More Than Just Kidd’s Play

Tom Wareham examines the role played by a legendary yet ill-fated pirate in the consolidation of England’s early trading empire.

Captain Kidd in New York Harbor, ca. 1920 painting by Jean Leon Gerome FerrisWhen Captain William Kidd was executed for murder and piracy on May 23rd, 1701, he died defiantly proclaiming his innocence. He repeated his claim that he had been the innocent dupe of ‘others who knew better, and made me the tool of their ambition and avarice’. The question of Captain Kidd’s guilt or innocence has been a matter of historical debate ever since and the number of books published on the pirate are testimony to the popularity of the subject. However, in seeking to untangle the enigma of Kidd’s activities, historians have probably underestimated the stage on which the hapless pirate’s story unfolded.

It is generally agreed that William Kidd had been a privateer, authorised by government to fight on its behalf, long before he arrived in London from New York in 1695. It is also agreed that he was supplied with a powerful warship – the Adventure galley – and commissions to go and hunt down pirates in the Indian Ocean. Although Kidd put up some of his own money for this project, much of the funding came from a syndicate of private individuals tempted by the chance of rich returns and who preferred to keep their names off any contractual documents. Four of the supposed funders were in fact powerful members of the Whig Government: Edward Russell, Lord Orford, the first Lord of the Admiralty; Lord John Somers, Keeper of the Great Seal and privy council member (and lord chancellor in 1697); Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney and master general of the ordnance; and Charles Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, the secretary of state. According to Kidd, the man responsible for finding these backers was yet another politician, Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont.

In the latter part of 1697 Kidd reached the Indian Ocean and rumours began to fly around that he had himself turned pirate. Argument still rages today over what exactly happened but there is no question that Kidd seized several friendly merchant ships carrying valuable cargoes. Orders were subsequently issued for his arrest. Then, in the middle of 1699, he suddenly appeared off New York, where in accordance with his orders he made contact with Bellomont, who was now governor of the colony. The original plan had been that Kidd meet Bellomont to hand over any goods seized from pirates, but his prime concern now was to try to clear his name. Bellomont had Kidd arrested and sent back to England to stand trial. The fact that Bellomont, who was now in a position of authority, had been one of the key instigators of the Kidd expedition has led some historians to view his actions as a major betrayal and one which under the circumstances sent an innocent man to his death. This view is reinforced by the fact that the other high-profile backers began dissociating themselves from the project as soon as it became public knowledge, in order to try to defend their political positions.

It is certainly true that friends of Orford, Somers, Shrewsbury and Romney attempted to implement damage ­limitation exercises as soon as the threat to their positions was perceived, especially as the potential scandal stood to weaken the already fading grasp of the Whigs on power in Westminster. However there were more important issues at stake than appear on the surface and far bigger players, too. Kidd had blundered into the middle of a power struggle from which there was no escape.

By the late 17th century England was developing into a major colonial power, with a number of settlements planted in the Caribbean basin and along the eastern seaboard of America. The engine of this growing imperial machine was fuelled by burgeoning trade, especially with the East and West Indies. However the two wings of this trade were very different in nature. The trade with the East Indies had been dominated and organised from the outset by the East India Company. Although highly lucrative, this had not involved the establishment of colonies and even the attempt by the British to establish trading posts in the Spice Islands had been crushed by the rival Dutch. Instead the company depended on its ability to flatter and bribe the Mughal emperor for trading rights and privileges and the establishment of local depots or ‘factories’ along the coast of India in places such as Bombay and Surat in Gujarat.

In the opposite direction, however, the organisation was very different. Trade was founded on the creation of settlements of emigrants from Britain, whose colonies tended to fall into two categories. A number were founded as royal colonies in which the governor was appointed by the king. Others had been established by merchants or pioneer settlers and funding for these largely came from speculators. In these cases the venture was underwritten by the issue of some form of charter of government, which usually granted the people of the colony the right to appoint their own governing bodies.

