Book Notes: Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates

Robert C. Ritchie
Harvard University Press, 1986

I went looking for semi-academic book on pirates and ended up here. The book is halfway between academic  history and popular legend. Ritchie writes like he's telling a story. You can feel him leaning forward, relishing the grisly details and reverses of fortune, like the narrator of a ghost story or an old man in a pub.

Captain Kidd's history and adventures aren't the subject of this post. There's a ballad (familiar to some) if you want to get up to speed quickly. There's also a film which, amazingly, contains not a single historical fact beyond Kidd's name and the existence of the sea.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Colonial Economies

To the rest off the world the nuances of this evolution [of pirates] mattered little, for all Europeans came to their shores as pirates. The wealthy societies of Asia had very little need of European goods such as heavy wool, olive oil, and minerals. If they wanted Asian commodities, the Portuguese had to either steal them, which in the long run was self-defeating, or pay for them with gold and silver - unthinkable as a permanent policy [under mercantilism].  The solution, developed by the Portuguese and emulated by those who followed them, was to dominate the local or native trade routes. To that end they seized ports such as Goa, Cochin, Hormuz, and Malacca. The trade between these ports,  notably in Indian cloth that was exchanged in Malacca for spices, came under their control or was carried on only after duties were paid to them. The wealth generated by such trade and fees could be used to offset the chronic imbalance of payments in the East. All of the other European powers adopted similar schemes in Asia, the mode odious of which was the opium trade utilized by the English to obtain an income in China.
[The new colonies] were caught in a system that forced them to trade low-priced agricultural products for high-priced manufactured goods in addition to paying various duties and fees. The consequence for many merchants was an unfavorable balance  of trade  and a chronic lack of hard money. As a result merchants sought any means to make money, and the pirates provided one way of doing so.
To quote Richard G, in his post on the counter-colonial heistcrawl.
Colonialists do exactly this for themselves. Then they interpose themselves in someone else’s production/trading/selling network and pull those other people’s alliances apart to stick themselves in the middle. If you want to counter them, you have to pull their networks apart, find the weaknesses among their alliances, subvert and divert. And you can’t do it (initially at least) with strength, so you have to use planning and wits.


A Legendary Fleet

There had existed for a time one fleet capable of intimidating the Portuguese. Under the Yung-Lo emperor of the Ming dynasty the Chinese fleet numbered approximately thirty-eight hundred ships; the most powerful, the treasure ships, reached a length of 442 feet and a width of 180 feet and carried four hundred fifty to five hundred men. The Yung-Lo emperor sent his powerful war fleets on seven different expeditions - to remind the world of China's power, to trade, and to acquire knowledge. The leader of six of these voyages was the famous admiral Cheng-Ho. Durign the first of his voyages (1406-1407) he commanded 317 ships (including 62 treasure ships) and 28,870 men. The fleet ventured into the Indian Ocean and returned through the straight of Malacca, where the local pirates made the costly mistake of challenging Cheng-Ho's authority and power. In revenge he killed five thousand of them and took their leader to China where, after being taught the error of his ways, he was beheaded.... We can only speculate on what would have  happened if the Portuguese had met one of the armadas, for by 1435 the Chinese fleet was rotting at the docks, abandoned by a new emperor who felt no need of contact with the rest of the world.
Zheng He is probably history's second most influential eunuch. Narses still takes the top spot in my book.

Going Legit

Officially sanctioned piracy comprises acts that are clearly piratical under any system of law but those that go unpunished because a particular government finds it convenient to ignore such activities or even secretly sponsor them... In wartime the privateering commission or letter of marque permitted privately financed warships to attack enemy shipping; in peacetime the letter of reprisal recognized that princes did not maintain permanent embassies with one another so that it was impossible to pursue private grievances on a regular basis. Thus a letter of reprisal from a ruler allowed the aggrieved subject to steal from the subjects of the prince whose subjects stole his property in the first place. It was a rather crude way of compensating for losses at sea and illustrates the weak institutional structure of international relations at the time.
Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and secretary to Elizabeth and James I, financed his own pirate, Richard Gifford, who managed to get in trouble nearly every time he captured a ship... He even entered into a partnership with Charles Howard, the Earl of Nottingham and the Lord High Admiral... Undaunted by the trouble they had caused, the partners then used two ships of the Royal Navy for piracy, even though they were commissioned as part of a fleet ordered to combat pirates in Ireland. Because the government paid the costs of fitting out the vessels, the profits of the two men were substantial.

