A Treasure in Our Midst
By: Janet Pacella
I walk my dog on the beach every day with a clear view of Gardiner’s Island. Once, when trying to coax Gingee out of the water, I noticed a ship sailing around the pristine isle. The island, a well-known landmark for residents of East Hampton, was bought by Lion Gardiner from the Montaukett Indians in 1639. It has been owned and maintained by the Gardiner family for nearly 400 years. Looking across the bay I imagined the legendary visit of Captain Kidd in the days when Lion’s grandson, John, was Lord of the Manor.
Seafaring laws in the late 1600’s allowed for the plundering of enemy ships, known as privateering. It was a common, legitimate and profitable business. Ships vulnerable to authorized looting were those belonging to England’s wartime enemy, France, and pirate ships. Piracy, though not legitimate, was just as common. Merchants, gentlemen and pirates alike crowded the bars around New York Harbor. Living conditions were poor, with the most efficient provider of sanitation being the pig. Public houses were the merchant hubs of the day, providing a welcome alternative by the Dutch breweries to the dirty drinking water then available.
In1691 a37 year old Scottish seaman, a loyal subject of the Crown and competent privateer, landed in New York Harbor. William Kidd had only recently been given the title of captain by the mutinous crew of the Antigua, returning from privateering in the Caribbean. Upon landing in New York, the polished sea captain married one of the wealthiest widows of the colony, thus becoming one of its most wealthy and powerful gentlemen. Kidd’s father was a minister, perhaps responsible for Kidd’s education and knowledge of proper British protocol. The dichotomy of being an impetuous, hot-tempered, brutal seaman and an educated, wealthy gentleman is one that remains today.
Kidd settled with his wife Sarah near the city harbor on Pearl Street and soon the couple welcomed a daughter, also called Sarah. An apparently loving family man, for the next few years Kidd was an ideal citizen. But the itch for adventure must have returned to the Captain and in 1695 he went to London to seek a commission in the Royal Navy. While there, he had a fortuitous meeting with Robert Livingston, a rich New York merchant. Impressed with Kidd’s knowledge of the seas, Livingston asked the Earl of Bellomont to obtain backing from King William for Kidd to go after pirates. The King was forced to decline because all of England’s resources were going to its war with France. Livingston and Bellomont backed the venture and found additional financing from other noble lords. In January of 1696 the King blessed the venture with his official authorization.
Kidd was outfitted with a new 287 ton ship, aptly named the Adventure Galley. Excited about his upcoming voyage, he hand-picked his crew with loyal seamen. However, while still in England, his most competent crewmen were drafted into the Royal Navy in retaliation for failing to furl their topsails and dip their flags in a show of respect when passing English vessels. When the Adventure Galley arrived in New York Kidd was forced to replace his drafted crewmen with the only men available, most of whom were criminals and renegades. The Adventure Galley set sail, and events during its three years at sea are conflicting and confusing.
From Madagascar, to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, through the Arabian Sea, Kidd either failed or refused to capture any pirates. Maybe Kidd the swashbuckler was conflicted with Kidd the wealthy merchant and family man. Whatever the case, his men did not care. Those who hadn’t succumbed to cholera, were sick with scurvy and other diseases and, employed on a “no prey, no pay” basis, were furious. The frustrated crew attempted mutiny when Kidd refused to attack a Dutch ship. During this attempt Kidd struck gunner William Moore in the head with a bucket killing him.
For some reason, either out of fear of his crew or some other change of heart, after the attempted mutiny, Kidd began to go after ships not all of which were sanctioned. He captured small merchant ships and the large, rich Indian ship, the Quedah Merchant. The Quedah carried a cargo worth 50,000£, and gold and precious gems which it is believed Kidd took and thereafter hid from his crew. On Kidd’s journey home he learned that he was declared a pirate by the English government. In New York, he sailed into the safer port of Oyster Bay and sent messages to his lawyer and his wife to meet him at Block Island. From there his schooner anchored offshore Gardiner’s Island.
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