On this day in history : 8th May 1701 – The controversial trial of Captain Kidd begins at the Old Bailey…. He is to be found guilty of piracy and the murder of a member of his crew….

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William Kidd – 18th Century portrait by Sir James Thornhill – Public domain

Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1645 William Kidd, the son of a seaman, went to sea himself at an early age…. On becoming a captain his first ship was the ‘Antigua’….

In the 1680s Kidd settled in New York, where he married wealthy widow Sarah Bradley Cox Oort….

During the war between France and England of the 1690s he became recognised as a successful privateer…. At the time, approved by the government, privately owned warships could attack enemy vessels…. In charge of the ‘Blessed William’ Kidd was responsible for protecting the trade routes of the West Indies for British and American trade….

He was commissioned by the British government to rid the Indian Ocean of pirates….it is likely he would also have been expected to capture any enemy ships he encountered suspected of carrying valuable cargo….a sort of ‘legalised’ piracy…. On the 6th of September 1696 Kidd left New York aboard ‘Adventure Galley’ – a 32-gun ship with a crew of 150, bound for the Indian Ocean…. One particular pirate he was after was Robert Culliford and his side-kick, surgeon Jon Death….

Culliford proved too difficult to track down – as indeed did any pirates for that matter…. The morale of Kidd’s men declined rapidly – until they were on the verge of mutiny…. In one explosive incident a furious Kidd struck ship’s gunner, William Moore, with an iron-bound bucket….fracturing his skull…. Moore died within 24 hours….

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Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr

Finally being worn down by his mutinous crew Kidd himself turned to piracy…. Conditions onboard ‘Adventure Galley’ had deteriorated and the ship itself was leaking badly…. In January 1698 they attacked the ‘Quedah Merchant’ – a ship carrying a cargo of sugar, opium, iron, silk and other valuable commodities…. It is thought the cargo had a value of around £70,000…. Kidd took the ship, renamed it ‘Adventure Prize’ – and sank his own leaking ship….

By now the men had been at sea for the best part of two years…. Laws around piracy had changed – English law now deemed it a criminal act…. Kidd arrived in the West Indies in 1699 to find himself a wanted man….the American colonies were on a mammoth pirate hunt…. He managed to secure a pardon with the English authorities but on arriving in Boston the New England governor, Lord Richard Bellomont – who had actually invested in Kidd’s voyage – had him arrested…. For the next few months Kidd was kept in prison in such appalling conditions that it nearly sent him insane….

In February 1700 he was sent back to England on the frigate ‘Advice’ to face trial….which took place starting on the 8th of May 1701 and lasted for two days…. He was found guilty on several accounts of piracy and the murder of William Moore…. All other members of his crew charged with piracy were cleared, with the exception of Irishman Darby Mullins…. Some of Kidd’s men testified against him in regards to Moore’s ‘murder’ to save themselves….

Whilst held at Newgate Gaol awaiting his execution, which had been set for the 23rd of May, Kidd wrote numerous letters to King William, pleading for clemency…. He was to be disappointed….

On the afternoon of the 23rd Kidd, Mullins and two condemned Frenchmen were taken to Execution Dock, Wapping – where a permanent gallows for pirates was kept…. It is said the authorities were rather surprised when Kidd arrived apparently the worse for wear with drink…. At the first attempt to hang him the rope snapped and he fell to the ground….so he had to be strung up again….

Afterwards his body was left to rot hanging at the mouth of the River Thames – a deterrent to other would-be pirates….

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Captain Kidd hanging in chains – National Maritime Museum, London CC BY-SA 3.0

It has long since been debated as to whether Kidd had a fair trial…. He became a legend….a large part of which centres around speculation as to where he buried his treasure….if indeed he had hidden any in the first place….

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‘Buried Treasure’ – Captain Kidd overseeing a treasure burial – from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates – Public domain

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