A Find of Piratical Significance

By Eric Mills

While a landlocked institution of higher learning ensconced in the heart of the Midwest might not automatically conjure the words "underwater archaeology," Indiana University in fact has one of the nation's oldest and largest programs in the field. For the past 12 years the intrepid diver-scholars of the school's academic diving and underwater science programs have been conducting research with the cooperation of the Dominican Republic's Oficina Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural Subacu a tico. So when a snorkeler reported spotting an array of barnacle-encrusted cannon a mere 70 feet off the shoreline of the Dominican Republic's Isla Catalina, government officials naturally alerted the Indiana team.

The wreck's location and the size and arrangement of the guns strongly suggested that there, indeed, was the grave of Captain Kidd's ship. Charles Beeker, director of IU's underwater archaeology programs, quickly recognized the value of the discovery and the immediate need to protect it from looters. As a preemptive strike against wildfire word-of-mouth and the subsequent swarming of divers like blood-crazed sharks, the discovery was officially announced at a press conference in December 2007, the site was declared temporarily off-limits, and the Dominican Republic licensed Beeker's team to protect, preserve, and research the wreck.

As work progressed through 2008, the "smoking gun" of positive identification revealed itself. After gingerly, painstakingly moving one of the cannon, archaeologists were pleasantly stunned to find the ship's keel still extant beneath. Wood-analysis results in September 2008 explained why: The keel had survived because it was fashioned from decomposition-resistant teak.

The very fact it was teak was the key to the mystery; this ship, clearly, was an absolute anomaly in Caribbean waters in the late 17th century. Quite simply, "Teak wood does not belong in the Caribbean in this time period," Beeker said.

Teak was used in the shipyards of the western coast of India, and no trade existed between the Mogul sea-lanes and the Caribbean at the time. "Indian merchants were trading with England, but they were not in the Western Hemisphere," said Fritz Hanselmann, IU director of field research. Such a ship would have seemed wildly exotic and utterly out of place heaving—to off the Hispaniola coast in 1699—which is exactly what Captain Kidd did. He and a bedraggled skeleton crew had crossed the Atlantic in a captured India-built craft, a 400-ton three-master with fanciful, swirling Eastern flourishes in the carving, a plunder-laden prize ship on the run from the combined might of the Royal Navy and the East India Company.

"It's a rare instance in the historical record of a ship built in India having been in the Caribbean," Hanselmann said. "If you couple the historical documentation that we've studied with the archaeological record at the wreck site and the wood being teak, that allows us to fill in the pieces of the puzzle."

 

William Kidd is pirate history's Rorschach blot. His record affords bountiful arguments both for his ardent defenders (he was railroaded, unlucky, a scapegoat) and his detractors (he committed murder, he crossed the privateer-pirate line). Somewhere between the rival schools of thought is the idea that someone can be a victim of circumstance and yet still have some degree of culpability. In the end, Kidd seems more worthy of pity than condemnation, whatever his transgressions. Beset below by an unreliable crew and above by fickle financial backers, he charted a narrow and treacherous course that led him, indignant to his dying breath, to Execution Dock, the Admiralty's infamous hanging place along the Thames River.

Born around 1645, he was a towering, broad-shouldered Scotsman, lusty and quick-tempered. The sea called him early, and by 1689 he was captain of the Blessed William , a Caribbean privateer. Kidd attached his ship to a Royal Navy squadron in the raid on the West Indies island of Marie-Galante; a fierce sea-fight with French warships followed off St. Martin. Anchoring at St. Nevis afterward, he lost the Blessed William to his rapscallion crew, who stole the ship and set sail for piracy. Kidd's recent heroics, however, garnered him a French prize ship courtesy of the grateful governor of Nevis. Kidd headed for new horizons, docking in New York in 1691. Marriage to a wealthy widow, life in a stately house, burgeoning business interests along the waterfront, and friends in influential circles all soon were his. But privateering remained in Kidd's blood, and 1695 found him shipping out anew for high-seas profiteering. 3

In London he managed to secure the backing of the newly nominated governor of Massachusetts, the Earl of Bellomont. A prominent Whig Parliamentarian, the earl soon brought a powerful quartet in on the scheme: Sir John Somers, the Duke of Shrewsbury, the Baron of Romney, and the Earl of Orford—like Bellomont, influential Whigs one and all. But the most impressive subscriber to Kidd's latest adventure was no less than King William III himself. With the king on board (to the tune of a 10 percent cut of the spoils) and a freshly issued letter of marque from the Royal Navy, Kidd was auspiciously set.

