it became clear that it had been Henry V’s personal leadership and charisma which had provided the cement to give the family its former, remarkable, cohesion. Once that leadership had gone, cracks quickly appeared. The two remaining brothers were very different characters. John, Duke of Bedford was cast in the same mould as Henry himself, to whom he had already served as a trusted lieutenant. He was to prove wise, diplomatic, capable, energetic, and dedicated to the cause of England. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was, in contrast, much less reliable. His one military success had been conducting the conquest of the Cherbourg peninsula in 1418. Otherwise he lacked discretion and diplomacy, and was emphatically not a team player. He evidently had not been, and would not in future be, entrusted with important responsibility by other members of the family and nobility, which was a constant source of grievance to him. Apparently feeling cheated of opportunities to achieve military honour and glory, he was to prove himself irresponsible and self-seeking, an irritant and, increasingly, a danger to national and international stability.

Henry V’s wills, codicils and the other verbal directions he gave when he knew he was dying did not cover all eventualities, and were open to different interpretations. They opened the door to controversy. Henry had stipulated that Duke Humphrey should have the wardship of the infant king, but when the duke chose to assume that included running the country he found, to his intense frustration, that he was opposed by the council led by Henry Beaufort and his brother Thomas, and that all his activities were to be scrutinised by parliament. This initiated a series of fierce disputes between him and the restraining arm of his step-uncle, a bitter feud which continued to dominate English politics until they both died in 1447.

In France, Charles VI died fifty-one days after Henry V and, ignoring the Treaty of Troyes, his 19-year-old son, the Dauphin Charles, immediately claimed the throne. But that claim was supported by little substance: Charles had no financial resources, no body of loyal nobility and no centralised army. Much more important at that time, by mid-November John, Duke of Bedford, had emerged as the English regent of France.

Bedford was well aware that to maintain peaceful conditions in the Channel, which implied preventing a resurgence of piracy, it was essential to remain on good terms with Burgundy and, if possible, with Brittany. After some six months’ negotiation he achieved a triple alliance which bore fruit on 17 April 1423 in the defensive and offensive Treaty of Amiens, signed by himself, by Duke Philip of Burgundy and by Arthur of Richemont, brother of the Duke of Brittany. It was cemented by the marriages of Bedford to Anne, a sister of Philip of Burgundy (on 14 June), and of Arthur de Richemont to another sister, Margaret. The treaty recognised the French, the Dauphin’s party, as the common enemy.

He continued fighting to mop up remaining pockets of opposition on the Channel coast. For instance, he captured Le Crotoy, now a sleepy silt-bound fishing village but then one of the more important of the Channel ports, with an impressive fortress guarding the mouth of the Somme. Until then, lying too far from Flanders for Burgundy to reach it from the north, and too far north for the English to reach it from the Seine, it had remained in Armagnac hands, and had proved a useful base for Breton pirates. On 17 August 1424, Bedford also inflicted a massive defeat on the Dauphin’s much larger, but badly organised, force of French and Scots at Verneuil, some 60 miles west of Paris. As a result the Dauphin went into retreat, leaving the French temporarily leaderless, and the slaughtered Scots were never replaced, showing that Scottish support for France was dwindling.

However, two developments already threatened to destabilise Bedford’s triple entente. In or about January 1423 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, had married Jacqueline of Hainault, and together they set out to recover Hainault from her estranged first husband, John of Brabant, and Holland and Zeeland from her uncle, John of Bavaria. Having landed with an army at Calais, their campaign was short and ended in fiasco. Nonetheless, both their objectives were bound to stir up antagonism on the part of the Duke of Burgundy. Secondly, the Bretons, as ever, were shifty allies, and despite the encouraging result at Verneuil, Arthur of Richemont reneged on the Treaty of Amiens and changed sides. He and his brother then proceeded to take control of the Dauphin’s side of the war, which aimed to expel the English! In spite of these checks, and continuing piracy by the Bretons, for six years Bedford was able to maintain the areas conquered by Henry V, and even to extend his land down to the Loire.

