Captain Kidd’s Treasure Considered

Yesterday, news circulated that pirate treasure has been salvaged near the island of Sainte Marie, Madagascar. Sainte Marie was a haven for pirates in the late seventeenth century who utilised the island as a base to plunder rich Indian shipping in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and as an outpost to trade with merchants from the American colonies, particularly New York. The reports have linked this treasure to Captain William Kidd, the infamous Scottish pirate-hunter turned pirate. There is already scepticism surrounding this speculation. This post makes use of evidence collected from colonial and admiralty records during the formation of a paper titled “Piracy, Patronage & Political Economy: Captain Kidd and the East India Trade” published in the International Journal of Maritime History to consider Kidd’s voyage to Madagascar and the likelihood of this being part of Kidd’s plunder.

Is it truly Kidd’s treasure?

In 1695, Captain Kidd, already an experienced sailor, voyaged to London with the intent of entering the King’s service as a privateer. While there, Kidd successfully gained the patronage of the Whig Junto, the most prominent politicians of the time. These politicians sponsored an expedition against the pirate base on Madagascar, hoping this would not only eradicate the nuisance there but also return a healthy yield of seized pirate goods. Kidd was commissioned to lead this expedition.

However, during his voyage, Kidd bypassed Sainte Marie and headed for the Coast of India, arriving at the beginning of September 1697. Here he seized three ships, including the Quedagh Merchant, which proved to be his most lucrative and precarious prize. It was a large merchant ship returning to Surat with a large cargo estimated at a value of between 200,000 and 400,000 rupees. The pirate hunter had supposedly turned pirate.

Kidd arrived in Madagascar at the beginning of May 1698. He had been preceded there by Robert Culliford in the Mocha Frigate. Culliford and his crew committed multiple piracies in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea; they were arguably much more successful than Kidd in their voyage. Kidd stated that he proposed to seize the pirate ship as he had the authority to do so. Indeed, the whole purpose of his voyage was to hinder the pirates in Madagascar, a commitment that he had yet to fulfill. His crew refused and immediately deserted him to go on board Culliford’s ship. The deserters, alongside Culliford’s crew, raided the Adventure Galley and the two prizes Kidd had carried to Sainte Marie, and continuously threatened Kidd’s life. Kidd claimed that the men also stole his journal. Kidd’s narrative of this episode is clearly self-serving and inflated. No other account mentions that Kidd’s journal was stolen or destroyed. It appears that Kidd used this description to justify his lack of an accurate journal that would reveal his wrongdoings. By asserting that his journal was destroyed by mutinous seadogs, Kidd could shape his narrative to proclaim his innocence when he returned.

Kidd’s men, who joined Culliford’s crew, declared Kidd arrived at Sainte Marie and met with Culliford who demanded to know his intentions as he had been informed that Kidd planned to seize pirates. Kidd assured Culliford that he “was as bad as they were” and they then entered the harbour together. Kidd’s men then left him to go on board Culliford’s ship because they desired to go on another cruise rather than return home. Kidd supplied Culliford with guns and other provisions before Culliford left for his next piratical voyage. Similarly, this account appears exaggerated and subjective. It is more credible that Kidd proposed to take the Mocha Frigate, as he could support his innocence by capturing a notorious piratical figure like Culliford. However, his men refused and deserted because the majority of his crew were now pirates and would not attack their fellow brethren of the sea. Kidd would then have decided to keep as low a profile as possible at Sainte Marie as it would have been impossible to take Culliford without his full crew in support.

Kidd’s claim that the deserters had looted his ship and prizes after deserting him is undeniably false. The reason for this fabrication is that Kidd divided the booty of his voyage at Sainte Marie. This was against his agreement with his sponsors that stated all plundered goods were to be carried without interference to Boston. Most of the accounts of Kidd’s men, both those who continued with him to the Americas and those that deserted him at Sainte Marie, assert that they received their shares of the voyage at Sainte Marie. The accounts agree that Kidd received the 40 shares he had safeguarded for himself and his investors. The fact that Kidd received his 40 shares makes it extremely implausible that his crew had mutinied and ransacked his ships. A crew of infuriated, revolting brigands would hardly have stopped to ensure that the captain they had deserted and seemingly wanted to murder received his fair share of the plunder. His men may have demanded Kidd divide the plunder because they desired to go on another voyage with Culliford, or he may have decided that this was the best course of action to ensure his share was protected against a potentially ravenous crew. Whatever the case, Kidd had ordered the division of the plunder at Sainte Marie and broke the articles of his agreement a further time.