But this would be a privateering expedition with a difference: In addition to legally raiding French shipping (France and England then being at war), Kidd would hunt down and capture pirates currently bedeviling the Indian Ocean. He and his lordly syndicate then would divide up the pirates' loot. In essence, it was stealing from thieves and then claiming the stolen goods as one's own. Such slippery logistics would require a new Great Seal of England patent and the signature of the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal—who fortunately and conveniently was Somers, one of Kidd's backers. 4

 

Captain Kidd set off down the Thames with a handpicked crew in the 34-gun Adventure Galley in April 1696. (He had 70 men signed on thus far and still needed 80 more, whom he intended to recruit in New York.) Passing a Royal Navy vessel on his way downriver, Kidd neglected to dip his colors, an important custom marking a privateer's deference to and respect for the bona fide navy. Kidd's insolence (perhaps borne of having such lofty backers) earned him a cannonball soaring across the Adventure Galley's bow. His crew responded by ratcheting up the level of disrespect: They turned and slapped their backsides at the navy vessel. 5

Even before clearing the Thames, Captain Kidd had managed to incur the wrath of the Royal Navy. A press-gang boarded the Adventure Galley and made off with 20 of his best men. Furious, waving his official commission about, Kidd went ashore to protest. The navy did return him 20 men—not his 20 but instead a passel of irascible lowlifes and troublemakers. Off to a bad start, Kidd sailed to New York to round out his crew. The city was at the time a thriving nest of pirates, cutthroats, and sundry unsavory sailor types. Kidd managed to fill the Adventure Galley's ranks, but it was the textbook motley crew, indeed—"men of desperate fortunes," as Governor Benjamin Fletcher described them when Kidd embarked from New York in September 1696. 6

New York to Madeira, Madeira to Madagascar, Madagascar to the Comoros Islands—the Adventure Galley made her way to the hunting grounds by early 1697. Tropical disease claimed the lives of 30 crewmen, and Kidd culled more recruits along the docks of his Indian Ocean ports of call. The new additions included numerous veterans of pirate crews. The voyage thus far had been a bust, and restless grumblings threatened from the forecastle.

Earnest for some plunder, any plunder, Kidd set his sights on the Red Sea and the rich prizes of the Muslim pilgrimage route. "Come boys," the captain reportedly said, "I will make money enough out of that fleet." 7 Kidd's commission did not specify such action, and when he attacked a Mogul convoy on 14 August 1697, Kidd was flying the crimson flag. It meant "Surrender. No Quarter"—in essence, piracy. Edward Barlow, the English captain of the 36-gun Sceptre , one of three European ships protecting the convoy, fired warning shots and hoisted the colors of the East India Company, and Kidd backed down. While he had taken no prizes, he had demonstrated a willingness to exceed the parameters of his commission.

Kidd's men grew surlier, his supplies grew shorter, and his desperation intensified to the point that he even bullied a trading ship flying English colors off Malabar. His men raped and pillaged on the Laccadive Islands. Bad word of mouth about Captain Kidd began to spread through the region, as his lean and hungry crew became more mutinous. The boiling point was reached on 30 October, when Kidd had angry words with a malcontent, William Moore, before smashing in the crewman's head with a bucket. After Moore died the next day, an unremorseful and still angry Kidd declared he wasn't afraid of any legal repercussions from the killing, for he had "good friends in England." 8

Fortune finally shone on the Adventure Galley on 30 January 1698, with the capture of the Cara Merchant off the Malabar coast. Here was the ripe prize at last; an India-built, Armenian-owned merchantman out from Bengal with a bounteous cargo of silks, sugar, opium, iron, saltpeter, gold, and silver. Kidd had fired a shot across her bow and raised French colors—camouflage for hunting French prey. The captain of the Cara Merchant , Englishman John Wright, tried a similar ruse himself to protect his vessel; he too raised French colors and sent a French gunner in the guise of the ship's captain with paperwork to parlay.

The Frenchman presented Kidd with a French safe-conduct paper. Once he had the pass in hand, Kidd had the verification he needed. This, to be sure, was a legitimate privateering capture, and a rich one at that. Only after claiming the prize did Kidd realize much of the cargo belonged to the East India Company, the ship's true captain was English, and the French dodge had been merely a safety measure that backfired on the Cara Merchant .