Then, on 3 November 1428 the military tide turned. The English forces suffered their first serious defeat. The Earl of Salisbury, their leader, was killed by a gunshot during the siege of Orleans and, following that, they failed to take the town. Soon afterwards, Jeanne d’Arc intervened. Her story is well known, but in short, she led the French troops to rapid victory over the English in a series of battles, and ensured that the Dauphin was crowned King of France at Reims on 17 July 1429. Although she herself was captured by the Burgundians in May 1430 and tried and burnt at the stake by the English in Rouen on 30 May 1431, she had restored French morale, and became a martyr. The loss of Salisbury, failure of their siege of Orleans, and the contributions of Jeanne d’Arc combined to seriously weaken the English position in France, and in December 1431 the Duke of Burgundy signed a six-year truce with Charles VII, further weakening his link with England.

For the English, further adversity followed quickly. On 13 November 1432 Anne, wife of the Duke of Bedford, died in an epidemic in Paris, aged only 28. Not only a grievous personal loss to Bedford, she had also provided a positive political link with Philip of Burgundy, her brother. Bedford remarried five months later, into a family deeply distrusted by Philip, who was thus further alienated. In addition, the soldiers in the garrison at Calais mutinied for lack of pay. Still, the English leaders, Bedford, Gloucester and Henry Beaufort, failed to agree on a strategy for prosecuting the war in France.

The years 1435–36 saw multiple crises for the English, with serious implications for their control of the Channel. In the spring of 1435 most of the counties along the south coast were on the alert. The Isle of Wight was living in fear of a French invasion. In the summer that year Philip of Burgundy convened the equivalent of a peace conference at Arras, but the English failed to come to an agreement with the French. One week after that diplomatic failure, Bedford died in Rouen, in September 1435, and only a week later, Burgundy officially concluded peace with France, which left the English without allies.

In September 1435, Dieppe was lost to the French. Harfleur and the surrounding area followed in November. In January 1436 the English were faced with a popular uprising in Normandy. At Calais, the woollen exports piled up, having been subjected to a Flemish embargo. In July, a Burgundian siege of Calais failed only because of dissent within their own ranks.

Against that background the young king Henry grew up, and it must have been increasingly obvious that he was the antithesis of his father. His interests and talents lay in directions very different from military matters or governmental control. He was a gentle, intelligent, peace-loving individual, who is now celebrated for founding and successfully influencing the early development of Eton College at Windsor and King’s College, Cambridge. But, compassionate and caring, he was indiscriminately generous with his favours and lacked the ability to select good officers, advisors and confidants. He lacked political acumen. In short, he did not possess the credentials necessary for strong leadership in the fifteenth century.

In addition, during his adolescence Henry was caught between two bitterly opposed, argumentative uncles, each of whom sought to impose his own opinions on him. Not only that, he must also have witnessed, as a powerless spectator, the failures, military and diplomatic, of his representatives in France. How these experiences affected him is impossible to estimate, but it did not bode well for the peace which he so strongly favoured. In the next few years Henry supported moves towards a peaceful settlement with France, but that was a long time in coming. A commercial agreement was reached with Burgundy in 1439, but disagreements among the English participants postponed a peace agreement until 1444. In 1445 the king married Margaret of Anjou, a strong and, as it turned out, fiery character who vehemently refused to negotiate with anybody who opposed her husband, so did nothing to promote peace or conciliation. The couple became increasingly unpopular, and the government in England became increasingly divided and corrupt.

In France, meanwhile, Charles VII had been gathering strength, and on 31 July 1449 he seized his opportunity and declared war. His reconquest of Normandy took only thirteen months. It was the story of Henry V’s conquest in reverse, and in mirror-image. Rouen, Caen, and Harfleur fell in quick succession and, last of all, Cherbourg capitulated on 12 August 1450. Once again, the Channel had become an international frontier.

The French then turned to Gascony, and on 17 July 1453 as the final coup they took Bordeaux, thus making it French for the first time in its history. The loss of that important, last, area of Aquitaine, which had been held in close economic and political association by England for the past three centuries, signalled the end of this chapter of history. It was also all too much for the sensitive Henry VI, who slipped into a coma that summer and remained unconscious for the following seventeen months.

During these twenty-four years in which the English were being forced to retreat, stage by stage, from Normandy, the English government was also becoming progressively weak at home. The national exchequer became increasingly impoverished, while at the same time the Church and some of the magnates were storing up massive fortunes for themselves. Defence of the coastline against raiders or invaders became a pressing issue, with mounting fear not only in the coastal communities themselves but also in government. But although the government was well aware of the need, no funds were available for defence. Law and order broke down, with corruption at all levels. This was the background, and the reason for, another intense period of uncontrolled piracy, which lasted until well after 1453.

