A Pirate in Malabar

Posted by Maddy Labels:

A Scottish American privateer at Calicut and Kayamkulam

These days we have an interesting story with a couple of Italian pirate hunters killing two Kerala fishermen off the Malabar coast and spending time in prison, eating pizza and creating a lot of fodder for the TV and newspaper men. The Italians agreed to compensate the families of the dead and the case seems destined for quick closure, the cost per dead being a measly $189,000. But imagine the situation in Calicut in 1697 when news reached the sleepy town that a pirate Capn Kidd and his ship were docked close to port at Kallai..

Well, other readers must be wondering what Kayamkulam has to do with Kidd. Read on and you will also figure out the link. Many of you may not know who Captain Kidd was; he was considered a notorious pirate of the late 17th century. William Kidd was born in Scotland in about 1645 and migrated to New York very young. A man desiring high adventure, he was soon enlisted by the British authorities and American backers, to hunt down pirates and left for London in 1696. A number of unfortunate events ended up with his earning a reputation as a ruthless pirate. He returned later to New York, was imprisoned and consigned to London, deserted by his sponsors, interrogated by the British Parliament before being convicted for piracy and murder. He was hanged in 1701, coated with tar and hung out for years to be eaten away by hungry birds. Kidd was a founder of Trinity Church, which still stands near Ground Zero, in New York. Some days ago Calicut heritage forum covered him in a couple of blogs and as it was a topic that I had been researching, thought it a good idea to cover Kidd’s Malabar sojourn in a little more detail.

Some people have the most beastly luck. If you read the ‘real’ story of Captain Kidd, a New York Sea Captain, you will agree, and reaffirm that he was caught in the cross hairs of political salvos between the Mughal Empire, the British crown and the EIC. He ended up sadly a victim of vicious rumor mongering slander and political wrangling. But I will not venture into the whole story, and would recommend that anybody interested read the book by Zacks instead of the many lopsided articles out on the net. I will however provide some detail of the period when Kidd’s ship first limped into Calicut and the time they spent at the Malabar Coast between Tellichery and Cape Comorin.

But to get to the beginnings of the story, I have to remind you of my previous article about the Rahimi and the pirate activity in the seas lapping Western India. Even though history books talk less about these western pirates, they try to explain off the activity as Malabar pirate/corsair activity, implicating instead the Moors of Calicut (headed by the marakkars). In fact pirate ships flying French, Danish, British or Portuguese flags were, in those Mughal days, actually the ones preying on ‘the fat Jeddah ships’ as they were called.

Why were they called fat ships (aka Moghul ships) in Pirate parlance? These big (across the bows) and slow ships ferried as many as hundreds to a thousand pilgrims from Surat to Jeddah for the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and carried trade during other times. I must add of course that by the time Aurangzeb got to the throne, few of the ships were smaller, in better shape and were three masted outriggers. Some of these travelers aboard were traders who loaded their wares into those ships and sold them to other pilgrims and buyers at Mecca at a great profit. The return voyage thus had traders bringing back a good amount (perhaps they were also bringing back the payments from previous shipments) of gold and silver that was eagerly sought by the pirates. The slow ships were no match for the fast pirate ships with some 150-200 men and 20-40 guns. If raided, these pilgrim ships were destined for misery. The holds were plundered, many pilgrims were butchered and the women were molested gleefully by the lusty pirates. On shore the story was a bit different. These ships were owned by wealthy nakhudas who were well connected and in some cases, had ownership vested in the royal family as we saw in the case of Rahimi. Also a good amount of trade goods and returns sometimes belonged to nobles of the Agra court or the Mughal royal family. Thirdly it was also the emperor’s responsibility to safeguard a successful Hajj pilgrimage. So an attack on these pilgrim ships created huge uproar and the western diplomats currying for business and trade partnerships in Agra were in hot waters facing large compensation claims and threats of immediate expulsion by the Mughal emperor who believed that these pirate ships were being state sponsored.

