Treasure Found off Madagascar: the legacy of William Kidd

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitaniaanother 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.

The bar in question Source: Daily Mail
The bar in question
Source: Daily Mail

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).

Kidd was hanged at Wapping, his corpse covered in tar and hung from a bridge to warn others against piracy Source: BBC
Kidd was hanged at Wapping, his corpse covered in tar and hung from a bridge to warn others against piracy
Source: BBC

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.

Voyages of the Adventure  Galley
Voyages of the Adventure Galley

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.


Piracy on Africa’s Western Coast: tackling a previously forbidding terrain

A gradual rise in acts of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has set alarm bells ringing at the headquarters of shipping magnates across the world. As international efforts to tackle piracy off the Horn of the east coast begin to take affect, the increasingly-sophisticated maritime criminals have looked elsewhere.

Not only in the Gulf of Guinea, but along the West African coast, incidences of piracy are on the rise. At the same time, littoral states in the region have neither the resources nor the financial clout to nip the problem in the bud.

Tackling modern-day piracy requires a coordinated international effort
Tackling modern-day piracy requires a coordinated international effort

The Atlantic is far more forbidding ocean terrain than the Indian yet with improving vessels, logistical capacity and weaponry, pirates are feeling braver. Backed by multinational crime syndicates, piratical acts are not simply the result of desperate local fishermen.

Organised piracy on Africa’s west coast can be dated back to the 15th century, when the Barbary corsairs attacked European shipping and trade posts along the Moroccan shoreline. In 1434 Gil Eannes, on the orders of Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator, rounded the previously unpassable Cape Bojador (a headland on today’s Western Sahara), pushing European exploration further than before.

Prior to 1434, Cape Bojador had assumed mythological impenetrability amongst Europeans
Prior to 1434, Cape Bojador had assumed mythological impenetrability amongst Europeans

For the remainder of the century the Portuguese worked their way along the West African coast, harried by the corsairs for much of the way, whilst negotiating both the savage tidal currents and the awkward politics of encounter with indigenous African tribes.

In succeeding centuries, acts of piracy in West Africa were predominantly perpetrated by Europeans against Europeans. The era of privateering saw greater incentive to tackle enemy ships along the treacherous coast, though many favoured the gentler tidal patterns of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

Today, West Africa offers a potential haven to pirates far more appealing than in the past:

1) It has a large, impoverished population which can be put to use by multinational criminal organisations,

2) It is poorly policed by naval forces,

3) It has large expanses of vacant coastline that can be used for staging posts,

4) It has plenty of hidden coves and bays from which to launch a stealthy attack.

If the international community fails to tackle this growing problem soon then another security crisis will ensue. Large exports of oil, minerals and food produce depart from West African ports. As soon as they start getting taken, people will definitely sit up and take note.