Richer Than Midas

In one six week period, [Henry Mainwaring] took Spanish ships and cargoes valued at 500,000 crowns. Such wealth attracted a great deal of attention. The Grand Duke of Savoy allowed Mainwaring to use the port of Villefranche, the Grand Duke of Tuscany wanted him to join his fleet of pirates/privateers, and the Spanish preferred to see him dead. When the Spanish navy tried to seize him at sea, his ships won the battle; so the government fell back on the expedient of offering him 20,000 ducats to find another career. Finally, it was the English government, embarrassed by his success and desirous of peace with Spain, that persuaded him to retire. In 1618, two years after returning to England, he was knighted and went on to have a distinguished career in the Royal Navy.

A Campaign Report

The adventures of my players in the first session might seem a little far-fetched. They broke out of prison, set a town on fire, stole a frigate, and sailed it away with a skeleton crew. Improbable, right? Well...
Robert Dangerfield's voyage began [September 27th, 1684, when he was thirty-two years old], in Point Negril, Jamaica, when a 26-ton barque arrived. It was captained by Jeremy Revelle, who announced that he intended to go on a voyage of "purchase" against the Spanish. Dangerfield and thirty-five others agreed to join him, and off they went. They spotted a ship and chased it into the harour, where they found two pirate ships lead by a Captain Mitchell and a Captain Laurence. Laurence ordered his men (who were no doubt more numerous) to seize Dangerfield and the rest of his shipmates, disarming all of them and throwing a few overboard. The rest were taken ashore briefly, but when two sails appeared on the horizon Laurence relented and asked them to join with him in taking the ships. Weapons and ship restored, Dangerfield and his mate set sail with the rest, only to discover that the ships were carrying the notorious Captain van Horne, with whom Revelle did not want to tangle; so he used the cover of darkness to sneak away.
I'd like to check the original source. "Captain van Horne" could be Nicholas vaan Hoorn, but the legendary van Hoorn apparently died in 1683. Seems like fertile ground for a research paper if anyone's interested in digging the records out of Kew. CO 1/57, fol. 381.
The crew now discussed their next destination. The majority voted in favor of Guinea in Africa, whereas the minority of Revelle and three others favored Campeche bay in Mexico. It was dangerous, even for a captain, to lose an election among pirates. The minority were put ashore on a deserted island ten miles from the Spanish Main with nothing but a canoe and a turtle net. (As harsh as this sounds, the losers were actually well off compared to others who were simply sent off with the shirts on their backs.) The winners, who had now elected Dr. John Graham, a physician, as their captain, turned north to catch the Gulf Stream out of the Caribbean. Just off Point Comfort they stopped two small colonial ships and persuaded three young men to join them. They avoided the port cities and sighted nothing until, northeast of Boston, they captured a French fishing barque and two French shallops. At this point an argument arose between Graham and the master, John Wright. Most of the crew sided with Wright, so Graham and seven others were given the French barque and sent on their way.

After electing Joseph Anderson the new captain, they set off for Guinea. On the way they stopped at the Cape Verde Islands where they raided three towns, kidnapped as many people as they could (their preference was for priests, who always brought a good price), and ransomed them for supplies and money. They also picked up a consort, a pink that had left Newfoundland with a mixed French-English crew captained by Thomas Scuder. Anderson's crew decided to abandon their decrepit ship and join their new companions, so they burned their ship and went aboard the pink, where Anderson took over as Captain, with Wright as master. At Gambia they paid a call to the governor of an English factory, or trading post, who informed them that a 250-ton fourteen-cannon French ship was nearby. Undeterred by the superiority of their target, they set out immediately to capture it. After a three-day search they found their prey and attacked. The issue was settled when they boarded the ship and overwhelmed the French, who were put on a ship's boat and shoved out into the Atlantic. Anderson's crew now had a much larger ship loaded with ivory, brandy, claret, canary wine, arms and ammunition, trade goods, and eighteen slaves. They returned to Gambia, gave the now-unwanted pink to the governor, sold him the slaves and some other goods, and set out in the newly named Resolution. After leaving Gambia again, Dangerfield and his companions followed the coast to Accra, stopping now and then to buy supplies and gold. Along this coast they fell in with a slaver, a Captain Strong, who commanded a sixty-ton ship from London and agreed to accompany them. Leaving Accra, they sailed straight south to the Portuguese island of Principe, where the governor rather ill-advisedly refused to let them have food and water. The pirates immediately captured the town, held it for ransom, burned a Portuguese ship, and got their food and water.

