"The Pirate Hunter" by Richard Zacks

A thrilling and tragic new book about Captain Kidd reveals that the infamous buccaneer was actually a man of honor wrongly accused.

Published July 2, 2002 3:42PM (EDT)

There's no getting around it: Plunder is romantic. Who doesn't have a memory, imprinted on the brain from childhood picture books, of treasure chests spilling with gems, gold coins and ropes of pearls? The stolen booty of fantasy is so much sexier than anything you can actually buy.

Which may be why responsible adults, relegated to the drudgery of having to work for a living, still find pirates and piracy -- the stuff of Robert Louis Stevenson novels and Errol Flynn movies -- irresistible. It's also part of what makes Richard Zacks' "The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd" a morally incandescent book as much as a rousing read. Kidd, one of the most famous pirates of history, was not really a pirate at all, but a privateer -- in other words, an enterprising seaman working under government contract to attack enemy ships in exchange for a portion of the spoils. It's the sort of business that could be carried out honorably -- or not.

Kidd's story, potent and tragic, is one in which responsibility nudges up against treachery. It takes place in a world where the line between ill-gotten gains and duly earned ones is barely a slender silver thread. Imagine going about your business as responsibly and ethically as you knew how, having numerous opportunities to go "bad" but never taking them, being more upfront with the authorities about your dealings than you probably needed to be, sticking around when you could have easily escaped -- and still getting busted, wrongly, by the IRS.

William Kidd had it worse.

In 1696, the 42-year-old Kidd, a Scotsman who had transplanted himself comfortably to the brave new world of old Manhattan, set forth from New York on a massive and very glamorous warship, the Adventure Galley, with a crew of 152 men. Kidd's mission, backed by a number of investors and approved by the British Crown, was to sail to the Indies and chase pirates, bringing home the spoils to be divided (inequitably, of course) between all the involved parties. Kidd was leaving behind his young wife, Sarah, whom he loved dearly. He also left behind a young daughter, also named Sarah. Kidd was bold, confident and literate (the last a rarity in those days); he had every reason to think his mission would succeed, even though he had a nerve-janglingly restrictive one-year deadline.

He didn't count on any of a number of things that went wrong in the more than three years he was at sea: He had an uncontrollable crew made up of a good number of former pirates and ne'er-do-wells, men who would much rather seize ships first and ask questions later. He was sailing a vessel that, for all its flash, would essentially fall apart long before it had outlived its usefulness. And, worst of all, he was headed straight for a hornet's nest of bureacracy, built and nurtured by men who ostensibly were on Kidd's side but who thought nothing of betraying him.

And don't forget the two crucial pieces of paper that, Zacks tells us, could have saved Kidd's skin -- if only they hadn't been misfiled at the British Board of Trade, where they languished in their cruel hiding place until they were unearthed by a scholar in 1910, much too late to do Kidd any good. Those documents were ship's passes that would have proved that Kidd had seized two ships, the Rouparelle and the Quedagh Merchant, legally and fairly and was innocent of any wrongdoing. The documents represented one man's honor, hinging on that onionskin distinction between piracy and privateering; following Murphy's Law to the letter, some nameless jerk dropped them into that black hole of history known as the wrong file folder.

As it's told by Zacks, the story of Captain Kidd is one of hard luck on the high seas. Contrary to what we would have thought of one of history's most famous pirates, Kidd was a guy who just couldn't get a break. In "The Pirate Hunter" Zacks pieces together, detail by detail, as if assembling a pirates' colorful patchwork sail, the history of a brutal era and a very tough business. The book is tirelessly researched, and Zacks admirably navigates the bureaucratic intricacies of the seafaring world that, for Kidd, started out as a tangle of messy loops and ended up as a noose.

More important, though, Zacks shows us the texture of one man's life, culled from documents, diaries and casual observations made by bystanders. Zacks understands how to blend speculation and evidence to give us readable history, as when he describes Kidd's last evening in his comfortable home on old New York's Pearl Street: "Kidd's eyes recorded the walls of his home. He sat one last time in the living room chairs; he ate one last meal in the dining room; he joined his young wife in the bedroom one last time. The farewell must have been difficult because subtle clues, such as offhand comments from neighbors and friends, point to William loving Sarah very much, and Sarah returning that love. They knew that they would not see each other for at least a year and a half, if ever again."

