Cold Open - Kidd mutinies and becomes a captain
It’s July 1689 on a pirate ship docked off of Barbados in the Caribbean.
The captain of this ship has taken most of his pirates crew ashore to raid a nearby port town. But he’s left behind a handful of men to guard the boat. Among them is a Scottish-born sailor, William Kidd. William’s hand rests on the pommel of his sword. He stands on deck, staring out over the water, and listens as the waves lap against the ship.
After a moment, William turns and sizes up the motley crew of men who’ve stayed behind: mostly, a mix of British and French pirates. And at first glance, all seems normal. The French and British sailors lounge on deck together; drinking, laughing, and enjoying the warm sun on their faces. One of them even grabs a violin and starts playing a light-hearted reel.
But behind this veil of normalcy, tensions are simmering. William and the rest of the British pirates don’t trust their French counterparts; and they suspect their captain, also a Frenchman, has been stealing from them. So today, William has decided to do something about it. Now, he’s just waiting for the perfect moment.
William hears gunshots. He knows what this means: the captain and his men have begun their raid on shore, and they won’t notice what’s about to happen on board the ship. William doesn’t waste a moment. Now is the time.
He draws his sword. His weapon glints in the sunlight. William shouts to the other British pirates, and they unsheath their weapons… and attack their French counterparts, who are completely caught off guard.
A few of the French manage to draw their weapons and fight back. But the British overwhelm them and force the French pirates to abandon the ship.
William orders his men to raise the ship’s anchor and unfurl the sails. And William takes command of the ship, and heads for open water.
William Kidd will one day be known as the one of the most infamous pirates in history. But at the time of this mutiny, his career is just beginning. The British are at war with the French. And British officials are pleased and impressed when they learn of William’s triumph over a French pirate captain. They decide they can use a sailor like William, one who knows a thing or two about marauding. So Britain offers Kidd a job as a privateer, a maritime mercenary who will attack French ships and hunt pirates who threaten British holdings. As payment, William and his crew will get a percentage of the spoils from every ship they raid and protection from British prosecution. William happily accepts.
Throughout the 1690s, William Kidd will rise to become a top privateer for the British, and scourge of French merchants and pirates everywhere. But a series of missteps will turn William’s supporters against him and lead to his eventual arrest in Boston on July 6th, 1699.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is July 6th, 1699: “The Arrest of Captain Kidd”.
Act One: William captains the Adventure Galley
It’s May of 1696 on the River Thames in London, England.
On the deck of his ship, Adventure Galley, Captain Willaim Kidd swigs from a bottle of rum. William is in high spirits. He and his men are about to set sail on a journey that could make them a fortune.
For years, William has built his reputation as a privateer. On behalf of the British, he’s hunted French merchants and pirates off the coast of the American colonies and in the Caribbean. And when William’s not at sea, he lives comfortably in New York, enjoying the cut of the spoils he receives from his raids. But recently, William traveled back to England to launch his next mission: capturing French merchant ships in the Red Sea.
On the deck of the Adventure Galley, William raises a final toast to his men and orders them to set sail. The ship and its drunken crew head down the Thames.
As they approach open water, William hears a shot fire into the air. He's startled at first but then sees a British Royal Navy ship. The navy is firing to demand a salute from the privateer and his crew, as is custom.
But William’s men tell their captain they want to play a prank on the Royal Navy. As a Scotsman, William enjoys giving English naval officers a hard time, so he encourages his crew as they face the Royal Navy ship as though they’re going to salute. But instead, they turn around and drop their trousers.
The Royal Navy is not amused. They block the Adventure Galley’s passage, and British officers board the ship. As punishment, the officers conscript thirty of William’s most seasoned sailors into the navy. William argues that his men were just having a bit of fun, pointing out that he’s about to do important work for the British government in the Red Sea. But the officers don’t care. They take William’s men and depart.
