A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy
A Brief Introduction to the Pirate Legends Series
They say ‘dead men tell no tales’, yet the real pirates of the Caribbean continue to spout their legends in continually spectacular fashion. While the exact parameters of the Golden Age of Piracy are still debated amongst historians, it is generally accepted that the period spanned from around 1680-1730, and those mavericks who terrorised the trade routes have forever been epitomised by the larger-then-life figures of Blackbeard, Henry Avery, and many other legendary pirate ringleaders. Those rogue sailors have bequeathed to the world some of literature’s most colourful characters, including Captain Hook and Long John Silver, and despite the pirates creating a culture based on terror, in challenging the cultural and social norms of the contemporary period so dramatically, they captivated the minds of their contemporaries, and are still revered as folk heroes to this day.
Howbeit, one of the Golden Age’s most enduring legacies is the piratical tropes it endowed. Evidently, images of colourfully dressed pirates swinging from ropes and burying their treasure on exotic desert islands is certainly an alluring concept, yet unfortunately, it is a far cry from reality. This is the aim of Pirate Legends, to explore, demystify, and even authenticate some of the most extraordinary legacies of the pirating practice. From buried treasure and cryptographic maps, to sloops and floating fortresses, it is the objective of this blog to seek the sunny horizons of freedom, over the darkness of the deep blue sea, and bring into the light true tales from pirate’s life.
Welcome to the Golden Age of Piracy.
Pirate Legends I: The Legend of Captain Kidd’s Buried Treasure
During the course of four centuries, smugglers, thieves, and pirates alike met their ends at London’s Execution Dock. That little scaffolding in Wapping was built to send the Crown’s enemies to the other side, but above all, it served another purpose. It was a warning. Imagine for a moment, what Wapping’s waterfront may have looked like during the dawning years of the eighteenth century. A veritable wooden city within the heart of the British Empire’s capital, with its incessant wharves and timber yards, and its blackened streets surfeited with the homes of sailors and merchants alike, within a community where maritime culture reigns supreme. If you were to take a short stroll from Wapping, you may find yourself in London’s principal port at Custom House Quay, where the anchored ships with their masts and riggings appearing as a jungle of wood and rope, all the way to Old London Bridge. This would be the last thing that Captain Kidd would ever witness.
Believed to have been born in Dundee, Scotland, around 1654, much of William Kidd’s formative years remains shrouded in mystery, though we know that he was born to a radically Calvinist household, and that his father held a position of some kind within the Church of Scotland. Kidd’s name does not appear on any known records until 1689, where he can be found serving aboard a buccaneering vessel in the Caribbean. Immediately following the Glorious Revolution, William III’s ascension plunged the British Isles into the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) and pirates and rogue sailors alike were reminded of their patriotism and thus privateering commissions were issued so that these ‘reformed’ seamen may harass Britain’s enemies. Up to this point, British-born pirates traditionally targeted ships flying the colours of enemy nations, and they would not necessarily target British shipping for another twenty years. Kidd gained his own command in the vainly named Blessed William and sailed with a privateering flotilla commissioned by Governor Christopher Codrington of Nevis. After a decisive battle at Marie-Galante, Kidd’s crew, dissatisfied with their captain’s line-of-battle tactics and constant bullying, mutinied and seized the Blessed William, along with the £2,000 of Kidd’s shares that were still aboard. Some of their number would go on to become pirate legends themselves, including one Robert Culliford, who would later become Kidd’s most enduring nemesis.
While Kidd may have lost his command and a sizeable amount of treasure, he gained something far more precious: a fearsome yet reliable reputation. After further adventures in New York, which at the time greatly benefited from pirate activity, the good captain married Sarah Bradley Cox Oort in 1691, and the marriage was finalised mere days after the death of Sarah’s second husband, John Oort. The exact origins of Kidd’s notoriously maladjusted enterprise remain unknown, as each partner turned against each other like rabid dogs several years later. Briefly, by 1695 Kidd must have grown tired of life as a landlubber and set sail for London onboard his brig, the Antigua, to acquire a privateering contract in response to the pirates operating out of the East-Indies. Upon his return to London, Kidd settled in the home of a Mrs. Hawkins, a distant relative of the captain, whose home was situated in none other than Wapping. This almost delicious instance of foreshadowing illustrates that Kidd’s legend was to end where it first began.
