ROBERT RITCHIE. Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986. Pp. vii, 306. $20.00.
Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates is the second book book written by Robert Ritchie, senior research associate at The Huntington Library, in San Marino, and former history professor and associate chancellor at the University of California, San Diego. Ritchie specializes in the history of seventeenth-century colonial America and early-modern England. His book uses the life of the privateer-turned-pirate William Kidd (1645-1701) to explore the greater economic and political factors that led to a widespread, brutal campaign against piracy by Anglo-American merchants, government officials, and their colonial allies in the final decade of the seventeenth century. Contrary to traditions that depict Kidd as a bold and successful pirate, who plundered £400,000 worth of gold from the richly laden treasure ships of the Mughal emperor in the Indian Ocean, buried chests of his glittering loot near Gardiner’s Island in New York, and was hanged for his unparalleled iniquities, Ritchie reveals Kidd to be a unfortunate, naïve, and arrogant braggadocio, thrown to the gallows by his own patrons as a sop to capitalism and their own reputations. Extraordinarily well researched, novelistic in style, and broad in scope, Captain Kidd is not only the best secondary source on the life of Kidd, it is the best prologue to the days of the eighteenth-century black flag pirates, and one of the best works for demonstrating the capricious relationship between piracy and global empire.
Ritchie has reconstructed the transient life and turbulent times of William Kidd through a staggering amount of primary source material. He has used personal diaries, ship registration records and manifests, court transcripts, colonial reports, affidavits, testimonies, interrogations, depositions, death accounts written by preachers like Paul Lorrain, royal proclamations and pardons, shipping logs like that of Commodore Thomas Warren, the published narratives of captains like Nathanial Uring, and a vast amount of personal letters and correspondence. He uses Kidd’s own narrative, written in Boston in the year 1699, as well as a host of secondary material on the pirate that has been published from 1854 until 1969. For archival material, he has mined the British Library, the India Office, and the Public Record Office in London; the Algemeen Rijksarchief in the Netherlands; the Bodleian Library and Northampton Record Office in greater England; the Huntington Library in San Marino; and the New York State Library and Historical Society in New York. He has looked particularly at such collections as the Admiralty Records, the Colonial Office Papers, and the East India Company Records. As the maritime historian Marcus Rediker states in his glowing review, if anything remained unknown about Kidd’s life prior to this book, Ritchie’s “thorough research would have found it.”
William Kidd was a native of Greenock, Scotland, likely born in the year 1645. Nothing is known of his life prior to year 1689, when he was already forty-four years old. Ritchie reminds us that this obscurity is not unusual for seamen in the early-modern era, who were notorious for leaving behind records only after they had committed official crimes and incurred the wrath of paper bureaucracies. Sailors were often away during the census, they left behind few possessions that could appear on either tax or probate records, and they seldom kept logs, diaries, or journals. Of course, this problem is even greater with pirates, who did not generally keep ship rosters and were well known to destroy journals or logs that could be used as evidence to incriminate them (as Kidd did in his own case). Pirates sometimes kept their commissions from their patrons, “passes” from the ships that they plundered, and letters from their family and friends, but very little else in the way of written material.
The first time that the reader meets Kidd, he is a privateer in the Caribbean during the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697). He is the captain of the twenty-gun ship Blessed William, sailing out of Nevis at the order of governor Christopher Codrington. Kidd’s unlucky reputation begins after he loots the small French island of Marie-Galante, and his crew responds by mutinying, maroons him on a nearby shore, and heading to the Indian Ocean with everything. Shortly thereafter, Kidd is compensated with a captured French prize named the Antigua and he heads to New York. There he incurs the favor of the colonial administrators and local aristocrats by playing a small role in crushing Leisler’s Rebellion. Afterward, he settles down to the family life of a burgher, marrying the twice-widowed resident Sarah Bradley Cox Oort, buying a house at 119-121 Pearl Street, purchasing a pew in Trinity Church, and having children. There he remains until 1695, when he sails to London to pursue a lucrative yet shady privateering scheme with the help of his Scottish business acquaintance Robert Livingston.
