Arrrrg, ya land-lubber sharkbait. Today be a conjuction of foul and unseemly forces, for it be "Talk Like a Pirate Day" and the day I review me well-thumbed copy of The Man They Hanged (1926) by Robert Chambers (or Cap'n Robert Hack-hand, as we know 'em). Read on or be damned, ya mangy manatee.
Actually, the two events make strangely fitting companions. "Talk Like a Pirate Day" plays up the benign goofiness of the old fashioned "Red Sea Trade", while The Man They Hanged is one of the more spirited defenses of the most infamous pirate of all, Captain Kidd. The good (or very, very bad) Captain is one of the most iconic figures in buccaneering. (A timeless one as well, his story is currently an exhibition at the Museum of London.)
Kidd was, by all accounts, born in Scotland around 1650. His early life is largely unknown, but by 1690, the enterprising Captain had helped the Governor of New York quash a rebellion and earned a place in that city's society. (Marrying an extremely wealthy young widow also helped.)
This is where is all gets fun. In 1695, a syndicate of (extremely) powerful nobles backed a commission for Kidd - he would privateer about the oceans, beating up on French ships for profit. The Earl of Romney, the Earl of Orford, Sir John Somers and the Duke of Shrewsbury were all discreet partners, outfitting Kidd in turn for 60% of the loot. The Earl of Orford was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time and none of the other three were any less hoity-toity.
In 1696, Kidd set out in his Adventure Galley, a honking great big galley with hand-picked crew. Said crew immediately disappeared. For no explicable reason, Kidd failed to salute a Royal Navy ship whilst sailing out of the Thames. Worse, members of his crew mooned the cruiser as they went past (in 1696, like 1985, this was the height of comedy). The Royal Navy, unimpressed, sailed after the Adventure Galley, pulled it over (I'm imagining the 17th century version of flashing blue lights) and promptly drafted the bulk of Kidd's crew as punishment. Ouch.
Kidd spent the next year slowly trudging around the seas - London, New York, the Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar, India, etc. The pickings were worse than slim. Kidd was supposed to return to New York by February 1697, but without any loot, he'd be ruined - the terms of his agreement with the distinguished gentlemen made Kidd financially responsible if anything went wrong. He mitigated this somewhat by a second deal with an unscrupulous merchant, but the result was now that Kidd owed both the bank and the local loan shark. Although Kidd skirted his creditors by staying afloat, his ship was starting to fall apart. Plus, as he meandered around fruitlessly, the crew (the remnants of the original crew plus those he'd been able to pick up at various ports), begin to grow restless. Some time in late 1697, Kidd killed one of his own gunners - William Moore - with a bucket.
In early 1698, Kidd finally found worthwhile prey, a massive Armenian merchant ship, stuffed to the gills with quality loot. Satisfied that this would sate his backers, Kidd turned around and headed for home. Somewhere around Madagascar, it all went wrong. Kidd's crew revolted, the ships all fell apart and the good Captain finally limped into New York in 1699 (after burying some loot in Rhode Island). He was arrested in Boston and shipped back to London for trial. Here, the events are better documented. Kidd's trial was a sham, with missing documents, missing lawyers, spurious points of order and a predictable verdict. Kidd was hanged in 1701.
The lingering appeal of the Captain Kidd story has a lot to do with the mystery. Why didn't Kidd ever name his powerful backers and appeal to them? Why was his trial so rubbish? What really happened in those years at sea? And, most importantly, where's the gold? (Hint: not Vietnam.) The portion they found was worth millions (in today's currency), but only a tiny fragment of what Kidd was supposed to have captured.
Robert Chambers has answers to all these questions and more, all following the revisionist thesis that Captain Kidd was a pure and virtuous man, manipulated, bewildered and overwhelmed by his evil surroundings. A contemporary New York Times review remarks that this is evidence of a trend - that "our novelists seem bound to whitewash our great rogues lily pure". But even that review goes on to note that Mr. Chambers' hubris in attempting to exonerate Kidd is unmatched.
The now-noble Captain's story is told through the eyes of Dirck Hazlett. Hazlett is a straight-limbed, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, thoroughly Chambersian hero (and a complete work of fiction). He's the penniless son of a deceased former nobleman, which has given Hazlett a mighty bearing, a fierce temper, martial training and some delusions of grandeur. Hazlett, a young man of 18, mostly stalks around the fledgling New York City giving fencing lessons and flirting with the Dutch girls. When he first meets Kidd, Hazlett is immediately blown away by the sheer magnificence of the man - Kidd is kind and lovely and Scottish and heroic and all those good things. Kidd immediately steps into a paternal role for Hazlett, helping groom him for a future naval command of his own. (Hazlett is also getting his flirt on with Kidd's step daughter, which helps.)
