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The Pirate Hunter:
The True Story of Captain Kidd
Justice after three centuries
By Steven Martinovich
Few names in naval history bring as much imagery to mind as the infamous Captain William Kidd. In the centuries since his hanging in London for the crimes of murder and piracy, Kidd's name has been ranked alongside with that of Blackbeard for ruthlessness and avarice. Depictions of Kidd follow the standard Hollywood formula of a colorfully dressed scoundrel who could kill as easily as hoist a mug of rum.
Attempting to turn aside centuries of lore, author Richard Zacks argues in The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd that Kidd was far from a pirate. In fact, before receiving a commission from well-placed English lords to hunt pirates, Kidd was a respectable mariner who lived on New York's Wall Street with an attractive young wife and their child. A pillar of his community, Kidd was chosen for the mission because he was thought to be a reliable seaman with a clean past.
The beginning of Kidd's legend, and the ultimate cause of his demise, was the 1696 launching of the ship Adventure Galley. Backed by no less than King William III, Zacks argues that Kidd was tasked to hunt down the pirates that threatened English trade in the Far East. Cursed with an inability to find pirates and an unruly crew -- some of whom were former pirates -- Kidd ultimately found himself at the hands of a mutiny. Kidd's poor luck continued when he found out that instead of being hailed as a pirate hunter, he was now known as the world's most infamous member of the pirate fraternity.
A tough Scotsman, Kidd returned to New York in the hopes of clearing his name but quickly found himself jailed until he could be taken to England for trial. As Zacks illustrates using contemporary records, Kidd's subsequent trial for murder and multiple counts of piracy was an exercise in protecting the establishment. The privateer serving his country was tried, hanged and hung for years in chains at the mouth of the Thames to serve as a warning to other sailors considering piracy as a career path.
Zack's account, told in an informal and compelling manner, is a persuasive one. In what must have been a mammoth job of sifting through dry, dusty records on two continents, Zacks builds a case for the man who was accused of piracy but acted like a man guilty of nothing except perhaps walking occasionally too close to the line dividing legal and illegal actions. Quoting directly from Kidd's own letters and notes and those of other contemporaries, Zack manages to convincingly place the reader in events that transpired three centuries ago.
Where The Pirate Hunter truly works is Zacks' decision to weave the story of pirate Robert Culliford into that of Kidd's. The two men were acquainted with each other though hardly as friends. Their paths had crossed several times, including a time Culliford stole a ship from Kidd, and it is ironic to note that Culliford himself was pardoned of piracy only minutes before and present in the courtroom when Kidd was sentenced to death. Zacks also takes the time to examine many of the myths and facts surrounding pirates though he weakens the quality of his work with occasional unnecessary vulgarity.
Whether The Pirate Hunter succeeds in rehabilitating the reputation of William Kidd after centuries of slander is a question for the coming years to answer. What Zack's effort has done is present a lively and strong case for Kidd, a man he clearly believes, perhaps rightly, suffered a huge injustice. Convincing or not, Zack deserves much praise for a fascinating look into the world of pirates and the betrayal of a man who wanted nothing more than to be at home with his beloved wife and child and living the life of a gentleman. Other less scrupulous gentleman instead robbed him of that - perhaps the real pirates of Zack's account of Kidd's life.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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