After much political manoeuvring, this ‘Corporation of Pirates’ as they were later labelled had their heads filled with dreams of pirate treasure, as news of the East-Indian escapades of Thomas Tew and many other pirate ringleaders reached their ears. Though the king initially ignored the plan, he later gave his approval, and the corporation attained a patent under the Great Seal. Thus, the now-legendary Adventure Galley, a formidable vessel of 34 gunswas refitted for duty and the backers sealed their partnership. Each individual man involved would go on to deeply regret this decision. The king himself maintained a stake in the venture, as Lord Shrewsbury made it so that the king would retain a handsome 10% of the profits. With his letter of marque secured, Kidd sailed the Adventure Galley down the Thomas and out of London on 10 April 1696. Officially, Kidd’s commission allowed him to take ships flying enemy colours, yet the primary goal of his venture was to hunt down the notorious pirate captains that had plagued British regional interests. Indeed, only a year before, Henry Avery, the so-called ‘King of Pirates’ had captured the treasure-laden Ganj-i-Sawai, resulting in a severe deterioration of Anglo-Mughal relations.
After making port in the West-Indies, Kidd landed in the Red Sea and found little success, and so he deemed it wise to chase a Mughal pilgrim fleet. Making an anchorage at Perim Island, Kidd went about to set his trap. The pilgrim fleet set sail from Mocha on 11 August 1697, under escort from a fleet of three European ships. Interestingly, the Ganj-i-Sawai, narrowly avoided Kidd’s wrath, and it was this reason that Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the English, French and Dutch East India companies to escort his pilgrim fleets from hence forth. One such ship, the Sceptre, was commanded by one Edward Barlow, a highly controversial figure within maritime history, and a remarkably unreliable narrator. Barlow claimed to witness the Adventure Galley flying the red flag of piracy. Kidd, vastly outnumbered, retreated to the open ocean.
Technically speaking, Kidd had not yet committed piracy, but he was about to commit murder. His gunner, William Moore, dissatisfied with Kidd’s leadership, openly challenged his captain, claiming that they should attack a nearby Dutch vessel. Kidd, enraged at his gunner’s insubordination, hit Moore across the head with an iron-hooped bucket, with the gunner’s last words supposedly being ‘farewell, farewell, Captain Kidd has given me my last.’ Moore died later the next day of a fractured skull. Kidd supposedly claimed that he possessed friends in England that would ‘bring me off for that’, believing that despite having killed a man, his benefactors in London would ensure that he never saw the inside of a prison cell. Despite this, the fact was inexcusable. Kidd had committed first degree murder.
The final nail in Kidd’s coffin would be his taking of the 400-ton Quedagh Merchant on 30 January 1698. Under the guise of a French flag (a common privateer and pirate tactic) Kidd intercepted the vessel, which was under the command of the English Captain Wright, who produced a French pass, and as Kidd’s commission was to take French vessels, he thought he had finally scored a major victory. In reality, the vessel was of Armenian origin, and her cargo the property of the Mughal Empire. Kidd was surely aware of this, as Coji Babba, one of the seven Armenian merchants aboard, offered Kidd 20,000 rupees to allow them on their way. His plea fell on deaf ears, and Kidd took control of the ship. Following this, Kidd later chased the Sedgewick, a ship registered to the East India Company. William Kidd, privateer of Great Britain died. Out of the ashes emerged Captain Kidd, pirate legend of the Indian Ocean.
With the leaky Adventure Galley on her last legs, or sails in this case, Kidd set a course for Île Saint-Marie in Madagascar, a notorious pirate hideout. It was here that Kidd once again crossed paths with Culliford, who at this point was an established pirate captain. Ever the thorn in Kidd’s side and disgruntled with their meagre shares and with Moore’s murder probably still fresh on their minds, many of Kidd’s crew abandoned him for Culliford. Out of 117 men, Kidd now only commanded about 20, whose ranks were bolstered with the addition of slaves. With reduced manpower, Kidd’s second ship, November, was stripped and burned by the dissenters, while the Adventure Galley finally sank to her final resting place, as Kidd’s remaining men could not man the pumps that required constant operation to keep the ship afloat. Culliford had made a fool of Kidd yet again.
