Captain Kidd’s Last Voyage
by Jeff McCord
The captain of a Virginia merchant vessel overrun by pirates said the leader of the villains wore “a gold necklace from which dangled a golden toothpick.” The pirate captain was “a man of middle stature, square-shouldered, large jointed, lean, much disfigured with the smallpox, broad speech, thick-lipped [with] a blemish or cast in his left eye,” according to an account published in the Norfolk, VA Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “I am Kidd,” he told his captives before setting them free on what is now Virginia Beach.
Captain William Kidd’s physical appearance described by the merchant in 1699 spoke of his rough last voyage. That journey of combat and plunder had taken him half-way around the world. On his return, he made frustrating stops at British Anguilla and Danish St. Thomas.
Unlike Tidewater Virginia, which boasts plantations, churches and other sites, little physical evidence of the 1690s remains on the Virgin Island of St. Thomas. With imagination fed by surviving fortifications and Danish merchant houses built a few years later, however, one can envision the quaint tropic port and pristine beaches of St. Thomas in buccaneer days.
Captain Kidd had left Britain in 1696 as a commissioned privateer charged with capturing French and pirate ships and cargo. The promise of big rewards had won Kidd the financial and political backing of Lord Bellomont, then Governor of Barbados, among other British aristocrats. King William was even rumored to have been an investor.
As often happened in that business, though, events got out of hand as Kidd preyed on shipping off Madagascar and in rich East Indian spice islands. His crew, who were entitled to a portion of all spoils, mutinied when Kidd refused to attack a rich Dutch vessel. He persuaded his men to remain loyal by loosening their rules of engagement. Some remained uneasy, though, and wanted to take all merchant ships. During an argument on deck with one of his gunners, Kidd called him a “dog” and hit him over the head with a bucket. With his head cracked open, the gunner died the next morning.
Soon thereafter, Kidd unknowingly captured a British-owned ship flying a foreign flag. They also looted a cargo owned by an influential Muslim prince the British did business with. When word reached London, political opponents of Captain Kidd’s backers had him declared a “pirate”.
Loaded with spoils, Kidd left the East Indies, sailed around the southern tip of Africa and up to the Caribbean where he expected to repair his wormy, leaking ship and purchase provisions. Upon arrival off the British island of Anguilla in April 1699, however, he learned he was subject to arrest as a pirate. He was ordered to leave without coming ashore.
Certain his patron Lord Bellomont, by then Governor of New York, would clear him, Captain Kidd decided to sail to New York. Once there, he planned to spread around “the booty [which would] gain him new friends,” according to Captain Charles Johnson — himself a likely member of the brotherhood — who in 1722 wrote a history of pirates. “Kidd flattered himself that all would be hushed and that justice would but wink at him.”
To get to New York, Kidd still required repairs and provisions and needed to sell some of his cargo to pay for both. He certainly knew that the island of St. Thomas — claimed by the Danish government, but then mostly ruled by the private Danish West Indies and Guinea Company — was a free port. So, he sailed there next.
Ten years earlier, then Danish governor Nicholas Esmit certainly did do business with all who came to the small St. Thomas port of Taphus (meaning “beer hall,” now renamed Charlotte Amalie). In a 1682 letter to the West Indies Company board of directors back in Copenhagen, for instance, Esmit described the arrival of a “ship of unknown origin” manned by seven men — English, French and German — who with others had captured a Spanish galleon off Panama. They were sailing north. But, “their ship leaked and they asked to come in to St. Thomas to careen their ship, which they did.” That process of scraping off barnacles and digging out ships worms was likely done at the Careening Cove on what is now Hassel Island (part of the Virgin Islands National Park.)
Unfortunately for the pirates, their worm-eaten, wooden ship’s hull could not be saved. “To avoid any unfriendliness with sea-robbers, the inhabitants of St. Thomas decided the crew could remain,” Governor Esmit explained, “and their plunder was brought ashore and divided among [all].”
What Captain Kidd did not know was that during the three years he’d spent plundering the East Indies, the British in the West Indies had cracked down on buccaneers and ports like St. Thomas that harbored them. Pressure had been applied to Denmark. Governor Esmit was replaced by John Lorentz who had been threatened with seizure of his island by Sir William Stapleton, Governor of the British West Indies.
In his flag ship, the Quesdagh Merchant, Captain Kidd entered the outer St. Thomas harbor on April 6, 1699 and asked for permission to come ashore. Governor Lorentz faced a dilemma. Kidd, in command of 80 men and 30 cannons, could easily overpower the thin Danish force and take whatever he pleased. At the same time, St. Thomas merchants and ship wrights wanted to do business with the wealthy Captain. Nevertheless, the British fleet patrolling nearby waters posed a potentially fatal threat to all Danish property and businesses.
When Captain Kidd sent a lieutenant and some men ashore to parley, Governor Lorentz bought time. Since it was the Easter holy week and that very day was Maundy Thursday, he said no decisions could be made. Finally, two days later, Kidd’s emissary was told that unless they could prove in writing that they were “honest men,” they could not come ashore. Kidd had no such proof.
With no way to officially cover himself against future retaliation by the British Navy, Governor Lorentz “flatly refused” Captain Kidd entrance to the port. Some private agreement, though, had apparently been reached. Kidd “meekly departed.” A ship load of St. Thomas businessmen followed him.
Kidd sailed to an uninhabited Spanish island in the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. There, Peter Smith and others from St. Thomas, as well as traders from other islands, acquired a large part of Captain Kidd’s cargo. Smith and his associates brought a “[great] deal of sea-robbers’ goods” back to St. Thomas, Governor Lorentz’s diary says.
Captain Kidd continued sailing north toward New York, making several stops in North America’s southern colonies. On July 26, 1699, he entered Virginia’s Lynnhaven Bay and fired warning shots at a guard ship, which he heavily outgunned 30 to 16. The ship retreated and Kidd’s men boarded a merchant vessel, taking water, bread, sails, rigging and other goods they needed.
When he finally made it to New York, Captain Kidd was betrayed by Lord Bellomont, arrested and shipped to London. There, he was quickly tried and found guilty of piracy and murder.
“On the day of his execution [May 23, 1701],” British researcher Paul Hawkins writes, “Kidd was plied with brandy and rum until he could no longer stand without assistance.” In a stupor, he was pulled in a cart to Execution Dock, hung by his neck until dead and afterwards put “in chains down the river, where the body hung exposed for many years,” Captain Johnson adds.
Thus ends another historical link between Virginia and the Virgin Islands.