William Kidd (c. 1645 - 1701) was a Scottish privateer hanged for activities as a pirate. While sources of his time depict him as rather inept in either case, his reputation has grown in legend. Ironically Kidd has arguably become among the most famous pirates in legend.
His early life and career is shrouded in legend. From 1689 to 1695 he seems to have been involved with pirating in the Caribbean and then privateering on behalf of William III of England. By the end of the period he retired to the Colony of New York. On December 11, 1695, Kidd was hired to resume privateering duties against French ships and also hunt down various pirates. His expedition was financed by a number of prominent politicians while his letter of marque obliged Kidd to reserve 10% of all loot for William III.
He set sail from London aboard his new ship the "Adventure Galley" at the head of about 150 men. Before even leaving the river Thames, his crew caused a fight with a ship of the Royal Navy. Several among them were forced into naval service and Kidd had to look elsewhere for replacements. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean and managed to capture a French ship. He arrived to New York City and hired a crew mostly composed of hardened criminals, probably with pirating experience.
Having wasted months in preparations, Kidd set sail in September, 1696. His voyage was troubled with bad luck. A visit to the Comoros resulted in a cholera epidemic which killed 1/3 of his crew. He sailed around Madagascar without encountering any pirate ship to attack. He sailed towards the Red Sea but again failed to locate any pirates and instead attacked a trading convoy from the Mughal Empire of India. The convoy was escorted by a ship of the East India Company (which was also British) and Kidd had to flee to avoid further conflict. The attack was illegal as the Mughal ships were not included in the targets authorized by his letter of marque.
Kidd kept on sailing while failing to find his targets of choice and ignoring several viable targets because none of them was French. Members of his crew started deserting at any given opportunity while those remaining kept threatening with mutiny. By October, 1697 the "Adventure Galley" had turned very little profit for its crew and morale was particularly low. Kidd himself quarreled with one of his men and killed him. The crew started taking initiatives and attacked English and Dutch trading ships, establishing Kidd's reputation as a pirate. Despite attempts of explaining himself, few trusted Kidd and his word anymore.
On January 30, 1698, Kidd captured the greatest prize of his career, the "Quedagh Merchant". It was an Armenian trading ship under French protection and transporting valuable cargo. Kidd was worried when he discovered the Captain was English and questioned whether he had to back off. His crew, hungry for any success, refused to do so. Unfortunately for Kidd much of the cargo belonged to English allies of the Indian peninsula and his prize caused diplomatic incidents.
Now with three ships, Kidd returned to Madagascar. There he encountered the first pirate of the entire expedition, the "Mocha Frigate" under Robert Culliford. Culliford was an old enemy who Kidd had not met for nearly a decade. Kidd decided he needed all three ships and crews to overpower Culliford. What he did not know was that Culliford was in Madagascar in search of a new crew, only about twenty men were serving under him. Culliford had a better reputation than Kidd and convinced much of Kidd's crew to defect to his side.
By the end of the encounter, one of his ships had fled with Culliford, the "Adventure Galley" was abandoned while Kidd and the loyal remnants of his crew set sail aboard the "Quedagh Merchant", now renamed to "Adventure Prize". He set sail towards New York. During the course Kidd learned that the English had declared him a wanted pirate and that English men-of-war (ships) were searching for him with less-than-friendly intentions. He ignored the warnings and continued towards New York, convinced his political allies would clear his name.
Kidd failed to find Richard Coote, 1st Earl of Bellomont, his only backer on American soil, in New York and thus followed him to Boston, Massachusetts. Bellomont's association with Kidd had cost him much of his reputation and he was already afraid of being hanged as an employer of pirates. He considered that having Kidd arrested was one way to save his neck. Kidd was arrested in Boston on July, 1699.
Kidd spend a year imprisoned in solitary confinement and his mental health was deteriorating. Then he was sent to England for his trial, which turned into a political show. Many of his former financiers where associated with the Whig faction which was in decline. The rival Tory faction were in power and were hoping Kidd's testimony would discredit several high-profile Whigs. He refused to implicate anyone and was imprisoned in Newgate Prison while awaiting trial. If awaiting a reward for his loyalty, Kidd was too naive. The Whigs wanted him dead and silenced as soon as possible and campaigned for a death sentence. Kidd was refused representation by a lawyer and was found guilty of five counts of piracy and one of murder. He was hanged on May 23, 1701.
Despite his career as a pirate being highly unsuccessful, rumors of Kidd having buried a treasure somewhere turned into an enduring legend. A legend reflected in literary works by (among others) Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson. By the end of the 19th century the term "Captain Kidd" had become essential in pirate novels and literature.