This period was not only longer than others which have been discussed in this book, it was also more complex, as men found various devious ways to exploit situations and the law. The records are more complicated than ever before, and are therefore more difficult to interpret or to explain.

Enemy ships were legitimate prize so we are not concerned with them, but lengthy legal arguments were spun out concerning ships and cargoes of friendly countries. The statute of 1414 remained in force until 1435, although the merchants tried to get it repealed three times before that. They were chafing, complaining that it damaged English commerce. While their own hands were tied by it, foreign pirates were making off with English ships with impunity, without the possibility of retaliating with letters of marque.

In the meantime, while the English government resisted attempts to repeal the 1414 statute, they did take a rather different step in an attempt to regulate piracy. In 1426 a proclamation went out that when goods which had been captured at sea were brought into the ports, they were not to be disposed of until either the king’s council, or the chancellor, or the admiral or his deputy, had decided whether they belonged to friends or enemies. This was probably an attempt to simplify procedures. But in effect, it placed responsibility in the hands of a local official, the admiral’s deputy, giving excellent opportunities to the unscrupulous. The only recourse for wronged merchants was to complain to the chancellor, which is where we pick up their stories.

During the first seven years of the new reign, however, as long as John, Duke of Bedford, still had control of the important continental ports, life in the Channel remained relatively quiet. But even then, some members of the families who had been well known for piracy in the time of Henry IV were already back, engaged in their old trade. And their methods were already remarkably involved and devious.

John Hawley III of Dartmouth was the only son of the famous John Hawley. Although he had started out assisting his father in the last few years of his life and carried on with piracy until 1413, no major complaints were made about his activities during the reign of Henry V. He kept relatively quiet. But in 1427 he showed up again, at sea in the Bay of Biscay. Near the harbour of Oleron, he captured a ship and her cargo valued at £220 which belonged to John Lovell, a merchant of Dundee. When a commission was issued for his own arrest, he went to Lovell and bargained with him, exonerating himself but suggesting that Lovell should obtain three more commissions in which he would accuse forty other pirates who had been, in fact, Hawley’s accomplices. Hawley also agreed, using his position as a man of influence, to approach these men, to collect the money, with which he would make good all Lovell’s losses. Equipped with the new commissions, Hawley collected the money from his one-time associates but then departed with it, ensuring that none of it reached Lovell. To make matters worse for the hapless Lovell, he was left in a position from which he could make no further claims for damages in this case. Hawley, on the other hand, was in an advantageous position: he had established his innocence in that particular case. He carried on in public service. In 1430, he was appointed a commissioner to arrest more pirates, and in 1436 he was a commissioner for array in Devonshire, intended to round up men and armaments for the defence of the realm, although as he died that May, he is unlikely to have taken that up.

John Mixtow of Fowey, similarly from an old-established pirate family, appears in September 1430, in a very peculiar case involving an admiral’s deputy. John Caryewe, master of the Mary of Le Conquet, who was sailing with a couple of other Breton vessels, had safely delivered a load of salt to Penzance. Soon after he had left for home with a quantity of cloth, he was captured ‘in warlike manner’ by a swarm of pirates from Marazion and other small local ports, contrary to the truce in force between England and Brittany. At that point John Mixtow and Harry Nanskaseke of Truro appeared on the scene, and persuaded the admiral’s deputy, John Moure, to arrest the ship, invoking letters of marque which had been granted by the Duke of Brittany to Nanskaseke’s father nineteen years previously. Using that as their excuse, they took possession of both the Breton ships and the cargo of cloth. We hear of that case because John Caryewe, complaining of great inconvenience, requested the chancellor to direct the Sheriff of Cornwall to ensure safe trading conditions for the Bretons. He also demanded that the chancellor should issue a writ of subpoena to John Moure, as well as Mixtow and Nanskaseke, to be examined in respect of the letters of marque they quoted. Unfortunately, there is no record of the outcome of this case but, more importantly, it is evidence that this official was very prepared to enter into collusion with the pirates.

