September 19, 2014
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The notorious Captain Kidd visits Rhode Island
Terry D'Amato Spencer

Captain William Kidd, friend and confidant of Rhode Island pirate Thomas Paine obtained much of his reputedly great wealth off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean in 1697-1698.  The amount he accumulated and the methods he used are subject to some disagreement among experts and, in 1701, Kidd was convicted of murder and piracy and hanged. Much of his fortune has never been found and treasure hunters have searched in vain for many years. There is a strong belief that some of the buried treasure may have found its way to Jamestown or Block Island.

Kidd, in his swift vessel Adventure Galley, had been commissioned to stamp out pirates and to harass French colonies and allies during King William’s War (1689-97) with the French. According to Rhode Island’s most illustrious 19th century historian, Samuel Greene Arnold, Kidd received “the title of Admiral, December 11, 1695, and soon after sailed with 800 men in a government ship of 30 guns, to New York, where he doubled his crew, and went to the Red Sea.” Other historians tell us that the terms of the agreement were such that Kidd and his crew were first sent to the West Indies. They were to be allowed to keep part of the prizes captured with the understanding that if they were not successful, they would receive no compensation.

Kidd was unsuccessful in his ventures on the Spanish mainland and sailed for the Indian Ocean. The common opinion of historians is that after nine months at sea with no tangible results, Kidd, in 1697, joined the pirates and made illegal attacks upon Arab ships under French protection.

Edward Rowe Snow in Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast informs us that Kidd suspected that Arab ships from Madagascar were using two sets of flags to elude capture by British privateers. Snow says that Kidd was fooled on more than one occasion until he realized the ruse used by the Arabs. To counteract this, Kidd flew a French flag, which lured an Arab ship close enough for Kidd to seize the vessel. This act was illegal, and even when Kidd claimed he had the right to do so as his privateer commission allowed him to prey on enemy ships, it was found that the capture in November 1697 came after the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended the war. Kidd, by confiscating the cargo and burning the vessel, was accused of piracy.

One of the adventurer’s most lucrative confiscations was the Quedah Merchant, a vessel belonging to the ruler of Madagascar who was under French protection. The capture took place in February 1698, after King William’s War was over. Kidd, using the same ruse of flying a French flag, lured the unsuspecting Arab vessel to him and seized it. E.R. Snow says the Quedah Merchant had about “$500,000 worth of rare silks, silver plate, jewels, and gold...aboard.” Snow also tells us, “Kidd was so pleased with the Quedah Merchant that he decided to make it his flagship, and abandoned the Adventure Galley...which had not stood the years well.”

To add more fuel to the charges against him, Kidd came into contact with Robert Culliford, regarded by many as one of the most notorious pirates of the period. Kidd, his critics note, should have attacked Culliford’s frigate, but failed to do so. How friendly Kidd was with Robert Culliford, Thomas Tew, William Want, “Long Ben” Avery and other pirates is not clear. He had befriended pirate James Gillam while in Madagascar and took that pirate with him when he returned to Rhode Island.

Not long after the encounter with Culliford, Kidd was officially declared a pirate. When he attempted to land and trade in St. Thomas and Antiqua none of the islanders would deal with him. When many pirates, some of them flagrantly bloodthirsty and notorious, received amnesty by the 1698 Act of Grace, William Kidd and “Long Ben” Avery were left from the list.

Kidd decided to leave the West Indies and sail to New England in the hope of clearing his name and receiving amnesty. Not daring to come in the Quedah Merchant, Snow tells us that Kidd exchanged goods and vessels with an English trader and obtained a sloop, St. Antonio, for his voyage back to the American colonies. Here he hoped to plead his case before Richard Coote, Lord Bellomont (also spelled Bellemont), who had been appointed royal governor of New York and Massachusetts in 1697.

Fearing that he might not be well received, despite the fact that Bellomont was one of the men responsible for sending Kidd to the Indian Ocean, Kidd approached the American coast with caution. He apparently had taken much of his wealth with him, and this is when many believe Kidd buried his treasure in a number of locations as a safeguard against arrest and treachery. According to Snow, Kidd sailed around Long Island and anchored at Oyster Bay, where he was joined by his wife and children.

Once there, James Emmett, a well-known New York lawyer specializing in maritime law, was contacted to act as intermediary between Kidd and Bellomont. Emmett reported that the earl was currently in Boston and, after a long discussion, Kidd decided the most prudent course was to send Emmett to Boston to approach Bellomont. Kidd then sailed into Narragansett Bay to confer with Captain Thomas Paine at Jamestown.

Kidd’s sloop, St. Antonio, carrying 10 guns, sailed into the east passage of Narragansett Bay, called Rhode Island harbor at the time. According to Samuel Greene Arnold, the British cabinet issued orders to the governors of all colonies to apprehend the “notorious Capt. Kidd should he appear in their waters.” Samuel Cranston, then governor of Rhode Island, acting upon these orders, sent his tax collector with 30 armed men to board the St. Antonio. An additional reason for Cranston’s action may have been because Kidd had a passenger on board, James Gillam, who had come with him from Madagascar. Edward Field, in his history of Rhode Island, says that Gillam was “a pirate and was then in Newport with other pirates’’

When the authorities approached the St. Antonio, Kidd fired two shots from his large cannons and the collector withdrew. Kidd then proceeded to Jamestown to meet with Captain Thomas Paine. According to Howard M. Chapin’s, “Captain Paine of Cajact,” Captain Kidd anchored off Conanicut (Jamestown) and sent his boat ashore “with an invitation to Captain Paine to come and see him.” Chapin says that Paine accepted Kidd’s invitation and went aboard the sloop. He notes that, “It was rumored that at this time Kidd turned over a lot of gold to Captain Paine.”

The proof of this and of the friendship between Paine and Kidd comes from a letter dated July 18, 1699, written by Sarah Kidd, the captain’s wife, to Captain Paine. Mrs. Kidd asks Paine to deliver gold to a man named Andrew Knott for Kidd’s defense following his arrest.

Lord Bellomont, when he visited Newport in 1699, also indicated that he believed Paine had received stolen goods from Kidd and brought Paine before him. Paine at that time attested that Kidd desired him to “secure some things for him.” He added, however, “But I refused alleging my house would be searched and I could not do it.” Bellmont adds that he believed that Paine “did not sweare nice truth.”

The story of Captain Kidd, his arrest and execution will be continued.


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