Captain Kidd's Treasure
Today we're going to scramble up the ratlines with a spyglass, for on the horizon has been spotted a sail. 'Tis the ship Adventure Galley of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd, doubtless on the warpath, bloodthirsty and lusting for gold. We'll fall off a point and run out the stuns'l booms, and should we live to see the morrow, we may get our own chance to hunt for his legendary buried treasure. For no pirate tale has gripped the modern public's attention like that of Captain Kidd. There are only a few problems with it. It seems that Captain Kidd's actual history and today's legends of buried treasure may have almost nothing in common. But let's see what history tells us, and see if we can in fact find a bounty of buried gold.
In order to understand where any great treasure hidden by Captain Kidd may have come from, we should take a look at his professional career, to see where and when he may have been in possession of large hoards that required hiding. William Kidd was born in Scotland in 1654. In his early twenties he moved to New York City, which, even in those early days, was still the third largest city in the British Empire. It's not very clear what he did there, as it's recorded that he worked as an apprentice seaman on various pirate crews but also that he became well known in high social circles, two things that don't go together very well. About the age of 35 he took his first command as captain, commissioned by the governor of the English island of Nevis as part of a small fleet to attack French ships, taking his pay from whatever spoils he might gain along the way. He found reasonable success at this, and there are any number of times during his voyages up and down the New World's eastern coast that he might have had a fair sized booty on board. During all this he still made his residence in New York, and married a very wealthy woman. Kidd scarcely needed a risky career as a privateer.
Nevertheless, all his connections with governors and society led to a royal appointment in 1695 straight from King William III. He was to represent England in a special voyage aboard a purpose-built ship to capture pirates and attack the French. This voyage was to be the one that would write him into history. With a hand-picked crew and his new ship the Adventure Galley which had the advantage of being both a capable well-armed warship and rowable with oars for extra maneuverability in battle or in poor wind, Kidd set forth. He crossed the Atlantic to New York, crossed back and rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Africa, and spent a year and a half along eastern Africa and in the Indian Ocean.
This was where he got into trouble. Kidd's principal victory on this voyage was over a ship named the Quedagh Merchant, the problem being that its nationality was not clearly French and thus taking it would have been piracy. The ship was Armenian and its captain was English, but he'd purchased letters of protection from the French East India Company. It was fully laden with valuable goods from India. Kidd kept the ship, renaming it the Adventure Prize.
Soon after, Kidd attacked a pirate with whom he'd fought years ago in the Caribbean, Robert Culliford. But Kidd's men had no stomach for it, and 95 of them deserted to join Culliford. Only 13 remained with Kidd. The 95 disgruntled sailors joined a growing chorus of voices who sent complaints of Kidd's piracy back to England. The Adventure Galley turned out to have been both poorly built and poorly equipped, and with only 13 men, Kidd scuttled it somewhere off Madagascar (nobody has ever found the wreck) and headed home aboard the Adventure Prize.
While in the Caribbean on his way to New York, Kidd learned that he was officially wanted by the crown for piracy. Half the men who remained deserted, and he left the Adventure Galley on St. Thomas island and sailed to New York aboard a sloop to answer the charges. This is when you'd expect him to stash away any great loot he might have still had, and that's exactly what he did. He obtained permission from the Gardiner family, who owned the 3000-acre Gardiners Island off of New York's Long Island, to let he and his men bury their valuables there in various locations while they were ashore, fearful of being robbed by some of his former crewmen who had already gone ahead.
But the treasure on Gardiners Island was never a secret and was all recovered as evidence while Captain Kidd was imprisoned for more than a year in Boston. Then, taken back to London, he was tried and convicted of piracy and murder, and hanged in 1701. His body was gibbeted in an iron cage and suspended beside the Thames for three years. Ever since, we are told, people have been searching for a buried treasure.
Stories abound, and they're as colorful as you could ever hope for. Even the good name of Benjamin Franklin has been appropriated by modern sensationalists looking to hype the legend of Captain Kidd's treasure. There's a quote from Franklin you'll find time and time again in articles about Kidd:
True that Franklin wrote this — it's from a satirical series of letters called The Busy Body he wrote for a newspaper in 1729 — but false that it has anything to do with Captain Kidd. His piece was poking fun at people who believe unspecified buried treasure was all around and spent endless time and money searching for.
