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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The American Privateers

Donald Barr Chidsey

published by
Dodd, Mead & Company
New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p23  4[image ALT: a blank space][image ALT: a blank space]You Can't Eat Diamonds

William Kidd was a stolid, substantial citizen, a Scot by birth, a minister's son, who had spent most of his life at sea. True, he tended to drink too much at times, and his temper was said to be touchy. On the whole, however, he was thought safe and sound, eminently respectable. He owned his own house in New York, where he had settled down to trade, and he owned other houses there too, for he had invested in real estate. He was married to a well-thought‑of churchgoer, and they had a son. In 1693 when William Kidd made a business trip to London, in his own sloop, he was nearing fifty, a grave, earnest man.

True, he had been a privateer, but who in that seagoing community hadn't? His record was clean, even meritorious. The pitch of piracy had never smutted him.

In the British capital he encountered an old acquaintance, Robert Livingston of the famous New York family, who introduced him to the Earl of Bellomont. This nobleman had just been appointed governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which at that time included practically all of what is now New England. One of the instructions  p24 Bellomont had received with his appointment was to do something about the pirates, who were becoming increasingly bold everywhere in the world. He was looking for a man who could help him with this — a man who might also, at the same time, show a profit. He had in mind a private venture, a private crusade, appropriately financed.

Colonel Livingston recommended William Kidd, and it was so decided. They drew up an agreement. They formed a company.

Lord Bellomont let a few friends in on what looked to be a good thing — Lord Orford, Lord Somers, Lord Romney, and the Duke of Shrewsbury, all of them in the government, in the Cabinet. Today this would be highly unethical, if not illegal. It was natural then. There was nothing sinister about it.

King William himself issued the privateering commission to "our beloved friend William Kidd." That much was easy, since Somers was the Lord Chancellor of England, Orford was First Lord of the Admiralty, and Romney was a secretary of state.

The government itself would put no money into the enterprise, of course. This would all be done privately, as the practice had been for many years. It was to be on a "no purchase (plunder), no pay" basis. Kidd, who with Colonel Livingston had taken a fifth share in the business, was perfectly satisfied with that provision.

He was expected to catch pirates. That indeed was his assignment.

He went back to New York, where he purchased and equipped the Adventure Galley, 287 tons, 34 guns, 154 men. He sailed in September of 1696.

 p25  It is significant that he made straight for St. Mary's.

St. Mary's is a very small island about ten miles east of the northern part of the very large island of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean just off Africa. St. Mary's is about sixty miles long and about ten miles across, and in the seventeenth century it was largely jungle, its principal products being cattle, slaves, and pirates.

Here the rovers got their supplies and hoarded their loot. Here they held their share-outs. And it was here to that in retirement or semi-retirement, surrounded by slaves and color­ful concubines, they built for themselves castles — of wood, to be sure, but featuring turrets and moats and all the rest of it — and called themselves kings.

They were sometimes referred to as the Red Sea Men, but they also operated in the Persian Gulf and along the Malabar Coast, where the pickings were good. In that lush land, that land of fresh fruit, good water, and good firewood too, they were right in the southeast trade winds, and until they had made the place notorious they could hope for many visits from passing mariners, friskable mariners.

They had nothing to fear from the natives, who were broken into many warring factions. Indeed this helped, for with their modern weapons they could join one side or the other, first striking a hard bargain.

There was no large power near at hand, for the India of the Great Mogul was a decadent, dying empire, too weak even to make a gesture toward stamping out these scamps. The most they had to fear was an occasional Portuguese or Dutch man-of‑war. France and Great Britain  p26 were too busy fighting one another in a different ocean to give much attention to the Red Sea Men.

Easily the most power­ful organization in that part of the world was the East India Company, an English outfit, popularly called the John Company, which maintained its own private army and heavy cannoned navy. But even though the John Company did have extraordinary powers its charter provided that its armed forces could be used only for the protection of its own property, and therefore as long as the Red Sea Men left it alone — as they were mighty careful to do — the John Company could not exterminate them.

Thomas Tew was a Red Sea Man. He had tried to get a privateer's commission from his native state of Rhode Island in 1694, but had been turned down as a known ex‑pirate; so he had gone on the account without further formality. The main virtue of a privateer's license to Tom Tew, as to so many others, was that such a paper made it easier to buy cannons. Tew was ferocious in a boarding party, and not given to displays of clemency, yet he was an idealist in his own way. He was forever concocting grandiose, utopian schemes for a more even distribution of the world's wealth. He was an early communist.

James Plantain was a Red Sea Man. He lived in grand style in a castle high in the hills, a castle guarded by splendidly liveried Negro slaves. His harem, made up of sloe-eyed beauties draped in stolen silks and aclank with stolen jewelry, was famous. But Plantain was homesick — though of course he could never go back — and he used  p27 to call those houris by homely names: Peg, Sue, Moll, Kate. It made him feel better.

John Avery, alias Henry Avery, alias Henry Bridgman, alias Long Ben, was a Red Sea Man, one of the noisiest, one of the smelliest.

He too had started as a privateer, first officer aboard of Duke, but in Cadiz Bay, disgusted by the inactivity of the skipper, he had talked the crew into a success­ful mutiny. Then he became captain and changed the name of the vessel, patriotically, to Charles II. The mutineers did not kill the real captain, but put him into a small boat, together with a handful of seamen who would have no truck with piracy, and shoved them toward shore.

Avery was a spectacular figure who loved flamboyant dress. He captured the public imagination, particularly in England, where tales were told about his princely establishment on St. Mary's. Then, too, odes and ballads were written about him; Daniel Defoe made him the principal character of his The Piracies of Captain Singleton, and Charles Johnson's play, The Success­ful Pyrate, admittedly based on the life and career of Avery, broke all records at the Drury Lane.

