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Success Story

Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates

by Robert C. Ritchie
Harvard University Press, 306 pp., $20.00

Outlaws, highwaymen, smugglers, pirates, train robbers—they have always had a romantic appeal, and much public sympathy. It was difficult to get seventeenth-century English juries to return guilty verdicts against pirates. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when pirates did a roaring trade with New York and other American ports, it was better to ship them back to England for trial if possible. For by then Englishmen had become aware of the overall importance of trade for the national economy.

Robert Ritchie’s meticulously researched book is an account of the transformation in world trade which led to this transformation in attitudes. His first chapter shows that piracy is as old as trade. There was often very little distinction between the two. A great change came with the sixteenth-century expansion of European trade—first to Africa, India, and the Far East, then to the Americas. We euphemistically call this “trade,” but in effect it was organized piracy and plunder. Trading companies, financed by private capital, organized it. Their ships, thanks to better armaments, forced their way into the thriving commerce of Asia. They grabbed and fortified trading stations, concluded unequal treaties with local rulers whom they “protected” against other pirates. The English and Dutch East India companies intervened in wars in order to drive harder bargains with the winners. It is a very sordid story indeed.

But like many other stories of brutal violence, it was a success story. Local regimes in Africa and the Far East had to come to terms with the powerful intruders. In the Americas, Spain and Portugal took over direct rule. Europe’s “trade” advanced by leaps and bounds, not least the slave trade. This led to a vast increase in piracy on the trade routes. The scene was complicated by rivalries between the great plundering powers. Whenever Spain was at war with France, the Netherlands, or England, the governments of these countries commissioned “privateers” to pillage Spanish trade. Privateers did not always recognize the distinction between friendly and enemy ships, and when the great powers signed a peace the little pirates were apt to ignore it. In the Mediterranean the permanent state of war between Spain and the Turks led to permanent piracy, based on the North African coast. As Dutch and English trade became richer, Algerian pirates came out of the Mediterranean to take their share. In the reigns of James I and Charles I they raided the south coast of England and took slaves. Dunkirk became a pirate base. Such policing of the Channel as occurred was done by the Dutch; England was impotent to protect its own merchants and even its own shores.

Governments were ambivalent in their attitudes toward piracy. “Privateers” were useful allies in time of war. As Robert Ritchie points out, a navy was much more expensive than an army and, for all but the maritime powers, the Netherlands and England, it seemed of secondary importance for their strategic plans. Protecting commerce was very costly. Spain managed convoys for the South American silver fleet because that was vital to the financial stability of the government. But private merchants were mostly left to protect themselves. “Wars at sea are merchants’ affairs and of no concern to the prestige of kings,” said a Portuguese official.

When the Dutch and English East India companies were at daggers drawn in the Far East, King James I of England mediated between them: he did not think that the English state was involved. His son Charles likewise had no interest in furthering or protecting English trade. After selling a monopoly of Indian trade to the East India Company, he insouciantly licensed other merchants—for a payment, of course—to interlope. In 1633 a royal ship indulged in piracy in the Red Sea, for which the East India Company was held responsible. When English merchants were trying desperately to capture cloth markets in the Mediterranean to compensate for north European markets lost in consequence of the Thirty Years’ War, Charles coldly told them not to expect naval protection and ordered them to keep out of the Mediterranean. Trade and settlement in the West Indies and North America were left entirely to private enterprise, with no effective government support or protection.

Things were different in the Netherlands. There the outcome of the sixteenth-century revolt against Spain had been the establishment of a republic dominated by merchants. The Dutch East India Company enjoyed full government support. Things were different in England too after the revolution of 1640–1660. Blake’s fleet swept the Mediterranean, cleaning up the pirate base at Algiers. Oliver Cromwell’s seizure of Jamaica in 1655 was the first full-scale use of English state power in furtherance of economic expansion. In 1658 the pirate base of Dunkirk was conquered. The Navigation Act of 1651, making the English empire a closed monopoly trading area, challenged the Dutch to fight for the trade of the world. In three wars the latter failed to get this policy reversed. By the end of the century the Dutch were subordinate allies of England.