However politically laudable this degree of independence might have seemed, it was soon to become a hindrance, especially when it came to trying to impose some form of order or coordination across the empire. In particular, colonies like New York tended to buck against the imposition of trading restrictions or trade tariffs, which put them at a commercial disadvantage. For the rising mercantile bourgeoisie of the Americas the high cost of luxury goods from the East particularly rankled, especially as merchants were prohibited from trading directly by the terms of the exclusive royal charter granted to the East India Company. Goods could only be legally acquired through London at premium cost (an issue which was to have disastrous consequences for British rule in North America during the final quarter of the following century).

Geographical distance and a spirit of outraged independence led to a prickly relationship between colonial governments and London. Attempts to regulate the colonies were the responsibility of the Lords of Trade and Plantations, a standing committee of the privy council established in 1675. Although an efficient organisation, it fell into decline during the reign of James II and was only revived in 1695, when the Duke of Shrewsbury proposed its re-establishment as a board of trade, with several key ex-officio members, including the lord keeper (Lord Somers) and first lord of the Admiralty (Orford).

Two issues quickly became noticeable thorns in the side of the new board: colonial smuggling and piracy, both of which were connected. For some years New York merchants had circumvented trading restrictions by purchasing contraband goods from pirates operating in the Indian Ocean. The pirates had established bases on the island of Madagascar and it was usually here that plundered East India commodities and slaves were traded for ships’ stores and equipment, or the more luxurious items prized by sea robbers. Efforts to discourage this illegal trade were undermined by the disinclination of the colonial government to punish New York’s merchants. Attempts to impose a more coercive authority met with resistance and even, on at least one occasion, rebellion. Without legal power to try and execute pirates in situ, governors appointed by the crown had to send them back to England – if they were fortunate enough to catch them. Even this was difficult as the sea rovers were supported by a sympathetic population. In order to strengthen government authority over the colony and help suppress piracy, the Whig Earl of Bellomont was appointed governor of New York in 1695. His appointment to this position was a significant element of the Kidd project.

The pirates with whom the New York merchants were dealing had been trading from the Indian Ocean from the 1680s, but the trouble reached a new height in 1695, the same year that the board of trade was re-established. Indian merchants and the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), had accused the English in particular of being behind this depredation. This view was confirmed when, in August of that year, the annual pilgrim fleet sailing between Mocha in the Arabian peninsula and Surat was attacked by a flotilla of pirates led by the Englishman Henry Every. Suspicions were compounded when Every issued a public notice stating that he would not attack any English-owned vessel.

In the outrage that followed the attack on the pilgrim fleet the East India Company’s factories were besieged by furious crowds and wealthy Indian merchants lobbied Aurangzeb for a clampdown. Desperate factors dispatched dire warnings to East India House in London of the threat to their valuable trade. In July 1696 Parliament responded by issuing a proclamation against piracy and demanding the seizure of Every and all other pirates. The proclamation did little to appease Aurangzeb and was not even issued in Surat, perhaps because it appeared to confirm the accusations about the nationality of the pirates. Furthermore, Every had vanished completely with his plunder and although some of his crew were brought to justice there was little to satisfy the victims of his piracy.

The embattled East India Company appealed to the board of trade for help, but with the Royal Navy embroiled in a major conflict with France there was little hope of sending spare warships against the pirates. Nor was there any likelihood that the Admiralty could find spare funding for such an expedition. It was against this background that the plan evolved to arm Kidd with a warship and send him into the Indian Ocean. In fact, as noted above, the syndicate that provided the funding consisted of several key members of the board of trade. The Kidd expedition could, therefore, be seen as a legitimate attempt to meet a genuine need, simply by substituting a privateer for a naval vessel (even if the commission which made it legal was acquired in rather dubious circumstances). It was, literally, a public-private partnership. Yet it remains curious that, after Kidd had sailed, both Orford and Somers managed to avoid at least one council of trade meeting to discuss the possibility of dispatching an official and above-board naval squadron to the Indian Ocean. Further delays to the appointment of an official squadron followed, especially when James Vernon (Shrewsbury’s secretary) attended a meeting of the board and proposed that the East India Company should cover half the cost, a proposal that was bound to meet with resistance by the company. In fact it was not until after news of Kidd’s activities reached London that obstruction vanished and a naval squadron was finally dispatched to the East Indies in the spring of 1699.