Once in London, Kidd and Livingston enter into an agreement with seven prominent yet disparate politicians. All of these men were Whig members of Parliament, and six of them were silent partners. This group came to be known as the “Junto,” and they were represented by Lord Bellomont, soon-to-be governor-general of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The contract stated that Kidd would fit out a vessel to stalk the “Red Sea Pirates.” These were buccaneers who had relocated to the Indian Ocean in order to pillage the trading and pilgrimage vessels of the Moghul kingdoms and the Old East India Company, mostly off the Malabar Coast in Western India and the strait of Babs-al-Mandab in the Gulf of Aden. The Whig backers would front four-fifths of the costs and Kidd would recruit at least 100 seamen under the common terms of “no purchase, no pay.” As part of the venture, Bellomont applied for an official privateering commission from the Lords of the Admiralty, a special grant to hunt pirates from the Great Seal, and a special warrant to indemnify all profits from both the original owners and the Admiralty. If all went swimmingly, Kidd would return to Boston with over £500,000 in treasure, Bellomont would condemn the ship in the port of his own colonial domain and then divide the spoils among his partners with no interference.
Kidd began his cruise in the 287-ton, 34-gun, oared frigate called the Adventure Galley. After heading to New York to say farewell to his family, provision his ship, and recruit seaman and landsman for the adventure, a city magistrate stepped aboard the deck and read out the official articles and commission. Then, on September 6, 1696, the ship sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Madeira and headed south passed the Canary and the Cape Verde Islands. From there, it turned west and rode the calm waters of the doldrums to the Cape of Good Hope. Upon rounding the cape, the Adventure Galley approached Tulear, on the coast of the Great Red Island of Madagascar. Over the next three years, Kidd would harass English vessels from the Cape of Good Hood to the island of Johanna; he would repel Portuguese men-of-war from the trading factory at Goa; he would chase the pilgrimage ships near Mocha and Perim Island at “the Babs;” and he would harass sailors near Surat on the Malabar Coast; and afterward, he would victual in the Laccadives before settling down at the pirate hovel of Saint Marie island, where he would burn his ship in the harbor, hang out with his fellow pirates, and debauch.
Kidd operated in the Indian Ocean for a relatively short period before he sailed back to New York and Boston on his 400-ton prize the Quedah Merchant, was arrested by his own benefactor, and shipped to London to stand trial and be hanged for murder and piracy. During his short time abroad, he took only seven ships, many of which were small provisioning ketches and two of which were arguably legal according to his commission. His behavior at sea was erratic, inconsistent, and pompous. He battered a few Portuguese ships, chased some merchant vessels unsuccessfully, and threatened and even kidnapped English captains. He had a very rough crew, and he was bad at controlling them. They were frustrated, losing hope, unpaid, short on supplies, and suffering from seaborne illnesses. None of this was helped by the fact that Kidd was a far cry from the ideal buccaneering leader. Instead of the captain’s typical one-to-two shares of the spoils, he claimed a remarkable forty shares for himself, enforcing this shipboard inequality with violent discipline. His violence reached new heights when he smashed in the skull of his gunner, William Moore, with a wooden bucket. In the end, Kidd was far less successful than his pirate predecessor Henry Avery, who evaded capture, or even his contemporary Robert Culliford, who was acquitted of all his charges.
As Ritchie demonstrates, no one actually believed that Kidd was a privateer who was not going to become a full-fledged pirate. From the English in the Royal Navy, to the officials of the East India Company, the Indian merchants on the Malabar coast, and even the pirates of Saint Marie Island, everyone knew Kidd’s true intentions. If he actually believed that his cover as a privateer was going to be successful, then he was truly naïve. His critics were already compiling a dossier of his offenses in both London and Surat before he even committed his first official act of piracy. But Ritchie’s broad image of Kidd as a petulant, arrogant, selfish and naïve “little man” reaches new heights during his trial in May, 1701, in London. Kidd, who is forced to act as his own defense lawyer in accordance with contemporary law, actually believes that he will get pardoned or acquitted. He repeats the same argument ad nausea, asking for the lost passes from the two French vessels that he plundered. But he does not see the writing on the wall. He does not seem to realize that the passes are irrelevant to everyone but himself, and that his conviction was guaranteed before the trial had even begun. Here, the court is simply going through the motions. The verdict is a foregone conclusion.
The true genius of Ritchie’s work is that his book is not really about Kidd. Instead, it merely uses Kidd as a way to describe the shifting political, social, and economic forces that made the crackdown on piracy seem inevitable, at least in the overseas English empire. As Ritchie brilliantly explains, by the time that Kidd was arrested in 1699, he was “entrapped in a larger movement,” swirling towards his death like a cork down a whirlpool. He had unknowingly become “a convenient symbol for a much larger problem.” Indeed, he had become a symbol, a scapegoat, or a straw man for piracy itself. As a result, he was sacrificed like a Jonah to the whale of early-modern capitalism, or a sop to the Cerberus of political backsliding. As Rediker states, he was like “deadweight ballast in a furious squall.”
