The story of Captain Kidd’s capture of the Armenian merchant ship “Kedah Merchant” and its dramatic outcome constitutes fascinating chapters in the chronicle of the fight against piracy and the struggle for the freedom of maritime trade.
This is a vivid example of privateering degenerating into a form of piracy, with the organized act of maritime robbery being employed by the English state and its colonial authorities against Armenian maritime trade.
The case holds significant interest for revealing the means of the unequal struggle by Armenian merchants to protect their rights, and consequently, the rights of all other merchants and ship owners. The outcome of this saga—where the English king and his government couldn’t save their accomplice from death by hanging—speaks for itself.
Captain Kidd is one of the central figures in the global history of maritime piracy. Songs and ballads were written about him, his “exploits” have been and continue to be described in every book about piracy. Special articles are dedicated to him in both British and American encyclopedias, as well as in English and American biographical dictionaries.
According to the latter, Kidd is the “most famous pirate in English literature.” Two different images of him migrate from one book to another. One is the image of a successful arch-pirate, whose treasure is still being hunted to this day.
The other is a sad figure of a half-privateer, half-pirate, who managed to plunder little or almost nothing but became the victim of high politics and partisan intrigue, ultimately ending up at the gallows.
“Whatever the crimes of Kidd, it is clear that the trial against him was unfair, and he was found guilty on insufficient evidence,” asserts an English biographical dictionary.
The image of the unsuccessful Kidd was initially created by his high-ranking accomplices and defenders to justify not so much the captain himself, but those who stood behind him.
Then, he was picked up by apologists for British maritime history, who attempted to retrospectively whitewash its unseemly pirate side, going so far as to portray the country as almost an opponent of piracy.
In reality, Kidd was a genuine pirate—not the only one, and certainly not the worst of this breed of maritime robbers. English piracy thrived both before and after him.
It enjoyed the support of the state and the East India Company, serving both for enrichment and for dealing with competitors in maritime trade. So why was Kidd eventually executed?
Was he truly a victim of intrigue and partisan struggle in England? Or had there perhaps been a shift in attitudes toward piracy, and Kidd’s trial confirms the apologists’ version of English maritime history?
A careful study of events in the context of the general situation in India at that time shows that England had not changed its attitude towards piracy. Instead, there were more substantial reasons for Kidd’s conviction than mere intrigue and partisan politics.
These merely created favorable conditions, but the main factors were the staunch resistance initially posed by the victimized Armenian merchants and then by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who not without reason linked Kidd’s robbery to the support of piracy by official England and the East India Company.
Kidd became a symbol and embodiment of English piracy. As the prosecution representative Dr. Newton would say in the court trial, “These criminal enterprises and actions have made his name (to the disgrace and detriment of the English nation) all too well known and justly despised in remote parts of the world, and he was viewed as an arch-pirate and a common enemy of mankind.”
Among the various types of piracy that Armenian merchants and sailors encountered in the seas and oceans, the episode with Captain Kidd occupies a special place. Due to unique circumstances, events took an unexpected turn, got out of control of the authorities, and thus it became known who really stood behind the pirates and was the true organizer of pirate activities.
This story began in 1695 when English King William (Wilhelm) III entrusted Lord Bellomont, with whom he had friendly relations and whom he had appointed Governor of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, to take measures against the pirates of New England.
Armed with a royal commission, the governor, along with other prominent Whigs, decided to outfit a private warship (privateer)—officially for combating the French and even suppressing piracy, but in reality with the goal of enriching themselves through maritime plunder.
Since the government did not fund the expedition, all expenses associated with acquiring the ship, its outfitting, and the maintenance of the crew were shouldered by a private joint-stock company established by the Governor of New York. The members of this company naturally expected dividends.
Shareholders included Lord Bellomont himself, as well as other noble and high-ranking individuals: the First Lord of the Admiralty Orford, Lord Chancellor Somers, Secretary of State Lord Romney, a member of the Supreme Court the Duke of Shrewsbury, and others. The organization of the venture fell to the Governor of New York, Lord Bellomont.
