The Tryal of Capt. William Kidd: for Murther & Piracy

The Tryal of Capt. William Kidd: for Murther & Piracy

by Don C. Seitz

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Kidd, reviled as a bloodthirsty pirate, was a Scottish-born minister's son who may actually have been innocent of piracy but was certainly hanged for it. Based on official admiralty records, this volume offers an astonishing glimpse into the world of 17th-century piracy, the English judicial system, and the dialogue from the actual trial.  See more details below


Kidd, reviled as a bloodthirsty pirate, was a Scottish-born minister's son who may actually have been innocent of piracy but was certainly hanged for it. Based on official admiralty records, this volume offers an astonishing glimpse into the world of 17th-century piracy, the English judicial system, and the dialogue from the actual trial.

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The Tryal of Capt. William Kidd for Murther & Piracy

By Don C. Seitz

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2001 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14836-6



THE eminent New Yorker, born a Scotsman, in Green-ock, whose career terminated at a rope's end, was hardly used by Fate, but what he suffered at her hands has been well atoned for by that sister Goddess—FAME—who oft in the course of history has righted many wrongs, posthumously, of course, but none the less creditably.

Our stout captain lives in the minds of men as a pirate of almost incredible repute, whose missing treasures have kept men digging for more than two centuries on sandy bars by secluded bays or inlets from Maine to Madagascar. In plain recording it may be said that William Kidd was a bold and capable navigator of high standing among the mercantile community in both Boston and New York. In 1691 Governor Bradstreet of Massachusetts and council, commissioned Kidd to ward the coast against the forays of a French privateer, for which the New York Legislature voted him £150, May 14th, and later he did such good service in this same line for the inhabitants of Antigua, that they gave him a ship named after their island home.

The mercantile gentlemen in both cities were, however, none too nice in their undertakings. Those of New York were especially questionable, being not in the least careful with whom they dealt, or whence came the wares in which they trafficked, so long as the profits were large. The Madagascar trade was the most flourishing of the time from 1690 to 1700. Not that Madagascar furnished either market or goods, but because it had become a refuge for pirates who maintained ports and garrisons, sallying out to prey not only upon the commerce of the Great Mogul with the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, but attacking the ships of Europe that traded with India, China and the Spice Islands. Ships sailed regularly out of the harbor for the Indian Ocean, returning in due season with handsome cargoes of spoil gained by trade with pirates. The richest merchants of the city were their friends and patrons, some were even commissioned by the Governor to prey upon the French, with whom his gracious Majesty William III was at war, but really that it might not be unseemly to welcome them to port with their ill-gained cargoes.

The Governor in 1696 was Colonel Benjamin Fletcher, who had succeeded Henry Slaughter in 1692, after Captain Jacob Leisler's rebellion. Leisler, who really sought to bring about a decent rule in the Province, had been hanged for treason at the corner of Park Row and Frankfort Street, where the Pulitzer Building now stands, and Fletcher, coming from England to quiet the conditions, found his hands full with the unrepentant rebels. The King had been pleased to express a willingness to pardon all such as would petition, but this offer met with no response from men like Gerardus Beekman and others of the Holland breed, who felt they had done no wrong for which they should humble themselves to another Dutchman, as was William of Orange.

Moreover, Fletcher, an ever loyal soldier, had lost much of his estate in Ireland during the rebellious conditions that followed the accession of William III to the English throne, and sought to fill his empty purse by selling land grants and privileges, which included the "commissions" noted. Charges were laid against him at Whitehall by Peter De La Noy, who had been Mayor of New York, and who, writing on June 13, 1695, after accusing Fletcher of swindling the Indians out of land and goods, favoring certain traders in return for fat slices of the profits, added in writing to the Lords of Trade: "I had almost forgot another useful piece of policy he has to get money. We have a parcell of pirates in these parts which (people) call the Red Sea men, who often get great bootys of Arabian Gold. His Excellency gives all due encouragement to these men, because they make all due acknowledgement to him; one Coats, a captain of this honble order, p'sented his Excellency with his ship, which his Excellency sold for £800, and every one of the crew made him a suitable p'sent of Arabian gold for his protection; one Capt. Twoo (Tew) who is gone to the Red Sea upon the same errand was before his departure highly caressed by his Excellency in his coach and six horses and presented with a gold watch to engage him to make New York his port at his return. Twoo retaliated the kindness with a present of jewells, but I can't learn how much further the bargain proceeded; time must show that."

It was also alleged that Fletcher tried to prevent the election to the Colonial Assembly of certain citizens who had been obnoxious to him, and it is in connection with this allegation that Captain Kidd first appears in the town's history. The Lords of Trade, before whom the accusations were laid, appointed a commission to look into the facts, which body in a report made August 28, 1695, quotes Kidd to this purport: "William Kidd, master of Ye Brigantine Antegoa being sworn says at the Election of Assemblymen for the town of New York about three months since he saw soldiers and seamen with clubbs &ca in the field. Many went out to the field lest they should be prest and he heard there were pardons given to sever persons over night before the election and the deponent and other masters of ships were spoke to by the Sheriff to bring their seamen in shoar to vote."