With the Quedagh Merchant, now renamed the Adventure Prize, Kidd, defeated, set a course for the Americas. It was in the West-Indies that Kidd discovered from an East India Company agent that he had been deemed an outlaw and enemy of the crown. Kidd was arrested in Boston for high seas piracy. In the ensuing trial at the Old Bailey, Kidd was sentenced to death twice on the same day. Once for the murder of William Moore, and once for his piratical transgressions. Despite this, for the duration of his trial Kidd maintained that he was the ‘innocentest person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons.’ It was an undeniable fact at this point, Kidd was doomed. Consequently, on 23 May 1701, Kidd was hanged at Execution Dock. Kidd’s hanging was a major public spectacle, and hundreds hurried to the waterfront to witness his demise. Evidently, Captain Johnson deemed Kidd’s escapades to be the ‘subject of all conversation, so that his actions have been chanted about in ballads.’ The first rope snapped, and Kidd hoped that by some divine providence, he had been spared. Though he intended to remain defiant to the end, at the last possible moment, Kidd repented his sins. The second rope held, and Captain Kidd was no more. In death, Kidd suffered a final humiliation; his corpse was gibbeted at Tilbury Point, a warning to all to what awaits those who contemplate the pirate life.
What became of Kidd’s legendary treasure hoard? We are all too familiar with the archetypical trope of pirates burying their treasure to safeguard their ill-gotten gains, yet in part we can thank Captain Kidd for this most enduring of piratical legends. Evidently, leading maritime historian David Cordingly lamented that the concept of buried pirate treasure has garnered far more attention than it ever deserved to have. Yet, over a century before Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver set sail for Captain Flint’s fabled Treasure Island, Kidd apparently stashed his bounty away before dancing his final jig at Execution Dock. While we are aware that the concept of pirates acquiring massive amounts of treasure is a misconception of sorts, it is a genuine historical fact that Kidd did possess a hoard of great wealth.
Upon his arrival in the West-Indies, the Adventure Prize’s hull was laden with gold, textiles, silver, and other treasures of great monetary value. In order to rid himself of the highly inconspicuous Indian-built Adventure Prize, Kidd traded much of this away and acquired the Saint Antonio for 3,000 pieces of eight. In addition, he collected 4,200 in bills of exchange and a further 4,000 in gold dust and bars. Consequently, Kidd pocketed a handsome 8,200 pieces of eight, a respectable amount for the time, along with an unknown number of treasures that were shifted aboard the Saint Antonio. It is also theorised that Mrs. Kidd may have been in possession of some of Kidd’s booty, as he reconnected with her upon his return to New York.
News of Kidd’s fortune whetted the appetite of Lord Bellomont, who went about hunting down the individuals who had been in contact with Kidd who might have some inclination to the location of the haul. Kidd’s old friend Duncan Campbell was among this number, whose Boston lodgings were subsequently searched, and 463 ounces of gold, and a further 203 ounces of silver were discovered, along with a menagerie of other smaller treasures. John Gardiner, fearing Bellomont’s wrath, also conceded his 11 bags of silver and gold. After a short stay in prison, Mrs. Kidd forswore her treasures as well. Most likely intended as a bribe, prior to his arrest, Kidd sent Lady Bellomont a ‘gift’ in the form of chest of jewels, and this was also confiscated by her husband. In total, Bellomont dispatched 2,353 ounces of silver, 1,111 ounces of gold, 52 bags of silver doubloons, 41 bales of goods, and several precious jewels to England along with Kidd himself aboard the Advice.
Howbeit, one might be keen to learn that this statistic did not even amount to a fraction of Kidd’s total reported bounty. Kidd himself attempted to plea with Bellomont that if he were to return to the West-Indies, he would give up an additional £75,000 worth of goods that was said to still be aboard the Adventure Prize. He reiterated this plea at his trial, yet it fell on deaf ears. Bellomont supposedly stated that he had bid ‘the gaoler to try if he could prevail with Captain Kidd to discover where his treasure was… but he said nobody could find it but himself and would not tell any further.’ This is suspiciously similar to an alleged statement attributed to Edward Thatch, alias Blackbeard, who claimed that he had hidden his loot where only himself and Satan may find it. However, this was a poor bargain, as the Adventure Prize itself was thoroughly searched and stripped prior to its burning. This is where myth and legend assume command. Kidd appropriated an estimated £400,000, so this does indeed beg the question. What happened to the rest of the treasure? The rapacious Bellomont, ever desirous, went as far to dispatch a ship to the West-Indies to continue his search.
