As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, another relic of maritime history is making the news. American explorers have found the sunken treasure of famed pirate William Kidd off the coast of Madagascar. A solid silver bar has been raised to the surface and presented to the Madagascan president at a special ceremony, with hopes that more will follow.
Kidd was born in Scotland in the mid-17th century and sailed as a privateer of the British crown for several years. In 1695, however, when commissioned to apprehend pirates disrupting the shipping of the British East India Company, Kidd turned rogue and took several ships and their cargo. At the same time, he mortally wounded William Moore, his gunner.
Unsurprisingly, the British did not take kindly to Kidd’s betrayal and an arrest warrant was issued. Finally surrendering in New York in 1699 – having been led to believe that he would receive a pardon – Kidd was returned to England for trial and subsequently found guilty of Moore’s murder and five counts of piracy. He was hanged at Wapping in 1701 (reputedly at the third attempt).
With rumours of abundant stores of treasure deposited off Gardiners Island and Africa, Kidd attained a rather mythical status after death. Indeed, his exploits were probably overplayed and romanticised to an extent not consistent with his actual life. An apparent inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has increased his popularity in the centuries since his execution.
Perhaps as interesting as Kidd’s life is that of the sunken vessel from which the silver has been retrieved. The Adventure Galley was fitted out in the Deptford Dockyards in 1696 and Kidd took it halfway around the world in search of legitimate plunder. Frustrated by his lack of success, he captured two British vessels off India in 1698 and brought them back to Madagascar. Here, the ship was reportedly scuttled due to its rotting hull.
The silver aboard the Adventure Galley seemingly hails from Bolivia. This is not surprising given that the vast majority of global silver in the 17th and 18th centuries was extracted from the Potosi mines in the Bolivian mountains, a crucial economic centre in Spain’s New World empire. This discovery, therefore, provides a unique insight into the global trading patterns of the time.
The pomp and ceremony that has greeted the recovery of the treasure is perhaps unnecessary, particularly when compared to the solemn remembrances carried out for the Lusitania sinking. It is also unlikely that the discovery will provide any kind of boost to Madagascar’s nascent tourist industry.
It does, however, provide a more positive news story than much that is currently filling our screens. Additionally, it offers an important archaeological discovery, proffering questions about why a vessel would be scuttled when laden with treasure, Kidd’s desperate intentions at the height of his notoriety, and the interconnectedness of the global economy in the 17th century. This, at least, is worth celebrating.