The beginning of the story. Upon receiving news about the measures taken by the Great Mogul in connection with the capture of an Armenian ship, the management of the East India Company began to worry about its position in India. It was necessary to reassure the Great Mogul and to demonstrate effective measures against piracy as soon as possible, specifically against Kidd.
That’s why the information received in August 1698 about the capture of the “Kedah Merchant” and other piratical acts by Kidd was forwarded by the Company’s board to members of the Supreme Court in London.
A message was sent to India about the measures taken in England to deprive pirates of the opportunity to get supplies from America. They also informed about the arrest of Captain Kidd in the West Indies and his imminent trial, as well as the captured pirate Avery’s crew.
In reality, the English government and the East India Company were hoping to get by with the mere appearance of fighting piracy. The adoption of any effective measures against pirates was being sabotaged.
Captains of East India Company ships refused to act as convoys, claiming that they had no authority to pursue pirates. The Company itself showed no desire to lease, equip, and staff local ships with crews.
However, in January 1699, an English military squadron of four ships under the command of Commodore Warren finally arrived in the Indian Ocean, marking the beginning of a period of “strange” struggle against piracy. Royal commissioners on board had the right to amnesty pirates who surrendered voluntarily.
Amnesty did not apply to the most notorious—Avery and Kidd. This was hardly an indicator of the English government’s determination to fight piracy. In any case, the commodore anchored the squadron near Madagascar, refraining from active searches or pursuits.
Pirates calmly waited for the end of these demonstrative “operations,” and they didn’t have to wait long. The commodore fell ill and died in November 1699. His successor, Captain Littleton, fought piracy in no less peculiar ways. For two months, he negotiated with the pirates, providing them with various services, as testified by Hamilton.
For some very compelling reasons, he released them to freedom. And since it was difficult for them to careen their large ships, he generously assisted them by providing large blocks and equipment for cleaning. The only “unfriendly” act towards the pirates recorded in the ship’s log was that in response to a nine-gun salute from the pirates, Littleton replied with only five shots.
As for Kidd’s case, both Governor Bellamont and the English authorities in London were more concerned about receiving their share of the loot than about punishing the crime and compensating the victims.
Being cautious, Kidd first dispersed and securely hid his treasures. He placed part of them in various hiding spots along the coast of New York Bay, and only then headed for Rhode Island. From there, through his lawyer friend Emmott, the captain contacted Bellamont.
Kidd informed the governor that he had left the “Moorish ship” captured in India, with a cargo of great value, in a bay on the coast of Hispaniola (Greater Antilles), and that he had arrived on a sloop carrying valuables worth a thousand francs to “negotiate the terms.”
Kidd agreed to appear before Bellamont on the condition that he would be promised a pardon, assuring that he “could prove his innocence with the testimony of many witnesses.” Bellamont advised Kidd to come to Boston without fear if he could confirm his innocence.
Relying on the power of money and the capabilities of the syndicate, Kidd arrived in Boston on July 2, 1699, where he was interrogated by the governor and the Council. Bellamont demanded to know the whereabouts of the “Kedah Merchant.”
His companions in England also showed great “concern” for the fate of the loot captured by Kidd. In a special letter dated September 7, 1699, the Treasury lords expressed hope that Governor Bellamont would take the necessary measures “to preserve the treasures captured by Kidd and other pirates from plunder and send it all here safely.”
The hopes tied to the confiscation of Kidd’s wealth in London can be imagined, considering the message Bellamont sent there about the estimated value of the “Kedah Merchant’s” cargo, which was approximately equal to 70,000 pounds. Kidd, however, outsmarted his high-ranking companions.
He long refused to disclose the location, but eventually agreed. A special vessel was to be sent there, but before it was ready, the falsity of the information became apparent. At the same time, a message arrived from Captain Everly stating that Kidd’s men had transferred the cargo from the “Kedah Merchant” to a sloop and had taken it to Curaçao, while setting fire to the Armenian ship.
Nevertheless, Governor Bellamont in America and the shareholders of the pirate enterprise in London did everything to protect Kidd. Only after three weeks of deliberation and hesitation did the governor arrest his ward, who had already been declared a pirate, primarily due to the actions of the aggrieved Armenians.
Taking this forced step, the governor clearly did not yet foresee how events would unfold in London. Syndicate members hoped that they would be able to keep Kidd under Bellamont’s protection in the distant American colony and prevent his delivery to London, where tensions were rising.
Thanks to vigorous protests from the Armenians and decisive action by the Great Mughal Aurangzeb, the case took a completely unexpected turn. Kidd’s openly piratical actions, carried out under the crown’s authority and organized by a syndicate of high-ranking state officials — leaders of the Whig party — were used by the opposition in Parliament for political purposes.
