- by Carol Standish
If your image of an old-fashioned pirate includes a code of honor and a life of dramatic exploits on the high seas, then the career of the infamous Captain Kidd will disappoint you. Hired by greedy politicians as a privateer, he was neither brave nor honest. He broke the contract he signed and was then set up by his one time backers. At sea he was a despot. After a short and shoddy career as a privateer turned pirate (attacking friends of the Crown) Kidd was eventually hanged for piracy but his death and decomposition are legendary. He had to be hung twice because the rope snapped and his body dangled over the Thames in a gibbet for “several years” according to some accounts.
Return to Treasure Island and the Search for Captain Kidd (Perennial, 276pp, $14.95) is organized in alternating chapters telling Kidd’s sorry tale from period documents and recounting contemporary efforts of the author, diver and treasure hunter, Barry Clifford and crew to locate and identify the remains of Kidd’s flagship, the Adventure Galley.
“Treasure Island” really does exist, not just in the imagination of R.L. Stevenson, but off the coast of Madagascar (a huge island in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Africa). The real “Treasure Island” is called Ile Sainte-Marie. It has a delicious tropical climate, a hidden and easily defensible harbor and an exotic and unpredictable native population who speak combinations of Arabic, French, English and several different indigenous dialects. The harbor bottom is littered with the remains of seventeenth and eighteenth century wooden vessels from ports all over Europe and the East. “Booty” in the form of pottery shards, iron fastenings, canons, and coins, and so forth is widely scattered both on land and under water. The island is also riddled with blocked tunnels.
Based on some pretty solid historical evidence, Clifford (who discovered the pirate ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod in the mid-1990s) became convinced that he knew where the remains of Captain Kidd’s vessel lay. In three separate expeditions to Ile Sainte-Marie, sponsored by the Discovery Channel, he, co-author Paul Perry and a crew of experts, repeatedly dove on the wooden wrecks in the island’s harbor. They identified Kidd’s Adventure Galley (custom-built for him in New York) as well as the Fiery Dragon the ship of a real “pirate’s pirate,” Captain William Condon. They also applied some very cool advanced x-ray-type technology to examine the tunnels.
As exciting as the hunt are the mysterious machinations of the permit process of the Malagasy government (the Clifford crew had to feel their way through a maze of politics both local and national in several languages). Not to mention the additional aggravation of interference from a rival archeological diver. Ostensibly looking for John Paul Jones’ Serapis, Richard Swete apparently also had designs on Kidd’s vessel. Swete’s eventual fate is straight out of a Conrad novel.
The pirate phenomenon bears a palpable resemblance to the outlaw figures of the American west a century or so later. Both remain abundantly appealing to the 21st century imagination which makes Return to Treasure Island such a fun read The book also teases the reader to find out more about the political intrigue surrounding Kidd and the mysterious island where he and other sea-going desperadoes holed up.