London pirate exhibit charts era of corrupt politics

by julie-mollins | @jmollins | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 23 May 2011 11:16 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Captain Kidd's controversial criminal trial is the basis for a new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands

By Julie Mollins


LONDON (TrustLaw) - Exactly 310 years ago, on May 23, 1701, the notorious Scottish-born sailor Captain Kidd was convicted for piracy and murder and hung on the gallows at Execution Dock in Wapping on London's River Thames.

Now the outcome of Kidd's controversial criminal trial is the basis for a new exhibition of memorabilia at the Museum of London Docklands, highlighting how political and commercial interests in London were entwined with intrigue on the high seas during the "golden age of piracy" in the 17th and 18th centuries.

As early as the 1500s, after Sir Francis Drake was rewarded by the English for winning vast riches in raids on the Spanish, the line between legal privateering and illegal piracy became hazy, setting a doubtful example for those who followed -- including for the legendary Kidd whose innocence or guilt in court was hinged on whether he had transformed from privateer (or mercenary) into pirate.

"The exhibition is about how commerce and nefarious practices can blur, how commerce can benefit from acts which in the public sphere are regarded as being illegal, outrageous or unacceptable, but where behind the scenes they are pocketing the cash," Museum of London curator Tom Wareham told TrustLaw.

In 1695, Kidd got backing from Whig politicians in London. He was given a warship to lead a privateering expedition to protect East India Company interests in the Indian Ocean. The scheme was unconventional because it allowed Kidd to capture pirates and keep their plunder without paying the Admiralty or government a share, ensuring his backers a bigger part of the loot.

In 1697, Kidd is said to have turned pirate. His actions included attacking and looting ships, which threatened the financial interests of the East India Company. He quelled a mutiny on board his ship, the Adventure Galley, by killing its leader, William Moore. After his arrest, Kidd's Whig political supporters in London panicked because they were feeling the heat from Tory corruption charges.

One school of thought speculates Kidd may have been framed by corrupt parliamentarians because he threatened to undermine King William III, the government and the powerful East India Company.

In court, Kidd admitted murdering Moore, but said he had been coerced into taking on the privateering expedition, and that the mutinous crew had taken control of the ship. Papers, which Kidd said could absolve him of piracy charges, disappeared and resurfaced in the National Archives in 1911.

"People who still defend him as being innocent do it on the basis of the trial -- the essence of their argument is that he was set up," Wareham said. "When it came to him being brought back to London in chains, the (Whig) syndicate recognised that their involvement threatened their political status, so he was given a trial that he basically had no chance of winning."

After he was sentenced to death, Kidd tried, but failed, to gain a reprieve by writing a letter offering to share the location of his plundered loot, which treasure hunters still seek.

"The exhibition tells us that a lot of things haven't changed that much," Wareham said. "It's not that difficult to understand and recognise some of the motivations and actions that took place in the past because you can see an echo of them in the modern world dressed up slightly differently - corruption is still the same."

Pirates: the Captain Kidd Story, is on show until October 30, 2011.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.