Kidd, Zacks proves to us, was a man of honor and principle, despite the numerous opportunities he had to live the pirate's life. Even so, "The Pirate Hunter" is still a pirate story, and a pirate story needs pirates: Zacks gives us lots of them, starting with James Gilliam, whom we meet on the book's first page. Gilliam was a ruthless fellow -- he once slit the throat of an English East India captain and made off with his ship -- and he might have gotten away with any number of atrocities if it weren't for one telltale scar across his genitals. (He had been forcibly circumcised during a stint in prison in India; after he was arrested on charges of murder and piracy, he claimed to be an innocent merchant, but upon examining him, the British authorities took the scar as proof that he was indeed the pirate Gilliam.)

It was no small indignity that Gilliam should be betrayed by a mark on what was certainly a pirate's most prized possession. Zacks describes the typical pirate with five sharp adjectives: "Drunk, cursing, hungry, horny. And violent." They were men who chose to lead "a merry life and a short one," as one contemporary observer noted. The picture-book image of pirates dressed in bright, mismatched, garish clothes isn't far off the mark: Fine cloth was often part of the booty seized from stolen ships, and since any pirate worth his salt knew how to mend a sail, he could also lend his sewing skills to the task of stitching up outlandish trousers. The men would also hobble around with their feet crammed into illicitly acquired pumps that didn't fit them properly. (Somewhere in the annals of minor pirates, there might have been a Long John Bunion.)

There's some disappointing news in "The Pirate Hunter": Zacks informs us that "pirates rarely sailed under the black flag with skull and crossbones on it, and certainly not in the 17th century." (Instead, faking friendliness, they'd raise the flag of whatever country would be most likely to lure a neighboring ship close enough for capture.) What's more, "pirates rarely buried treasure but drank it up or spent it on whores." And that means no treasure maps. "Not a single authentic treasure map has ever been preserved," Zacks tells us. Sad news for 8-year-olds with shovels everywhere.

But if there are no treasure maps, at least there are stories: Stories of pirates like Kidd's nemesis and alter ego Robert Culliford, a man who readily committed every illegal deed Kidd refused to do -- and ultimately walked off scot-free. But most vivid of all is Kidd himself, whom Zacks presents as, if not a hero, then at least a model of crusty integrity. If the first half of Zacks' book is exhilarating but ominous, the second half is an outraged, mournful wail.

Zacks details Kidd's long, wrongful imprisonment, during which he wasn't even told what he had been charged with. He describes how Kidd, after being imprisoned (largely in solitary confinement) for months in Boston, was finally loaded, along with numerous other pirate prisoners, onto a ship -- the Advice -- that was bound for London, and his trial. His wife, Sarah, had tried everything to free him; at the last minute, she even tried to help him effect a jailbreak -- unsuccessfully, of course:

"The men pulled at the oars of the Advice's longboat: Kidd watched them feather amid the ice, he was inhaling deeply his first fresh sea air in seven months. The prisoners were tied and hauled like sacks up into the ship. Once aboard, three of the prisoners were chained together in the gunroom, which had been converted to a jail. Captain Kidd was once again kept in isolation, chained, in cabin steerage. After his brief stint in the longboat, he was now in a windowless, low-ceilinged room, chained to the wall. The ship's familiar rocking calmed him. Sarah awoke on shore to find her husband gone."

Zacks is fully sympathetic to the wronged "pirate" Kidd, right up to the town-square spectacle of his hanging in London in 1701. (Kidd, brave until that point, got rip-roaring drunk on his way to the gallows -- and can you blame him?) In the 400-some pages leading up to that cruel end, "The Pirate Hunter" asks and answers numerous questions with a few swift strokes: Do we ever really want our legends debunked, cut down to human size? Is it preferable to keep them larger than life by never finding out the true story? In Kidd's case, it's better to know more. Zacks digs up facts that are more fascinating than legend, proving that history isn't just stranger than fiction, but more riveting. If he had made it all up, it couldn't have been any better. Or sadder.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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