The mood on the Adventure Galleyturns dark. William promised his crew a chance to make a lot of money raiding French ships, but now he doesn’t have the manpower to accomplish the mission. William has to make a quick decision before he loses the trust of his remaining crew.
At first, William considers turning the ship around and heading back into London to recruit more men. But London isn’t William’s base of operations, and he doesn’t have close connections to many sailors there. He also worries that news of the Royal Navy forcing his men into service will make it back to the city and that no Londoners will want to sail with William for fear of suffering the same fate.
So instead, William makes a bold decision. He tells his crew to set course for his hometown of New York. William’s men aren’t pleased. A trip to the New World will delay their mission by at least several weeks.
And William understands their frustration. He spent much of his career at the whim of captains who cared more about themselves than their men. But William assures his crew that isn’t the case with him. To prove his point, he increases their potential payout, telling the crew that they will keep the bulk of the spoils from any French ship they raid, while he and his British backers will take a smaller cut.
That’s enough to assuage his men, and they soon set sail for America. When William arrives in New York, he visits the favorite haunts of local sailors but finds that most experienced pirates in town have left to join the ongoing war between the British and the French.
William feels like he’s cursed. He's lost much of his veteran crew to a foolish prank. And now, there are no talented recruits to be found in New York. William has worked hard to earn the British government’s trust and the riches that come from such a relationship. He’s worried that each day he’s not at sea, he risks losing support of the officials who have put him in charge of his current mission.
Growing desperate, William lowers his standards, and hires men with little to no experience, and no loyalty to him, or the British Crown. Their only allegiance is to the pursuit of their own enrichment. But when the money runs dry soon after they set sail from New York, William’s crew will lash out at their new leader, and threaten a mutiny of their own.
Act Two: William commits murder
It’s late 1697 in the Red Sea.
Captain William Kidd walks the deck of the Adventure Galley. He is on edge. William sees the glares coming from his crew and knows they’re angry. He fears they’re going to revolt.
Since sailing from New York the previous year, William had led his crew across the ocean with the promise of riches from captured French ships. But none of those rewards have materialized. It’s not for a lack of trying. William has covered huge swaths of open water, but he just simply hasn't encountered many French vessels. And after over a year at sea, William’s crew is starting to think they’re never going to make the fortune they were promised. They’re growing angry.
On deck, William hears one of his gunners call out to him. When William joins the man at his post, the gunner points to a ship on the horizon. He tells William he’s ready to fire if his captain gives the order. But William spots the ship’s Dutch flag and tells the gunner to stand down. They're not here to fight the Dutch.
As much as William wants to give his crew the opportunity to raid a ship, he’s loyal to his employers. William promised the British government he would fight the French and take on pirates that come his way. Those are his orders, and he refuses to ignore them, even though there’s money in that Dutch ship.
The gunner though doesn't understand and gets in William’s face. He tells William that the crew doesn't care if the ship is Dutch. They were promised spoils, and they want them. The gunner brushes past his captain and returns to his post to fire on the Dutch ship. Sensing weakness, the other members of William’s crew gather around him. Seeing the anger on their faces, William starts to panic.
William himself led a mutiny once. And he knows what it looks like when a crew turns on their captain. He fears that’s about to happen on his ship. So without thinking, William grabs an iron bucket, rushes the gunner, and hits him over the head. The crewmembers are stunned into silence and cowed into submission. William orders them to get rid of the body. He looks on as members of his crew drag the wounded gunner away from his post, and try to provide aid. But their efforts will be in vain. The gunner will die the following day.
With his violent outburst, William struck fear into the hearts of his crew. But he doesn’t know for how long. What he does know is there’s only one way to secure his men’s loyalty. William tells his crew to sail around the tip of India; a busy route for merchant ships. He promises them they’ll find a French ship, and they’ll soon reap the rewards of a raid.