As a result, a colossal political scandal erupted, involving even the king himself. Portraying the shareholders of this enterprise as “the most dangerous union of high-ranking people turned pirates,” people in London openly said that they “engaged in acts of piracy and robbery with the desire and support of His Majesty the King.” As contemporaries testify, Kidd’s case “was long the main subject of discussion in the kingdom.”
Moreover, it was the subject of conversations around the world. The House of Commons decided to investigate the matter, justifying its decision on the grounds that the powers given to Kidd by the king through Governor Bellamont were damaging to the king’s honor, “contrary to international law,” and “harmful to trade.” Articles of impeachment were already prepared against the Chancellor and other officials involved in the case.
The more tense the situation became in England, the more persistently the pirate syndicate tried to keep Kidd in America. During the eight months he spent in a Boston jail, correspondence with London continued.
When the Admiralty sent a special ship, the “Rochester,” to America to bring the pirates and their captured cargo to London, something very strange happened: of all the ships heading to New England, it was the only one unable to complete the journey.
Citing a storm, the “Rochester” returned to England in November 1699. This was seen as another manifestation of a secret conspiracy involving not only the immediate organizers of the pirate expedition but also its high-ranking patrons.
In connection with the delay in bringing Kidd to London and the persistent efforts of the Whigs to take control of his trial, Parliament in March 1700 demanded from Lord Bellamont all necessary documents. They specifically instructed that Kidd should not be tried, acquitted, or pardoned until its next session.
Fearing sabotage from Bellamont and other syndicate members, the House of Commons insisted that the Admiralty present letters, instructions, Kidd’s interrogation transcripts, the royal grant to Lord Bellamont with the Great Seal, the texts of agreements between the king and recipients of charters, and all other documents related to the case. Major revelations were expected. Rumors circulated about the existence of another patent and secret articles of the agreement between Bellamont and Kidd.
On April 8, 1700, the frigate “Advise” brought Kidd to England, landing him on the Isle of Lundy and then proceeding to the Downs, where the king had sent a yacht for him and appointed a Marshal of the Admiralty to take him into custody and seize his papers. Upon learning of this, Parliament passed another resolution, ordering that Kidd be brought directly to the House of Commons’ bench for questioning to eliminate any possibility of influence on him.
As soon as Kidd was brought to London, debates began about who should conduct the investigation. The Admiralty Commission took it upon itself. The king ordered that the matter be considered at a meeting of the Privy Council in his personal presence. On April 14, 1700, the Admiralty privately interrogated Kidd.
All of this sparked strong objections in the House of Commons, which insisted on parliamentary review of the case and protested its examination by the Admiralty Commission on the grounds that it did not constitute a court and lacked the appropriate judicial jurisdiction.
As a result of a compromise at the Admiralty’s request, Parliament allowed an Admiralty judge to interrogate Kidd in the presence of deputies on April 14, 1700. However, after questions about piracy were posed to Kidd, the representative from the Admiralty was asked to leave.
The interrogation continued, but now Kidd’s testimony regarding those who had issued him royal patents—Lord Chancellor Somers, First Lord of the Admiralty Orford, Secretary of State Lord Romney, Lord Bellamont, and others—became a matter of public record in the House of Commons.
What primarily interested the parliamentarians was whether Kidd had secret orders from the syndicate to attack local ships and appropriate looted treasures. In other words, whether a covert agreement existed to engage in piracy.
The high-ranking individuals involved in the case had ample opportunities to influence the course of the investigation. Among these were direct influences on Kidd, upon whose testimony much depended. If the Chancellor and other high-ranking Whigs were threatened with political scandal and impeachment, for Kidd himself, the matter was one of life and death.
Would he remain silent, taking all the blame upon himself? Kidd spent over a year in the infamous high-security Newgate prison in London, and throughout this time representatives from two opposing factions were sent to him and secret meetings with lords involved in piracy were organized.
Many people were involved in the case—from the King of England to the tavern keeper on Charing Cross, the Newgate prison guard, and the owner of a coffeehouse near the House of Commons. Some urged him to tell the truth and not to face execution for the sake of the high-ranking instigators and organizers of the pirate enterprise.
Others promised support if he would exonerate syndicate members. Judging by Kidd’s behavior, he was more inclined to listen to the latter. He likely believed in their omnipotence; after all, they had managed to delay the trial for an entire year! He did not utter a word that could be construed as detrimental to the members of the syndicate.
Since Kidd denied the existence of secret instructions, the opposition in Parliament was unable to prove that Kidd’s piratical actions were carried out on direct orders from the syndicate.
This gave the Whigs an opportunity to scapegoat Kidd alone, reducing everything to an abuse of power. In the end, the opposition failed to secure a conviction against the syndicate members.