Continuing the examination on September 14th: "The Deponent further says That Mr. John Tutall, the Sheriff of New York, spoke to him to get his people from on board his vessell, they being Inhabitants of New York, to vote at the Election about three months since for such persons as the Governr desired should be elected but the deponent cannot say it was by order from the Govern. The Deponent further says the soldiers came, into the field a great many together without their soldiers cloaths or their arms, with sticks in their hands but they did not vote."

Besides the charge of interfering in the election, Philip French accused the Governor of taking graft in in the form of plate and two snuff boxes. Fletcher acknowledged that he had received the snuff boxes from two gentlemen whom he "had the opportunity to oblige," but denied that he had named any one whom he wished elected to the assembly as charged by Kidd. He begged that Leislerites be either pardoned or executed to save him further perplexities as to their status. They were therefore pardoned without humbling themselves to the King. Fletcher next found a troublesome opponent in the person of Robert Livingston, first of the famous family, who had some time before come out of Scotland and contrived to make himself Secretary for Indian Affairs in the colony. Fletcher saw no reason for such an officer and stopped his pay. He also refused to pass on sundry claims for expenditures made by Livingston, who went over his head to the Lords of Trade and got the better of the Governor. The latter drifted into a hot paper controversy with Sir William Phipps, the Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts Bay, and was unable to make head against him more than against Livingston. Phipps and Livingston enlisted strong support at Court through Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, late Governor of Barbadoes, and by this relationship, with the powerful Earl of Orford. And here is to be found the beginning of the Kidd legend.

The Lords of Trade for the moment did nothing with the charges. Communication was slow, and months drifted by. Livingston, whose perquisites in the Indian trade were interfered with by Fletcher's practices, sought to get even with him on the sea. Observing the prosperous condition of the Madagascar traffic it occurred to him that money might be made by spoiling the despoilers and selecting Kidd as a likely person for the task, went with him to London to secure a King's commission against the Red Sea and Mozambique pirates, as well as the French, after the manner of Fletcher's letters of Marque, which would be denied him at home. He had the support in his idea of Sir William Phipps with whom, as stated, Fletcher had fallen out. This was no light backing, for Phipps had won his way to title and great repute by successfully salvaging several millions in silver ingots from a lost Spanish galleon in Bahama waters, and was an accepted authority on treasure-hunting. Kidd procured his commissions, and a vessel, The Adventure Galley, newly built at Deptford, where she was launched at Castle's shipyard, December 4, 1695. She came to the Nore late in February and prepared for sea. By royal mandate about sixty sailors were pressed for service on board. This enforced crew sailed around the 10th of April, stopping at Plymouth, which port was left on the 23d, making for New York, to gather a more adequate force of men better fitted for the service than those provided by His Majesty. Bellomont afterwards made this a point against him.

The arrangements included a tenth interest for the King. The co-partners represented by Bellomont included the Earl of Orford, the Earl of Romney, John Somers, the Lord Chancellor; the Duke of Shrewsbury and Sir Edmund Harrison. Four Nobodies: Samuel Newton, George Watson, Thomas Reynolds and John Rowley, whose names appear in the King's grant, were apparently put in as dummies to guard the noble gentlemen against the chance of scandal. Bellomont issued an instruction to the captain, of which this is a copy:

LONDON, 25th February, 1695/6.


You being now ready to sail, I do hereby desire and direct you, that you and your Men do serve God in the best Manner you can: That you keep good Order, and good Government, in your Ship: That you make the best of your Way to the Place and Station where you are to put the Powers you have in Execution: And, having effected the same, You are, according to Agreement, to sail directly to Boston in New England, there to deliver unto me the Whole of what Prizes, Treasure, Merchandize, and other Things, you shall have taken by virtue of the Powers and Authorities granted you: But if, after the Success of your Design, you shall fall in with any English Fleet bound for England, having good convoy, you are, in such case to keep them Company, and bring all Your Prizes to London notwithstanding any Covenant to the contrary in our Articles of Agreement. Pray fail not to give Advice, by all Opportunities, how the Galley proves; how your Men stand, what Progress you make; and, in general, of all remarkable Passages in your Voyage, to the time of your Writing. Direct your Letters to Mr. Edmund Harrison. I pray God grant you good Success, and send us a good Meeting again.