As it turned out in the case of the Rahimi and later, ships flying the British flag or with a British master were also involved in piracy and the EIC were faced with a tough decision of keeping it in check. The British EIC and crown had two options, one to employ privateers to hound the pirates off or to launch their own anti piracy ships. It was into this situation that the enterprising Scottish American sea captain William Kidd sailed into, as a privateer with the intent to tackle pirates. As it turned out, he lost his life and fortunes in the process, for the British eventually made him the scapegoat.

Captain Kidd’s story is certainly interesting, in fact it covers all the ingredients, adventure, thrills, love, backbiting, theft, piracy, lust….. Anyway as we read, it was 1695, piracy by ships flying western flags was becoming rampant, the emperor at Agra was livid and privateers were needed to chase and capture them. Kidd formed a joint venture with American Livingston and Lord Belmont. Soon after signing the Agreement, Kidd received two special commissions. As the writer in the USS Kidd memorial site explains, one was a letter of marquee empowering him to capture any ships or goods belonging to France. The other was a commission from the King to seize pirates, but also included a warning that ". . . you do not, in any manner, offend or molest any of our Friends or Allies, their Ships or Subjects."

One of the problems that were to plague him was his choice of American crew, who were unfortunately not the honest type and who had previous connections with piracy (he had to entice them with large salaries that he could ill afford). His ship Adventure galley and the venture had bad luck all the way through and faced problems with the British government from the outset. First was the instance when they got into trouble for not saluting a navy yacht in 1696, then he had problems securing supplies and new sail at Cape Town during the run towards the Red Sea. Then he lost a number of crew to illness and not a single penny had been earned so far, not a single piracy act checked. The crew was getting mutinous, for they had dreamed of quick riches. A number of events and non events were to happen next, but we will get into none of that. It was 1697 already, over a year after they set out, with no returns. The ship hung on, only due to the sheer force of Kidd’s personality as a strict captain. But the strings holding him to his 150 or so crew were becoming tight, after the arduous sea voyage and disappointments and had to burst sooner or later. They finally decided to leave the Red Sea ports and head to Damman off the Indian coast near Goa.

At the end of August 1697 off the Malabar Coast, Kidd encountered a small Moorish twin masted ship Mary of two hundred tones headed to Bombay from Aden. The ship was commanded by an English captain – named Parker, with five Portuguese monks on board, a Portuguese navigator, and manned by Malabar crew. While Kidd and Parker were having a long desired drink, Kidd’s quarter master Walker and some of his former pirate crew ransacked the Mary and tortured the Malabar crew trying to find out if any gold was on the ship. Soon Kidd came out and put a stop to it and had everything returned. But the events were to create no end of trouble later for the Portuguese monks filed a report that Kidd was a pirate and the instigator of the crime but that the stolen goods were returned ( the latter part of the admission was not used during Kidd’s trail). Parker accompanied Kidd after the event. Soon the A Galley docked at Karwar for Kidd needed supplies and water desperately. The EIC agents at Karwar, Pattle and Harvey reported to Bombay that the pirate Kidd had berthed. Deserters from the ship meanwhile, complained about Kidd. Then again, Kidd’s men wanted to sample the famous dancing girls of Karwar but Kidd did not let anyone ashore and that made them angrier. Some of the deserters soon landed up in Goa and informed the Portuguese that Kidd’s ship was in Karwar. The Portuguese sent out two men of war to hound the Adventure Galley. Using some excellent captaincy, Kidd escaped as the Portuguese ships neared, later destroying one of his pursuers. His next port of call was the Laccadive Islands.

They had some problems there with the locals, and ended up having to flee again, this time headed for Calicut. He needed water and supplies and hoped that the agent at Calicut would supply him the required stuff. He worte his first letter of the voyage to the station chief at Calicut, one Mr Thomas Penning, requesting for food and water, in the name of the Crown, while anchored at Calicut’s post (the place was then called Calicut road). Penning having already heard rumors of piracy down the grapevine believed that Kidd was perhaps an imposter of a privateer and more a pirate, refused to supply him the supplies.

Kidd was desperate, his crew getting even more mutinous. It was during this tense period that a Dutch ship passed by. The crew wanted to attack & pillage the ship but Kidd refused permission. Kidd then had a major disagreement with the quartermaster and ringleader of the mutinous crew, the same William Moore and ended up swiping him with a bucket. The bucket hit Moore on the head and he was soon dead. He was then buried at sea in Calicut. Penning would still not provide the supplies and so Kidd finally left Calicut after a few days and sailed his ship to Tellicherry road. A cabin boy deserted and fed tales that Kidd had murdered his quartermaster and that he was forcing his crew to become pirates plus the tale that the unhappy crew wanted to create a mutiny. Kidd thus did not get any supplies from the EIC Tellicherry factory as well. His crew was parched and supplies had hit rock bottom. It was November 1697 and Kidd was now flying a French flag. Around this time they encountered a Dutch ship and captured it with the passes and permission he had, renaming it the Maiden. It had little by way of booty, and Kidd had to find a place to sell whatever he got to buy some supplies.

And that is how he set foot at Kayamkulam or Kalliquilon, popularly known as the smugglers den or Smugglers port. The goods were sold for £150 and Kidd finally managed to get some rice and supplies they desperately needed. He then spent two months based at Kayamkulam sailing back & forth on the Malabar waters, looking for pirates, but saw none. Many a merchant ship plied the routes from Bengal to Malabar ports and Surat. One such ship was the Quedgah Merchant. This time as it moved past the Kayamkulam waters, it was heavily loaded, with cloth, brown sugar, opium, silk, iron, saltpeter and a large amount of jewels. The date was January 30th, 1698. The ship owned by Armenian or Parsi merchant Corgi Baba Sulthanam with an English master John Wright (but using a French alias Pilot Rette)

Kidd was not sure what to do with the 400 tonne, 18 cannon ship flying an Armeinan flag. He followed it and caught up with it at Cochin. As he boarded the ship, it hoisted a French flag. Kidd using his British pass said that he had a right to capture a French ship and the Frenchman who was on board negotiating did not argue with Kidd who mastered a ship with 36 guns. But Kidd did not see Wright, nor did he know it was being captained by an Englishman. The ships good were valued at Rs 4 lakhs or £50,000. Kidd found in the captain’s cabin a chest full of diamonds, rubies, gold nuggets. He did not tell anybody about this find, perhaps his selfishness took over here. As the privateers were making merry, Kidd found out that the ship was actually British brokered and captained by Wright. He was thus in a quandary and in the borders of legitimacy even with the permits to privateer. So he offered to sell the captured ship back to the Armenian owners who offered Rs 20,000. Kidd’s crew did not agree. Kidd thought he could get his way through on this one as he had the French paper of the Quedgah Merchant, but what he did not know was that much of the goods actually belonged to a noble or for that matter the Mughal emperor himself. The ships were taken back to Kayamkulam.

Kidd had to pay his crew and buy his supplies, so he had no choice but to sell the booty at Kayamkulam. He sold the silk and opium at to a renegade EIC factor for £10,000, but this was just a small portion of the ships goods and to sell the rest of the goods would take him more days. But business was going well.

That was not to be, for soon Kidd espied two large EIC and two Dutch merchantmen headed towards his ships. Kidd decided to flee and thus left Kayamkulam taking with him the Quedgah merchant, never to return again to the Malabar shores. The three leaky ships fled to St Mary’s in Madagascar, water pumped out by the seven Moplah’s who were on board as the ship was being unloaded. At St Mary’s, Kidd encountered a regular pirate named Culliford. Most of Kidd’s crew abandoned him and joined Culliford for more piratical adventures. Only 13 people remained true to Kidd.

The worm eaten leaky Adventure Galley was soon scuttled and Kidd sailed to the Caribbean on the Adventure Prize and with the Quedgah merchant in tow. At about this same time, letters from the East India Company reached Britain, talking about the acts of piracy by Kidd. A squadron of vessels from the Royal Navy was dispatched to the Indian Ocean to capture him. Confident in the French passes as evidence that he did not betray his commission, he sailed for New York to contact Lord Bellomont. Prior to his meeting with Bellomont, he dispersed the remaining treasure amongst several widely scattered caches, the largest of which was buried in the orchard of Gardiner's Island at the eastern tip of Long Island. Finally by May 1699, four years after he started, he reached back in New York. But it was not the end. The Moghul king was angry; he threatened to get rid of the Englishmen from Indian trade and demanded the ship, its contents and the head of pirate captain Kidd who had pirated the Quedhgah merchant.

After interviewing the captain, Bellomont had him arrested and jailed at Stone Prison. His treasure was tracked down, recovered, and shipped back to London. He was put on trail and taken to the gallows and hanged on 23 May 1701,But bad luck followed him to the bitter end. Following tradition the crowds passed him rum and Kidd was blind drunk when he swung from the gallows" When the trap doors sprang open, Kidd fell, only to have the rope snap under his weight, and send him crashing to the ground. He was brought up the ladder once more and hanged a second time.

Whatever happened to the treasure aboard the Quedgah merchant?

Ginger Roigers from Long Island states

The Quedgah Merchant carried a vast amount of fabrics, spices, jewels, and gold rumored to be worth 400,000 British Pounds Sterling, according to Cordingly. Kidd had sold most of the goods by the time he arrived in Long Island, but many believe Kidd buried a large share of his profits while sailing around Eastern Long Island. It is known that Kidd buried some of his treasure on Gardiner’s Island, which to this day remains a privately owned island. A portion was returned to Bellomont after Kidd’s death, but many believe the majority is still hidden around Long Island. In addition to Gardiner’s Island, some of the local legends have focused on locations in Long Island such as Plum Island, Money Pond, Fisher’s Island, and along the Long Island Sound, including an undisclosed rocky place on the North Shore called Kidd’s Ledge. Some of these places embrace the legend, such a neighborhood in the town of Mattituck bearing the name "Captain Kidd Estates."

Sarah Kidd, his wife had to fight hard to retain their Manhattan house. Three weeks after his arrest, Bellomont’s men recovered the treasure Kidd buried on Gardiner’s Island. Totally, he shipped 1111 ounces of gold, 2353 ounces of silver, less than a pound of gems, 57 bags of sugar, and 41 bales of cloth to the English Treasury. The British valued it around £5000 !!

As for the ship named after a port in Malaysia, the Quedgah Merchant, which had vanished, was finally discovered in 2007 by archaeologists from the University of Indiana. Remarkably, it has turned up in 10ft of crystal clear waters just a short paddle from the shore of Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic. The winners were the English. They got some of the wealth of the ship doing little other than arresting Kidd, placed the fault on Kidd and continued on with EIC activity. We do not know if they compensated Aurangezeb or the owners. Cogi Baba got £585 as compensation, the rest of the proceeds were taken by the British admiralty as perks. But a good amount is perhaps at large, where is it? Some of what it originally carried was sold in Kayamkulam, some of it auctioned in New York and some still perhaps buried around the east coast of US. I have a niggling doubt. The only place where Kidd spent time on shore was Kayamkulam. What happened to the gem and gold chest? Did he perhaps bury this treasure chest in Kayamkulam? Maybe.. who knows…perhaps his ghost frequents the shores of Kayamkulam still watching over it…..

Why was the ruler of Kayamkulam trading pepper with Kidd as Dutch Zwaderkroon reported? Well, The Dutch tried to put up a monopoly on all pepper purchase at certain rates and that irritated some rulers and traders. It was perhaps into this situation that Kidd arrived and he found a way of making money. But I am not too sure of what actually happened. Kidd may have acquired some pepper. But we know that he had no money and possessed just the passes. So how did he buy pepper, on credit? According to Dutch documents, this went on for some time. But he was virtually on the run each day as we saw except for the two months before the Quedgah came by. If he did buy pepper, whom did he sell it to? Or did he just load the stuff into his ships for future sale in New York? This would mean that the Kayamkulam ruler must have got his returns when Kidd came back with the Quedgah merchant’s treasure. Is there a phase of Kidd’s stay in Kayamkulam that we do not know about? Perhaps…

Back to Delhi..Why was Kidd taken to task and why did the British legal system bend the rules to convict him? It appears that three ships Genj-i-sawai, Fatehi Mohammed and now the Quedgah merchant had been plundered by English pirates, so the Mughals were hopping mad..

Let us check the interview provided by leading historian Dr. Sebouh Aslanian. The first ship appears to have belonged to Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (who ruled in 1658–1707) and was returning with pilgrims from Mecca when it was plundered by Captain Avery. The Fatehi Mohammed, also plundered by pirates on its return voyage from the Red Sea with a cargo of pilgrims and silver, was owned by the "merchant prince" Mulla Abdul Ghafur, the most influential Muslim merchant of Surat. The plunder of these ships sent shock waves in Surat's mercantile community and even provoked the ire of the Mughal court. The British factory in Surat came under intense pressure from the Muslim Governor of the city to compensate for losses and provide secure convoys for Surati shipping. Of these, however, the capture of the Quedah seems to have been the event that finally tipped the scale against the East India Company. The Quedah was no ordinary vessel. Mukhlis Khan, an eminent Mughal nobleman and a leading member of Emperor Aurangzeb's court, appears to have been heavily invested in the ship's cargo. When news of the Quedah's capture reached Surat, an Armenian merchant who had a stake in the Quedah's cargo had immediately gone to Delhi to complain to the emperor. He had informed Mukhlis Khan of the events and the fact that he had seen the English pirate's letter of marque from the English Crown. This revelation further reinforced the Mughal Court's convictions that all pirates were Englishmen (so-called "hatmen") and that, moreover, they were operating with the blessing of the English government and the East India Company. The news soon spread through the streets of Surat. The city's Muslim governor took strong measures to isolate the English factory. The mobs outside the compound began to whip up anti-European sentiment (already on the rise after rumors that pirates had violated Indian Muslim women aboard the Fatih Mohammed, returning from their hajj to Mecca). Faced with mounting opposition and violence to its presence in India, Company officials in Surat appealed to the Court of Directors in London to increase pressure on Parliament to pass strict legislation outlawing piracy.It was in this context that the High Court of Admiralty in London issued an arrest warrant for Kidd. Though the Court had offered a general pardon for pirates that same year, Kidd was exempted from this amnesty since he had become notoriously implicated in the fate of the company's trade in India.

And so Kidd met his death at the gallows, wondering how unkind fate could be. Kidd’s body was left on the scaffold for the River Thames to wash over it three times, as was the custom. Then his corpse was dipped in pitch tar and hung in an iron cage along the Thames at Tilbury point. Here it stayed for over two years, until it was totally rotted and picked clean by the birds: "As a great Terrour to all Persons from Committing ye like Crimes".

People of Kayamkulam in Aleppey may not remember Captain Kidd or the hectic activities on their shores during the end of the 17th century. However, slightly over a century later, on those very shores, another brigand was to create a legend – Kochunni aka Kayamkulam Kochunni.. Kochunni was a famed highwayman. He is said to have stolen from the rich and given to the poor (like Robin Hood). Kochunni died in a British jail in 1859. But that is another story..


The Pirate Hunter – Richard Zaqcks
CHF blog
Yandunts – Emil Sanamyan on the Quedgah Merchant