Mixtow was to be heard of again, slightly later. In July 1433 he was leader of a gang said to number 200, sailing in the great ship the Edward and a supporting balinger off Cape St Vincent, southern Portugal. ‘Armed and arrayed for war’, they captured a Genoese caravel (also described as a carrack), laden with woad, olive oil and lye destined for the port of Sandwich and eventually, no doubt, for London. The crew had offered no resistance. None the less, Mixtow abandoned them, destitute, on the coast of Portugal, wrongly accusing them of being ‘Saracens’. Taken back to Fowey, her cargo was divided among the captors and was then distributed around Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. Mixtow refused to accept the merchants’ evidence of identification, the ‘marks, charters and cockets’ on their goods, no doubt playing for time, during which the goods could be further dispersed.

Henry VI: Resurgence of Piracy II

Conjectural sketch of a balinger (C) Ian Friel 2015.

Balinger: During the 14th–16th centuries, a class of clinker-built, oared ship, with a single mast and sail. Originating in the Basque whaling industry, its design migrated to England where balingers were used in war and trade, displacing English galleys from local waters during the 14th century.

A balinger for the King

Hawley and Mixtow were the forerunners of a new class of pirates, new men, who surfaced in the records from 1430 onwards (and it is remarkable that their appearance coincided exactly with the initial downturn of events in France). These were men who had never been employed by the Crown, as Eustace and John Crabbe had been. Nor were they, with one very short-term exception, sanctioned by the Crown as privateers, like the great John Hawley. They were not even, like the Alards or, again, John Hawley, leaders in society who would have ploughed some of their profits back into their communities. In contrast, they showed little or no allegiance to their roots. They were, to put it simply, full-time professional plunderers, whose sole objective was personal profit. The majority came from Devon and Cornwall, where they were well supported by men in high positions who in their turn stood to gain from their investment in the ships and the necessary victuals. But there were also others, from further east, who were playing the same game. Overall, these men were numerous, and particularly since their cases were very complex, it is only possible here to offer an insight into what was happening through the activities of a small representative sample.

They were as mobile as any of their forerunners, appearing wherever the prizes appealed. In the years up to 1436 their principal targets were the Breton ships sailing up the southern side of the Channel to Rouen and Dieppe, bringing the basic necessities to the English occupants of Normandy, and also to the Channel Islands. These amounted principally to food and wine from La Rochelle, salt from the Bay, and linen cloth and cords from Brittany, together with some commodities which had evidently come from further south, such as iron, and resin for caulking their vessels. The individual claims for compensation for goods lost to them were noticeably small in comparison to those of the previous century, which reflected the size of the ships they were using. They were relatively small barges and balingers, which had the advantage over the great long-distance ocean-going Italian ships, in that they were able to work out from, and carry their prizes into, the smaller harbours like Penzance and Teignmouth. But at the same time they were apparently able to work long distances. They appeared in the Bay of Biscay, and they also sold their goods at places all along the coast between Cornwall and Portsmouth, including the Isle of Wight, which seems to have been an important emporium, centred on Newport.

Some details illustrate how they received back-up support, and the nature of the problems this caused. In the spring of 1432 two Breton merchants complained specifically ‘to show the chancellor how well protected the wrong-doers on the sea-coasts of Devonshire were’. They said that those captors were bribing the admiral’s deputy to empanel juries made up for the most part of their own relatives and friends, together with the victuallers and owners of the ship concerned. Those juries could be relied upon to give false verdicts, for example stating that goods which had actually been stolen from the king’s friends had belonged instead to the king’s enemies. And, in return for a bribe of half the goods, the deputy could be relied on to enrol that verdict, which rendered the king’s commission ineffective. The Bretons emphasised that as long as the deputy was in league with the pirates, he was their guarantee that matters would be settled in their favour. Importantly, a second commission dealing with the same event exposed a complaint of extortion against John Baron, a merchant of Exeter, who was one of the members of that commission. The results of an inquiry into this case, which were enrolled four years later, revealed the extent of Baron’s extortion. In this case he had helped himself to a pipe of bastard wine which belonged to the Bretons. As well as that, on the pretext of the commission, he had taken one or two packs of cloth from every man in the neighbourhood to whom he bore ill will. He had the stamp of an exceptionally disagreeable and grasping individual. The upshot was that nobody dared trade without first paying him a cut. The king thus lost his customs and many people were wronged. In addition, it has emerged from more recent research that Baron had a history of warrants out for his arrest. These included one for stealing a ship which was under safe conduct direct from a Breton harbour, possibly the St Nunne, which is described below.