For obvious reasons, they preferred to conceal their true identities and operated under fictitious names such as Edmund Harrison, William Rowley, George Watson, Thomas Reynolds, and Samuel Newton.
Members of this syndicate invested £6,000 sterling in the venture, intended to cover initial expenses—outfitting the vessel and hiring a crew. A fifth of the costs were shouldered by Robert Livingston and Captain Kidd—the primary executor of the planned venture.
Kidd was proposed as a candidate by the governor himself. The choice was not random. The son of a Calvinist minister, Kidd lived in New York—one of the piracy hubs at the time.
Here, pirate crews were assembled, and pirates from New England and the West Indies, and later the Indian Ocean, “liquidated” their loot. Kidd maintained business relations with them and himself operated a small ship as a “privateer” in American waters.
He could be presented as an experienced sailor who was well-acquainted with the locations of pirate operations and other intricacies of the trade. According to his contemporary Thomas Hewitson, Kidd was a “strong personality” in the West Indies.
In hiring the captain, the syndicate, acting as the shipowner, had to negotiate terms of compensation with him. Since the pirate venture was based on “self-financing,” this naturally led to an agreement on the division of future spoils.
It stipulated the manner in which the loot would be divided between the captain and his crew on one hand, and the members of the partnership involved in fitting out the privateering ship, on the other.
The agreement was struck between Kidd and Governor Bellomont, who acted on behalf of his friends. Kidd and the recommending Livingston were allocated 1/5 of the costs for outfitting the ship and, correspondingly, one-fifth of the revenues.
The remaining 4/5 of the expenses were taken on by Bellomont and other members of the syndicate. Accordingly, they were entitled to 4/5 of the net income, and in case there was none, Kidd promised to return their investment. Bellomont also took it upon himself to secure the king’s approval.
By the end of August 1695, a frigate with a displacement of 287 tons, equipped with thirty pairs of oars and armed with 36 cannons, was ready. At the suggestion of Kidd and Livingston, the ship was given the evocative name “Adventure Galley.”
Kidd then headed to London to obtain a letter of marque from the king and resolve some other issues. After staying there until February 1696, the “Adventure Galley” sailed to Plymouth, where it remained until the end of April. The delay had its reasons: crucial matters for the venture were being resolved.
Bellomont introduced Kidd to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Orford, and Colonel Hewitson took him to the Secretary of State, Lord Romney. In December 1695, Captain Kidd was granted a commission bearing the Admiralty seal, authorizing him to carry out reprisals against the French.
He was instructed to go on the ship “on a military expedition under his personal command and by force of arms to arrest, seize, and capture as prize ships, vessels, and cargo belonging to the French king and his subjects or inhabitants of the territories of the said French king.”
The captured prizes were to be brought to the nearest port for adjudication based on international law by Admiralty courts. According to custom, only after such adjudication could the privateer dispose of the seized property as enemy assets.
Six weeks later, on January 26, 1696, Kidd received a second letter of marque. King William (William) III, “having consulted” with the Admiralty, issued him a letter of marque under the Great Seal, empowering “our beloved friend William Kidd, acting as a private man of war,” to apprehend certain specifically named pirates from Rhode Island and New York—Thomas Tew, Thomas Wake, William Maze, John Ireland, and “all pirates, freebooters, and maritime robbers of any kind,” engaged in plundering to the detriment of trade and in violation of international law.
In accordance with the powers granted to him, Kidd was to prevent pirates from sailing from America to the Indian Ocean; he could also pursue them in the Indian Ocean itself. For each captured pirate, Kidd was to receive a reward of 50 pounds sterling.
For Avery, a sum of 100 pounds was initially designated, which was later raised to 500 pounds. As for the rewards for the syndicate members and the king himself, this matter was regulated by a special document—a royal warrant for ship owners.
Excluding the king’s share (he was reserved a “tenth part, free of all charges, of what would be taken”), all the property seized from the pirates was intended for syndicate members as compensation for their expenses.
According to documents drafted by the treasury, syndicate members guaranteed the king full payment of his share of the prize and undertook the obligation to provide a complete, sworn account of all the property and valuables captured from the pirates.
