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With the continuing presence of modern−day pirates off the coast of Somalia in Africa, I thought it timely to look back at New York in the 1690s, then a pirate port of choice. Pirates were seen on the streets wearing gaudy, colorful costumes and pistols at their hips.
Local merchants — Dutch and English among them — lined up to bargain for their goods while the pirates engaged in drinking rum at such places as The King’s Arms or Hawdon’s Tavern.
The East India Company labeled them “villains,” but the pirates seemed to enjoy egress and regress uncontrolled, as well as the opportunity to spend their bounty. It is said New York then edged out the Carolinas and Rhode Island as their choice of a port.
It is claimed that men such as Steven Delancy financed ships that sailed many miles from points around the globe to sell arms and provisions to the pirates in New York. They traded openly not far from the town wall on Wall Street. While these exchanges occurred, piracy in the colonies was still illegal.
Captain William Kidd, who was born in Scotland and emigrated here, made his home in the colony of New York. As a young man, he succeeded both as a merchant and in privateering (a sort of legal piracy), where a ship’s captain could receive letters of marque authorizing him to loot ships of an enemy nation. Pirates, on the other hand, respected no boundaries of nationality, preyed on whatever ships they could find and became a growing problem.
Kidd arrived in his home port of New York on a ship called the “Adventure Galley” and greeted people near the harbor with a cannon shot. This warship was enormous. He had left 10 months earlier in a small merchant vessel and was returning with an immense ship — a “man−of−war” — and 32 cannons.
He had come to find 150 hardy sailors to pursue his mission of hunting down pirates and tacking up “help wanted” posters. He also sent out 150 hardy sailors to find help to pursue his mission. Lord Belmont was said to have been a backer of this voyage.
Kidd was considered a respectable citizen — a privateer, not a pirate. His life would later depend on that unclear designation.
On one ill−starred voyage, Kidd’s “Adventure Galley” was stopped by a Royal Navy vessel and Kidd’s hand−picked crew of able seamen was pressed into naval service. Next, Kidd set out for New York, the favored haunt of pirates, to pick up a new crew. Some were honest seamen, but others were not. When they arrived in the Indian Ocean, a third of the crew succumbed to cholera.
Kidd’s reputation began to decline as politics in London changed. The party of his backers was out of favor and some of Kidd’s activities embarrassed the powerful men once behind him. He was soon to be declared a pirate.
Convinced he could be protected, Kidd sailed back to America with documents showing the prizes he had taken were legitimate. Returning home to America, he surrendered to Gov. Bellmont in Boston. The governor, however, confiscated Kidd’s documents, put him in irons and shipped him to London.
Somehow, Kidd’s documents were “lost.” These showed up hundreds of years later. Unfortunately, they had been “misfiled.”
Unable to defend himself, Kidd was sentenced to death and executed by hanging. The story of his lost treasure and the role of Gardiner’s Island is one for another day.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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