But for the time being, Kidd's restless crew had some plunder at last. Kidd made port, sold off some of the cargo, divvied the spoils, and made for the pirate's lair of Madagascar. Also anchored there was the pirate Robert Culliford's ship, the Resolution . Culliford was the very knave who had stolen Kidd's privateering vessel out from under him back in his Caribbean days. On a personal and professional level, now was the golden opportunity for Kidd to fulfill his pirate-hunting mandate. He had Culliford outgunned and outmanned—or rather, he would have, if the bulk of the Adventure Galley's crew hadn't up and deserted on him, preferring the pure-pirate path that siding with Culliford represented. Rather than attempting to nab Culliford, Kidd instead found himself discussing terms with him in a strained atmosphere of false bonhomie and rum.

The Madagascar situation would come back to haunt Kidd. He would argue (and his present-day defenders will echo) that he was the victim of a mutinous and then deserting crew. His prosecutors would assert (and his detractors still echo) that, if he was supposed to be hunting pirates, why did he instead engage in surfside detente with one, not to mention letting him get away? 9

The Adventure Galley, meanwhile, was rotting and leaking; rats of both the rodentoid and human variety were abandoning her in numbers. Captain Kidd left her now as well, making the Cara Merchant his main ship (and renaming her the Adventure Prize ). With little more than 20 crewmen left, he set sail for the West Indies, to sell more of the captured silks while wending his prize homeward. But when he arrived at Anguilla in April 1699, Kidd learned the awful news: He was a wanted man.

 

The Cara Merchant , as luck would have it, had been leased out to Muklis Khan, a prominent member of the inner circle of Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb himself. Investors in the ship and her rich cargo were from the highest echelons; the East India Company's reputation and its ability to continue its lucrative enterprise were threatened by a single ship's capture that had become an international incident. The Company was England's mightiest economic institution, and to restore itself to good standing, someone needed to hang for the Cara Merchant outrage. "Kidd," noted historian Robert C. Ritchie, "never allowed for the relentless malevolence of the East India Company." 10

Prodded by the Company, the British government declared Kidd a pirate. The general alarm went out wherever the Royal Navy ensign flew. An all-out manhunt was on, and there would be no pardon for Kidd. It was distressing information to ascertain about oneself while standing at the bridge of a big, blatant, foreign-looking ship that was an inevitable attention-grabber. Kidd believed he was innocent, and he had the French pass to prove it. At the mouth of the Hig u ey River on the eastern end of the island of Hispaniola, he moored the Cara Merchant to trees on the riverbank. He acquired a sloop and raced to New York to clear his name. He did, after all, have influential friends.

That the aristocratic consortium backing Kidd dropped him like a hot potato is one of the salient tragedies of his story. In the interim, the Whigs had lost control of Parliament. The Tories saw a chance to embarrass their political foes, and those foes didn't want to stick their necks out for a hunted man. Offering himself up to set the record straight, Kidd was imprisoned, first in New York, then in England. By the time he finally came to trial, he was a reeking, slovenly wreck. The French pass, which clearly justified his taking of the Cara Merchant under his letter of marque, was conveniently misplaced. It didn't resurface until the early 20th century. 11

The High Court of Admiralty found Kidd guilty of piracy and of the murder of William Moore. On 23 May 1701, he was carted out to London's Execution Dock along the mud-flats of Wapping. His hanging didn't go well; the rope broke and his executioners had to hang him twice. Once he was dead, they tied him to a post until the high tide of the Thames had washed over him three times (as per Admiralty tradition). Afterward, the waterlogged corpse of Captain Kidd was taken downriver to Tilbury Point, where the Thames meets the sea. After dipping the body in tar, they wrapped it in chains and put it in a cage that was hung from a gibbet. For many years, long after the tar wore off and the flesh decayed, he remained on morbid display, a warning to all contemplating piracy. The historian Ralph D. Paine offered a concise summation that could serve as Captain Kidd's epitaph: "Thus lived and died a man, who, whatever may have been his faults, was unfairly dealt with by his patrons, misused by his rascally crew, and slandered by credulous posterity." 12

 

The search for the Cara Merchant began while Kidd was still languishing in prison. His erstwhile patron-turned-arrester, Lord Bellomont (whom Kidd had cursed from the gallows), sent a ship to the West Indies to track down the prize. It was the first of many fruitless attempts down through the centuries. Kidd's Caribbean confreres had emptied the ship of valuables, stacked cannon in the cargo hold, unmoored the vessel, and then torched and sank her. And there the Cara Merchant remained, in the shallows, undiscovered until 2007.

