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Real 'pirate of the Caribbean' was funded by London elite

By George Webster for CNN
  • New exhibition reveals how piracy helped fund London economy in 17th century
  • It reveals extent of political and corporate corruption in Britain during early days of the empire
  • Notorious pirate Captain Kidd was hired by leading government figures

London (CNN) -- Forget peg-legs, parrots and eye-patches -- the real pirates of the Caribbean were much more complicated.

According to an eye-opening new exhibition near the bank of London's river Thames, a number of Britain's most notorious buccaneers colluded with high-profile politicians and businessmen during the "golden age" of piracy in the 17th century.

"As Britain began to expand her empire, pirates could quite literally be found walking the streets of London," said Tom Wareham, curator of maritime and community history at the Museum of London Docklands. "It was in this city that shady deals with mysterious and powerful financial backers funded a great deal of piracy around the world."

The exhibition, titled "Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story," explores the surprising truth of how London's corrupt political class was entrenched in piracy, by examining the life of the controversial swashbuckler.

Captain Kidd, as infamous as his bloodthirsty contemporary Blackbeard, was hanged for piracy and the murder of a crew member at "Execution Dock" on the Thames in 1701.

His body was covered in tar and dangled for years in an iron cage above the river as a warning to wannabe corsairs.

But was he even guilty of any crime?

Vilified at the time as a cold-blooded killer and terror of the high-seas from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean, the exhibition reveals that Kidd was in fact more of a puppet in the profit wars of London's wealthiest elite.

"He was actually a privateer, a mercenary licensed by the government to loot merchant ships flying the colors of England's enemies -- mainly France and Spain," explained Wareham.

They stood to gain a fortune from Kidd's expertise as a privateer. It was an arrangement that stank of corruption
--Angus Konstam, historian
  • Pirates
  • London
  • Cultural History

According to Wareham, the practice was effectively a form of legitimate piracy.

Kidd was hired by a group of five leading government figures -- two earls, two lords and the First Lord of the Admiralty -- in what was "a particularly shady undertaking," said historian Angus Konstam, author of several books on pirates, including "Piracy: The Complete History."

"They planned to ignore normal legislation governing privateering contracts, and made their own unique deal, whereby they stood to gain a fortune from Kidd's expertise as a privateer," Konstam said. "It was an arrangement that stank of corruption."

Probably unknown to Kidd, however, was that his backers were rivals of the powerful East India Company, the ruthless multinational corporation that exported exotic goods from the Indian sub-continent.

When Kidd's activities in the East Indies, as it was then known, threatened the East India Company's business interests, they secured his downfall, said Wareham.

"After he attacked an Armenian merchant ship, the East India Company pulled strings to have him arrested on the grounds that it was not a legitimate target for a privateer -- even though it was sailing under a French pass," he explained.

According to documents that form part of the exhibition, including his personal notes and letters, Kidd was subjected to a sham trial in which crucial reports proving his innocence mysteriously disappeared, and he was barred from giving evidence.

"If abuse of power, lying in court, withholding evidence, bribing trial witnesses and generally rigging a trial are evidence of corruption, then the East India Company -- together with the Admiralty -- were as corrupt as they come," concluded Konstam.

The exhibition includes Kidd's last letter, with a promise of hidden treasure, the original inventory of all his plunder, and a genuine pirate flag from the 17th century.

Wareham hopes that the display will resonate today because it "illustrates the historical roots of the kind of corporate exploitation we see today, as well as the double standards of politicians," he said.

The curator is also keen that the exhibition, running until late October, will help dispel some of the modern myths surrounding the pirates of this "golden age."

"They have a bit of a bad rep in my view," Wareham said. "Many of them were men who had been press-ganged into the navy during war-time, only then to find themselves jobless when it was over. They didn't have much else going for them and in many cases would have simply drifted into a life of piracy."

But that's not the only modern misconception. Pirates in Captain Kidd's time bore "almost no relation to our modern perception of pirates," said Konstam, noting that everything we generally associate with them was invented subsequently.

"You can't fault Robert Louis Stevenson for writing 'Treasure Island' -- it remains one of the most enthralling children's books of all time. However, he created treasure maps with 'X' marking the spot, buried pirate treasure, and the black spot," Konstam said.

But surely some pirates were at least prone to impromptu cries of "shiver me timbers?"