Their next stop was the River Gabon, where they met a Captain Williamson of London with an eight-man crew and a thirty-ton ship. While they cleared and refitted the Resolution, he went upriver to trade, partially on their behalf. Later, leaving the Gabon behind, they coasted on and off Cape Lopez looking for prey, before deciding to turn north again to the Cape Verde Islands. Yet another quarrel occurred, this time between Captain Anderson and Wright the master. Wright won, so Anderson with four others took their shares of the loot and joined Captain Strong in the consort. The remainder of the crew decided to go back to the Americas. At the Portuguese island of Anaboa they asked for water; when it was refused, the pirates attacked. The townspeople bravely burned their town, leaving only the church untouched before they retreated. If they thought the pirates would not desecrate the church, they were wrong; it promptly went up in smoke. After filling the Resolution's water casks, Wright set out to cross the Atlantic. As chance would have it, his path crossed that of a 250-ton Dutch ship. At this point the pirates' luck left them: they failed miserably when they tried to capture the Dutch ship. The Dutch sailed away and the Resolution set a course for the Carolinas. This area, notably Charleston, usually welcomed pirates, so they considered it a safe haven. They arrived in bad weather, and while struggling to get into Saint Helena Sound, the Resolution struck a sandbar and was wrecked. Eight of the forty-four pirates and seven of the fourteen slaves on board drowned. While recovering from this ordeal in the home of a local Indian family, Dangerfield and eleven others were arrested and put in jail.
Here's a map of Dangerfield's route. Outbound in red, return in blue.
Base map is Wikipedia's.

Run Up The Flag

Some Age of Sail logic puzzles. 

Problem #1
You're an English merchant ship. You spot another ship closing with you. You can't see if they are flying a flag. What flag do you fly?

You fly an English flag:
  • If the other ship is English, they might leave you alone or offer news and assistance. Best case scenario.
  • If the other ship is English, but in the Royal Navy, they can legally take up to half your crew to replace losses. They'll pick your best sailors. You'll have trouble making port.
  • If the other ship is French, Spanish, or Dutch, then you are potentially a legal prize and can be boarded, looted, and possibly sunk. Are you at war? The situation might have changed in the last few months.
  • If the other ship is a marauding pirate, ditto.
However,  you also have a store of false flags and false papers. You could pretend to be a French, Spanish, or Dutch ship.

You fly a French flag: If the other ship is French, they might leave you alone or offer news and assistance, otherwise, you're a legal prize. Etc.

What flag do you fly?

Problem #2
As above, except before you run up any flags, the pursuing ship runs up a French flag. They could also be using a false flag. Does this affect your decision?

Historical Example:
Relief for Kidd finally appeared in the form of the Rupparell, a large "Moorish" ship, but not Ghafur's long-awaited merchantman. Flying French colours, the Adventure Galley approached, playing cat and mouse with the Rupparell's captain. The victim was actually a Dutch-owned vessel with a mixed crew of Dutch and local "lascards," or sailors, who carried on a limited trade in drugs, cloth, sugar, and coral. After firing a few shots to convince the victim to stop, Kidd waited for her captain to come aboard, hoping that his accustomed ruse of wearing French flags would work. When Captain Michael Dickers came into the great cabin, he was confronted by one of the French pirates from Johanna, a Monsieur le Roy, playing at captain. In hopes of saving his ship Dickers presented a French pass; as soon as he did, Kidd cried: "By God I have catched you? You are a free prize." Dickers had fallen victim to the old stratagem: Kidd could claim to be acting legally because his commission allowed him to seize French ships, while his men finally got their big prize. His ship gone, Dickers and two of his men joined the pirates.
Howard Pyle