So, finally we arrive at the precipice of piratical legend. While it is believed that Kidd did indeed bury some of his treasure at New York’s Gardiners Island, it is hypothesised that this small haul was unearthed during Bellomont’s treasure hunt. Undoubtedly, the most enduring legend is that Kidd hid his treasure from the world on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, which itself has been the centre for a treasure hunt spanning several centuries. The island’s ‘money pit’ as it is referred, uncovered in early excavations, is believed by some to have been dug by Kidd’s remaining crew to safeguard the lost fortune, and the island is laden with many natural traps and tunnel systems that can be considered nigh ingenious in design. The Oak Island ‘curse’ dictates that seven people must die before the treasure can be found, and to date, six men have perished in search for riches. Kidd is not the only contender for the origins of the Oak Island mystery, however. Indeed, many have theorised that the isle’s prophesied bounty may in fact be William Shakespeare’s original manuscripts, Marie Antoinette’s jewels, hoarded Viking treasure, or even the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly hidden away centuries ago by the Knights Templar following the failure of the Crusades. Kidd’s treasure however remains the most popular theory.
Kidd’s buried bounty, and indeed Kidd himself has become deeply intertwined with pirate popular culture. Indeed, the popular television series The Curse of Oak Island (2014-present) has dedicated many episodes to finding the purported treasure, as brothers Rick and Marty Lagina continue to hunt for the elusive fortune. The island itself can be visited in the cult videogame Assassin’s Creed III (2012), where the protagonist unearths Kidd’s hidden stash after gathering four map fragments previously in the possession of Kidd’s former crewmen. The aptly named ‘Capt. Kidd’s Anchorage’ in Treasure Island (1883) is named for Kidd, and an argument can be made that without the legend of Kidd’s gold, we would not have Robert Louis Stephenson’s immortal adventure.
Furthermore, several of American author Washington Irving’s short stories are centred around the Kidd legend, including The Devil and Tom Walker and the Money-Diggers, both published in Irving’s Tales of a Traveller (1824). The latter includes a short story entitled Kidd the Pirate, where it is illustrated by one of the protagonists that the treasure in question was as ‘buried by Kidd the pirate and his crew.’ Veteran diver Barry Clifford believed he had discovered a silver bar belonging to Kidd’s hoard off the coast of Île Saint-Marie, yet this was later debunked by multiple UNESCO lines of inquiry. Suffice to say, rumours of Kidd’s treasure ignited an explosion of North American treasure hunting, and through the centuries multiple companies and consortiums have been established to find the hoard.
Thus, the legend of Kidd’s treasure is laid bare. Although the privateer turned pirate has been long dead, rumours of his fortune remain prevalent today. So, what is the conclusion to this most enduring of pirate mysteries? It could be that Kidd’s stash is a fantasy, a fabrication that was centuries in the making. Perhaps Bellomont was victorious in finding Kidd’s treasure, and kept it hidden for himself. Maybe some lucky individual has already discovered it and has hidden it away from public eye. It could be that Kidd’s cursed bounty is still out there, waiting to be found. Or perhaps there was no treasure, and Kidd fabricated the story himself in an ill-conceived attempt to escape the hangman’s noose. Though Kidd remains a decisive figure within the maritime discipline, he is remembered as one of the early legends of the Golden Age of Piracy, and I imagine that the good captain would be fond of the legacy, and the ambiguous promise of riches it harbours. Nevertheless, perhaps the explanation is far more sinister. As the Oak Island curse observes, seven must die before the treasure will reveal itself, which means that one more unlucky soul must perish in search for the fabled bounty.
Take a warning now by me,
For I must die, I must die,
Take a warning now by me,
For I must die,
Take a warning now by me,
And shun bad company,
Lest you come to hell with me…
Next week: Blackbeard’s Gambit…
Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, researching Early Modern maritime history.
Bonner, Willard Hallam. Pirate Laureate. New Brunswick, 1947.
Brooks, Graham. The Trial of Captain Kidd. Glasgow, 1930.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.
Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.
Pyle, Howard. The Book of Pirates. Dover, 2020.
Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Croydon, 2012.
Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.
Ritchie, Robert. Captain Kidd and the War Against Pirates. Cambridge, 1986.