In early 1698, William makes good on his promise. He spots a ship, the Quedagh Merchant, flying French colors. The Quedagh is much larger than William’s ship, but William is not afraid. He's made his name as a privateer by taking on vessels far bigger than his own. So William orders his men to approach and take the French vessel. William’s crew lets out a cheer as they sail into battle.
But the Quedagh’s captain and crew are cowards. As soon as they see the Adventure Galley, many of them abandon ship and leap overboard. When William and his men board the Quedagh, they find the ship is stocked with gold, silk, spices, and opium. William tells his crew that the majority of the haul belongs to them.
Then, William informs his men that they’re going to leave their own ship behind and sail the much larger Quedaghto the Caribbean in search of more plunder. Months earlier, William’s crew considered mutiny. But now, they're praising Captain Kidd’s name.
But when William makes port in the Caribbean, he learns he’s made a mistake far worse than letting his men pull a prank on the Royal Navy. William receives word that the cargo he’s stolen from the Quedagh Merchantis owned by the wealthy and powerful British East India Company. The ship’s captain had raised a French flag to avoid attacks from French warships in the area. And in response to William’s raid, the East India Company wants him arrested.
William feels betrayed. He’s given years of his life to serving the British government. And he’s spent far more time hunting pirates for the Crown than acting as a pirate for himself. But instead of fighting back on the high seas, William decides to take the battle to the courtroom.
In 1699, William will leave the Quedagh Merchant and much of his crew behind. He will purchase a smaller ship and set sail for New York to mount a legal defense.
Act Three: William is arrested
It’s July 6th, 1699 in Boston, the largest port in New England.
Captain William Kidd hurriedly walks down the cobbled streets, dripping sweat in the sweltering summer heat. William is on his way to meet the governor of New England, Lord Bellomont. William believes Bellomont is an ally who can help him beat the piracy charges the East India Company has lodged against him.
Throughout 1699, William has been mounting a legal defense against the East India Company, and he reached out to Bellomont for help. Bellomont was once a colonial administrator in New York, and he knows William well. Now Bellomont has summoned William to Boston, saying he can broker a deal with the British government and grant William clemency.
But as William approaches Bellomont’s offices, British soldiers suddenly appear in the street. Before William can react, the soldiers rush him and take him into custody. As they drag William away, they tell him that Lord Bellomont, Governor of New England, is behind the arrest.
Sitting in jail, William is at a loss for words. He learns from his lawyer that the powerful East India Company wants justice, and the British government has no choice but to appease them. So Bellomont is offering up William’s head. The lawyer tells William that the British haven’t arrested him for piracy; they’ve arrested him for murdering a gunner on his ship. William is devastated. He realizes members of his crew must have sold him out and informed the government about the incident with the gunner.
Soon after William’s arrest, Colonial officials send him to England to be imprisoned until his trial. In a last-ditch effort to secure his freedom, William spreads rumors of buried treasure that he’s left around the globe. He tells several high-ranking British officials that if they free him, he’ll lead them to this treasure. But William’s attempted bribes don’t work. He is convicted at trial and sentenced to death.
On May 23rd, 1701, Captain William Kidd is publicly hanged at a dock on the River Thames. His body is displayed for days as a warning to other pirates.
But after William’s death, rumors of his buried treasure spread. Sailors draw-up maps based on the rumors, and go off in search of Captain Kidd’s great plunder. The famed treasure is never found, but the legend surrounding it continues today.
Based on these tales, authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Alan Poe will fictionalize some of William’s escapades. Over time, William will come to be known as “the most famous pirate” in history.
But in reality, William spent much of his career in the legal employ of the British government. Like many privateers of the age, he walked a fine line between hired mercenary and criminal rogue. Still, William’s “buried treasure” transformed him into the mythical “Captain Kidd”, a legend that was born out of desperation after William was arrested in Boston on July 6th, 1699.
Next on History Daily. July 7th, 1947. The discovery of mysterious debris on a sheep ranch near Roswell, New Mexico sparks a national obsession with UFOs.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.