During the vote in the Committee of the Whole House of Commons, the general accusation that royal grants of letters of marque damaged the king’s honor, contravened English statutory law, infringed on private property, and were detrimental to trade was rejected.
A fundamental debate arose over the legality of privateering, the difference between privateering and piracy, the absolutely necessary conditions for lawful prize, the Crown’s rights to property seized by pirates, and so on.
The positions of the syndicate members were presented both in the investigative materials and in a special publication—a pamphlet prepared by a “friend” of Bellamont, who presented himself as a “person of high virtues.” The defense of the syndicate members was primarily built on proving the legality of the king’s granting of Kidd’s letter of marque.
Relying on the broad medieval legal interpretation of the institution of privateering, they argued that during war, all sovereigns have the right to grant privateers the authority to fight the enemy, capture, hold, and use their ships and cargo, or a portion thereof, as the sovereign deems necessary depending on the conditions of the war.
With the transfer of the right to wage war to subjects, the sovereign’s rights to war booty and the right to judge who is considered an enemy also transition to them. Granting privateers the right to arrest ships and their cargo until a court decision on their forfeiture thereby admits the “possibility that they may cause difficulties for friends and allies: taking over the ships of merchants who are at peace with the king, or at least, their property, which may be found aboard enemy ships.” The burden of proof in an English court for their rights to the seized property could fall on the aggrieved friendly merchants.
In the specific case of the Armenian ship, it was claimed that the king could lay claim to a “range of rights and interests” in the property seized by Kidd either directly or through appointed persons who received his grants. From any perspective, it was an attempt to legalize the appropriation of the proceeds from maritime plunder.
Participation of high-ranking officials from the kingdom in this case was justified by traditions dating back to the time of Queen Elizabeth. Moreover, privateering and piracy were seen as serving the highest national interests. Based on this, counter-accusations were levied against the critics of the syndicate—allegedly, they were “betraying the country.”
In the legal arguments of the prosecution, it was pointed out that a privateer’s actions must comply with international law norms, specifically that prizes should be awarded by a competent court.
It was noted that, legally speaking, the king could not “grant” property seized by a privateer, at least not before a relevant court ruling. Since Kidd acted not as a privateer but as a pirate, international law stipulates that piracy cannot result in a change of property rights. Hence, the owners of the property maintain their legal title, and any disposition of such property by anyone, including the king, is legally invalid.
Reference to this foundational principle of international law is also found in other cases where Armenians legally defend their rights against pirates. It was also pointed out that merchants were preemptively deprived of justice in the event of unlawful seizure of their property.
Victims of piracy could not expect justice in the court of the Lord Chancellor, as this would conflict with his personal interests. They could not hope for justice in the Admiralty, where Lord Orford—a member of the syndicate—presided.
They could not rely on the king’s justice either, as access to him was facilitated through the secretary, who was the Duke of Shrewsbury, another syndicate member. Nor could they seek justice in the English colony—America—as Lord Bellamont was there.
The sole judge determining the legality of the cargo seizure was Captain Kidd himself. It was noted that this case could set a bad precedent, as preemptively declaring people guilty and depriving them of property is contrary to the idea of justice and the Bill of Rights.
Nonetheless, the English Parliament refused to condemn privateering even when it manifested as outright piracy. England could not and would not abandon privateering—one of the pillars of its colonization policy and maritime hegemony.
Thus, it was the deviation from the formal canons of privateering that was condemned. Lengthy debates in the House of Commons concluded with a peculiar deal. The threat of impeachment against high-ranking Whigs was lifted.
The true organizer of this enterprise, Governor Lord Bellamont, died a natural death on March 5, 1701, in New York. He was buried with honors. Acting on his script, the main executor of the syndicate’s plans, Captain Kidd, was subjected to ordinary court proceedings in accordance with the parliamentary decision.
Kidd was tried on May 8-9, 1701, in the Admiralty Court in Old Bailey for the piratical capture of the Armenian ship “Quedagh Merchant” and for the murder of Gunner Moore, who refused to engage in piracy with him.
Nine members of his crew were tried on charges of piracy. Two other crew members were presented as royal witnesses. Also present at the trial was one of the affected Armenian merchants—the one who had offered to ransom the ship for 20,000 rupees.
Now that the charges against government members for direct and immediate involvement in piracy had been dropped, the matter in court was framed somewhat differently than when discussed in Parliament.
