The straight scuttlebutt on Captain Kidd

Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates, by Robert C. Ritchie. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press. 306 pp. $20. Many a youngster on both sides of the Atlantic - this one included - grew up aware of the the romantic legend of Captain William Kidd. Kidd, after all, as every adventuresome sprout with a ragged cape and a wooden sword has known, was the hardy Scots-born (circa 1645) but Yankee-bred buccaneer who defied governments and fellow rogues, won and lost a fortune (some of it, so legend has it, probably incorrectly, buried), and ultimately went to the gallows in England for piracy and murder.

Fortunately, the true tale of Captain Kidd is relevant to the grown-up world as well. In his new book, Robert C. Ritchie, a historian at the University of California at San Diego, establishes that Capitain Kidd was far more complicated - and far less dashing - than the bawdy, brawny figure depicted in popular literature. And especially more complicated than the person described in American literature during the early 19th century, when Americans gloried in tales of heroic adventure and fearless courage.

Kidd, a cleric's son, was somewhat of a latecomer to the nasty ways of piracy. He entered buccaneering after being bankrolled by politically connected merchant friends in New York and London eager to gain the spoils from foreign plunders. Adventures along the way took him, among other places, to the Indian ocean, Ste. Marie, Madagascar, the West Indies, and back to New York. He was subsequently arrested and taken to England, where he was incarcerated under terrible conditions in Newgate prison. By the time of his trial and hanging, the latter in 1701, he was an embarrassment to the same commercial and government forces that had originally been his benefactors.

It is now possible, thanks to the work of Ritchie, to recognize that Kidd was but a product of the ``get what you can'' economic system of his time. At first, long before Kidd, European governments had encouraged, both covertly and openly, privateers and buccaneers. These men, rogues but adventurers, discovered new lands. They captured rich treasures for cash-strapped monarchies. They kept rival sea-powers at bay. At first, they were accorded honor and respect - witness the likes of Sir Walter Drake and Sir Henry Morgan. But times changed. By the late 17th century, European nations were turning to more systematic trade. They sought to bring order to the seas. Buccaneers became outcasts. And so Kidd, who had killed a fellow seaman by hitting him on the head with a bucket, met the hangman. Evidence in his favor had disappeared during the trial.

Ritchie's excellent book has to be the definitive chronicle of Captain Kidd. Captain Kidd, some would say, was one of the last of a breed. But was he? Are the rogues, the adventurers really gone from today's politically connected commercial scene? This book, in a sense, should serve as a warning to our own opportunistic economic age. One has the uncomfortable feeling, reading this account, that if Captain Kidd were around in the Western world of the the 1980s, he would probably once again be found somewhere on the margins of respectability - probably wheeling and dealing with the back-room arbitrageurs of Wall Street. And who knows? If he were in politics, (he had a sea commission), he might even be contemplating taking Madagascar or some other small nation along the sea-lanes of opportunity.

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