Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

    So here it is : Captain Kidd's mission is to go chase pirates--men who would rather die than surrender.  He is to travel in a lone ship
    manned with a desperate crew, some of whom are former pirates.  His ship's articles do not allow him to punish his crew, except by vote
    of the entire crew.  As a private man of war, he will be deeply distrusted by the Royal Navy; as a commercial rival , he will be despised
    by the English East India Tea Company.  He is a Scot lording it over an English and Dutch crew.  Once he rounds the Cape of Good Hope,
    he will find no welcome ports of call, except pirate ports.  On the immense Indian Ocean of twenty-eight million square miles, he must find
    some of the five currently active European pirate ships, many of them carrying relatives and friends of his crew.  And he has a one-year
    time limit and some of the most powerful men in the world waiting for him to return.  It would be a fool's errand--except for the treasure.
        -The Pirate Hunter

It is not too much to say that men like William Kidd made me a reader, and one suspects the same is true for many of my generation.  In 5th
Grade an especially wise teacher exploited a glimmer of interest in explorers and pirates to get me to read just about every book I could find on the great European Age of Exploration and the attendant age of piracy.   From Columbus to Ponce de Leon to LaSalle to Drake, I read them all with the promiscuity of the new enthusiast.  Of course, one thing led to another and soon novels like Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe and the Hornblower books were stacked up on bookshelves like planes at a busy airport, waiting their turns to land and disgorge their contents. And then you had the movies...besides versions of the books above you had Peter Pan, Mutiny on the Bounty, Captain Blood,  and, of course, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952)  with Charles Laughton, better remembered as Captain Bligh, reprising his role from Captain Kidd.  Even Cap'n Crunch cereal fed a kids fantasies of taking to the sea in a wooden ship and finding adventure there.  Thus did sailing men, even the rascals and dastards among them, like Captain Kidd, light a fire in at least one young mind.

All of which makes it a particularly pleasant experience to read this entertaining and authoritative rehabilitation of Kidd by Richard Zacks.  As Mr. Zacks shows in exhaustive, and perhaps a bit exhausting, detail, William Kidd was not really the scoundrel pirate of legend but a duly deputized privateer, sent out to capture pirates in exchange for a share of their loot. It was only through a series of unfortunate mishaps and the repeated intervention of a hitherto uncelebrated nemesis, Robert Culliford, that Kidd himself came to be accused of piracy and ended up dangling from the end of a rope.  Mr. Zacks relates the sorrowful tale of Kidd's 1696 expedition, that set out from Manhattan aboard the Adventure Galley but ended on a London gallows in 1701.

Mr. Zacks is a zealous advocate for Kidd's innocence and his passion is contagious.  But Kidd makes for a doomed and tragic hero, what with a mutinous crew, an unsturdy ship, feckless backers, and the bedeviling presence time and again of his rival, Culliford. Kidd's behavior, as presented here, is genuinely admirable, particularly his determination to clear his name after he'd been wrongly accused of piracy in the taking of two ships.  Kidd essentially put his own neck in the noose by sailing back to New York to face the charges.

It was in New York that the legend that he'd hidden his treasure arose, and Mr. Zacks shows us why.  In fact, this is just one of many myths and legends that Mr. Zacks lays to rest, but part of what makes the book so enchanting is that the truths he reveals are just as compelling as the fictions they replace.  In particular, despite the enduring image of ruthless captains wielding iron discipline, it's interesting to discover just how democratic the pirate society really was.  But no truth is more beguiling than the real life Captain Kidd who we're introduced to.  If the book is a bit too long and too minute by minute, which I believe to be the case, it is nonetheless carried along by Kidd and by our desire, though we know it futile, to see justice done him and barring that, our almost equally strong desire to see Culliford and some of the others who wronged Kidd get their comeuppances. But few do and as for Kidd :

    William Kidd, born in Dundee, married in New York, hanged in London, was then hoisted in chains onto the oak gibbet at Tilbury.  For years
    afterward, men and women aboard all ships going to and coming from the trading metropolis of London could see him there swaying in the
    breezes, the Admiralty's stark warning to anyone contemplating the merry life of piracy.

The poor benighted Captain would have to wait three hundred years for Richard Zacks to come along and set the record straight, which with the help of a painstakingly assembled historical record and a key piece of evidence uncovered in 1911 in the dense thickets of the British bureaucracy he does.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Sea Stories
Richard Zacks Links:
-REVIEW: of The Pirate Coast by Richard Zacks (Michael Ledeen, National Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -AUTHOR SITE : Richard Zacks (Bold Type)
    -BOOK SITE : Pirate Hunter
    -BOOK SITE :  The Pirate Hunter : The True Story of Captain Kidd By Richard Zacks (Hyperion)
    -BOOK SITE : Pirate
    -EXCERPT : from The Pirate Hunter
    -INTERVIEW : with Richard Zacks (Diane Rehm, July 8, 2002)
    -ESSAY : Execution of Captain Kidd : May 23rd, 1701  (History Today, May 01 2001 by Richard Cavendish)
    -REVIEW : of The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks (Stephanie Zacharek, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Pirate Hunter (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW : of Pirate Hunter (Steven Martinovich, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of The Pirate Hunter (Chris Madsen, Culture Dose)
    -REVIEW : of Pirate Hunter (Shannon Bloomstran, Mostly Fiction)
    -REVIEW : of Pirate Hunter (Christopher Cox, Boston Herald)
    -REVIEW : of Pirate Hunter (D. R. Peak, PopMatters)

    -ESSAY : Piracy in early British America (History Today, May 01 1996 by Simon Smith)
    -REVIEW : of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity. By Hans Turley (Journal of Social History, September 22 2001 by Marcus Rediker)