As for Kidd himself, he was only required to keep accurate records of what was captured. According to the patent he received, he was to keep detailed and precise records of all his actions in the ship’s log.
He was also obligated to make detailed inventories of all ships, their armament, equipment, and cargo that were captured under his privateering powers. Clearly, maintaining such records was not intended for the purpose of returning property to its lawful owners but solely to determine the “lawful” share for the king and the division of the spoils according to seniority. Thus, the fundamental rule of recognizing piracy as illegal was ignored.
The text of the issued letters of marque does not fully disclose the nature of Kidd’s impending activities. The assignment to take as lawful prize enemy ships and vessels, as well as to capture independent pirates and their property, was only the official aspect of his mission.
This was complemented by secret but quite specific instructions that not only permitted but directly prescribed engaging in piracy for the benefit of the treasury and the syndicate—with the single limitation: not to attack English ships. This is evidenced by both the circumstances of outfitting the expedition and Kidd’s behavior.
In the last days of April 1696, Kidd left Plymouth and set sail for New York, but en route, he encountered a small French ship. Capturing it, Kidd returned to comply with the terms of his letter of marque and by all the rules of prize-taking to cash in his trophy.
The money Kidd obtained could be used to complete the outfitting of his ship and to supplement his crew, which then numbered eighty people. In any case, upon arriving in New York in July 1696, Kidd increased the crew size to 155 under the pretext that he was heading to Madagascar to fight pirates.
Kidd recruited new sailors from a circle of people with dubious reputations, well-known to him. The very nature of the selection left contemporaries with no doubts about the true objectives of the planned expedition.
Kidd himself didn’t conceal these objectives, promising his men to “fill the ship’s hold with gold and silver instead of ballast.” Experienced sailors were to receive a full share of the spoils, while servants and other auxiliary staff would get a half-share. Out of a total of 160 shares, forty were allocated to the captain.
The “Adventure Galley” left New York on September 6, 1696. Although four of the pirates specifically named in the royal patent were located off the American coast at the time, Kidd hurried to the Indian Ocean. En route, he stopped for wine and fruit in Madeira and replenished his water supplies in Cape Verde.
West of Africa, he encountered the English Royal Navy squadron consisting of the ships “Windsor,” “Tiger,” “Council,” and “Vulture,” commanded by Warren. Kidd attempted to avoid the encounter, but he was caught up with. When he showed his royal patent, he was offered the option to proceed together for added safety, at least as far as the Cape of Good Hope.
This did not fit into Kidd’s plans, and six days later, taking advantage of a calm that paralyzed the sailboats, the “Adventure Galley,” propelled by its thirty pairs of oars, slipped away from the military squadron at night.
Kidd had no intention of either warring with the French or combating pirates, especially since his frigate was not equipped for it. Kidd had 36 guns on board, while, for example, pirate Avery’s ship had 50.
However, thirty guns and a hundred and fifty crew members experienced in piracy were sufficient for attacking local merchant vessels. A small French ship that unexpectedly crossed his path even before the expedition began was not only the first but also the last prize that met the general concept of privateering at the time.
And although Kidd headed straight for Madagascar—the pirate haven of the Indian Ocean—his goal was not to engage them in battle but to join them and secure their support. However, Kidd was unlucky: he couldn’t find any pirates as they were all busy pirating.
Having stocked up on provisions at the pirate base, Kidd set course for the Mozambique Strait. He then headed north and took up a position at the entrance to the Red Sea, from where he could monitor ships coming out of the Red Sea headed for India. Kidd began hunting for caravans bound for the Arabian port of Mokha.
This port welcomed merchant ships from Arabs, Indians, and Armenians carrying eastern goods; western goods were exported from here, brought in from the Mediterranean. Kidd sent men for reconnaissance, requiring them to capture a “tongue” (informant) or find out what ships were in port. Learning of an impending passage of a caravan (“Mossa fleet”), Kidd took measures not to lose sight of it at night. A watch was set. “Come on, lads! I’ll make a lot of money off this caravan!” the captain enthused his crew.