Payout for Injuries

I didn't include payouts on the pirate Death and Dismemberment Table, but I really should.
The loss of an eye, leg, or arm brought 600 pieces of eight in compensation; loss of a finger or toe, only 100. The heirs of a dead man collected £20, even if there was no "purchase" from the voyage. All of these obligations had to be met before the general division of booty occurred. Such obligations were taken quite seriously. At least one group  of pirates compensated their wounded, only to discover they had nothing left.


While he was preparing the Adventure Galley and collecting his crew, Kidd earned a reputation for his "rodomandations", or extravagant and arrogant boasts.
Rodomontade, from Rodomonte the Orlando poems. Different meaning but same process as "Flanderize".
A greater prize was Captain Parker who, because he knew the coast well, was forced remain aboard the Adventure Galley as a pilot; one of his Portuguese sailors was retained as a "linguistor" or translator.

Crew Composition

Kidd did record the names of all who sailed with him. Of the 152 men it is possible to identify a few by occupation; 21 were mariners, 3 were carpenters, and others had assorted occupations such as surgeon, cook, laborer, joiner, cordwainer, gunsmith, jeweler, and baker.... The ethnic composition of the crew was overwhelmingly English. Family names are not always a sure guide to nationality, but they indicate slightly more than a hundred men as having English backgrounds. The next largest group was the twenty-five Dutchmen, with the rest made up of seven Scots, two Frenchmen, two Welshmen, and one African.

Pirate Democracy

Disobedience, mutiny, and riot were subject to corporal punishment to be agreed upon by the captain and a majority of the crew.
Men had to be allowed to fight enough to get the anger out of their systems, but not long enough to endanger life or limb. They would be asked to make up and forget their quarrel, and then separated as far as possible. If two opponents refused to reconcile, they were often put ashore at the first landfall to fight a duel to the death.
Laws and hierarchy did not exist on board ship or in the pirate settlements. The rules were informal and agreed upon by a democratic system that gave the men a voice in their affairs. Life in these egalitarian surroundings was attractive to a good many men who were willing to suffer its hardships in order to enjoy the good times that outdid any others they had experienced. Samuel Burgess returned to Madagascar to live after having been a pirate, slaver, merchant captain, privateer, and condemned man. The island simply offered him more freedom than any other place.

For some of the men their new freedom extended to sexual relations. European societies denounced homosexuality and treated it harshly. The Royal Navy periodically conducted savage antibuggery campaigns to repress homosexual practices among men who might be confined at sea for years. On shipboard or in the renegade settlements, pirate could more openly engage in homosexual alliances. Louis Le Golif complained of the prevalence of homosexuality on the island of Tortuga, where he had to fight two duels to keep his most ardent suitors at bay. Some men bought "pretty boys" as companions, some had consorts; Culliford, for instance, had a "great consort", John Swann, who lived with him.


