Pieces of eight

Piracy seems to be a growing problem today, and it was even worse in the eighteenth century. One of the most famous was the Scottish Captain William Kidd. There is in fact some doubt as to how far his activities extended and he was used as a political pawn between the Whigs and the Tories, but what interests me is how his capture and trial were reported in the London press. Albeit at a much slower pace, it bears comparison with the way 24-hours news coverage of a modern event chops and changes as more information is revealed.

The first hint we have of Kidd being in potential trouble occurs on August 18:

Amsterdam, Aug. 18. Letters of the 2d of July from Curassaw say, They had Advice there, That the English Pirate Capt. Kidd, in a Ship of 30 Guns, and 250 Men, had been at St. Thomas, and offered the Danish Governour 45000 Pieces of Eight in Gold, and a great Present in Goods, if he would protect him in that Port for a Month; which being refused, the said Kidd sailed toward St. Domingo, and meeting an English Ship by the way, promised her 25000 Crowns to buy him Provisions at Curassaw, which she carried him, and was paid accordingly; Whereupon another Ship at Curassaw went to trade with Kidd, and is returned hither with vast Riches, and some of his Men; 100 of his Crew went to St. Eustachius, and were so well provided with Money, that they had above 2000 Crowns a piece, but not finding Chapmen there, for their Goods, they were gone elsewhere. (Flying Post, August 12–15, 1699)

A few days later Kidd appears to have surrendered to the Governor of New England (although Belloment had earlier engaged Kidd in a raid against another group of pirates, so Kidd may have thought he was safe in what he was doing). Note the continual references in what follows to him as famous, infamous, notorious and so on, building up the kind of villainous characterisation we are used to in today’s tabloid press:

London. August 23d, We have an account that Capt. Kidd the famous, orrather Infamous, Pirate hath surrender’d himself to the Lord Bellamont Governour of New-England with his ship and Cargo said to be worth 200000l. Which he hath got by the many Piracy’s he hath Committed. (London Post, August 21, 1699)

By the next report Bellomont has captured him – and seemingly been rewarded for his pains:

London. September, 8th… ‘Tis Confirmed, that Capt. Kidd, the noted Pirate, is seized by the Ld Bellamont, Governour of New-England, with all his rich Cargo, and that he has presented his Lordship with a Gift in Jewels valued at 10000 l. and tis said his Lordship has appointed Commissioners to take an Inventory of the Cargoe, and the Value thereof. (London Post, September 6, 1699)

The Post Boy has more information, and an explanation for the apparent bribe:

By our last Letters from New England we have Advice, That Capt. Kidd, the famous Pirate, of whom we have so often made mention, being arrivd on that Coast, prevailed with a Person of Note in that Colony to go to his Excellency the Earl of Bellamont, who is Governor of that Country: His Lordship admitted the Gentleman to speak with him in the presence of the Council, where he endeavoured to justify Captain Kidd, and said, That he had done nothing contrary to his Commission, having taken but one French Privateer; his Lordship said, That if he had done nothing else, he wou’d do him what service he could. Upon this Kidd sent a Present of Jewels to the Countess of Bellamont, to the value of some Thousands of Pounds, which she would not Accept of, until such time as she had acquainted her Lord : His Lordship ordered her to take them, which accordingly she did ; and soon after Kidd thinking himself secure appeared at Boston, where he was apprehended, and being carried before his Excellency in Council to be Examined, he prevaricated with him, and the Council, and was found in several Stories, being not able to give a Satisfactory Account of his Voyage ; and it being well known that he had Committed several Piracies on the High Seas, he was sent to Prison, where he is to remain until such time as he is Tried. After this his Lordship appointed Commissioners to inspect into his Effects, and to take an Inventory of them, sending at the same time the Jewels which his Lady had received to the said Commissioners, to be laid up with the rest of the abovementioned Pirate’s Effects, which are of a very great value. (Post Boy, September 7–9, 1699)

After an illness and some breathless reporting of the ‘will he, won’t he’ variety, Kidd was shipped back to England, now with a considerably lower figure being placed on his goods, either because of previous hyperbole or quite possibly light fingers among the investigators:

Captain Kidd the notorious Pirate, with 40 more are shortly expected here from Boston in New-England. What was seiz’d in Kidd’s Ship is not valued about 26000 l. sterling. (Post Boy, March 16–19, 1700)

He was questioned and committed to Newgate:

Capt. Kidd the Pirate was brought to Town on Sunday examined by the Lords of the Admiralty for some Hours and then committed to Newgate, with orders to be strictly observed. (Flying Post, April 13–16, 1700)

You can almost picture the reporters trying to get an interview:

No Person is admitted to speak with that notorious Pirate Captain Kidd, who is now a Prisoner in Newgate. (Post Boy, April 25–27, 1700)

By May 10 he was in court and swiftly condemned to death:

London, May 10. At a Session of the Court of Admiralty held at the Old-Baily on the 8th and 9th instant, William Kidd, late Captain of the Adventure Galley, was Indicted and Tried for the Murder of William Moore, his Gunner, on board the said Ship; and was found Guilty. He was likewise Indicted with Nicholas Churchill, James Howe, Darby Mullint, Abel Owen, Gabriel Loffe, and Hugh Parrot, (who were some of his Men) for several Acts of Piracy committed on the Quedo Merchant, and other Ships; and they were all Convicted of the same… Whereupon the Court proceeded to pass Sentence of Death upon Captain Kidd, and eight of the other Pirates before-named. (London Gazette, May 8–12, 1701)

Most of the other pirates were reprieved (as others had been in return for their testimony against Kidd), but Kidd reportedly made one last-ditch effort to avoid his fate:

Kidd, the Famous Pirate, who is to be Executed to Day, proffers, ‘tis reported, 100000 l. for his Life. (New State of Europe Both As to Publick Transactions and Learning, May 23, 1701)

Clemency was not forthcoming, and the unfortunate Kidd was executed and gibbeted as an example to others:

Yesterday about three in the Afternoon Capt. Kidd, with 3 other Pirates, were carried in 3 Carts from Newgate to Execution-Dock, where, between 6 and 7, they were executed. (Flying Post, May 22–24, 1701)

I am told that the Corps of Capt. Kidd is to be hung up in Chains at Tilbury-point. (London Post, May 23–26, 1701)

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