Kidd and Livingston invested about $3,000 apiece in the venture, the others added enough to bring the total capital involved up to $50,000. Kidd's commission came direct from the hands of King William III, and gave him authority to proceed against the French, as well as to capture pirates. He had a distinct agreement with Bellomont and Livingston, guaranteed by bond, both of which documents follow:

Articles of Agreement made this Tenth day of October in the year of our Lord 1695, between the Right Honble Richard Earle of Bellomont of the one part, and Robert Livingston Esq. and Capt William Kidd of the other part:

WHEREAS the said Capt. Kidd is desirious to obtain a commission as Captain of a private man-of-war in order to take prizes from the Kings ennemies and otherwise to annoy them, and whereas also certain persons did some time since depart from New England, Rhode Island, New York and other parts in America and elsewhere wth an intention to pyrates and to comit spoyles and depredations against the laws of Nations in the Red Sea or elsewhere, and to return wth such goods & riches as they should get, to certain places by them agreed upon, of which said persons and places the said Capt. Kidd hath notice and is desirious to fight with & subdue the pyrates and also other pyrates with whom the said Capt. Kidd shall meet at sea, in case he is impowered so to do. And whereas it is agreed between the said parties that for the purposes aforesaid a good and sufficient ship to the likeing of the sd Capt Kidd shall be forthwith bought, whereof the said Capt. Kidd is to have the command. Now these presents witness and it is agreed between the said parties:—

1. The said Earle of Bellomont doth covenant and agree at his proper charge to procure from the Kings Majesty or from the Lords Comrs of the Admiralty (as the case shall require) one or more commissions impowering him the said Capt. Kidd to act against the Kings enemies and to take prizes from them, as a private man of warr, in the usuall manner and also to fight with conquer and subdue pyrates and to take them and their goods; with such large and beneficial powers and clauses in such commissions as may be most proper and effectuall in such cases.

2. The said Earle doth covenant and agree that within three months after the said Capt. Kidds departure from England for the purposes in these presents mentioned, he will procure at his proper charge a grant from the King to be made to some indifferent & trusty person, of all such merchandizes goods treasure and other things as shall be taken from the said pyrates or any other pyrates whatsoever by the said Capt. Kidd, or by the said ship or any other ship or ships under his command.

3. The said Earle doth agree to pay four fifth parts (the whole in five parts to be divided) of all moneys which shall be laid out for the buying such good and sufficient ship, for the purposes aforesaid, together rigging and other apparell and furniture thereof, & providing the same with competent victualling; the said ship to be approv'd of by the said parties; and the said other fifth part of the charges of the said ship to be paid for by the said Robert Livingston and William Kidd.

4. The said Earle doth agree that in order to the speedy buying the said ship and in part of the said four parts of five of the said charges, he will pay down the sum of sixteen hundred pounds by way of advance, on or before the sixth day of November next ensuing.

5. The said Robert Livingston and Capt. William Kidd do joyntly and severally covenant and agree that on or before the said sixth day of November when the said Earle of Bellomont is to pay the said sum of sixteen hundred pounds in as aforesaid, they will advance and pay down four hundred pounds in part of the share and proportion which they are to have in the said ship.

6. The said Earle doth agree to pay such further sum of money as shall compleat and make up the said four parts of five of the charges of the said ships apparell furniture and victualling, unto the sd Robert Livingston and William Kidd, within seven weeks after the date of these presents; and in like manner the sd Robert Livingston and William Kidd do agree to pay such further sum as shall amount to a fifth part of the whole charge of the said ship within seven weeks after the date of these presents.

7. The said Capt. Kidd doth covenant and agree to procure and take with him on board of the said ship one hundred mariners or seamen or thereabout, and to make what reasonable and convenient speed he can, to sett out to sea with the said ship, and to saile to such parts and places where he may meet with the said pyrates, and to use his utmost indeavour to meet with subdue and conquer the said pyrates, or any other pyrates and to take from them their goods merchandizes and treasure, also to take what prizes he can from the King enemies and forthwith to make the best of his way to Boston in New England & that without touching at any other port or harbour whatsoever or without breaking bulk or deminishing any part of what he shall so take or obtain, on any pretence whatsoever, of which he shall make oath in case the same be desired by the said Earle of Bellomont, and there to deliver the same into the hands or possession of the said Earle.

8. The said Capt. doth agree that the contrct and bargain which he will make with his said ship crew shall be no purchase no pay, and not otherwise, and that the share and proportion which his said Crew shall by such contract have of such prizes goods merchandizes and treasure as he shall take as prize or from any pyrates, shall not at the most exceed a fourth part of the same, and shall be less than a fourth part in case the same may reasonably and conveniently be agreed upon.

9. The said Robert Livingston and Capt. William Kidd do joyntly and severally agree with the said Earle of Bellomont that in case the said Capt. Kidd do not meet with the sayd Pyrates which went from New England Rhode Island New York and elsewhere as aforesaid, or do not take from any other pyrates or from any of the Kings enemies such goods merchandizes and other things of value as being divided as herein after is mentioned shall fully recompence the said Earle for the moneys by him expended in buying the said four fifth parts of the said ship and premisses, that then they shall refund and repay to the said Earle of Bellomont the whole money by him to be advanced in sterling mony or mony equivalent thereunto on or before the twenty fifth day of March which shall be in the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred ninty and seven, the danger of the seas and of the enemie and mortality of the said Capt. Kidd allways excepted, upon paymt whereof the said Robert Livingston and William Kidd are to have the sole property in the said ship and furniture, and this indenture to be delivered up to them, with all other Covenants and obligacons thereunto belonging.


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