William Kydd was one of this new class of pirate. He rose from documentary obscurity in 1430 and subsequently flourished, travelling far and wide without much reference to his port of origin, Exmouth, at least before 1453. In October 1430 he was master of a balinger, La Trinité of Exmouth, which he had packed with other malefactors. They seized a ship as it was nearing Guernsey from Brittany with a cargo of food. The terms of the subsequent commission to the sheriff of Devon and others make it clear that the authorities were aware that the owners and victuallers of the ship were supporting the pirates because in the last resort, their goods and chattels were to be arrested. But, unfortunately for those merchants of Guernsey and for numerous others, this was a period when innumerable commissions were issued and very few indeed were acted upon. In other words, there was already unlimited immunity for the pirates.

The following year, Kydd was among a group who, sailing with a flotilla of four barges ‘armed and arraigned in the manner of war’, captured four food ships on their way towards Rouen, took them back to Dartmouth, Fowey and Kingsbridge (on the Salcombe estuary) and sold the goods locally. Similar piracy continued intensively, and built up until, on 31 March 1436, Kydd led the large group of pirates who descended in a flotilla of eight barges and balingers on the harbour of St Paul de Lyon, south-east of Roscoff, and carried off the Saint Nunne, a ship sheltering in that harbour while waiting for a favourable wind to cross to England. They escorted that ship back to Plymouth, where she still lay in October six months later, together with goods worth 100l which included white wine of La Rochelle, two types of cloth, and 24 flychys of bacon which belonged to Thomas Horewood of Wells.

In 1435, in order to respond to the crisis which was rapidly unfolding on the opposite shore of the Channel, the government had an acute need for ships. Some men concerned must have looked back regretfully to the time of Henry V, when royal or loyal hired vessels would have been used to cruise the Channel through the long summer season for the combined purposes of guarding against French ships leaving port, protecting English commerce and, if necessary, defending the south coast of England. But that was no longer an option. Even before Henry V died, those ships had become redundant and had started to decay. Back in 1423–24, the authorities, finding they were further decayed and maintenance would have been unjustifiable, and especially since there was then no pressing need for them, had sold off the ships which remained.

Therefore, when crisis was looming in February 1436 the government took the only course open to it, and issued short-term (four-month) licences to certain individual shipowners to equip certain named ships at their own expense ‘with a master, mariners, men at arms, archers, and other hibiliments of war, and victuals, to resist the king’s enemies on the sea’. They were not to be paid, but all captured goods were to belong to the captors, except for the certain ‘share’ reserved for the admiral. Of the greatest significance, a proviso was included to exonerate those who made most of this piracy possible. It was stated that if any offence should be committed against the king’s friends, the offender alone should answer for it: no responsibility was to fall on the owner or the victualler of the ship.

These commissions were mostly issued to men of east coast ports, but included one in the south-west, Thomas Gylle of Dartmouth. He was another of those who first appears in the records after 1430, although he was notable as a shipowner and merchant of some substance. He was six times MP for the town between 1433 and 1455, and one of the collectors of customs in Exeter and Dartmouth in 1439 and in 1453. Between 1431 and 1435 he had frequently served on commissions to arrest men, ships and goods brought into West Country ports. Now, in 1436, he was licensed to equip and arm two of his ships, l’Antony and Le Katerine, both of Dartmouth, together with two supporting balingers or barges. For this short time, at least, he was a fully accredited privateer.

Gylle was heard of again in January 1440, in less dignified circumstances. His ship the Christopher of Dartmouth, 320 tons, was sailing home north to Dartmouth when, already in the lee of Start Point, she turned and, with full sail, a favourable wind and three well-harnessed men in the topcastle, rammed a much smaller ship which had been following some 3 miles behind her. She ‘sliced in two’ the George of Welles, 120 tons, and sank her. In his complaint to the chancellor, the owner, an Englishman born at Lancaster but then living in Drogheda, Ireland, prayed consideration for his great poverty, loss and delays and he took the opportunity to point out that while he was ignorant of Dartmouth, Gylle had ‘great authority and power in that district’.

