Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Right Man for the Job

All the instincts that sustain a social existence can equally well, in different circumstances, contribute to deviancy. The basic impulses of self-interest, of care for ones immediate dependants, of group-loyalty, and all other of the complex mesh of allegiances that go to create a social milieu can, for one reason or another, go off-course and lead to bad (that is to say criminal or erratic) behaviour. Or we can look at things another way, and say that even the most deviant of activities, of whatever kind, on whatever scale, have their counterpart in 'normal' behaviour. It is as normal to be selfish, greedy or vindictive as it is to be loyal or altruistic. The problem is that absolute standards of probity or morality are notoriously difficult to establish. At some time or other every kind of atrocity, and every conceivable form of injustice has been justified 'for the greater good'. In the final analysis we can only come to a reasonable understanding of deviant behaviour by placing it firmly in its socio-cultural context, and the more completely we can do this the less incongruous such behaviour may seem.

Naturally there will always be the question of relativity in these matters. This is to say that there are often difficulties in establishing, in a particular example, just what constitutes the norm and what is deviation from it. People usually feel justified in their actions; 'good' behaviour tends to be what 'good' people do, however distorted this may later appear. In times of war, for instance, the routine and systematic killing of complete strangers may become a positive duty. The thorny subject of moral relativity is one that occurs frequently throughout this book, but it is much less of a factor in this chapter since the activities of most of the protagonists involved were decidedly dubious, and the majority of them, as in the following account, must have been well aware that they were overstepping the mark.


Criminal and villainous behaviour, in common with all other forms of human activity, is as much affected by Fashion as it is by Opportunity. This was certainly the case in the conditions of burgeoning international trade in the second half of the 17th century where the great increase in sea-borne commerce had been accompanied by a corresponding, and alarming, increase in piracy. In fact by the end of the century the situation was almost out of control. The Indian Ocean was positively swarming with pirates, mostly from Western Europe, and they were a real threat to the continuity of the East India trade. The many British merchants who had interests in this part of the world felt this state of affairs particularly keenly. Their losses were becoming quite unacceptable, and there was a general feeling that something drastic had to be done to counteract this menace - and the sooner the better,

As is often the case at such critical moments, an individual came to the fore to remedy the situation. This was the then Earl of Bellamont, whose active, forthright personality led him to be personally mandated by the King (William III) to address the matter. Bellamont took this commission very seriously. It was clear that measures were required that were proportionate to the scale of the problem. His solution was to attack the menace at source. He proposed that a well-appointed Man-of-war should be entirely dedicated to the task of eradicating the East Indian pirates. It should be armed to the teeth, and carry a full, determined crew of experienced seamen. Once in the Indies a vessel of the kind that Bellamont had in mind would out-run and out-gun any of the pirate brigatines that it was likely to encounter. In this way the oceans could be systematically cleared of these rapacious cut-throats once and for all. The great advantage of the scheme was that once established it would be self-financing. In addition to the primary mission of suppressing piracy, the lawful recovery of spoils would help to defray expenses. Bellamont conveyed the details of the scheme, and his enthusiasm, to the King - who passed it directly, with his personal commendation, to the Admiralty.

Unfortunately the Admiralty were less than enthusiastic. They dithered and procrastinated and, in the manner typical of institutions that are presented with radical proposals from outside, constantly raised petty objections. But Bellamont was not the sort of man who was easily deterred. It was quite obvious that there was an urgent need for action. If he could not launch his scheme through official channels he would by-pass them and do the thing privately. In the event this was the way in which Bellamont's scheme came to be realized. He managed to convince several of his aristocratic (and very wealthy) friends to contribute to the enterprise, and in a very short time sufficient funds were raised, a Galley was acquired, and was extensively refitted for the task ahead. At the end of this the Adventure (as it was renamed) was admirably suited to its purpose, boasting, among its extensive new equipment, no less than forty cannon. In the matter of who should command such an important mission Bellamont was equally decisive. There was, in any case, something of a consensus as to the most suitable candidate - a certain Captain William Kidd was widely seen as the best and right man for the job. Kidd was a popular and capable mariner with a lifetime's experience of the eastern trade, and one who had only recently proved his valour in action against the French. He was duly appointed and lost no time in selecting his crew, of one hundred and fifty similarly experienced seamen.

Remarkably, this state of readiness had been achieved in less than five months from the time of its original inception. All that remained was that Kidd be appointed with a Commission under the Great Seal and, given Bellamont's influence at court, this was almost a formality. This legal warrant would empower Kidd to seize pirates wherever he found them, and to bring them to justice. The warrant specified that, of the recovered plunder, the King was to take a mere one-tenth part, with as much as possible of the remainder to be returned to the merchants from whom it was stolen. After deductions for wages for the Captain and his crew the rest (which was expected to be substantial) would, of course, go to defray the costs of the original investors. Once he had been granted the Great Seal there was no restraining Kidd and his crew. They set forth for the Indies in February 1697.

Since the human mind is practically impenetrable, and since later evidence was so various and unreliable, it never became entirely clear whether Kidd ever, from the outset, intended to act according to his instructions. It seems that he did initially engage in the suppression of piracy, although this was most likely to have been in the spirit of eliminating the opposition than of effecting the spirit of his commission. But clearing the Indian Ocean of marauders was certainly not all that he did. It was not long before disquieting rumours of a new, extremely well equipped, and particularly rapacious pirate began seeping back to London. It transpired that Kidd and his crew, having disposed of most of the smaller operators in the region, had established a virtual monopoly of piracy in the Indian Ocean and had become the greatest scourge that the region had ever experienced. No ship, of any nationality, was now safe from their depredations. Not content with capturing ships, seizing their cargoes and massacring all on board, the crew of the Adventure regularly raided coastal towns and pillaged entrepots, systematically torturing and killing merchants for their hoarded wealth. In the three years that they plied their murderous trade Kidd and his men created the most terrible havoc - and amassed an absolute fortune.

Eventually this appalling crew disbanded. The Adventure was burned and Kidd and his accomplices dispersed, many furthering their piratical careers elsewhere. Meanwhile the Captain himself chose to retire with his ill-gotten gains to the then pleasant colonial outpost of New York. A situation that he felt was remote enough, and corrupt enough, to ensure his protection from the ire of the British authorities. He was, however, mistaken in this, and was not to enjoy a long retirement. In good, treacherous, pirate tradition he was betrayed by an ex-colleague. He was seized by the local authorities, brought back to England, summarily tried, and hung - an ignominious, but well deserved end.

The debacle of the Adventure scheme had, of course, attracted a great deal of attention. When the news of Kidd's nefarious activities first broke there was uproar in Parliament over Bellamont and his friend’s lack of judgement (stemming mainly from their political rivals). But it soon became evident that there was little political capital to be gained from this. Nobody seriously thought that such obviously public-spirited figures could be held to blame for the failure of their scheme. In any case they had lost their money, and that, in those days, was punishment enough.

As for Kidd, his great transgression, of course, lay not in his piratical activities as such, but in the fact that he had interfered with British interests. At that time piracy was tolerated, even encouraged, if it was directed against rival nations. The career of another notorious Pirate Captain of this era, Henry Morgan, whilst similar in many respects to that of Kidd, had a quite opposite resolution. Morgan was equally rapacious and bloodthirsty, but he operated in the West Indies, ie. in Spanish territory. Because of his excesses he, like Kidd, was apprehended and brought back to England in chains to stand trial. But rather than being hung, Morgan's sea-faring capabilities were recognised by the Crown, and he was eventually knighted and sent back to Jamaica as its Governor, where he ruled for some fifteen years, dying peacefully at a respectable old age.