The general alarm of the East India Company was justified and it certainly had good reason to fear the imposition of sanctions by Aurangzeb. Its position in India was already precarious. In 1686 Josiah Child, the avaricious governor of the company, had sanctioned an ambitious and foolhardy military attack on the Mughal state in Bengal. Following a humiliating defeat the company was obliged to pay a massive indemnity to the emperor. Two years later, undeterred by this setback, in an attempt to force the Indian merchants to stop trading with interlopers, the company factor in Bombay seized barges belonging to the Mughal navy. The factory was besieged by Aurangzeb’s forces and once again the company had to buy its way out of difficulties, this time with a payment of 150,000 rupees.

The East India Company defends its trading monopoly on the title page of Thomas Stringer's journal of 1713
The East India Company defends its trading monopoly on the title page of Thomas Stringer's journal of 1713

Between 1657 and 1683 the value of the East India Company’s stock had risen by 500 per cent. But in the aftermath of its disastrous actions in India the profits began to fall catastrophically. Then the pirate attacks began and the already irritated emperor saw yet another reason for sanctions against the East India Company. But it had other problems nearer home. The exclusive royal charter, which granted the company a monopoly over trade east of the Cape of Good Hope, had become an increasing grievance among the rising mercantile bourgeoisie in London. With growing sums of capital to spare, those excluded from the closed ranks of the company were eager to take part in the lucrative trade in Indian textiles and spices. By the 1680s some got round the problem by ignoring it. A growing number of ‘interlopers’ were making their way to India, where they found that Indian, Persian and Armenian merchants were less particular about the exclusivity of privileges granted to the company in London. Appeals by the company to the emperor to forbid what it saw as ‘illegal’ trading were shrugged off, unsurprisingly given the company’s behaviour. So its only recourse was to pursue the interlopers through the courts in England. Such a course of action, though, was of limited impact, for at home the company faced an even bigger threat.

Pressure to open up the ranks of the East India Company to a wider group of merchant subscribers had been growing for decades. In 1681 Sir Thomas Papillon, one of the company’s own directors, had proposed increasing the number of stockholders. He was bitterly opposed by Child and driven out of the court of the company. Following the overthrow of James II in 1688 the new Whig-dominated Parliament proved itself less sympathetic to such old royal prerogatives as exclusive charters and established a committee to review the position of the East Indies trade. In January 1690 the committee pronounced that the future of the trade lay with the formation of a new East India Company and an organisation soon coalesced around some of the most active interlopers, who were branded ‘the Dowgate Adventurers’, because they met in the hall of the Skinners Company in Dowgate Hill. Child dismissively referred to the new body as ‘our furious brainsick adversaries’.

Getting rid of the old East India Company was, however, more of a problem. The privileges granted to the company could only be revoked by the king and William III was not convinced that the destruction of the old organisation was in the best interests of the trade. Members of the old East India Company pointed out that even under the terms of their charter they were entitled to three years to wind up their affairs. The question of dissolution was referred to the law, until the autumn of 1693 when the exasperated William suddenly issued both companies with charters. Rumours flew about Westminster that the old East India Company’s coffers were mysteriously missing £50,000, but William made it clear that his intention in chartering both companies had been to encourage the two rivals to come to some form of agreement instead of potentially wrecking the trade. Despite this the two organisations continued to jockey for political advantage and there followed a prolonged bidding war, with each of the companies offering to lend the government ever increasing sums of money in exchange for exclusive rights to trade.