Snapshots of the life of Hankyn Seelander illustrate the mobility, in more than one respect, of one of this new class of pirates. Both his address and even his name seem to have been readily adjustable. He is described variously as being of either Falmouth or Fowey, and it is also evident that he had valuable connections on the Isle of Wight.

In December 1433, as Hanquin Seland, he was accused of taking certain goods at sea from a ship of Bayonne. In 1439, a group of pirates in a balinger belonging to John Selander captured a Breton ship, the Saint Fiacre, sailing towards La Rochelle laden with goods belonging to John Loven. After Loven’s letters of safe conduct had been thrown overboard, he was robbed of both the ship and the cargo. In the early summer of 1441 one Hankyn Hood, presumably the same man, was sailing as master of the Marie with John Fresshow of Falmouth, a frequent companion, somewhere south of Brittany. In company with several other Cornish vessels they captured a ship of Vannes, southern Brittany, which they took to sell her cargo in one of the ports in the Gironde.

And so he went on, being especially active and confident in 1443–44. Around midsummer 1443 Alphonso Mendes, a merchant of Portugal, sailing in a ship of Tavira (on the south coast of Portugal) lost certain goods, principally fruit and bastard wine, to pirates who were named as John Selander and Hankyn Loo, both of Fowey. Unfortunately the location of this piracy was not disclosed, but one wonders whether these two names stood for one and the same man. That September, he had stolen wine and other merchandise from another Breton ship, of which John Rous was master.

On the Sunday before Christmas 1443, a group of pirates in a barge named Le Palmer of Fowey owned by Hankyn Selander captured another English ship, Le Mighell of Dartmouth, as she was preparing to enter Plymouth harbour at the end of her voyage from Brittany. She was carrying 21 tuns of wine and 17 pieces of linen cloth for a joint group of English merchants from the Plymouth area operating in partnership, it seems, with two named men from Le Conquet, Brittany. The pirates diverted the ship with its cargo to Newport, Isle of Wight, where they ‘did their will therof’. Although the goods may already have been sold, the commission which followed included the usual empty, unrealistic threat. He was to return the ship and the goods – or be committed to prison.

Clays Stephen of Portsmouth was another similar individual. In the autumn of 1445 he joined Robert Wenyngton of Dartmouth and others who came from Kingswear, and captured a ship which had been sent by the Queen of France to bring a consignment of wine, iron and other merchandise to England. In spite of the ship having letters of safe conduct from the king and there being a truce between England and France, they brought it into Fowey. They disposed of the goods easily, and the merchants were severely beaten up and some were killed.

In about March 1448 Clays Stephen had travelled further in the opposite direction and was in the Thames estuary, where he was joined by William Kydd, who had come from even further west. They combined with others to attack a ship bringing goods for some London merchants from Arnemuiden near Middleburg in Zeeland to Queenborough near Sheerness. They took that ship first to Portsmouth and then disposed of the goods on the Isle of Wight.

That summer Clays Stephen, one of two pirates said to be staying at Sandwich, was busy in a flotilla out at sea ‘between Dover and Calais’, which encountered a small convoy on its way from La Rochelle to Sluys. He was the master of a balinger which took a similar ship, the Saint Piere de Lavyon, and relieved it of 39 tuns of wine belonging to a merchant of La Rochelle. At the same time another merchant lost 27 tuns of white wine from a second ship, the Noel de Arninton.

In the autumn of 1450 another small flotilla of English pirates captured a hulk (an old-fashioned term for a vessel which was probably a successor of the cog) named the St George of Bruges, which belonged to a group of merchants of that city and was on voyage home from Portugal. Clays Stephen was master of one of the pirate ships, Le Carvell of Portsmouth: others came from Southampton and Winchelsea.

These are just a few examples of the culture of concentrated piracy which existed in the 1430s and 1440s. Numerous men were involved, and between Portugal and the North Sea no mariner can have felt safe from them.

In 1449 England was in a high state of uncertainty and insecurity, with the threat of French raids renewed because France had control of the opposing Channel ports. Then there was also a stream of refugees arriving from Normandy, many of them destitute, retreating after the collapse of Henry V’s ‘permanent’ settlement. In April, the government appointed three senior officers to ‘keep the seas’, to cruise the Channel looking for trouble. Those officers included Robert Wenyngton of Dartmouth, where he had already served as bailiff in 1446 and as mayor two years later. A month after his appointment the government found itself with somewhat more than it had bargained for, the largest prize of the century.

