Thursday, September 22, 2016

Captain William Kidd: piracy, fiction, rum, and the rope

"Talk Like a Pirate Day" was Monday September 19. It seems appropriate to recommend a book about Captain Kidd -- who became the romantic notion of piracy for an entire genre of literature. 

May 23, 1701: Captain William Kidd is fed rum and brandy until he cannot stand and paraded in a cart through the streets of London as hysterical crowds scream and cheer. He is hanged, but the rope breaks, depositing him in a heap of mud, while other condemned men swing overhead. Still in a drunken stupor, he is pulled dripping from the slop and hanged a second and final time. 
His corpse is tarred and placed in a cage and hung on the Thames shoreline as a warning to pirates, where it would remain for nearly two years. An epitaph as abominable for its poetry as for its sentiment is nearby:
Reader, near this Tomb don't stand 
Without some Essence in thy Hand; 
For here Kidd's stinking Corpse does lie, 
The Scent of which may infect thy!!
There is no question Kidd was a pirate, since he was hired for that job by King William III himself. In their charges, the government claimed that his piracy strayed beyond approved targets -- that is, the government felt the pinch themselves. The truth is hard to know, but it seems likely that Kidd was a scapegoat for powerful interests involved in multiple duplicities concerning the distribution of his booty.

Robert Ritchie's biography Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates unravels some strands that bind the facts of high-seas piracy with the romantic fiction that followed it. It's as lively a tale-spinning biography as Kidd himself would enjoy. The author of the Flashman series of historical fictions, George MacDonald Fraser, had words of high praise when the book was published in 1988: The most detailed record I have ever seen of a pirate voyage, with its origins and aftermath; I doubt if there is another like it.
William Kidd was born 22 January 1645. He became one of the two or three best known pirates to emerge from an era in which piracy was an enterprise as much as a threat. His checkered legacy gave rise to legends of buried treasure that still attract treasure hunters today. 
Kidd never set out to become a pirate. There is every reason to believe that his eventual trial and execution for piracy -- which has become the stuff of romantic derring-do and outfoxing authority -- was the result of an establishment cover-up, and that crucial documents that could have led to his acquittal were withheld by the British government. 

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