At the same time the old company was keen to emphasise the instability in the trading situation in India. In late 1697 it forwarded to the board of trade a report from its factors in Bombay which claimed the disorders

… in a very great measure spring from the Licentious Principles and Practices of Interlopers, who have to the utmost of their powers in India, endeavoured to banish all reverence of government out of the minds of men, and how far the actions of some of that sort in England have contributed thereunto, by declaiming against all acts of Justice done in India against malefactors, stiling all in Authority arbitrary, is left to the Company’s judgement.

The object of the accusation was all too clear.

In the furious reaction sparked by the continued pirate attacks the old East India Company’s factors became increasingly hysterical. In February 1697 the Surat factory had written a dire warning to London:

Your Honours estates Trade & servants’ Libertyes and Lives here are in continual danger, and may be shortly so all over India. We are at this instant Prisoners at large, and how soon we may be stricter confined by the Government, or massacred by the rabble, God alone knows.

Furthermore, report after report from India claimed evidence that the pirates were being supported by the colonies. A report dispatched from Bombay in January 1697 (and promptly forwarded to the board of trade) stated emphatically ‘most of the pyrates which invest these seas are fitted out of New York, whither they return a share of their unlawful gains, the Governor conniving thereat’. Probably the last thing the old company wanted at this point was an escalation in piracy, or increased interference from interlopers. But in a sense, they got both in one.

When Captain Kidd set sail from London the bidding war between the two companies was in full swing, but in July 1698 Parliament finally passed an act formally establishing the New East India Company. The old company responded by promptly buying a large number of shares in it. Four months later garbled messages arrived at East India Company House that Kidd had turned pirate. The moment was noted with understatement by that wonderful parliamentary gossip Narcissus Luttrell:

Saturday the old East India company received an expresse from Suratt, that one of his majesties men of war, sent thither to be a check upon the pyrates, has joined them; …The old East India company have acquainted the lords justices with the action of captain Kidd, commander of a man of war, sent to supresse the pyrates in the Persian seas, but instead thereof joined them: several great lords were concerned in sending him out, and to be sharers of what he should take from those pyrates.

Clearly, therefore, it was already well known in 1698 that certain Whig Lords had helped fund and organise the Kidd expedition, despite the later assertions of a cover-up. But, while they argue over the extent of the smoke screen in London and, indeed, of the nature of Kidd’s attacks on merchant shipping, historians have largely overlooked another intriguing connection.

There is no doubt that the Lords Somers, Shrewsbury, Orford and Romney agreed to back the Kidd expedition, presumably encouraged by the enthusiasm of the Earl of Bellomont. Orford seems to have assisted with naval advice, probably helped in identifying a suitable ship, and certainly intervened with the Royal Navy when Kidd fell foul of them within hours of sailing from Deptford. Similarly Somers provided crucial support in acquiring commissions for Kidd (though these were of dubious legality from the outset). However, as a syndicate, the group was surprisingly short of cash to fund the fitting out of the Adventure galley, nor was it particularly equipped to draw up the necessary contracts. Furthermore, Bellomont was equally penurious. Although it had the support of a New York merchant, Robert Livingston, the syndicate brought in yet another party, the London merchant Edmund Harrison. His role in this story has been curiously overlooked, even to the extent that he is sometimes confused with another trader of a similar name.

Edmund Harrison was wealthy and successful, with experience of trade in the Levant and with both the Americas and the East Indies – the latter, of course, as an interloper. Bellomont, Orford and Shrewsbury all borrowed money from Harrison for some or all of their share of the investment, who, it seems, then took an active role in the management of the Kidd project. It appears to have been Harrison who drew up the contracts and when Kidd’s sailing orders were issued in February 1696 they contained an explicit order to direct all correspondence back to him. In fact Harrison’s participation seems to have caused tension within the syndicate and Bellomont certainly cavilled later about the harshness of the terms of the loan:

I have reason to grudge Sir Edmund any further advantage than what is just because he used me not well in our bargain … when he had made me depend on him for advancing the money, and saw that I could not easily raise it, he gave me a Presbyterian gripe, and fettered me in the writings between us.

