Pirates: William Kidd ‘Innocentest of Them All?’
In 1690 Rhode Island’s captain Thomas Paine (1632-1715), accused on numerous occasions of piracy, drove French pirates from Block Island and became a celebrated hero. The pirates, under the infamous Pierre Le Picard, had captured and terrorized the inhabitants of the small island and engaged in some of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man. According to an eyewitness account, the pirate Pekar fled from Block Island saying he “would as soon fight the devil as Paine.”
Following this episode, Captain Paine gained even greater fame and fortune as the ex-pirate became a pillar of Jamestown society. In 1690 we are told in Howard Chapin’s excellent account, “Captain Paine of Cajacet” in the January 1930 R.I Historical Society Collection quarterly magazine, Paine joined his father-in-law Caleb Carr as tax assessor for Jamestown. In 1692 Paine became Captain of the Jamestown Militia and in 1695, Carr became Governor of Rhode Island by 1698, Paine, now a much respected retired sea captain, built a beautiful home on Jamestown and was admitted as a freeman of the colony with all voting rights.
Paine, in 1699, was visited by the well-known privateer/pirate Captain William Kidd. Paine at this time apparently agreed to store some of the famous buccaneer’s loot for him. Because of this incident, as well as episodes from his past, Paine was charged for a number of crimes by Richard Coot, Earl of Bellomont. Paine escaped unscathed and went on to help establish Trinity Church in Newport and became a prosperous farmer and merchant. According to historian Howard Chapin, “Thomas and Mercy-[Carr] Paine lived quietly for many years at their home at Cajacet (Jamestown).”
Paine’s friend and colleague Captain Kidd was not so fortunate, for on May 23, 1701 he was hanged for murder and piracy in London, England. William Kidd, alias Robert Kidd, while perhaps not the most notorious or villainous sea rover to ply the waters of Narragansett Bay, is the most well known. Many pirates have captured our imagination and have held our interest such as the wily and cruel Henry Morgan, who despite his wholesale murders was knighted in 1674; Captain John Avery (Long-Ben) known as the “Arch-Pirate”; Ann Bonney and Mary Read, two female pirates who sailed with wild, handsome Jack Racksam and who practiced two of the oldest professions, fought like men and were feared by friend and foe alike; and the dreaded Edward Teach, known as “Blackbeard.”
A number of historians, including Philip Gosse and Edward Rowe Snow, indicate that perhaps Kidd’s hanging was not deserved. Feeling that Kidd was innocent of the charges against him, Dr. Gosse, in his essay on pirates in the Encyclopedia Britannica says, “The famous Captain Kidd was no pirate at all, but the victim or scapegoat of political intrigue.” Edward Rowe Snow, author of Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast, is of a similar opinion and quotes Kidd’s final statement in court as follows: “My Lords....I am the innocentest of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons.”
What all seem to agree upon is that Kidd accumulated a great deal of wealth and that he was very well acquainted with pirates, privateers, buccaneers and sea rovers in the Indian Ocean, the West Indies and along the Atlantic Coast. It should be noted that in the 16th century maritime law had not been systematized and there was no great stigma attached to privateers and piracy at that time. During the 17th century there were a number of attempts to suppress piracy but it was still very difficult to distinguish between privateers and pirates. While privateers operated with some type of legal commission and pirates did not, both promoted the national cause by preying up on enemy trade and often were regarded in a favorable light.
William Kidd, like his Rhode Island friend Thomas Paine, held commissions as a privateer. Like Paine, Kidd was commended for his services against the French privateers and pirates. Both men were commissioned to arrest all pirates in an attempt to stop what was becoming a major maritime problem. It has been alleged that both joined the pirates rather than suppressed them.
William Kidd, 22 years younger than Captain Thomas Paine, was born in Scotland in 1654. His father, according to E.R. Snow, was the Reverend Mr. John Kidd, a Puritan preacher. Relatively little is known of Kidd’s early life, but it appears that he went to sea at an early age. It is very possible that he met and sailed under Paine during these years, but there are no records to indicate that this was so, By 1689, Kidd, then 35 years old, was in command of a privateer and, like a number of other sea-faring men of dubious repute, had accumulated enough money to buy land and settle in New York. He married in 1691 and Kidd and his wife Sarah were accepted by the community.
The story of Kidd, his visit to Rhode Island, and of other pirates will be continued.