Meeting the long-awaited caravan on August 14, 1697, Kidd chose one of the larger ships and, pursuing it, opened fire. He then discovered that the caravan was being escorted by an English ship, “Sceptre,” and a Danish warship, both of which returned fire. He had to temporarily abandon his plan and change his area of pirate operations.
Now Kidd directed his ship toward the Malabar Coast of India, a bustling area of merchant shipping. He wasn’t mistaken. Here, Kidd “committed many large piratical acts and robberies, capturing vessels and cargoes of Indians and others, Muslims and Christians alike.”
Near the coast north of Bombay on August 29, Kidd captured a local brigantine from Surat named “Mary.” The captured ship’s captain, Thomas Parker, was taken aboard the “Adventure Galley” as a navigator, and a Portuguese man on board was made the translator.
However, some crew members of the Indian ship managed to escape, and news of this piratical act spread all along the Malabar Coast. Then came other successes: on September 20, Kidd plundered a “Muslim ship” laden with pepper, coffee, and myrrh; on November 27, he captured and robbed “The Maid,” along with several other smaller ships. An English song described Captain Kidd’s piratical activities as follows:
I sailed my ship from strait to strait,
And many ships I met along the way.
And all of them I burned when I was sailing,
When I was sailing.
So, instead of fighting piracy, Kidd, as the prosecutor would later express it at the Old Bailey trial, “himself became a pirate, and the greatest and worst of all.” But Kidd was not just any pirate.
He operated under English royal privateering licenses that authorized him to seize ships of hostile nations. Therefore, while engaging in piracy, he did not fly the pirate flag but cruised under the English banner. Limiting himself to capturing native vessels, he did not attack English ships.
Kidd was eager to negotiate with his compatriots from the East India Company. On October 4, 1697, he sent a letter to an English factor in Calicut: “Sir, I wonder why your people are afraid to approach us, although I’ve taken all possible measures to let them know that I am an Englishman and have no intention of attacking English ships.
Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty to write this letter and dispel all suspicions. I sailed from England 15 months ago with the King’s commission to suppress piracy in these waters. I left Carwar a month ago, so I assume you already know who I am.
I need nothing but firewood and water, and if you would instruct your people to provide these, we will pay you fairly for it. I, for my part, am always ready to do all in my power for you. William Kidd.” Kidd did not sour relations with the pirates he was supposed to detain. He did not attack any, although the ocean was swarming with them.
Kidd had been sailing the Indian Ocean for two years. During this time, he had a fair number of fortunate encounters, but the “best,” the “biggest prize,” was associated with the capture off the Malabar Coast on January 30, 1698, of the Armenian trade ship “Quedah Merchant.”
This case is described in practically all books about piracy, starting with a book published in London in the 1720s by Captain Charles Johnson titled “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates,” the actual author of which is presumed to be Daniel Defoe.
The “Quedah Merchant” was a sailing vessel with a displacement of 400, or according to other accounts, 500 tons, with a crew of 90 men, armed with ten guns for self-defense. The ship’s value, including its rigging, was estimated at 400 pounds.
The ship was chartered by “three or four Armenian merchants” and one Muslim merchant (“Moor”), who were transporting their cargo from Bengal to Surat and were on board themselves.
In court documents, these “Armenians,” “Armenian merchants,” are listed as the owners of the cargo and the ship itself, but their names are not mentioned. We have only been able to establish that the shipowner was the “son of a calendar,” that is, an elder of the Armenians, and that the name of one of the charterers was Cojee Abanus (Hodja Ovannes).
These details were preserved in a translation of the letter from “Paulo Armenian,” written in Armenian on April 27, 1698, in the camp of the Great Mogul.
In this voyage, the “Kedah Merchant” carried a valuable cargo: 200 bales of muslin worth 1,000 English pounds, 70 boxes of opium worth 400 pounds, 250 sacks of sugar worth 100 pounds, 20 bales of raw silk worth 400 pounds, and 100 bales of mite worth 200 pounds, among other goods, totaling 4,500 pounds.
This information is found in the indictment regarding the seizure of the ship by Kidd, a source that, as we will see later, clearly had an interest in lowering the value of the goods due to be paid to the cargo owners.