Mr. Chambers spends a disproportionate amount of his time showing off his historical credentials. The history of New York City is inserted in detail and young Hazlett proves surprisingly well-educated when it comes to the biographies of every man he meets on the street. Mr. Chambers also pulls no punches when it comes to Captain Kidd trivia. Kidd's flatware appears repeatedly and in disconcerting detail, as does his prompt payment of household bills and penchant for Madeira wine. All of these are explained in footnotes as the results of meticulous research (the first I've read in one of Mr. Chambers' books). The author bombards the reader with irrelevant trivia in the hopes that his controversial thesis slips through unquestioned.
Captain Kidd's voyages make for the least interesting part of the book. As they're largely undocumented, even the daring Mr. Chambers knows he's flirting with pure fiction at this point. Kidd (with the adoring Hazlett in tow) quickly sails around the world, pausing only for the occasional whitewashing. The murder of William Moore, for example, becomes an accident - and a noble one: Moore was in the process of inciting the crew to piracy and to mutiny at the time. And perhaps, as Mr. Chambers implies, it wasn't even the bucket that did it - there was pox going around at the time as well. Either way, Mr. Chambers' puppet, Hazlett, declares "the death of our gunner was a shock to my Captain who was ever a tender-hearted man and had no thought of harming Moore" (311).
When Kidd returns to port and faces trial, The Man They Hanged suddenly achieves an unexpected level of excellence. Prior to this point, Dirck was a non-entity, a dull scribe with the occasional bit of regurgitated historical platitude as dialogue. Similarly, Mr. Chambers was so busy flogging Kidd into sainthood that he forgot to make him an actual character. But the Orwellian tragedy of the trial transforms them. Dirck's manly Aryan prowess, so useful when punching pirates or wooing young maids, is meaningless when faced with the omnipotence of British legal bureacracy. This is a rare moment: Dirck's completely helpless, not only for the first time in his life, but for the first time in any of the lives of any of Mr. Chambers' dashing archetypical heroes.
Captain Kidd transforms from saint to martyr. His compulsive virtue becomes archaic and sadly charming. Mr. Chambers makes great hay out of the disappearance (and eventual rediscovery) of the legal paperwork, as well as Kidd's steadfast refusal to name his noble patrons. Captain Kidd becomes a tragic figure, standing bravely in the docks, foolishly assuming that he will be rescued by his "noble" patrons. Mr. Chambers never hides the historical conclusion of the tale (e.g. the book's title), rather, he builds this into a Quixotic quest: two men of knightly manner jousting against the windmills of corruption. Unlike Mr. Chambers' many society novels, The Man They Hanged is where the good guys lose. Even as Dirck dissolves back into fiction with his perky blonde wife and white picket fences, he's a forlorn figure. To Dirck Hazlett, Captain Kidd was all that was good in the world, and he'll never understand why he couldn't save him.
Mr. Chambers' judicious use of historical evidence never truly exonerates Kidd, but it does make for a good story. Captain Kidd's trail (which is well-documented, down to the court transcripts) was dodgy, and Mr. Chambers wisely chooses to make this the focus of his case. Unfortunately, however ridiculous the judicial process, Mr. Chambers fails to present a plausible alternative for Kidd's actions at sea. The author rails against the scandal-mongering and grotesqueries that sprang out of the Captain Kidd stories, but his own carefully composed saga of spin is no less ludicrous.
Setting aside the historical validity, The Man They Hanged is actually one of Mr. Chambers' finer efforts. His novels with thesis or theme are generally stronger than his scatterbrained love stories, and, whether or not Mr. Chambers is actually championing a worthwhile cause here, the book is better for having a motivation that's not solely commercial. Similarly, the unique structure of the book - Dirck the Archetype being the secondary hero - makes it distinctive in Mr. Chambers' body of work. Although Dirck does have his adventures, they're merely distractions. Dirck is there to provide eyes on Kidd. His ceaseless, fawning admiration, against all odds, works. Even if the dialogue is stilted and the explanations faulty, by the close of the book, the reader is sorely affected by Kidd's predicament and Dirck's loss. Mr. Chambers may be a controversial historian, but he's a skilled storyteller. Although The Man They Hanged is poor biography, it is excellent drama.
[Editor's note: The Man They Hanged is sadly long out of print and doesn't even seem to be present on Project Gutenberg. Copies surface occasionally, so pounce if ya like a good yarn. Er. Avast. Scurvy. Krakenballs. Etc.]