But Avery, like James Plantain, waxed homesick. He decided to try to cash in and sneak back. It would be a costly operation. He knew that. He went by way of Boston. It is not clear why; most pirates at that time would have gone by way of New York, where Governor Benjamin Fletcher was known to be not unfriendly. In Boston Avery was given short shrift. He was not arrested, but he was too  p28 "hot" to hold, and was hustled out, leaving behind him a sizable chunk of his fast-dwindling fortune.

He went to Ireland, to Dublin, where he sold a few more diamonds — he had reduced his swag almost wholly to diamonds — at a great loss. Then, very quietly, he crept back to Devon, his native shire, and took a small house in the country outside of Bristol, a place called Bideford. In London he was still at the height of his fame and talked about everywhere, but he lived very silently in Bideford, being understandably reluctant to disclose his identity while the world still thought him at sea. Avery was getting to be an old man now — he who had once taken the Great Mogul's own treasure ship, Gunsway, along with 100,000 pieces-of‑eight and a large number of rich, ransomable pilgrims bound for Mecca. All he asked was to be allowed to die in peace.

But you can't eat diamonds. Desperate, after a while, he sent for certain merchants of Bristol, displayed the remaining stones, and told them who he was. How much would these diamonds fetch? The merchants hemmed and hawed. They took the gems and promised to look into the matter. He would hear from them, they said. He never did. Too late did John Avery learn that there are pirates on land as well as on sea. When he died there was barely enough money left to bury him.

William Mayes was one of the Red Sea Men. In 1694 Mayes, though he lived in New York, and though his past was by no means spotless, obtained a privateer's commission in Rhode Island, probably through political pull. His mother, Sarah, was a daughter of Sam Gorton, former  p29 president (governor) of the colony. Mayes had Pearl, a 60‑tonner, with 6 guns and 50 men. He made little pretense at real privateering, but went on the account almost at once. It was getting to be a racket.

William Mayes was one of the men mentioned in the commission awarded to William Kidd to stamp out pirates along "the coasts of America," the others being Tom Tew, John Ireland, and Thomas Wake.

Did Kidd, then, stamp out the pirates of St. Mary's? No. He joined them.

Very early in the proceedings he was seen drinking with one of the most notorious of the lot, John Culliford, and when he did put out to sea again it was to stop all sorts of private merchant vessels, searching them, often taking goods from them. Also, he raided the Malabar Coast, saying that the vessels he robbed had French passes, which made them fair game for a licensed American privateer. But it was the custom at that time and in that part of the world, as well as in the Atlantic, for vessels to carry two sets of papers — one French, one British — as protection against privateers. They would produce only the set that would seem to apply. Kidd knew this perfectly well. He also knew that the vessels he plundered were not, in fact, French.

Off that same Malabar Coast he got a real bag, a large ship called the Quedagh Merchant, bound from Bengal to Surat (which she never reached) and loaded with silks, muslins, sugar, iron, saltpeter, and gold. Kidd took the entire cargo. He also took the ship itself. This was how he put down piracy.

 p30  The word got out, and orders were sent to Lord Bellomont, then in Boston, to arrest William Kidd if he dared to return, and to send him in chains to England. A royal proclamation of clemency to all pirates who were foreswear their past life and report themselves in named two notable exceptions — John Avery and William Kidd.

Kidd might have been disturbed by something that had happened fairly early in his cruise. He had exchanged harsh words with his chief gunner, William Moore, going so far as to call Moore "a lousy dog." To this Moore retorted "If I am a lousy dog, then it's you that made me so." This exchange seems harmless enough, if in questionable taste, but it threw Kidd into a rage. Red‑faced, muttering to himself, he paced the deck a few times. He may have been drunk, for he was drinking a lot at that time. Anyway, he ended the quarrel by picking up an oaken, iron-bound bucket and hitting Moore on the head. He said later that he was only acting in self-defense. Anyway, Moore never did regain consciousness.

Perhaps rumors of his status reached Captain Kidd 'way out there in St. Mary's, of perhaps he was worried about the Moore affair and thought that a little immediate fixing would help. Or, perhaps again, he wished to get back to his wife and family. Anyway he did have a shipful of loot, the ship being the Quedagh Merchant which he had taken for his own, and with some (though by no means all) of his men he made for the West Indies. There he learned that the civilized world was indeed calling him a pirate. He still might have turned back to Madagascar, but he didn't. Doubtless he trusted his political influence. After all, his company boasted four Cabinet members.

 p31  He left the Quedagh Merchant somewhere — it was never clear where — and in a small sloop especially purchased for the purpose he made for Boston, on the way stopping at Gardiner's Island in Long Island Sound to leave off some more of the loot. This was recovered later, as was the loot still aboard the sloop, but the Quedagh Merchant loot never was located, at least officially.

Kidd had been gone for almost three years, during which time only occasional, stray, unsavory stories about him drifted back from the other side of the world. His return, understandably, caused a sensation. Stories about buried treasure — stories that have persisted ever since — started then and there.

He had written ahead to Lord Bellomont, promising to explain. It could be that he hoped to bribe his lordship, along with certain others. But the case was too open now. Besides the Cabinet was tottering, about to collapse, and simply couldn't risk another scandal. All of a sudden everybody was very righteous. Kidd and his associates were arrested and sent to England in chains.

He was tried early in 1701 at Old Bailey, and found guilty of piracy and of the murder of William Moore. He was hanged May 23 at Wapping Old Stairs, between high and low tides, another privateer gone wrong.

Ironically William Kidd's rather shabby criminal exploits really did help to put down piracy. The scandal stimulated much new legislation. Privateering, too, was modified and more stringently regulated as a result.

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Page updated: 20 May 13