Other sources mention the presence on the ship of iron, saltpeter, and gold ingots, with the overall cargo value estimated at 200,000 rupees. J. Biddulph estimates the Armenian ship’s value at 10 or 12 thousand pounds.
At the time of the capture, the ship’s captain was an Englishman named Wright, two of his lieutenants were Dutch, and the gunner was an elderly Frenchman. Such a diverse crew composition was typical of the time.
Particular attention should be paid to one important circumstance that prompted the Armenians to adopt a “multinational” crew selection. European colonial powers were in constant conflict, and their military ships and privateers, disregarding the neutrality of ships and cargoes from other nations, seized them under the pretext of “affiliation” with the enemy.
Therefore, Armenian shipowners had to buy passes and licenses for their trade ships to sail under the flags of each warring nation. The custom of having multiple flags continued for centuries.
It wasn’t until the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted in 1982 and coming into force in 1994, that established in Article 92 that “a ship must sail under the flag of one state only” and “cannot change its flag during the voyage except in the case of a genuine change of ownership or change of registry.”
According to this Convention, “a ship flying the flags of two or more states, using them for convenience, cannot claim recognition of any of the corresponding nationalities by other states and may be treated as a ship without nationality.”
The right to sail under multiple flags, if one so chooses, was a form of asserting neutrality, as Armenian and other “local” merchants had no desire to be involuntarily drawn, against their interests, into conflicts among European colonial powers.
For the same reason, Armenian shipowners tried to have representatives of various European nations in their crews, so as to protect themselves from attacks by their naval vessels or privateers if needed.
Kidd, of course, knew about this and therefore deliberately pursued the Armenian merchant ship not under the English flag, but under the French one. He was clearly counting on the Armenian ship having a backup French license in addition to the English one, leaving the shipowners with no choice but to raise the French flag. Then the ship could be presented as “enemy property,” and the capture would be considered legal.
Approaching the “Kedah Merchant,” Kidd ordered the captain to lower the boat and come to him. The Armenian shipowners, most likely deliberately, following a pre-planned scenario, sent their elderly French gunner aboard the supposed French ship.
Upon boarding the “Adventure Galley” and realizing the deceit, the Frenchman immediately declared that he was not the captain, but merely an artillery gunner. When Captain Wright, his compatriot, appeared before Kidd, the pirate arrested him and demanded information about the ship, its cargo, and its owners.
How did Captain Wright behave? European captains, particularly English ones, typically collaborated with pirates and privateers of their own nationality. Such behavior from the English captain of the Armenian ship was not out of the question.
If Wright had conspired with Kidd in advance, even before the pirate attack, he could have intentionally sent the French gunner aboard the pirate ship. By presenting himself as the captain, the Frenchman would thereby give grounds to justify the seizure of the Armenian ship and its cargo based on the English royal patent as a “French” vessel.
If that was the case, the Armenian shipowners were likely urged to present a French “pass.” It is known for certain that they did not do this—either because they had no backup French license or because they had seen through Kidd’s ruse and prudently sent the French gunner without a French pass.
Concerning the question of possible collaboration between Captain Wright and Kidd, it is important to note that all four Europeans from the Armenian ship were taken into Kidd’s crew. Although Kidd continued to insist in court that the captain of the “Kedah Merchant” was French and that Wright was merely a “tavern keeper from Surat,” he called none of the four as witnesses and took no steps to secure their much-needed testimonies. Most likely, he left them in Madagascar with that part of his pirate crew who wished to continue their sea-roving there.
Even if Kidd did not know this before the attack, he was now officially informed that Armenians were the shipowners and owners of the majority of the cargo being transported. According to the testimony during the trial, “the ship’s captain stated that the ship and its cargo were friendly, not hostile.” What would have been the consequences if Kidd had adhered to the official terms of the privateer patent?
Ten years earlier, on June 22, 1688, the English governor and “The Company of London Merchants Trading to the East Indies” (established in 1600, it played a dominant role in the new East India Company formed in 1698) concluded a treaty with representatives of Armenian merchants trading in India—Khachatur Khoja and John Shard.