There are many factors that converged to secure Kidd’s fate in the English legal system, and Ritchie sets them all out in his excellent chapter “Revenge of the Company.” First, the Old East India Company had fallen on especially hard economic times and experienced declining profits in recent years. They were faltering under the violence of the French guerre de course, mutinies, and credit problems. Meanwhile, it was fighting domestic textile manufacturers who challenged its monopoly. When Kidd took the Quedah Merchant—leased out to Muklis Khan, a leading member of Emperor Aurangzeb’s court—he forced the hand of the Mughal empire, which fell back on precedent by closing its East India operations with the English, suspending trade, and imprisoning overseas officials in their own factories.
As Ritchie continues, the explosion of piracy in the Indian Ocean in the 1690s had greatly damaged the commercial reputation of the English among powerful Indian merchants, like Abd-ul-Ghafur of the Gujarati province. Officials had come to believe that all pirates in the Indian Ocean were English (an awkward truth because many of them actually were), and the French and the Dutch companies worked to encourage this reputation. Men like Henry Avery, who had looted the Ganj-i-Sawai without repercussion in 1695, set the stage for Kidd’s defeat. The farcical pirate trials of Avery’s men, who were originally deemed not guilty, also shed an uncomfortable light on English devotion to protecting Indian commerce. Finally, Kidd became a pawn in a highly charged political rivalry between the Tory and Whig factions of the English Parliament. When the patronage of the Junto was revealed, Kidd’s Whig benefactors had no choice but to encourage his conviction in order to protect their honor.
All of this occurred at an historical moment where merchants, bureaucrats, and officials across the colonial world were falling out of favor with piracy. Once upon a time, maritime predation was necessary for opening up the markets of the New World to European competition. Now, European colonies were firmly established and a financial revolution was vaulting London to the economic heights of a city like Amsterdam. In this context, piracy actually jeopardized the regularity, order, and systematic profits of capitalistic trade. Similarly, ongoing war in Europe had caused England “to expand the administrative apparatus of the state,” now favoring organization, routine, and discipline over unpredictability and spontaneity. This shifting political opinion was epitomized by new antipiracy legislation. These laws created vice admiralty courts in the colonies and gave them the power to try and hang criminals according to civil law, rather than extraditing them to the High Court of Admiralty in London. The ink on these laws was still drying when Kidd awaited his trial in Newgate Prison in 1700.
As Ritchie concludes, “Kidd sailed home to a very different atmosphere from the one he left” three years earlier. His hanging at Execution Dock, in Wapping on the Thames, had more to do with his larger political context than with his actual transgressions. His body, which was set to decompose in an iron gibbet at Tilbury Point at the entrance of the river for three months, was a symbol of all the nameless and faceless pirates who had previously gotten away, and who might try to get away in the future. It was a message to mariners, a grotesque testament to the state’s new conviction that only it would hold a monopoly on violence.
Ritchie’s Captain Kidd is a broadly interpretive work. While it follows the life of Captain Kidd and his benefactors pretty closely, it also goes on great tangents to describe settings, from the docks of New York, to the cells of Newgate, to the shores of Saint Marie Island. The author also demonstrates his strong knowledge of sailing and wind patterns, from the currents in the Gulf of Guinea to the Monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. He takes detours to explain what happens to those pirates who come into contact with Kidd and then leave, and he leads out of his story with a very fluid conclusion. If the work has any shortcomings, it is that the first chapter on pirate history before the age of Kidd is pretty unnecessary. Its divisions between “officially sanctioned piracy,” “commercial piracy,” and “marauding” are not that distinct on the ground, and they do not really have any direct conversation with the rest of the narrative. Also, a story about a specific decade of piracy in the early-modern era should not feel obligated to begin with an overview of the Cilician pirates in the age of Julius Caesar.
Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates is far and away one of the few best works on the history of piracy in the early-modern world. It is the perfect prequel to Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations because, taken together, these two books demonstrate that the War of Spanish Succession was only a ten-year interlude in an unfinished imperial project to crackdown and exterminate all obstacles to global capitalism. The work that was begun with the hanging of Henry Avery’s crew and William Kidd would begin again. This time, however, the stakes would be much higher. Instead of the family men of Kidd’s generation, the English empire would face bands of roving anarchists, led not by political sycophants, but by men untethered and vengeful, men like Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts.