The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks

[24 July 2002]

By D. R. Peak

A True Treasure of a Book

“Al punishment is mischief. All punishment
—s evil.”
— Jeremy Bentham,
Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation

“Take a warning now by me,
For I must die,
Take a warning now by me,
And shun bad company,
Let you come to hell with me,
For I must die.”
— The Ballad of Captain Kidd

Wow. The best read so far this summer. Pirates and pillaging and murder and enough double-crosses to keep the most stringent lover of suspense tales on the couch for days.

And all true. Meticulously researched and checked by Richard Zacks, the much heralded author of An Underground Education (Doubleday & Company), one of the best reference-books-for-the-obscure out there; The Pirate Hunter is a rollicking, often funny, always interesting account of a man much maligned throughout history for being something he wasn’t.

The legend of Captain Kidd is that he was a crafty and devious bloodthirsty pirate who preyed on other pirate ships, as well as ripe merchant vessels, sailing the seven seas in an immense stolen ship, who had hordes of treasure hidden up and down the American east coast. He was the rottenest, meanest, toughest scalawag of them all, dressed in finery, with an evil glint in his eye and feared by men throughout the world.

The truth, though—which is usually, sadly, not the case—is much more interesting:

William Kidd was one of the best and most able-bodied sea captains of the latter 17th century. Trusted by his crew, able to plot a course through difficult seas and be dead-on accurate. He once held off nearly a hundred vicious mutineers, intent upon taking the ship’s treasure from his clutches, single-handedly with just his wits and a stack of pistols. He survived mutinies, disease, capture, and shipwrecks but it was the courts of England that finally brought him down.

A sea captain and Scotsman, Kidd sailed the high seas for two years in a ship so leaky it had to be bailed out on a round-the-clock basis, in constant threat of his life from a ragtag crew of mutinous cutthroats, in what he thought was a noble mission for the King of England to rid the world’s oceans of pirates who preyed on merchant vessels, bring those pirates back to Mother England to face trial, and return the treasure to its rightful owners.

Imagine his surprise when, upon his return, he discovered that the king and his financial backers—in order to hide their embarrassment over the public finding out about their deal with a privateer in what was, essentially, a scam to line their own pockets—disavowed any knowledge of his mission and threw him in irons for two years while he awaited trial with no representation.

Through no fault of his own Kidd had become one of the most sought after and infamous pirates of his time, with a price on his head and no chance of a pardon from his Majesty.

Even though he had enough gold to last him and his family for the rest of their lives, and with a death sentence hanging over his head, he sailed back to port to plead his case and return the wealth, instead of to some faraway island to live a pirate’s life of luxury. He tried to do the right thing and ended up hanging for it—twice. The rope broke on the first attempt.

So how does a late 17th century pirate hunter relate to your early 21st century couch potato life?

In today’s world Kidd would have been the unwitting scapegoat for the Enron fiasco, allowing everyone else to get away Scot-free while he rotted in prison. He’s the Ollie North of the Reagan administration. (Although, admittedly, much more intelligent and charismatic than poor ol’ naïve lackey Ollie.) Much like Dr. Kimball of The Fugitive fame, Kidd was innocent, tried on trumped up charges, doomed to fail.

Kidd had guts, strength, stamina, a moral conviction, and a sense of duty, but was brought down by the immoral and greedy actions of others.

Chew on that for a bit.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/pirate-hunter/