“There is often a very thin line between heroism and villainy,” says historian Kenneth Kinkor.
Capt. William Kidd was on a path to becoming a genuine hero when he sailed out of London aboard the Adventure Galley in 1696 bearing a commission from King William III to harass French shipping in the Indian Ocean.
Bad luck and bad decisions turned him into one of the most famous pirates of history, the notorious Captain Kidd. He went to the gallows in London five years later.
Captain Kidd’s odyssey has been brought into fresh focus by the discovery in late January of the wreck of the Adventure Galley in a harbor at Sainte-Marie, Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa.
The find marks only the third time that a confirmed pirate ship has been located, and promises to provide new insight into what has remained “a secret subculture,” said diver Barry Clifford, who discovered all three pirate wrecks.
Once excavated, the wreck could be “a time machine that provides an unprecedented opportunity to take people back into a period about which very little is known,” Clifford said.
Clifford is a kind of Indiana Jones of the ocean, an authority on shipwrecks and nautical history. His 1984 discovery off Cape Cod of the pirate ship Whydah, sunk in 1717, triggered modern interest in pirate lore and spurred several books and a documentary film
In 1998, he found the wrecks of 11 French and pirate vessels that sank in 1678 on coral reefs at Las Aves off the coast of Venezuela. The disaster decimated French maritime power and, according to some historians, set the stage for the “golden age of piracy.”
Clifford attributes his success in finding the pirate ships to a very simple concept: “Nobody had looked for them before,” he said. “For centuries, gold coins had been washing up on the shore of Cape Cod from the Whydah,” but nobody sought out the source.
Nobody discovered the Adventure Galley, even though it was sitting in only 20 feet of water, because it was offshore of “one of the poorest countries in the world . . . where very few people were thinking about archeology.”
When Clifford’s divers went to Sainte-Marie, in fact, they found the Adventure Galley within 30 minutes of beginning their first dive. “We almost dropped anchor on top of the wreck,” he said.
The keys to the discovery were documents from Kidd’s London trial and the deposition, taken in Virginia, of a pirate named Theophilus Turner. Both said that the Adventure Galley had taken on water and had to be abandoned in Madagascar. It was burned to the waterline, then sunk in the harbor’s “careening area.”
A careening area was a shallow, sandy beach used for cleaning barnacles and other pests from the hull and making emergency repairs. The crew would bring the boat as far up on the beach as possible during high tide and attach stout ropes to the masts. As the tide receded, the vessel would be pulled onto its side, exposing the hull for service.
Satellite photos showed there was only one beach on Sainte-Marie suitable for use as a careening area, a football field-size stretch of water where Clifford’s crew chose to dive.
Clifford immediately discovered a broad, 7-foot-high ballast mound that was partially covered with silt and clearly untouched over the centuries. The mound still had three layers: the large river rocks needed to provide stability to the ship, a layer of stones called shifting ballast to compensate for cargo and pebble ballast to fill in the small spots.
A key find was the discovery of an oarlock, the metal fitting used to mount oars. The oarlock was too big to have come from a ship’s rowboat, but the right size to have been used on a galley such as the Adventure. Galleys--vessels propelled primarily by oars--were rare in the 17th century, but the availability of oars made it possible for the Adventure to attack other ships even when no wind was blowing.
The vessel contained “hundreds and hundreds” of shards of blue and white Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty, said archeologist John de Bry, who was part of the team. “The stylistic design and decorative elements indicated a style that emerged after 1682 and didn’t go much beyond 1700. That told me we were looking at a ship of the right period.”
Although the Adventure was stripped of cannon, muskets and treasure before it was sunk, archeologists believe it held a wide variety of personal artifacts from the sailors that could provide much information about the period and about Kidd himself.
The captain was born the son of a minister in Greenock, Scotland, in 1645. He went to sea as a youth, working on merchant vessels that sailed between London and New York. By his late 40s, he was an established sea captain married to a wealthy New York widow--two days after her husband died--and thereby came into property on Wall Street that is now some of the most expensive land in the world.
Kidd was often dispatched by New York and Massachusetts authorities to hunt down pirates molesting the American shore. With the aid of the British governor of New York, Lord Bellomont, he received a royal commission to hunt down pirates in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and to seize French shipping.
After arming the 287-ton Adventure with 34 cannon and a crew of more than 100 men, he set forth on his adventure.
“He probably had every reason to believe he would come back and be knighted,” Clifford said.
“But he had a bit of bad luck. The prize crew didn’t dip [Kidd’s] colors to a British man-of-war,” a conventional sign of respect.
Kidd’s ship was boarded and most of the crew conscripted into the British Navy. Kidd had to replace them with whomever he could find, and many of the new crewmen turned out to be malcontents and ex-pirates.
During its cruise to the Indian Ocean, the Adventure encountered neither pirates nor French ships that Kidd could legally seize, and his crew, goaded by a miscreant named Hugh Parrot, was rebellious. After all, the crew would receive little pay if no prizes were taken.
Kidd’s one important seizure was a vessel called the Quedah Merchant, which was of Indian origin, but traveling under a French pass, making it a legitimate target. It carried a cargo worth 30,000 pounds, the equivalent of $30 million in today’s money.
By the time it reached Madagascar, the poorly built Adventure was listing badly, kept afloat by eight Moors manning pumps around the clock. Fifty of Kidd’s crewmen had died of disease and 97 deserted at Sainte-Marie.
Kidd was forced to abandon the Adventure, sailing for the Americas in the Quedah Merchant. When he reached the West Indies, he learned he had been declared a pirate. Sailing to New York to meet with Lord Bellomont, who he hoped would intercede on his behalf, he buried treasure at several points along the way--making him one of the very few pirates who ever buried treasure, said Kinkor, director of the Expedition Whydah Sea Lab & Learning Center on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Most simply spent it.
But the British government was being pressured by both the Indian mogul who owned the Quedah Merchant and the powerful East India Co., which was at risk of losing business in India.
Bellomont arrested Kidd and sent him to England, where he was tried, convicted and hanged on May 23, 1701. His license to seize French vessels conveniently disappeared during the trial, only to turn up after his death on the prosecuting attorney’s desk.
Clifford’s Madagascar expedition was sponsored by the Discovery Channel. More information about the expedition is available at https://www.discovery.com/exp.