LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Captain Kidd has gone down in history, rightly or wrongly, as one of the world’s most notorious pirates alongside bloodthirsty contemporaries Blackbeard and the fictitious one-legged Long John Silver.
Now a new London show about his life and the “golden age” of piracy on the high seas in the 17th century suggests there was more to the man and his gruesome demise than meets the eye.
Scottish-born Kidd was hung for piracy and the murder of a crew member at Execution Dock at Wapping on London’s River Thames in 1701.
His corpse was coated in pitch and squeezed into an iron cage to be dangled further downriver at Tilbury for years as a warning to future brigands.
But until his dying day Kidd protested his innocence.
He claimed he was a privateer, not a pirate, and that all the ships he had attacked and plundered in the Indian Ocean were legitimate targets, sanctioned by the Crown and his rich and powerful backers in London.
A privateer was a mercenary licensed by the King and the government to hunt merchant ships flying the colors of England’s enemies — then France and Spain.
Tom Wareham, curator of maritime history at the Museum of London in Docklands where the exhibition is being held, says the show explores how the line between privateering and piracy was often blurred.
It ultimately asks whether Kidd was framed to save the reputation of the mighty East India Company and the Crown.
“The skull and crossbones may not have fluttered over ships in the Thames, but many of the pirates themselves were here at one time or another,” said Wareham, alluding to the fact that many seamen and women went crooked and turned pirate.
An able and brave sea captain by all accounts, Kidd started his career in the Caribbean where he fought successful actions against the French. His problems started when he took a government-backed private commission to clear the Indian Ocean of piracy.
He left London in 1695 in the Adventure Galley, a 284-tonner with a crew of 150 and 34 cannon. Late in 1696, he attacked a British East India Company convoy and was branded a pirate.
The Crown was supposed to get 10 percent of privateers’ pickings, but Kidd was accused of keeping most of the loot.
In 1698, he took his greatest prize, the Quedah Merchant, a Moorish trading vessel from Armenia laden with gold, jewels, silver, silks, spices and guns.
The ship, which Kidd said was a legitimate prize because it was under French control, had an English captain and a cargo owned by Indians. Her taking enraged the ruling Mogul who threatened to close down trade routes for good and thus jeopardized the position of the East India Company.
Museum of London curator Hillary Davidson says it was Kidd’s ultimate undoing.
The exhibition displays papers which Kidd claimed were vital for his defense against piracy charges but which mysteriously vanished before his trial and did not reappear until they surfaced in the National Archives in 1911.
Kidd attempted to barter for his life by offering in a letter — also in the exhibition — to reveal the location of a stash of treasure he had hidden away.
“Rumor of this letter got out within a couple of days and people started looking for (the treasure) then — and they are still looking for it,” said Davidson, adding it is believed to lie anywhere from Canada to the Philippines if it exists at all.
The treasure, which Kidd claimed was worth 100,000 pounds ($163,000) at the time, around 8-9 million pounds today, inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write “Treasure Island” and has motivated treasure-hunters ever since.
“After Stevenson, ‘X’ has marked the spot for ever,” Davidson told Reuters. “That whole notion of burying your treasure on a remote island that can be dug up from a map and fought for comes directly from Kidd.”
Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story runs until October 30.
Editing by Steve Addison