Friday, 8 May 2015

As I Sailed: Captain Kidd's Treasure

My name was Captain Kidd, as I sailed
My name was Captain Kidd, as I sailed
My name was Captain Kidd, and much wickedness I did, 
And God's laws I did forbid, as I sailed.

Some of you may have noticed that a silver bar, allegedly part of Captain Kidd's lost treasure, has been found in Madagascar. Several reports have it as 'buried treasure,' which isn't entirely accurate, since the silver has been recovered from a sunken ship. The 55kg bar was recovered from the wreck of what is thought to be Kidd's ship, the Adventure Galley, a 34-gun square rigger bought fresh from its Deptford launching in 1695 by Kidd, in order to track down pirates in the far-off Indies. The silver is currently in the possession of the Madagascar government; no doubt it will find its way into a museum at some point.

Kidd is a product of the tail end of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, and was one of its unluckiest specimens. He started his career in the Caribbean as an ordinary seaman, part of a pirate crew that mutinied, took control of the ship, and set sail for Nevis, where the governor promptly enlisted Kidd and his friends as protectors of the colony. As the colony had no money, Kidd got his wages by sacking the French colony at Marie-Galante, capturing French ships, and generally being a nuisance to enemies of the English crown. He was successful enough to earn a reputation as an adventurer in the Americas, and eventually married a wealthy New York widow; this marriage and his associations with New York are the reasons why so many American painters chose him as a subject of their craft. If he'd only stayed there, nobody would remember his name now, and he would have led a far happier life.

But Kidd was enlisted by the Governor of New York to track down pirates who were beginning to make a nuisance of themselves by sacking East Indiamen rather than enemies of the Crown. He purchased the Adventure Galley and made his way to what he must have thought was guaranteed success and fortune, only to find that there were no suitable targets in the Red Sea at all. Plagued by mishap - everything from cholera to mutiny - and desperate to avoid any appearance of piracy by attacking ships from nations not at war with England, Kidd tried at first to stick to the letter of the law. That didn't sit well with his crew, who were looking forward to a share of loot that, they soon realized, they were never going to see. Pushed to breaking point, Kidd tried to keep everyone happy by dabbling in piracy, hoping his investors back in London would protect him legally so long as he brought home the bacon. Even then Kidd had no luck, possibly because he was too timid a pirate, refusing easy, but illegal captures out of fear he'd swing at Tyburn.

His most successful venture was the capture of the Quedagh Merchant, an Armenian-owned vessel that technically was a legitimate prize, since its safe passage had been authorized by the French East India Company. However it was a very slim technicality, and Kidd worried that his explanations wouldn't hold water when he returned to London. It didn't help that, unbeknownst to Kidd, one of the major investors in the Merchant was a man who was on very good terms with the Grand Mogul, who could, and would, make things very hot for Kidd. 

Kidd took the Merchant as a prize, and together with that, another captured ship, and his Adventure Galley, made his way to St Mary's Island, where by chance he met with a much more successful pirate, Culliford, an old frenemy of Kidd who had robbed Kidd of his ship years before, when the two were privateers in the Caribbean. There's some dispute as to whether Kidd and Culliford discussed possible joint ventures, or whether Kidd wanted to capture Culliford but lacked the nerve to try it. Whichever way it went, the outcome is not in dispute: most of Kidd's crew mutinied, went over to Culliford, and left Kidd in the lurch with only two ships, the Galley and the Merchant.

Kidd, by this time thoroughly disheartened and pursued by an angry Mogul and his allies, decided to return to New York and discuss things with his friends there. He left the Galley behind, after stripping it of anything that might be useful to him, right down to the hinges. Then he burnt it.

For these reasons it seems unlikely that the silver bar found off Madagascar is actually Kidd's loot. He had plenty of time to search the Galley before he sank it, and it's not as if a 55kg bar is that easy to overlook. Accidents do happen - there's a recorded instance of a pirate crew throwing bar after bar of 'worthless tin' overboard not realizing it was actually silver, until someone who kept a bar as a souvenir found himself the luckiest man aboard  - but even someone with Kidd's luck oughtn't to have been quite as unfortunate as that.

His New York friends, while not precisely turning their backs on him, were less than welcoming. Not only was Kidd a fugitive from justice, he was poor; all the pirate gold he'd promised to bring back with him had turned out to be a fantasy. That kind of thing never goes down well in New York.  His most powerful ally, Governor Coote, Earl of Bellomont, an investor in the voyage, had every reason to betray Kidd; Bellomont was suspected of being involved in Kidd's turn to piracy, and could have faced a trial himself unless he found a scapegoat. That goat was the perennially unfortunate Kidd, who Bellomont arrested. Kidd's trial in London went about as well as could be expected, particularly since Kidd made one last attempt to prove his loyalty to his investors by not testifying against them at trial. His investors did not intercede on his behalf, and Kidd swung at Execution Dock as a pirate and murderer.

Kidd's lost treasure is one of those tales that grows in the telling. He's known to have left a cache of loot on Gardiner's Island, intended to be used as bribes to keep him clear of the hangman, but which Bellomont used as evidence against Kidd at trial. However this relatively modest pile is nothing compared to the vast sums he's supposed to have buried, here there and everywhere, across the wide, wide sea. Kidd's also the inspiration for at least two ghost stories, both fundamentally the same, in which a ragged seaman, soaked in salt water, wanders the roads, either in New England or old England, trying to make his way to his friends. He's spotted at roadside inns, where he pays his way in antique gold coins.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, you'd have to be simple to believe in Kidd's treasure. Leaving aside that he is, almost without question, the unluckiest brigand in the history of piracy, and never had the chance to amass a fortune, the vast majority of his loot from the Quedagh Merchant must have been taken from him when his crew mutinied and joined Culliford. He would have had very little left of the eight thousand pounds he's supposed to have taken from the Armenian merchant ship, and what little there was probably ended up in his Gardiner's Island cache, which Bellomont stole. However logic has little say in the matter when pirate gold is at stake, which is why fools have been digging holes at Oak Island for time out of mind.

From a Keeper's perspective, what can be done with the tragic tale of Captain Kidd?

As a Trail scenario he could make an excellent ghost, whether wandering the old roads of New England or standing guard over some forgotten cache of gold and silver. In a Bookhounds game he could be found at Execution Dock, whose location is now uncertain, but one possible spot is the Underground Station on the High Street. That could make for an interesting mix of modern and ancient, Kidd's lonely phantom looking on as the trains rush past. Or possibly Kidd decided to make one last confession before he swung, and that confession's found amongst a pile of worm-eaten papers, perhaps with a handy treasure map attached.

Buried treasure is a lure that's sucked in many an otherwise intelligent soul, who ought to have known better. Kidd's loot has a luster that defies description; people have ruined themselves looking for that chimera, digging up dirt from Canada to the Caribbean and beyond, looking for something that was never there to begin with. An interesting scenario could begin in much the same way, with the characters searching for Kidd's lost loot, only to find something more horrible and outre. The great thing about a scenario of this type is that it can take place almost anywhere; you could even make a case for some of it being hidden in New York City by Bellomont. Gardiner's Island is another fun spot for a scenario, particularly given its associations with piracy, the Revolution, and wealth. But you could also take a Kidd story to Madagascar, which as a location is filled with opportunity for sinister doings, violence, and other fun things.

Not having read Timewatch I can't be certain where a sad sack like Kidd would fit in, but it's tempting to think that his awful, awful luck was artificially produced. Or that the spectral figure seen wandering the roads of old New England is actually a manifestation of someone caught out of time.

That's it for me for now. Enjoy!

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