It is this point that makes me sceptical about the newly found treasure. The evidence points to the fact that Kidd divided the agreed shares of the plunder among his men. He then stayed at Sainte Marie for a further six months. During this time, the Adventure Galley, no longer a viable seafaring vessel, was ran aground on Sainte Marie, stripped for her ironwork and set on fire. The goods from the Adventure Galley were transferred to the Quedagh Merchant, now the Adventure Prize. The treasure is reported to have been found near the wreck of the Adventure Galley. As this appears to have been deliberately destroyed, it seems unlikely that such valuable treasure would be left on board. If one believes Kidd, it is possible that some of the treasure was lost from the Adventure Galley during the confrontation with the mutineers but Kidd’s narrative cannot be trusted as he continually left out crucial details of his voyage that would prove detrimental to his case.

Map of St. Marie in Étienne de Flacourt, Histoire de la grande isle de Madagascar (Paris, 1658). See overleaf of page 28 for map of Isle St. Marie.

Map of St. Marie in Étienne de Flacourt, Histoire de la grande isle de Madagascar (Paris, 1658). 

The exact date of Kidd’s departure remains unknown. We do know that the Adventure Prize arrived at Anguilla at the beginning of April 1699. Kidd journeyed to St. Thomas and then to Mona, an island between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, where he met Henry Bolton, a merchant bound for Curacao. Kidd and his men sold a large amount of the East India goods he had brought on board the Adventure Prize to Bolton and other merchants who flocked to purchase a share of the cargo. Kidd left the Adventure Prize in the possession of Bolton, and purchased a sloop, the Saint Antonio, from him. The Adventure Prize would have been impaired from such a long voyage, and it would do nothing to thwart suspicion if Kidd arrived in Boston in a Mughal-built vessel. Kidd took some of the goods from the Adventure Prize on board the Saint Antonio and promised to return in three months to collect the rest of the goods.

Kidd sailed from Mona and offloaded goods at Delaware Bay, Gardiners Island, and Tarpaulin Cove whilst corresponding with the Earl of Bellomont, the governor of New York, Massachusetts Bay, and New Hampshire and one of the original investors of Kidd’s expedition. Bellomont was informed that Kidd had left a great Moorish ship on the Coast of Hispaniola that contained goods to the value of thirty thousand pounds.

Kidd landed in Boston to plead his case dependent on the notion that Bellomont desired his share of the investment and would therefore secure him a pardon. This plan did not unfold as Bellomont had Kidd apprehended on Thursday 6 July 1699. He was secured in prison while Bellomont relentlessly searched for the goods he had offloaded around the coast of New York, tried to determine the location of the Adventure Prize, and compiled all of his papers concerning Kidd and his crew. On 2 February 1700, Kidd and his men were sent onboard the Advice and confined for the return journey to London.

The trial of Captain Kidd and his crew took place over two days on the 8 and 9 May 1701. Throughout his trial, Kidd declared his innocence, stating that the ships he had taken were legal seizures under his instructions. Kidd’s commission, although intended to permit him to seize pirates, also allowed him to seize French vessels as the two countries were currently at war. The ships contained papers that stated they were French owned and could, therefore, be taken legally. The passes, although misplaced before the trial, were discovered in the records of the Board of Trade in the twentieth century. It is impossible to discern if the passes were genuinely lost for a time, or if one of Kidd’s powerful sponsors withheld them to ensure the trial moved along swiftly.

Kidd was executed on Friday, May 23rd, 1701. In his last speech, he condemned those who had been witnesses in his trial as liars, and denounced those who had promised they would be his friends and had led to his ruin. To the surprise of Kidd and the spectators, the rope that held him broke when he dropped. The hangman grabbed him, carried him back up the ladder, and sent him to his death a second time. His body was suspended at Tilbury Point on the Thames in London.

This discussion of Kidd’s voyage suggests that the treasure found is more likely to have belonged to one of the many other pirates who infested the waters surrounding Madagascar at that time – those who Kidd was supposed to suppress. If the treasure is confirmed to have belonged to the Adventure Galley then Kidd’s tenure on Madagascar will need to be reassessed to understand how this piece of his treasure ended up on the ocean floor. This is one more piece of evidence that can add to the debate surrounding the ill-fated voyage of Captain Kidd.

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One thought on “Captain Kidd’s Treasure Considered

  1. Pingback: Black Sails: III | PirateHistorian

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