According to the treaty, the “Armenian nation” was recognized as having “equal rights to use or benefit from all privileges that the Company has granted or will ever grant to any of its entrepreneurs or any other English merchants.”
The treaty particularly acknowledged the right of Armenians to carry out sea transport of their goods from any ports within the jurisdiction of the Company’s charter “to any ports or places in India, the South Seas, China, or the Philippine Islands” on any ships of the Company or any other ships permitted by the Company, under the same terms available to “any free Englishman.”
The formal acknowledgment of equal rights for Armenian merchants with the English was, of course, a necessity. The English Company still had to reckon with Armenian merchants due to their status in India and other Eastern countries—their financial clout, close ties with Eastern rulers, knowledge of trade conditions, and centuries-old, efficiently functioning trade network that encompassed not just European countries but also all countries of the East from Turkey, Persia, and Ethiopia to China and the Philippines.
Finally, as can be seen from the text of the treaty itself, one of the goals of granting privileges and advantages to Armenians was aimed at attracting large revenue from sea transport of Eastern goods by Armenian merchants.
It was required to divert the main stream of these transports from traditional routes through the Persian Gulf, Arabian, and Red Seas to the ports of the Eastern Mediterranean, and further into Europe, onto a new “English route”—to Europe around Africa.
The English clearly expected that security concerns and the desire to avoid pirate attacks would play a significant role in the attitudes of Armenian merchants towards such an alternative.
This by no means implied that the English East India Company had actually abandoned non-economic influence over the Armenians through piracy. The facts suggest otherwise.
According to the English plan, piracy was to be used purposefully—not to harm the Company, not to deter Armenians from cooperation, but, on the contrary, to compel them into such cooperation. The goal was to coerce the Armenians to abandon the use of their own trade ships and to encourage them to use English vessels for transporting their goods.
While obstructing the development of the Armenian merchant fleet in various ways and covertly encouraging piracy against Armenian and other “local” merchant vessels, the English East India Company externally appeared to be almost a protector of Armenian interests.
The aforementioned 1688 treaty specifically contained the Company’s solemn obligation to “dismiss from our service any governor who in any way hinders or refuses to support Armenians in the full exercise of all the privileges hereby granted to them.”
Therefore, an overt act of piracy against an Armenian trade vessel, committed by an English captain on an English privateer ship and based on an English privateering patent, not only blatantly violated the terms of the treaty with the Company but also thereby harmed its interests.
The “legality” of capturing the Armenian ship by the English privateer could not be justified even by the presence of an Indian Muslim merchant on board with goods purchased with local officials’ money, as there was peace between the English and the Great Mogul.
Thus, Kidd had only one option left—to declare the ship French. Proving the French ownership of the ship could be done either by the presence of a French pass or, at worst, by the French nationality of the ship’s captain.
But if the “Quedah Merchant” did have a backup French pass, Kidd, apparently, could not obtain it. That’s why the pirate resorted to his usual tactic: he had previously forced French people on board captured ships to pose as their captains.
Kidd intended to use the same tactic on the Armenian vessel, taking advantage of the fact that there was a French-origin cannoneer among the crew. As later became evident from the testimonies of his crew members, Kidd pretended not to understand that the ship’s captain was the Englishman Wright, not a Frenchman. Despite the lack of grounds provided by the royal patent, Kidd ordered his men to board and seize the ship.
To the shipowners and cargo owners, Kidd announced that he had “taken the ship under the authority of the King of England.” He clearly understood that the Armenian ship could not be legally awarded to him as a prize. Thus, in direct contradiction to the protocol for handling captured enemy property, he decided to sell the cargo back to its original owners, effectively gaining their sanction for his actions.
As was later confirmed by testimonies, Kidd told the Armenians that they could “redeem” their ship if they offered an appropriate sum. When the Armenians subsequently offered to pay him 20,000 rupees (approximately 3,000 pounds sterling), or 30,000 rupees by some accounts, he rejected it, believing the amount to be disproportionate to the value of the cargo.