This aggressive policy survived the restoration of monarchy in 1660, though with diminished resources. Henceforth protection and furtherance of trade were essential to government policy. The period of wars for the domination of world trade—especially of course the slave trade—had begun. Privateers were still used by all the great powers to harry the enemy in time of war; and piracy in time of peace prospered as never before. But

by the end of the seventeenth century England was…an established and ever more formidable imperial state. English merchants had created trades throughout the world, making London an entrepôt of ever greater importance. As the merchant community expanded, it looked upon the world with different eyes: it prized order and regularity because they enhanced profits; disorder interrupted the regular flow of trade.

Governments accepted that the seas must be policed if the revenue from customs duties, now vital to their finance, was to be preserved. Commerce protection had become one of the primary duties of the permanent navy. In the sixteenth century the English state had established an internal monopoly of force against its over-mighty subjects; now the navy was well enough financed to extend this monopoly to the high seas. When the Nine Years’ War ended in 1697, wartime taxes were continued to retain a larger peacetime navy than ever before. Captain William Kidd, a former buccaneer who had been employed as a privateer during the war against France, was officially commissioned by the British government to hunt down pirates. Kidd was born in 1645, son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Nothing is known of him until he turns up in the Caribbean as a buccaneer in 1689; so he was a poacher turned gamekeeper.

The rest of Ritchie’s book concentrates on the remaining four years of Kidd’s life, for which records survive, and this allows the story to be told in great detail. It is not at all clear what Kidd’s original intentions were, but before very long he was himself engaging in piracy in a big way in the Indian Ocean, to the fury of the East India Company, to whom the bills were sent. Kidd had started by making a deal with the governor of New York State, the Earl of Bellomont, who won him support in high places among the Whig rulers of England. But circumstances began to change almost as soon as Kidd left England. The campaign against pirates was popular with British merchants who were anxious for the seas to be policed in the interests of trade: Britain was now the world’s greatest commercial power. American merchants, and especially those of New York, still made profits out of piracy which outbalanced the losses which accrued to individual merchants. Pirates disposed of their plunder with impunity in American ports, to their advantage and that of local merchants. Colonial governments were reluctant to proceed against pirates. Bellomont’s predecessors as governor made a fortune out of turning a blind eye. “The undoubted king of the pirate traders” sat on the city’s council. Naturally, New York courts disliked condemning pirates. But governors of a new type were now being sent out, civil servants dedicated to cleaning up piracy.

The British government sent a naval expedition to the Far East to protect commerce there. Kidd was denounced as a pirate. By the time he returned to New York in 1699 the Whigs were losing control of Parliament and the Tories were looking for scandals with which to attack them. Kidd’s piracies, judiciously exaggerated by the East India Company, had become notorious. The company, always more sympathetic to Tories than to Whigs, wanted revenge, since they were blamed for Kidd’s depredations. He had cost them a great deal of money and lost them a great deal of prestige. Bellomont swiftly washed his hands of Kidd, and he was shipped back to England for trial.

The Whig lords abandoned him too. They lost a little face, and a lot of loot; but they would have lost more if they had tried to save him. “Some Jonah or other must be thrown overboard if the storm cannot otherwise be laid,” said Secretary of State Sir James Vernon. “Little men are certainly the properest for these purposes.” Accidents of timing had made Kidd seem a more important figure than his career warranted: in that he was unlucky. He didn’t have a fair trial, of course: some crucial documents mysteriously disappeared between his arrest and his trial. But he was certainly guilty. Ritchie is careful not to glamorize him. Kidd was convicted of murder as well as of piracy: he was clearly a tough and brutal commander. He arrived drunk for his execution, and expressed penitence only after the rope hanging him broke and he was waiting for another. His imprisonment and execution cost the Admiralty £154.18.7.