Cowardice meant loss of a share, as did drunkenness during an attack. The determination of "drunkenness" involved drawing a fine line, for the technique of dulling ear by way of the bottle is as old as warfare. The Royal Navy routinely issued rum before a battle. If the drinking got out of hand, however, an attack might fail. On one occasion a group  of pirates took three days to capture a  ship because there were never enough sober men available.
Rum. Improves the Morale stat of the crew or gives a bonus to Saves vs. Fear, but generally penalizes complex tactics. In some groups, the player may drink a shot of rum to simulate the effects on their judgement.
[Landsmen] signed on along with the sailors, but were obliged to serve with the promise of only a fraction of a share until they proved themselves. 
Many men admitted to acquiring fortunes, the greater part of which were won at play. Gerrad van Horn, a New Yorker, won 1,300 pieces of eight on a single roll of the dice and reportedly returned home with £3,000, while another man did the same to the tune of 3,400 pieces of eight... Other losers could be dangerous. When Raveneau de Lussan, a lucky gambler, crossed Nicaragua on his way back to the Caribbean in 1683 he carried 30,000 pieces of eight. The losers among his companions resented his luck and went ahead of  him, the better to ambush and rob him. Informed of their plan, de Lussan divided his fortune among his friends so that he would not lose everything. They all managed to escape the thieves and then de Lussan only had to worry about getting the money back from his friends.
John Eldridge, who made it as far as the Delaware River before being captured, carried 1,600 pieces of eight, 249 pieces of silver plate, 20 Arab gold coins, 1 gold box, 200 broken pieces of coin, 2 pounds of amber beads, 10 pieces of muslin, 1 piece of flowered satin, 30 pounds of spices, 1 African boy, and various oddiments.
Contrast these sums with the wages that Samuel Burgess' crew received for their voyage to Madagascar. The common seamen made less than £2 New York money per month; the doctor, £2.10 plus 1 slave and 12 pennies for every slave who arrived in New York; the first mate, £3.10 per month plus a slave; and the second mate and the boatswain, each £2.8 per month.
A good estimate (PDF warning) puts the value of a slave at ~£50 in the 1700s. See the fact sheet for more details.
John Cleveley the Elder

The Might of the British Navy

By 1675 the navy was strong enough to sent an expedition to North Africa, two ships to Jamaica, two to Newfoundland, and one to Barbados... By 1685, twenty-five ships were in pay and thus were manned and available for service; six were off North Africa, there was one each at Barbados, the Leeward Islands, Virginia, Newfoundland, and two at Jamaica. Besides these ships on station, the navy was reaching far beyond its normal range. One ship had been dispatched to the west coast of Africa and another sent to cruise in the Indian Ocean. 
Tedious patrol duties in the colonies managed to bring out the worst in some captains. Many of them assigned to the West Indies could not overlook the opportunities for profiting from the slave trade, where merchants were happy to have them involved because of the buccaneers. At one point during Queen Anne's War all of the Royal Navy ships in the West Indies were carrying slaves to the Spanish colonies. On occasion they embezzled goods from ships they stopped, whether or not they had sufficient cause to stop the ships in the first place.

Leaking Prisons

Once the unquestioned master of his own ship, Kidd now found himself confined to the small stone prison in Boston. It was a jail that regularly leaked prisoners. [Governor] Bellomont had fired the jailer who allowed Joseph Bradish to escape, and prevented another attempt when someone nearly succeeded in slipping James Kelly a 5 1/2 -foot crowbar. To make sure Kidd stayed put, Bellomont gave the sheriff a substantial raise.

Final Notes

I really enjoyed the book. I don't think there's an ebook available, but if you can find a hard copy it's worth reading. Some of the more recent scholarship on Captain Kidd isn't included, obviously, but it's a very nice general overview of the end of the age of piracy.

I wanted to make sure my campaign had plenty of opportunities for false flags, missed translations, and madcap international schemes. I'm excited to see if the players can manage one tenth the things pirates got up to in real life.


  1. Pirates are good adventurers. Democracy, drunkeness, false flags. . .

    Also I just read about Narses and the Nika riots and I can't help but imagine it as a bunch of soccer hooligans.

    1. Not inaccurate, except your soccer team was deeply tied to your politics. It's a subject well worth exploring, along with Venetian bridge wars: http://www.thearma.org/essays/BridgeWars.htm#.WZu7irLyvrc

  2. Have you read Patrick O'brian? The first book (master commander) is particularly instructive as Aubrey essentially spends a lot of his time acting as a privateer.

    1. I read the first one back in the day. Bear in mind it's a very different sort of time and place (a professional navy, a continental war, a well-settled sea, etc.) It's tempting to project the Napoleonic Wars backwards because they're in so many films, but virtually everything related to sailing and piracy was in a significantly different state beforehand.

      Aubrey was, as I recall, on patrol to destroy and capture French and Spanish commerce. It's a fully naval action. Without the lure of prizes, why fight? Glory? Your pressed sailors won't die for glory and the crown, but they will die for a few guineas in prize money. He was also fighting relatively close to friendly bases, ports, and a chain of command.