Her elusiveness was one of the loose ends that fed the Captain Kidd myth over the years. "What happened to his ship?" commingled with "What happened to his treasure?" to spawn a body of pirate legendry that refused to die. Kidd had taken some of the loot with him on his last run to New York. No doubt much of it was dispersed as well among those who burned the Cara Merchant .

The Cara Merchant herself became one of pirate history's famous lost ships, her mystique enhanced by the marquee value of her notorious household-name captain. Until recently, private treasure-hunting entities had been searching for her for years, sometimes only mere miles away from where she hid in plain sight.

In the end, fate turned the shipwreck's secrets over to academics rather than treasure-seekers. And preliminary X-rays of sample conglomerates (biologically concreted clusters of materials both organic and of human origin) indicate an abundance of artifacts, offering promising possibilities in the upcoming investigative seasons of 2009. The 26 cannon are still for the most part neatly stacked in two piles as they had been by the ship's crew. Anchor parts are also visible. And there is more wood to be sampled and studied; it is possible that the ship construction will prove to have involved rabbeted joints (a construction methodology somewhat akin to tongue-and-groove). If so, this will be the only 17th-century wreck found thus far featuring this type of jointing, thereby adding to the site's uniqueness and importance, noted Beeker.

While research will continue through 2009 and beyond, Captain Kidd's shipwreck will not be kept indefinitely off limits to the public. The plan is to open the site to visitation by December 2009. Supervised and supported by the Dominican Republic's government and boosted by a $200,000 award announced by the U.S. Agency for International Development in November 2008, Indiana University will make the Kidd shipwreck site (and three other Dominican underwater sites of historical and/or biological interest) a "living museum," where the policy will be one of "no anchor, no take." Underwater interpretive panels in five languages will enhance the wreck site. As a public shipwreck park, the Captain Kidd Preserve will allow visitors to experience a brush with the pirate past while research and preservation efforts are ongoing.

Visitation is expected to be high—how could it not be? There, in 10 feet of Caribbean blue, lie vestiges of Captain Kidd's wild and infamous career. An archaeological discovery of such resonance is a magnet of great power. As Fritz Hanselmann observed, "Archaeology allows history to become tangible."

"Everyone wants to know if there is treasure on Kidd's ship," said Charles Beeker, "but the true treasure is the ship itself, and the history it represents. Bringing history back to life, through the creation of the Captain Kidd Preserve, is the real reward for discovering the identity of the ship. Rather than be destroyed for recovery of cannon and anchors, the site will be protected for future generations."

 



1. The ship has been known by various names over the years, Quedah Merchant being the most commonly appearing one. Archival research has identified Cara Merchant as the correct name.

2. The other two New World pirate shipwrecks thus far discovered are Edward "Blackbeard" Teach's Queen Anne's Revenge and Samuel Bellamy's Whydah .

3. The overview of Kidd's career presented here is based on: David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995), pp. 179-190; Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986); Frank Sherry, Raiders and Rebels: The Golden Age of Piracy (New York: Hearst Marine Books, 1986), pp. 148-195; and Richard Zacks, The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd (New York: Hyperion Books, 2002).

4. Cordingly, Under the Black Flag , p. 181.

5. Sherry, Raiders and Rebels , p. 164.

6. Cordingly, Under the Black Flag , p. 182.

7. Ibid.

8. Sherry, Raiders and Rebels , p. 174.

9. For contrasting views, see Zacks, The Pirate Hunter , pp. 181-189, and Cordingly, Under the Black Flag , pp. 184-185.

10. Ritchie, Captain Kidd , p. 128.

11. The suppression of the French pass, notes Charles Beeker, helps explain why the name of the prize ship, Cara Merchant , was wrongly referred to as Quedah Merchant , an erroneous name that cropped up in court references and has survived even up to the recent literature.

12. Ralph D. Paine, The Book of Buried Treasure: Being a True History of the Gold, Jewels, and Plate of Pirates, Galleons, Etc., Which Are Sought For to This Day (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1911), p. 128.

Mr. Mills is the author of Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War (1996) and Chesapeake Rumrunners of the Roaring Twenties (1999), both published by Tidewater Publishers, and, forthcoming from the Naval Institute Press, The Spectral Tide: Great True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy .

