|Captain Kidd in New York Harborpainting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1920|
Who isn't a fan of a good pirate tale? But when we think of Colonial-era pirates, we usually imagine warm Caribbean waters and palm trees, white sand beaches with those ships looming in the harbor. We don't usually think of America's northeast--but we should. In the late 1600s, one of the most bustling pirate dens wasn't Port Royal or Tortuga. It was the City of New York.
Founded by the Dutch as New Amsterdam, New York was already different from most of the other colonies. This city was founded on business principles, pure and simple. Though it was, for the time, a bastion of tolerance, it was not for any noble reason that the authorities of the city and state allowed an influx of diversity--it was because they knew it was good for business. The same reason they issued letters of marque to privateers and welcomed their stolen goods into the port, whether they came from ships that were enemies of England of not.
You'd be hard pressed to find any other place in the world that ended up with such a diverse, rich market. There were exotic items seized from "enemy" vessels that traded with the Orient. There were colorful cloths and spices and scads of other goods eagerly welcomed and paid for by New York's business-minded elite.
An elite that also welcomed the pirates themselves into their drawings rooms.
Many pirates were welcomed as citizens and considered high society in New York, including the legendary Captain Kidd. Men like Kidd were looked upon as being of obviously sound worth, since they risked their lives and their own ships to hunt down enemy vessels. The New York government even paid him 150 pounds for his services!
But of course, this couldn't last forever. Eventually King William heard disturbing rumors from his allies in the Orient that pirates were attacking their ships and then finding refuge in New York...further, he learned that the governor had encouraged this and excepted bribes--"protection money"--from the pirates in return for turning a blind eye when a haul wasn't exactly covered by the letters of marque.
The king's answer was simple--he replaced the old governor with a new one whose primary focus was to rid New York of pirates. The new governor, Bellomont, put together a company of ships to send pirate hunting in the Indian Ocean...led by none other than Captain Kidd. He was expected to keep meticulous records of this service he was providing, and in return would get to keep 10% of whatever he seized.
But this was a pirate, after all. His records were...spotty, at best. Likely in part because he didn't just seize other pirate vessels. He took every ship he could find, spawning even more stories of innocents being plundered. Then made a move both bold an foolhardy--he returned to New York harbor. He thought he could bluff his way out of trouble by claiming all his "prizes" were under French protection and therefore enemy ships.
He was wrong. Bellomont sent him to London to be tried--and eventually hanged, his property seized by the Crown.
Unless, of course, King William missed some. Legends hold that Kidd had squirreled some of his treasure away, unbeknownst to the king...and that it's still hidden somewhere in New York.