Kidd and his crew were charged with the following: that they “on the high seas, ten leagues off the coast of Cochin in East India and within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty of England, did piratically and feloniously attack, board, invade, and take possession of a trading vessel named the ‘Quedagh Merchant,’ owned by persons whom… the jurors personally do not know, and thereafter on the same vessel, did piratically and feloniously commit physical violence against the sailors at a time when, by the grace of God and our sovereign lord the king, peace prevailed, and thereafter there piratically and feloniously threatened the lives of the said sailors of that ship, who were aboard the aforementioned vessel, and thereafter… piratically and feloniously, in a thieving manner, seized, captured, and carried away… the aforementioned trading vessel named the ‘Quedagh Merchant.'”
The indictment detailed the composition and value of the seized property—both of the ship and its cargo—which were “in the care and possession of the said sailors aboard the same vessel.”
In the cited excerpt of the indictment, it is emphatically underscored that the capture of the vessel and its cargo occurred on the high seas and involved violence against the owners of the ship and cargo, with whom England was at peace.
The prosecutor from the Admiralty, Dr. Newton, after outlining the case, gave the following assessment of Kidd’s actions: his crimes, he said, harmed not only the immediate victims but also trade in the East as a whole. His crimes are condemned not only by the affected parties but by humanity at large.
After reading the texts of the royal patents, Kidd was asked what he could say in his defense, and how he could justify the capture of the “Quedagh Merchant” and its cargo. Kidd based his defense on the argument that he acted within the authority granted by his letter of marque and the royal patents, claiming that the capture of the “Quedagh Merchant” and its cargo was a lawful prize, as the ship and its cargo belonged to the French.
Such framing of the issue, if confirmed and accepted by the court, would serve the interests of the syndicate. In the case of success (although increasingly unlikely), the syndicate members would gain additional leverage against the opposition. In the case of failure, the responsibility would fall solely on Kidd, as his actions would be considered a unilateral violation of the terms of the royal grants.
Assessing the legal arguments put forth by Kidd in his defense, “Lord Chief Baron” Ward told the court, “He has told you that he acted based on patents he received, but this can be accepted only if he presents you with evidence that the ship and its cargo belonged to the French king or his subjects or that the ship had a French pass.
Otherwise, nothing can absolve him of the charge of piracy, for if he captures property belonging to friends, then he is a pirate. He had no authority for this. The patents he holds give him no grounds for capturing such property.”
The accused “strives to prove that the vessel and its cargo belong to the French, or at the very least, that the vessel was sailing with a French pass,” and if what Kidd says is true, it would be a “lawful prize subject to confiscation.”
On the other hand, if it is proven that the capture took place on the high seas and the property belonged to persons at peace with the English king, then these actions should be qualified as “pure piracy”:
“Such actions, if committed on land, would constitute a serious criminal offense; if committed at sea, they constitute piracy, for it is the seizure of a vessel from its rightful owners and its use for oneself.”
So the case centered around proving the actual ownership of the ship and its cargo—whether they belonged to Armenians and subjects of the Great Mughal, rather than to the French king or his subjects.
Unlike pirating privateers, and more broadly, colonial maritime powers that did not differentiate between the nationality of a ship and its cargo to justify the seizure of neutral goods on an enemy ship, the argumentation of Armenian merchants clearly distinguished between the legal status of the ship and the cargo it carried.
Transporting a significant portion of their goods on ships from European states that were constantly at war with each other, Armenian merchants were interested in securing the interests of neutral cargo owners.
This distinction between the status of the ship and the cargo was also made in cases where both the ship and the cargo belonged to the Armenians. This precaution safeguarded the interests of Armenian cargo owners in the event that the ship was captured under the pretext of its enemy flag, whether real or imagined.
This stance of the Armenian merchants also had a broader international legal basis, rooted in the traditions of Cilician Armenia. Long before this principle was established in international law, Armenian merchants operated under the assumption that neutral goods captured on an enemy ship should be returned to their owners (this principle was finally confirmed in the Paris Declaration of 1854).
While English practice for a long time did not accept the norm that neutral property on board an enemy ship should be declared free from seizure, in Kidd’s trial, apparently influenced by the Armenians who saw additional opportunities to protect their interests, a separate question was raised about establishing the ownership of the cargo itself. Specifically, Lord Ward asked witnesses Bradinham and Palmer a special question: “Did the cargo belong to the French or the Armenians?” The answer was unequivocal: “Armenian merchants.”
It should be noted that Kidd himself, not very hopeful about the possibility of proving the French ownership of the ship and its cargo, consistently referred to the Armenian owners as “Moors,” “Muslims,” and spoke of the “Quedagh Merchant” exclusively as a “Moorish,” “Muslim ship.”
This was done intentionally to circumvent the fact that the ship and its cargo were captured in direct violation of an existing agreement between the English East India Company and the “Armenian nation” (interestingly, almost all English historians of piracy also follow this line).
Yuri BARSEGOV – To be continued
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan