Tuesday, May 23, 2006

from Captain Wallbank's Almanack

Wapping, on the Thames, London: On May 23, 1701, declared a pirate by the British East India Company, Captain William Kidd was hanged for piracy and murder on "Execution Dock," two over from "In-School Suspension Quay" just down from "Community Service Pier." Hired as a privateer to protect British ships in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean when he cleverly removed the "Aarrr’s" and "Yo-ho’s" from his resume, Kidd took the opportunity to capture as many prize-laden ships as he could. He was not very good at this; he was terrifically unlucky, cursed with tragically criminal crews, and he had extraordinarily corrupt backers who eventually let him hang. Kidd found you could be a heroic privateer until Parliament decided "privateers" were "pirates." (The explanation for this change of heart is usually given as King William III’s dyslexia, but this has never been confirmed.) Sure, he may have grabbed his share of booty, and could possibly have hidden an immense pirate treasure wherever Poe said he did (or maybe on Block Island RI). (Or maybe Connecticut). (Or possibly Nova Scotia. And who wouldn’t?). Yes, he had a huge treasure: It was his wife’s dowry. If he hadn’t captured what he thought was a foreign ship (that was captained by an Englishman) by flying another country’s flag (a trick he obviously learned from a Robert Louis Stevenson book), he could have recovered that treasure. The story goes that Kidd didn’t want the prize, but that his crew did. Kidd called "Do-over!" But the captain of the prize insisted it was a fair catch. The crew of Kidd’s ship got their prize, while Kidd was simultaneously charged with piracy and plagiarism. In one of those flighty hissy fits of pique pirates are famous for, he threw a bucket at his gunner, which killed the man. So there’s your murder charge. (The bucket wasn’t even loaded, but apparently he had no representation at his trial.) All should be forgiven because he’s Scottish and one might even charitably assert that Kidd merely made a few bad choices that had disastrous results. On the other hand, Kidd did take what wasn’t legally his, and also engaged in torture. (Back in those days they hanged you for that, as opposed to re-electing you.) That, and he abandoned his wife and two daughters. To cement his reputation, he couldn’t even get hanged right. The first rope broke, tragically embarrassing the hangman, who had to bring in a second noose and a gallows to be named later. William Kidd was indeed "the pirate so not nice they hanged him twice." (Some stories have the rope breaking three times. Why? Because three is funny.) His corpse was shoved in a cage that hung over the river for two years, as a warning to kids to shun the vocation of piracy. Of course, the admonition was obscured a bit over time, and eventually became a reminder to young people to take special care of Auntie’s budgie. As far as piracy is concerned, they can still kill you for it. Because it’s illegal.
Captain Wallbank’s Almanack is not intended to be used as reference material for school projects, masters theses, magazine and newspaper articles, partisan hack radio talk shows, commencement addresses, valedictory speeches, or, especially, as an authorized authority for bets involving someone buying someone a drink.

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