 

More Finds from the Graveyard of the Deep

By Eric Mills

In addition to the Cara Merchant , here are some other notable shipwreck discoveries since 2007:

The Black Swan
The Black Swan is the project code name that Odyssey Marine Exploration (someone there must be a Rafael Sabatini fan) has given to what may be a 17th-century wreck site discovered off the coast of Cornwall in early 2007. The Odyssey team has recovered more than 500,000 silver coins (more than 17 tons worth) from the site in addition to hundreds of gold coins, gold pieces, and various artifacts. The ship has yet to be identified, but early speculation about the HMS Sussex has been refuted by Odyssey; leading contenders seem to be the Merchant Royal and the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. Having yielded some $500 million worth of valuables so far, the site could be the richest sunken treasure ever found. Rights to the find are currently being debated between Spain, the United Kingdom and Odyssey.

MS Encounter and HMS Exeter
The Encounter , a Royal Navy E-class destroyer, and the Exeter , a Royal Navy York-class heavy cruiser, both sank on the same day—1 March 1942—and both wrecks were discovered on the same day—21 February 2007. Casualties of the Second Battle of the Java Sea, Encounter was escorting Exeter to Sunda Strait when they were intercepted by the Japanese north of Bawean Island. Enemy cruiser and destroyer fire sank them both. The wreck discoveries were the latest in an impressive string of Java Sea finds made since 2002 by the dive crew of the MV Empress , skippered by Vidar Skoglie.

HMS Ontario
This 1780 British warship, an 80-foot brig sloop, foundered in a Lake Ontario gale on 31 October 1780 after having delivered troops, Iroquois scouts, canoes, and supplies to Fort Niagara. Using side-scan sonar and a remote-operated vehicle (ROV), shipwreck detectives Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville located the wreck in June 2008. According to Shipwreck World ( www.shipwreckworld.com ), it's "the oldest confirmed shipwreck and the only fully intact British warship to have ever been found in the Great Lakes."

A Lake Michigan Quartet
The simultaneous discovery of four shipwrecks in Lake Michigan was announced by the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve on 15 September 2008. In addition to the wooden cargo steamer Redfern , a steel tug, a small steamer, and an unidentified vessel were found.

Rare Type of Schooner
Shipwreck hunters Jim Kennard and Dan Scoville had a good year. In addition to discovering HMS Ontario , they also located a rare dagger-board schooner—a shallow-draft vessel featuring a keel enhanced by extendable wooden panels—in the deep waters of Lake Ontario off Oak Orchard, New York, in December 2008. Dating to the early 19th century and believed to be the only daggerboard schooner yet discovered in the Great Lakes, the ship was pinpointed by deep-towed side-scan sonar.

Skeleton Coast Shipwreck
Geologists diving off the Namibian coast on behalf of Namdeb Diamond Corporation happened upon a treasure-laden Portuguese shipwreck in April 2008. The wreck was a fully loaded time capsule: thousands of 15th- and 16th-century gold coins, more than 50 elephant tusks, six bronze cannon, and a dizzying array of artifacts ranging from ingots to weapons to navigational instruments to pewterware. The ship may have foundered in the hellish currents of the so-called Skeleton Coast, and the discovery is thought to be the oldest shipwreck ever found off sub-Saharan Africa.

U.S. Submarine S-21 (SS-126)
This 220-foot Navy sub, commissioned in 1921, served on East Coast patrol until World War II. She then guarded the Pacific approaches to the Panama Canal. Decommissioned in 1942, she became for a time HMS P553 but was back in the U.S. Navy in 1944. In March 1945, she was used for target practice and sunk. Research divers Joe Cushing and Bill Lussier narrowed down the search area and then brought in top side-scan sonar man Garry Kozak; the submarine wreck was found on 5 October 2008.

The Trajan
A 125-foot Maine-built bark, the Trajan sank outside Newport Harbor, Rhode Island, on 17 August 1867. She was bound for New Orleans with barrels of lime—a volatile, combustible cargo that smoldered, ignited, and sealed the merchant ship's doom. Previous searches for the wreck had come up empty-handed. After promising preliminaries with magnetometer and side-scan, she was discovered by divers John Stanford and Mark Munro on 6 December 2008.

 

 

Eric Mills, Acquisitions Editor for the Naval Institute Press, is the author of Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War

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