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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Trinity Church and Captain Kidd

Aristocracy, Trinity Church and Commoners

The first thing I noticed was that successful pirates joined the gentry. Unsuccessful ones were hung. This is illustrated by the tale of Captain Kidd who was elevated to Captain "pirate style" and not due to his family relations like most officers during the 9 years war "War of the Grand Alliance" [1688-1697]:

"By 1689 he was a member of a French-English pirate crew that sailed in the Caribbean. Kidd and other members of the crew mutinied, ousted the captain off the ship, and sailed to the British colony of Nevis. There they renamed the ship Blessed William. Kidd became captain, either the result of an election of the ship's crew or because of appointment by Christopher Codrington, governor of the island of Nevis. Captain Kidd and Blessed William became part of a small fleet assembled by Codrington to defend Nevis from the French, with whom the English were at war."

They were granted "Letters of marquee by the Governor, because that is the way that the English paid for Naval Warfare:

"Kidd and his men attacked the French island of Mariegalante, destroyed the only town, and looted the area, gathering for themselves something around 2,000 pounds Sterling." [Wikipedia article makes a great first stop: []

Continuing the fight:

"Kidd captured an enemy privateer off the New England coast."

But of course the borders between piracy and privateering were thin:

"One year later [1690], Captain Robert Culliford, a notorious pirate, stole Kidd's ship while he was ashore at Antigua in the West Indies." [Wikipedia article makes a great first stop: []

When you read about Robert Culliford. Culliford partisans claim Kidd was a pirate and that Culliford started as Kidd's Shipmate and "repeatedly check[ed] the designs" through his career. According to them Culliford led a mutiny against Kid in 1790 and appointed William Mason as Captain. All the stories of these pirates are full of these sort of inconsistencies, including some of the official records. Having his prize taken from him didn't stop Kidd from migrating to New York and:

"On 16 May 1691, Kidd married Sarah Bradley Cox Oort, an English woman in her early twenties, who had already been twice widowed and was one of the wealthiest women in New York, largely because of her inheritance from her first husband."

Privateering and piracy were means to wealth and respectability. From 1692-1697 the Governor of New York was Benjamin Fletcher, who traded in both privateering and pirate loot. Kidd contributed to Trinity Church, New York which was funded by privateering and pirate activity. Apparently New York City and Philadelphia were rivals in the Pirate trade during that time too. In 1697 Fletcher was deposed from the Governorship by Edward Randolph who is also famous for revoking the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and who the Boston revolt in 1689 was jailed. It appears that one mans "privateer" and hero could easily be tried as another's pirate -- unless he was part of an important family like the Randolphs. Edward Randolph tried to revoke the charters of all the colonies in 1700 and was defeated. [Britannica: Edward Randolph

Culliford was caught after robbing the Great Mohammed in the Red Sea in September 1698 but pardoned and "disappeared" from history (probably settled down and changed his name or into anonymity). William Mason retired a rich man. Web Sites like The Pirate King may_william.htm depict them as pirates, but the reality is that they straddled the line between respectability and piracy as did, apparently, most of the ships and crews of those privateering times, and probably many of the ships of the Royal Navy. If they'd taken the "Great Mohammed" one year earlier the prize probably would have been legal. In 1698 the war was over.

Pirate Yarns and Nomme Du Guerres

So it's not surprising that pinning down these characters, or even their names, was hard. They went to sea to make money. And whether that money came from looting ships, smuggling, delivering slaves to plantations, or catching fish or whales didn't matter so much as the prizes of wealth and respectability. Many of them became adrenaline junkies (like Blackbeard is said to have done) and perished. But many more retired in the end to quiet lives and wealthy family legacies. Next time I go into Trinity Church I'll think of Captain Kidd.

The British weren't going to punish their privateering warriors in time of warfare. But if they didn't stop when the war was ended they were in trouble diplomatically. William Kidd probably didn't know the war was over when he overstepped his bounds:

"in January 1698, Kidd's luck seemingly changed when he caught sight of the Quedagh Merchant rounding the tip of India.

The war was over. English privateers were not supposed to be preying on ships on the open ocean.

"The Quedagh Merchant was no ordinary vessel. A 500-ton Armenian ship, it carried goods—a treasure trove of gold, silk, spices, and other riches—that were owned in part by a minister at the court of the Indian Grand Moghul. The minister had powerful connections, and when news about Kidd's attack reached him he complained to the East India Company, the large and influential English trading firm. Coupled with many governments' shifting perceptions of piracy, Kidd was quickly cast as a wanted criminal."

Kidds mistake was to try to clear his name. What he should have done was what his rivals; Mason and Culliford did; quietly go to ground. If he had his name would probably be on the list of famous and wealthy families in the United States history books. And his descendants captains of industry and finance. But by trying to clear his name he got himself put on the Gimlet. On the other hand, folks wonder where his treasure went. I would suggest they ask descendents of Sarah Bradley Cox Oort who I'm sure he took care of before trying to clear his name. Buried treasure? Yeah, sure.

Further reading and episodes:

Posts on Privateering and Piracy
Many Kinds of Privateering
An Ideology of Privateering
Many forms of Freebooting
Pirates and Privateers/Privatizing History
Origins of the East India Company
Bretton Woods, NeoColonialism and the "Money Men."
Origins of the East India Company
Corrupt Court and Undue Influence
East India Company and Islamic Jihad
Utility Versus the Pirates
Tribunals Admiralty Courts & Privateers
Black Sails:
Cross Bones
I buried other URLs in the notes in the article. But here's the article on William May:
More on Captain Kidd:

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