Although the contracts between Kidd and Bellomont stated that any proceeds or reimbursement for failure had to be paid to Bellomont, much of the money would really have gone to Harrison. That is why Bellomont complained when he thought that he might be excluded from any distribution of the legal proceeds. Harrison was a clearly much more active participant than is usually acknowledged. But there is more to him than meets the eye.

Harrison was closely connected to James Vernon, the private secretary to Lord Shrewsbury, the secretary of state. During Shrewsbury’s frequent bouts of illness, Vernon virtually took on the mantle of secretary of state (and actually held that office in 1699-1700). When news of Kidd’s piracy in the Indian Ocean finally broke it was to Harrison that Vernon turned for advice. But there was another link. When in 1698 the New East India Company was formed Shrewsbury, Orford and Somers were all subscribers to it, with Shrewsbury investing £4,000. So the men who had been involved in funding a privateering expedition, which had threatened to destabilise the position of the Old East India Company in India, were also major backers of that company’s new rival. They weren’t alone. The man who had played such an important part in organising the expedition, Edmund Harrison, was also one of the first and most active directors of the New East India Company during its first year of operation. Indeed in February 1699 he was one of the Committee of Seven appointed to negotiate terms with the Old East India Company.

By the time that Kidd arrived back in London in chains a political storm had already broken out in Westminster. Orford had been accused of misappropriation of naval funds while serving as commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean and other misdeeds. Somers had been accused of abuse of his powers while in office. Both faced accusations over their connection with Kidd and, when a formal attempt was made to impeach them several months before Kidd’s trial in February 1701, Harrison’s name also featured prominently in the charges. He was summoned by a parliamentary committee for interview in connection with the Kidd expedition but curiously, after questioning, he appears to have been dismissed. The Commons rejected the accusation against Somers by 13 votes. Although Somers and Orford faced serious accusations, both managed to escape political ruin.

Public execution of a pirate at Execution Dock, Wapping, 18th-century engraving.
Public execution of a pirate at Execution Dock, Wapping, 18th-century engraving.

Kidd’s trial was something of a formality and the outcome could never have been in any doubt, especially as a charge of murder was brought against him. He never attempted to deny this charge even though it carried the death penalty. The subsequent charges of piracy were irrefutable, though Kidd desperately clung to his indefensible position that he had only taken legitimate prizes.

By the time of Kidd’s execution in late May 1701 the wider situation had changed radically. Bellomont himself was dead, having succumbed to an illness shortly before Kidd’s trial. In the Commons the Tories had taken considerable power from the Whigs, gaining a majority in the House of Commons in the election of January 1701, though the situation was reversed at the end of the year. A naval squadron had been sent to the East Indies and by the end of 1699 factors in India were already reporting to the company that piracy was at an end. If the reports were erroneous – piracy continued until 1708 and then erupted again for a period from 1718 – they at least reflected some confidence in the measures being taken. The pirates themselves, however, had drifted back to American waters for a time, where after 1700 a powerful naval squadron now awaited them.

The problem of collusion with pirates and political recalcitrance in the colonies was also soon overcome. Exploiting the excitement over the Kidd affair, the board of trade requested Sir Charles Hedges, the judge of the high court of Admiralty, to draft a bill establishing Admiralty courts in the colonies with powers to try and execute pirates. The bill was passed in April 1700, although captured pirates were already being transported to England in large numbers. The clamp-down on illegal colonial activity had begun. But the act itself did more than this, proscribing the independence of the colonial governments. Encouraged by the board of trade, harassed by the East India Company and irritated by the Kidd affair, the government had flexed its imperial muscle and began to squeeze those long held colonial rights. Finally, as though cowed by the new determination in Westminster, the Old East India Company agreed terms with its rival and from December 1701 the two companies traded together as a joint venture. William III died in March 1702, perhaps reflecting that in addition to his martial successes he had also seen the settlement of the country’s most important trades and the consolidation of power over the new empire.

Tom Wareham is Curator of Maritime History at the Museum of London Docklands.

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