Ritchie deals only indirectly with the side of pirate life that Marcus Rediker has so brilliantly explored in his “‘Under the Banner of King Death’: The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates, 1716 to 1726,”1 and in his forthcoming book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750.2 Rediker describes the transition in the early eighteenth century to more capitalist relations in merchant shipping—wage labor replacing profit sharing, stricter discipline brutally enforced, cost cutting by merchants at the expense of the living standards of seamen—and the growth of organized resistance by seamen, from collective protests, strikes, and mutinies, with piracy as the ultimate resort. The relative egalitarianism and democratic organization of pirate ships was a logical outcome of this situation: so were the utopian pirate communities established on Madagascar and elsewhere, where traditional hierarchical deference was forgotten. Defoe in his History of the Pyrates (1724) made much of such points in order to criticize aspects of English capitalist civilization that he disliked. Defoe “wrote a great deal about buccaneers and sided with them,” says Ritchie, making the same point rather differently. He “had a dyspeptic view of the new financiers and the world of stocks, bonds, and jobbers.” But Defoe had spent a good deal of time talking to retired pirates.

Much of what Ritchie has to say corroborates Rediker. Ritchie agrees that “the great distinction between privateers-men and the Royal Navy” was the former’s “democratic method of assessing punishment…. Disobedience, mutiny, and riot were subject to a corporal punishment to be agreed upon by the captain and a majority of the crew.” Prize money was divided out according to an agreement signed in advance. Ritchie quotes with effect a shocked Dutch observer: “Every man had as much to say as the captain, and each man carried his own weapons in his blanket.” “These customs,” Ritchie adds,

were unnerving to anyone accustomed to the hierarchical nature of European society, where guns normally were confined to the upper classes and democracy was unknown. Whole communities of men who lived by consensus appeared very threatening, particularly when those communities lay in such close proximity to the sailing routes to the East.

Laws and hierarchy did not exist on board ship or in the pirate settlements.” Sumptuary laws were flouted. In Europe “everyone dressed to his or her station in life, so that a glance was enough to place an individual in the social hierarchy.” Not so in the East, where pirates wore looted silks and cottons in brilliant colors.

For some…this new freedom extended to sexual relations…. On shipboard or in the renegade settlements, pirates could more openly engage in homosexual alliances” than in the navy, where “savage antibuggery campaigns” prevailed. But as against B.R. Burg’s claim that the vast majority of pirates were practicing homosexuals, 3 Ritchie dryly comments, “There is too much evidence of pirate heterosexuality in too many sources for me to accept his thesis.” Defoe has stories of polygamy on Madagascar. Ritchie instances a pirate crew who exchanged one of their ships for sixty African women slaves. They renamed their ship the Batchelor’s Delight. Alas, they were driven by storms into the Antarctic circle, where all the young women died of cold. The men are said to have survived by drinking two quarts of brandy a day. (This story, surviving by accident, tells us volumes about what the slave trade must have meant. All European nations profited by it.)

Ritchie also tells us of “consortships” between individual pirates, whereby if one died the other received his property. For some of the buccaneers this relationship also extended to sharing wives. All these breaks in social and sexual conventions, which historians are only just beginning to explore, may ultimately tell us a great deal about the fragility of the apparently stable hierarchical and deference societies which the pirates left behind. It would be nice to know more of the two lady pirates, Ann Bonney and Mary Read, who escaped the death sentence in the late 1720s by “pleading their bellies”—i.e., claiming benefit of pregnancy. They had clearly spent profitably the time of imprisonment awaiting trial.

Another interesting suggestion is that pirates’ wives, like the wives of other seamen, left at home for years, “had far greater authority over the finances of the family,” and made many more important decisions than their rural sisters. Wives of lucky and loyal pirates may indeed have had quite substantial sums to deal with.

So Ritchie’s is an excellent book in many respects. Its very detailed research reconstructs Captain Kidd’s last voyage and his trial and condemnation. It places his expedition at the turning point when the British government finally decided that piracy must be ended, and brings out the full historical significance of that decision and of the financial and naval ability of the government to give effect to it. Finally the book provides much fascinating incidental detail which adds to Rediker’s picture of the counter-culture of the pirate world.

  1. 1

    William and Mary Quarterly, No. 38 (1981).

  2. 2

    To be published by Cambridge University Press in November.

  3. 3

    See my review of his Sodomy and the Perception of Evil: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean in The New York Review (May 12, 1983).

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