In fact, it appears that 150 years passed after William's Kidd's appointment with the hangman before there were published rumblings of a buried treasure still outstanding. These stories came not from historians or archaeologists, but from a far more inevitable source: people looking for money. They were the proprietors of a shaft being dug on Nova Scotia's Oak Island (refer to the full Skeptoid episode on Oak Island for the complete story). Popular local belief held that a mysterious pit, discovered ten years earlier by a young boy, had existed on this island and doubtless contained pirate treasure. Miners took it over, dug, found nothing, and completely destroyed the area so that nobody even knew where the original pit had been. In 1849, the current owners went bust, and resorted to salting the mine to entice investment. They planted a few links of jewelry chain and a mysterious tablet with a barely-disguised substitution cipher using Masonic symbols claiming that a vast hoard was buried just a few more meters down. To bolster their advertisement, they stated that Captain Kidd had been in the area (despite no historical record of this) and doubtless buried treasure here. But the Oak Island fundraisers were not prejudiced only toward Captain Kidd. Other piratical names dropped to potential Oak Island investors included Henry Morgan, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), and Sir Francis Drake.
And since that day, local traditions and tourism boards have sprinkled Captain Kidd's alleged buried treasure so liberally over the United States' eastern coast that there's no longer any pretense of an historical foundation. A fair specimen is "Hangout New Jersey", a travelogue section on the State of New Jersey's official website. They cite six different locations where Captain Kidd's treasure is "said to be" buried on New Jersey's coast; not one with the slightest historical support.
A lot of these sources say that Captain Kidd "claimed to have buried 40,000 pounds" of treasure; that "only 10,000 pounds was recovered", and that it's believed he "actually buried 400,000 pounds". I was intrigued. It turns out that there's quite a lot of published text from the days of Kidd's trial, including numerous statements written by Kidd and others, as well as the transcripts of the court proceedings. I searched through them looking for such claims. 10,000 is the value, given at the time in English pounds, of the goods buried on Gardiner Island by Kidd's party, which was recovered and sent back to England along with Kidd as evidence in his trial. 40,000 was the value in Indian rupees of the ship Quedagh Merchant. 400,000 was given in his trial as the estimated value in English pounds of all the treasure taken by Kidd during his voyage in the Adventure Galley, and which was divided among his crew before they all left his service. Probably the £10,000 Kidd buried on Gardiner Island was all that remained of his share. I found no evidence that Kidd himself ever claimed to have buried 40,000 pounds, 400,000 pounds, or any treasure at all other than the Gardiner Island stash. It all appears to be just more made-up and exaggerated nonsense to sensationalize the story for public consumption.
And the tradition continues. The latest bit of Captain Kidd to hit the news came in May of 2015 when underwater explorer Barry Clifford announced he'd found the wreck of the Adventure Galley and a 50kg bar of silver just off of Madagascar's island of Sainte Marie. The discovery spread like wildfire across science publications like Smithsonian and Discovery News. Was it true? No, it was more sensationalism. It turns out the History Channel funded Clifford's hunt based on Clifford's long-standing belief that he'd discovered the Adventure Galley, and the announcement was largely a promotion for their TV show. It included an elaborately staged presentation of the "silver ingot" to Madagascar's president Hery Rajaonarimampianina, all for History Channel's cameras. Afterwards, UNESCO sent researchers to validate the find, and discovered that it wasn't a shipwreck at all, merely a piece of an old wooden dock; and that the "silver bar" wasn't silver either, but lead, an unremarkable lump of ballast from some old unknown ship. This is why historians, and other scientists, validate before they publish.
Appreciate history and its colorful characters for who and what they were. There truly is no need to invent false histories or to attach stories to people and places, selling vacation spots or attracting tourism dollars notwithstanding. It's entirely possible that Captain Kidd did leave some buried treasure somewhere that went unrecorded and unrecovered by his friends or his enemies, but not very likely. Even as he was headed for the gallows, Kidd had ample opportunity to give information to his wife or anyone else he wished to enrich. The lack of credible evidence for such a stash is not surprising, given that there don't seem to have even been any rumors about it until a century and a half after his death. So rest in peace Captain, and know that if you did hide anything out there, it's probably going to rest just as well.
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