Scholars try to track a noted pirate

William Kidd's ship thought to be found off coast of Madagascar

March 05, 2000|By William J. Broad | William J. Broad,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- He lived on Wall Street, a Turkish carpet on his parlor floor, casks of Madeira in his cellar. His tall house had scrolled dormers and fluted chimneys, which ships seeking New York moorage sought out as landmarks. A family man with two daughters, he owned a pew at Trinity Church.

But the privateer William Kidd wanted more. Most especially, he wanted a life free of 17th-century strictures.

He fortified his ship, named Adventure, with 34 big guns and more than a hundred men, and between 1696 and 1698 became a terror of the seas, amassing a fortune in gold, silk and jewels.

Adventure was uncommon in that it was a true galley, boasting not only sails but oars. When the wind failed, Kidd could push ahead relentlessly, taking over a becalmed merchant ship with ease.

Three centuries after the infamous pirate was forced to abandon his flagship, leaving it scuttled and partly burned, a team of marine explorers probing waters off Madagascar has found what appears to be the Adventure's remains. Tantalizing clues include a large pile of ballast stones, burned wood, rum bottles and Ming porcelain shards dating from the Kidd era. Most notable of all, the team found a large metal oarlock a foot long.

The discovery of Kidd's galley, if verified by further study of the sunken wreckage, would reveal much about one of history's most colorful and ill-fated pirates, who was tried and executed in London in 1701, his body displayed as a warning to kindred souls.

Scholars say the ship's wreckage is unlikely to yield treasure. But if it is one of the few pirate artifacts to come into modern hands, the hulk will illuminate a lost age.

'The problem with pirates'

"The problem with pirates is there's so little they left behind," said Robert C. Ritchie, a historian and author of "Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates" (Harvard, 1986). "So to find the Adventure galley would be lovely. It's one of the most famous pirate ships in history."

Indisputably, experts say, the remains of the Adventure lie somewhere in the harbor of Ste. Marie, a tiny isle off Madagascar.

Pirates in the 11th century hid there and would venture out from its palm thickets to raid shipping in and around the Indian Ocean.

The question is whether the Adventure is now found, or whether the uncovered hulk is the remains of some other lost ship.

The leader of the Kidd expedition, Barry L. Clifford of Provincetown, Mass., is well known among historians and archaeologists for having located in 1985 the Whydah, a fabled pirate ship that sank in 1717 off Cape Cod in a fierce storm.

To date, the Whydah is the only pirate ship whose identity has been verified, although in 1997 archaeologists found what they believe may be the remains of Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge, off North Carolina. But the Blackbeard evidence is so far circumstantial.

Hunting the Adventure

In an interview, Clifford, a veteran diver just back from the Madagascar site, said he set his sights on Adventure about three years ago. The hunt led him to historical documents in British and American archives, satellite images of the tropical harbor and underwater gear that detects metal and uses high-frequency sound to probe mud and silt.

In February, his team of a dozen experts explored the watery grave for two weeks.

"We almost dropped the anchor on top of the wreck," Clifford said of his lucky start. "It's a preliminary investigation. But we're sure we've located it.

Everything lines up perfectly, especially the fact that we found this very large oarlock on the main ballast pile."

Further study of the wreckage will reveal more of how Kidd and his men lived and died, Clifford said, probably producing artifacts like china, glassware, guns, coins and tools, and providing a better understanding of how Adventure was built and lost.

"We need to do a lot more investigation," Clifford said, adding that readings from an underwater detector showed that the wreckage was dense with metal. "You never know," he remarked, "they might have had silver ingots in the bilge." In those days, the precious metal was sometimes used as heavy ballast to help keep a ship steady.

William Kidd was born in Scotland in 1645, apparently to a family of modest means, and went to sea as a young man. In the West Indies and off North America, he sailed as a privateer for Britain, successfully fighting the French. In his late 40s, an established sea captain and ship owner, he married a rich widow in New York City in 1691 and came to own what is now some of the world's most costly real estate.

Alexander Winston, author of "No Man Knows My Grave" (Houghton Mifflin, 1969), a study of pirates and privateers, lists Kidd's properties as corresponding to 56 Wall St., 86-90 and 119-21 Pearl St., 52-56 Water St., and 25, 27 and 29 Pine St.

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