According to a member of his crew, Rob Bradinham, Kidd “told them that it was only a trivial part of the money, and the cargo was worth much more.” Driven by greed, he decided that it would be much more profitable to sell the goods himself.
Having dropped off the captured crew (except for the Europeans, as noted) at various points along the coast, Kidd began to sell off part of the cargo—primarily perishable goods like textiles—to Indian Banians, known for their trading acumen. However, even while acting as a merchant, Kidd remained a bandit.
Inviting buyers on board the ship, he created the appearance of legitimate trade, haggling meticulously and concluding deals punctually. After receiving the money or bartered goods and products, Kidd would disembark the deceived buyers on the shore, keeping both the money and the goods for himself, which was unusual even for a pirate.
Only now did Kidd decide that he had amassed enough loot and could return to America. But before concluding his nearly two-year-long pirate expedition, he needed to settle accounts with his crew and prepare for the long ocean voyage.
The most suitable place for this was Madagascar— the haven for all pirates. Kidd arrived there with his “prize” in early May 1698. This time, the pirates who lived on the island were present. Captain Calliford, who commanded the pirate ship “Resolution,” was also there.
Rumors had reached him that Kidd had a royal mandate to arrest pirates and seize their property. Being on the wanted list, Calliford was initially suspicious. However, Kidd immediately dispelled the pirates’ doubts, saying that he was “just as much a cutthroat as they were” and had no intention of causing them the slightest harm: he would rather see his soul burn in hell than harm a single hair on the head of anyone in Calliford’s crew.
Boarding the ship with the pirates, Kidd, according to witness R. Bradinham, “raised a cup of a bamboo drink and swore he would remain loyal and assist them.” As a sign of friendship, Kidd gifted Calliford cannons, cannonballs, and an anchor, all essential to a pirate, and also transferred three members of his own crew to him.
In return, as a token of gratitude and trust, Calliford gave Kidd Chinese silk valued at 400-500 pounds. Now the pirates visited each other’s ships without any apprehension. Witnesses recounted these details during Kidd’s trial.
From the sum of ten or twelve thousand pounds sterling obtained from “liquidating” the goods seized from the Armenians, Kidd allocated a portion under the guise of expenses for the acquisition of ammunition and provisions.
Furthermore, according to the terms of the agreement, he was entitled to forty shares. In total, Kidd personally received 8,000 pounds. He divided the remaining amount among the members of his crew, with each sailor getting 200 pounds sterling.
The unsold portion of the captured property was unloaded from the “Quedah Merchant” and also divided among the members of the pirate gang according to their agreement. The captain’s entitled 40 shares were supposed to make up 120 bales.
After splitting the money and property, ninety members of Kidd’s pirate gang stayed in Madagascar, where they continued their maritime robbery, switching to the East India Company ship “Mota Frigate.”
Since Kidd’s privateer ship had sprung a leak, he transferred some of his crew to the Armenian merchant vessel, converting it into a warship. Four months later, in September 1698, full of hopeful expectations, he set course for New York, carrying in the hold a quarter of the looted goods—luxurious items, gold, and money.
Kidd probably hoped that under the influence of Governor Bellamont, the admiralty court would retroactively award him a prize. However, he miscalculated. The situation took a different turn.
Upon arriving in the West Indies, Kidd learned he was accused of piracy. He did not yet fully grasp the seriousness of the situation and couldn’t believe that he, acting on behalf of a powerful syndicate, could be charged with piracy for seizing the property of “native” merchants.
After all, the robbery of “Asian” trade ships and cargo had never been considered a crime in England! One only needs to refer to the testimony of the aforementioned J. Biddalph about the prevailing morals among his countrymen to understand this.
“Robbery and mistreatment of Asians were viewed as minor offenses, and many sailors returned to the decks of honest trading ships after conducting pirate raids, with no one thinking ill of it.” Kidd was confident that he could resolve the misunderstanding.
He still thought that the problems that had arisen were merely related to the division of loot; he was unaware of the forces set into motion by the Armenian merchants and shipowners—victims of his plundering activities.
In the case of Kidd’s pirate attack, as in other similar situations, Armenian merchants and shipowners used all available means to reclaim their stolen property and sought the punishment of the pirates and their patrons, with the aim of preventing future maritime robbery.
