A 300-year-old ship belonging to the notorious Scottish pirate William Kidd has just been discovered off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The Adventure Galley may not yield a rich haul in pirating terms, as some reports indicate, but Kidd’s reputation as the biggest pirate of his time remains well intact.

It is believed his hidden treasure on an island in the Caribbean served as inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island published in 1883. Kidd was hunted across the world’s seas and finally apprehended in 1699. After a very public and controversial trial in Scotland, he was hanged to death in 1701.

In 2012, another of Kidd’s ships, the Quedagh Merchant, rechristened by him as the Adventure Prize, was found in the Caribbean Sea near the Dominican Republic. This ship was owned by an Indian merchant – Ciorgi. Nothing more is known of him, though his name could indicate that he was from Coorg in Karnataka, whose people were known for their seamanship. The capture and acquisition of this ship in 1698 would go on to embroil Kidd in several controversies, and would prove to be his undoing.

Kidd: His Story Retold

In the three centuries since Kidd’s death, there has been considerable revisionism about his role. It seems Kidd’s reputation rested more on myth, rumours and legends. The strange manner of his trial and hanging gave him an aura that has only grown. Some stories associated with him such as his terrible cruelty do have some basis in truth – but then pirates were consistently threatened, not merely by countries that used and hunted them in turn but also by their own crewmen.

Kidd’s rise in the 1680s mirrored the struggle among nations, especially those in Western Europe, the trading companies in these countries, and among pirates themselves. Whenever the occasion demanded, the pirates offered their services to the trading companies and Western Europe countries. The high seas were rich in pickings by this time because of the entrenchment of the lucrative spice trade to Southeast Asia. Besides the Indian Ocean (with Madagascar and its nearby islands serving as important pirate bases), the Red Sea and the strait of Bab-el-Mandab, the Straits of Malacca and East China Sea were the areas where pirates were active.

Kidd moved to New England in the Americas, then a British colony, in his youth. As a seaman who had worked on pirate ships, Kidd came to the attention of the British merchant aristocracy around the 1680s. This aristocracy was frustrated with the numerous pirate attacks on their ships in the Atlantic and other oceans. So Kidd was sponsored by his patrons in England and New York to attack enemy ships, such as those of the French, and pirate ships in the oceans.

One of his foremost patrons was the English governor of New York, Richard Coote, the Earl of Bellemont. Bellemont and others sponsored and helped Kidd’s acquisition of a properly equipped massive ship called the Adventure Galley that sailed from London to the Indian Ocean.

Quedagh Merchant

His early attempts at raiding and capturing ships were miserable failures. He targeted a Mughal ship sailing to the Arabian seaports but didn’t gather much booty. Since his pickings weren’t enough to appease his crew, he had to fight hard to keep his men together. It is believed he killed one of his own men, William Moore, a murder that would come to haunt him during his trial later.

It was the capture of the Quedagh Merchant in 1698 that would enmesh Kidd in a controversy that turned all his former sponsors against him. The ship sailed from Surat to Calcutta and sold its immense stock of cotton bales for muslin, brown sugar, opium chests, iron and saltpetre: vital commodities that promised to fetch Kidd an immense sum. The ship had an English captain, two Dutch officers, several Indian seamen (lascars) and also Armenian merchants.

Wary of pirate attacks on its return voyage, the ship had sought the protection of the French East India Company. But Kidd, aware and prepared, attacked the ship, with its French flag raised, near Cochin. France and Britain were each other’s worst enemies and so Kidd considered his action legitimate. But most of the goods were owned by a Mughal nobleman, the East India Company was a Mughal ally then, and the ship’s captain was an Englishman. These facts were worked against Kidd. There was a  protocol in the high seas, and even pirates knew that.

Kidd tried hard to cover up his crime. He sailed first to Madagascar, where he encountered another pirate, Robert Culliford. They had worked together as pirates once and had a hostile history: Culliford had turned against Kidd, burning up his ship once in the Caribbean. At the island of St Mary’s (or Sainte Maire), north of Madagascar, Kidd’s crew mutinied, and one of his ships was destroyed in a skirmish with Culliford.

After that, Kidd had the Quedagh Merchant refurbished and renamed as the Adventure Prize. Kidd then avoided the crowded sea ports and sea lanes and reached the Caribbean. From there he made his way to New York.

By this time, his former patrons had turned against him. He was betrayed by the Earl of Bellemont, arrested and sent to Scotland for trial. His other backers too refused to speak for him. Strangely, much of the evidence he could have used went missing, as did the French passes that were once issued to the Quedagh Merchant.

Pirates of Madagascar

Till the 1740s, when the European powers and trading companies invested in their own ships and powerful navies, Madagascar remained a legendary haunt of pirates, as it lay right on the shipping lanes from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans. The pirate ships based at Madagascar would prey on ships that sailed from Surat or Madras. They sailed with this booty to Madagascar and on to New England, especially the port of New York.

Kanhoji Angre, the Maratha overlord, whose navy terrorised the Mughal ships and also the ships of the trading companies, tied up with pirates and privateers as well. One of these was a Jamaican-born pirate called John Plantain. Plantain served for some time as one of Angre’s trusted ship-gunners. He built himself a fort on the island of St Mary, married a few local women and took to calling himself the King of Madagascar.

Robert Culliford too had a base in Madagascar. At the time Kidd encountered him, Culliford had just been released from a prison in Gujarat where he had spent four years. Culliford and his crew frequently invaded and looted the town of Mangrol in southern Gujarat. However, he did not meet a fate like Kidd’s. He had his benefactors, and his evidence against another pirate, Samuel Burgess, worked to save him.

Then there was Dirk Chivers, a Dutchman who held the port of Calcutta to ransom when he captured four ships off the city’s harbour in 1696. He retreated only when two threatening warships appeared. Till his capture by the English East India Company, he was a much feared presence. He later died in a prison in Bombay.

It was circa 1708, during the reign of Queen Anne in Britain, that the British government worked to bring about reconciliation with the pirates of Madagascar. They were advised to turn in some of their booty in exchange for a pardon. Strangely, some of the pirates’ wives in Madagascar wrote a letter to the British sovereign and government demanding a share of this surrendered booty.

There is a popular ditty that reflects the wealth the pirates had garnered during their tumultuous reign of the high seas (Lyrics from Pirates: A History, by Tim Travers):
“Where is the trader of London town?

His gold’s on the capstan

His blood’s on his gown

And its up and away for St. Mary’s Bay

Where the liquor is good and the lasses are gay.”