On 23 May, when Wenyngton was cruising with his ‘fellowship’ in a small flotilla of small vessels, in the general area of mid-Channel between Guernsey and Portland, he came upon the entire Bay fleet, some 110 larger vessels, which were carrying to Flanders and the Baltic not only salt but also some more valuable commodities, cloth and wine. Since Wenyngton had somehow become separated from the other two senior officers, one wonders if this encounter was entirely accidental. However, in a show of bravado, and with the advantage of a following wind, after a short altercation in which their admiral rebuffed his challenge, rather than risk the damage which might result from a mid-Channel gunfight, the whole fleet surrendered to him and was ushered into Southampton Water. Dutch and Flemish ships were soon released, but enormous bills were presented to the English government by the Hanse on behalf of its merchants.

In the penultimate month of our period, November 1453, Thomas Gylle of Dartmouth, merchant of substance who had a long history of apparent probity as an officer of the Crown, and who was the controller of customs in Exmouth that year seems, at last, to have been drawn into the web of corruption. He was working in collusion with William Kydd, the long-established pirate, in connection with a captured ship belonging to the Bishop of St Andrews which they brought into Exmouth. The ensuing documents stand out as being extraordinarily complicated and contorted, even by the standards of this period. Suffice it to say that they involved impersonation of the bishop’s brother; obtaining a commission under false pretences; impounding another ship in Scotland by way of reprisal; death-threats to officers of the Crown who approached the ship when in Sandwich; and the eventual escape of the ship, after her name had been changed, for the second time, to the Antony of Dartmouth. By March 1456 she was carrying thirty pilgrims on their way south to the shrine of St James at Compostela in Galicia.

All this time, piracy flourished, not only because of the usual reasons. The Crown was indeed weak, and deep-seated dynastic power struggles were taking place between excessively rich magnates. Law and order had certainly broken down in all levels of society. And, with the progressive loss of Normandy, the Channel became, once again, a dangerous frontier zone. In addition, and pervading all that, was corruption which reflected the underlying loss of the checks and balances which had previously been provided by the feudal system.

The degree of corruption was such that administrators in the ports, wealthy landowners inland and high-level legal officers were all involved. Widespread plunder was being carried out by the men of the sea with the strong support, encouragement and participation of the whole establishment, particularly in Cornwall and Devon.

By way of an epilogue, it is a nice irony that when, after several years of civil war and political manoeuvring, the time came, on 26 June 1460, for the Earls of Warwick and Salisbury to escort the Duke of York and his teenage son Edward across the Channel from Calais to Sandwich, they did so in a ship recently stolen from the French. Within nine more tumultuous months Edward had taken over the throne as Edward IV.

Queen Sayyida al Hurra

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

MOROCCAN 1485-1561

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 Mediterranean.

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).

HMS Kingfisher (1675)

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 1728.

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.


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 slaves.

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 Libya.

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 corsairs.

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.

Argyll’s Rebellion

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 Kirkwall.

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 deserted.

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 describes events.

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 earl’s

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 his followers.

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 army.

British Piracy

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 remarkable.

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 faith.

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 soldiers.

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 Spain.

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.

The French

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 privateers thereafter.

William Kidd: Hunter then Hunted! Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Kidd: Hunter then Hunted! Part II

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 the enterprise.

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 indeed.

Nevertheless, he signed the agreement proffered by Bellomont.

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 Royal Navy.

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 to confiscation.”

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 future preferment.

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 the yacht.

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 navy.

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 East.

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 Royal Navy.

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.

William Kidd: Hunter then Hunted! Part III

Now Kidd made the decision he must have dreaded.

He moved to intercept.

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 retreat.

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 Ocean.

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 continued bad.

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 to ribbons.

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 breakdown.

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 themselves.

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 captain appeared.

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 within him.

But Moore went on berating Kidd for his failure to take the Loyal Captain.

“You have brought us to ruin, and we are desolate,” cried Moore.

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 trading station.

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 turn.

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 of treasure.

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 mutinous.

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 Adventure Galley.

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 loot.

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 bound.

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 any criticism.

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 prove it?

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 purposes.

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.