The East India Company was aware of the influence wielded by Armenian merchants in India and remembered the outcomes of their protests in similar cases. The company took urgent measures to preempt and neutralize Armenian actions.
Immediately upon receiving news of Kidd’s capture of an Armenian ship, the English Governor of Bombay, John Gayer, sent his representative to the Great Mughal in an attempt to justify the Company before complaints from the victims could reach the capital. However, this initiative did not yield the expected results.
The calculations of the English company were thwarted by Armenian merchants who took swift and decisive steps. In Surat, they appealed to the viceroy of the Great Mughal, who threatened to impose a ban on European trade in the port of Surat.
Not satisfied with this, Armenian merchants, along with their Muslim companion, sought help from the Great Mughal Aurangzeb. According to a letter sent by “Paul the Armenian” from the camp of the Great Mughal through an “Armenian padre named Sermo Churdeech,” the charterers of the “Quedah Merchant”—”one Muslim and three or four Armenians”—presented a petition to Aurangzeb complaining that an Englishman had robbed them, taking all their goods.
According to this Armenian source, the Great Mughal ordered the governor of Surat, Amanaath Kaun, to “reclaim the property from the English in Surat and return it to the owners,” and if the English failed to comply, to send them to the Great Mughal. An official with Aurangzeb’s order, along with the complainants, proceeded to Surat.
Closely monitoring the actions of the Armenians, alarmed representatives of the East India Company at Fort St. George informed their headquarters in London about the unfolding events. They also reported that Armenian merchants had obtained an order from the Great Mughal directed at the governor of Surat, demanding that the English return the plundered goods.
Both the merchants and the Great Mughal had good reason to believe that the London-based East India Company was covertly involved with the pirates. Therefore, the Great Mughal imposed financial liability for the piracy on the English, French, and Dutch collectively, demanding 1.4 million rupees as compensation for losses incurred due to piracy.
For the plundering of the “Quedah Merchant” alone, the English were required to pay 200,000 rupees. To enforce this demand, special security measures were put in place: guards were posted at the European factories in Surat, and all trade and interactions with them in Surat, Bengal, and other places were prohibited.
The Great Mughal’s reaction was partly explained by the significant influence that Armenians had at the court of Aurangzeb, as well as by the fact that a “Muslim shareholder of the Armenians” acted as a trade representative for high-ranking Mughal officials. Having taken 200,000 rupees from them, he converted the money into Bengali goods and loaded them onto an Armenian ship.
How did the European colonizers react to this? The Dutch and the French initially tried to evade joint liability, arguing that the pirates were English. Meanwhile, seeing the Great Mughal’s resolve to end European piracy, the companies resorted to threats.
The Dutch claimed that they would altogether leave Surat. As for the English, in response to the Great Mughal’s demand, their governor in Bombay, John Gayer, carried out one of the earliest acts of “gunboat diplomacy.”
He outfitted three warships and arrived at Surat at the head of the fleet. After aiming the cannons at the fortress, Gayer sent a messenger to the Mughal viceroy with the message that the English had no intention of either paying compensation for the actions of pirates or offering any guarantees against piracy in the future.
He only promised to escort ships heading to Mocha. Announcing that the war in Europe had ended, Gayer pledged that a fleet from England would combat the pirates.
Under these circumstances, the viceroy of the Great Mughal agreed not to insist on compensation by the companies for past losses, provided that the English would commit to compensating for damage due to piracy in the future.
This too was rejected, but Aurangzeb managed to assert his will. Eventually, the English, French, and Dutch were compelled to make a written commitment to act jointly to eradicate piracy and compensate for all damages inflicted by pirates in the future.
According to the commitments made, the Dutch paid 70,000 rupees to the governor, escorted ships carrying pilgrims to Mecca, and patrolled the entrance to the Red Sea. The English were required to pay 30,000 rupees and patrol the waters then known as the South Indian Seas. The French, paying the same amount, were tasked with patrolling the Persian Gulf.
Yuri Barsegov To be continued…
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan