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Long IslandHistory

The legend of Captain Kidd

Pirates used the harbors around Long Island to refit their ships and sell their loot — slaves, sugar, textiles, jewels and spices seized on the high seas.

A magazine illustration shows Capt. William Kidd's men

A magazine illustration shows Capt. William Kidd's men burying treasure on Gardiners Island. Photo Credit: Harpers Magazine

He was a respected member of his church in Manhattan and passed the collection plate on Sundays. He was an accomplished sailor and a businessman whom the king of England said was “well beloved.” He was hired by powerful political figures to stop marauding vessels from preying on commercial ships. He buried a fortune in stolen treasure on Long Island.

His given name was William but he is better known by his title — Capt. Kidd. He is one of the most famous pirates in history.

Born in Scotland in 1645, Kidd went to sea as a young man, working on a merchant vessel between New York and London. He also served as a privateer — a commander of an armed private ship with official permission to prey on French and Spanish ships in the Caribbean. By the mid-1690s, Kidd and his family were living in an elegant home on Pearl Street in Manhattan.

“The 17th century was a tumultuous time,” said Mildred DeRiggi of the Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra University. “There was a gray area between being privateers attacking enemy shipping with government sanction as part of the war effort versus those plundering and smuggling purely for profit.”

At that time, New York profited handsomely from the pirate trade. Goods were smuggled into the colony and many powerful public figures shared the booty. Pirates also used the harbors around Long Island to refit their ships and sell their loot — slaves, sugar, textiles, jewels and spices seized on the high seas.

In 1695, Kidd traveled to London in search of a royal commission as a privateer. There, he met up with a New York friend, Robert Livingston. A political figure and entrepreneur, Livingston was himself engaged in illegal trade with the French, England’s mortal enemy.

Livingston introduced Kidd to the earl of Bellomont, who as a member of Parliament had maneuvered to get himself named governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Later, he would be named governor of New York. Bellomont and Livingston threw their support behind Kidd’s plan to be a privateer, with the booty divided among the principals.

To give the plan the seal of approval, Bellomont persuaded King William to grant a royal commission. Some historians believe that the king was also to receive a share of whatever loot Kidd collected from pirates he captured — in other words, his majesty was now a partner in Kidd’s venture.

Kidd set sail on a ship named the Adventure Galley. He returned to New York, where he loaned equipment from his ship to help in the building of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, which opened in 1698 under a royal grant. To this day, Kidd’s name is engraved on pew No. 16: “Captain William Kidd, Commander Adventure Galley.”

The truth of Kidd’s venture is lost in the fog of history. What is known is that he sailed for the Indian Ocean to seek treasure. In May 1698, the Adventure Galley with its 150-man crew dropped anchor off Madagascar. But 90 of his men deserted. Kidd abandoned the ship, which needed repair, and seized a rich Moorish vessel, the Quedah Merchant. By spring 1699, he was in the West Indies.

Meanwhile, back in England, sentiment had changed. Unbeknownst to Kidd, he had been declared a pirate by the British government. Bellomont, ensconced in Boston as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, became a new man — turning against pirates and Kidd in particular. In May 1699, Bellomont wrote that the inhabitants of Long Island were “a lawless and unruly people” protecting pirates who had “settled among them.”

When Kidd learned that he had been declared a pirate, he transferred some of his loot to a sloop, the St. Anthony, and leaving the Quedah Merchant behind, set sail for New England to clear his name. He seems to have gone directly to Oyster Bay, where he contacted an attorney, James Emmot, whom he asked to approach Bellomont.

That July, Bellomont wrote:

Captain Kidd in a sloop richly laden, came to Rhode Island, and sent one Emot to Boston to treat about his admission and security. He said Kidd had left the great Moorish ship he took in India, called the Quedah Merchant, in a creek on the coast of Hispaniola, with goods to the value of 30,000 pounds.

Kidd was no fool. He sent jewels to Bellomont’s wife, and he buried a large amount of his treasure on Gardiners Island, a half-mile inland from its western coastline. He did this with the permission of the island’s owner, Jonathan Gardiner, the grandson of Lion Gardiner. Kidd marked the burial spot with a cairn, a large pile of rocks. The vine-covered cairn still stands on the island, near a granite marker erected in the 19th Century. Kidd also gave Gardiner an expensive silk fabric — a piece hangs on a wall of the island’s manor house.

With his bargaining chips in place, Kidd traveled to Boston. His best bet was the Quedah Merchant back in the Caribbean. He also carried proof that the ships he seized were French. But on July 6 he was arrested on piracy charges. Bellomont, his partner at the beginning, was now his enemy.

After arresting Kidd, the governor sent a messenger to Gardiners Island to seize the buried loot — estimated at the time to be worth 20,000 pounds (more than $1 million in today’s value). All the treasure is believed to have been removed. Gardiner — who some historians have suggested was in league with Kidd — gave a statement to Bellomont in which he said that on the day he buried the treasure, Kidd convinced him to “take three negroes, two boys and a girl, ashore, to keep till he, the said Kidd, should call for them . . .”

Kidd gave Gardiner gifts of cloth and “four pieces of Arabian Gold.” Gardiner said Kidd also buried “a chest and a box of Gold, a bundle of quilts, and four bales of goods.” Two members of Kidd’s crew, “who went by the names of Cook and Parrot,” gave Gardiner “two bags of Silver . . . which weighed thirty pounds . . . a small bundle of gold, gold dust of about a pound weight . . . a sash and a pair of worsted stockings.”

In February 1700, Kidd arrived in London for trial. He was first charged with murdering one of his crewmen, William Moore. Two crewmen who had deserted testified against him. He was convicted and sentenced to hang.

To put another nail in Kidd’s coffin, officials then tried him for piracy. He testified that the ships he seized in the Indian Ocean were French ships, but he was not allowed to introduce evidence to prove it. He was convicted again.

On May 23, 1701, Kidd stood on the gallows. When the floor fell out from under him, the rope broke and he survived. He was carried back up and hanged again. This time it worked.

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