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Time for Kidd myth to walk the plank

Few names in naval history bring as much imagery to mind as the infamous Captain William Kidd. In the centuries since his hanging in London for the crimes of murder and piracy, Kidd's name has been ranked alongside that of Blackbeard when it comes to ruthlessness and avarice.

Depictions of Kidd follow the standard Hollywood formula of a colorfully dressed scoundrel who could kill as easily as hoist a tankard of rum.

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Attempting to turn aside centuries of lore, Richard Zacks argues in "The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd" that Kidd was far from a pirate. In fact, before receiving a commission from well-placed English lords to hunt pirates, Kidd was a respectable mariner who lived on New York's Wall Street with an attractive young wife and their child. A pillar of his community, Kidd was chosen for the mission because he was thought to be a reliable seaman with a clean past.

The beginning of Kidd's legend, and the ultimate cause of his demise, was the 1696 launching of the ship Adventure Galley. Zacks argues that Kidd, backed by no less than King William III, was hired to hunt down the pirates that threatened English trade in the Far East.

Unfortunately, he had no success. Cursed with an unruly crew – some of whom were former pirates themselves – Kidd found himself facing a mutiny. His situation deteriorated further when he found out that instead of being hailed as a pirate hunter, he was now known as the world's most infamous member of the pirate fraternity.

A tough Scotsman, Kidd returned to New York in the hopes of clearing his name but quickly found himself jailed until he could be taken to England for trial. As Zacks illustrates, using contemporary records, Kidd's subsequent trial for murder and multiple counts of piracy was an exercise in protecting the establishment. The privateer serving his country was tried and hanged. His remains were left hanging for years in chains at the mouth of the Thames to serve as a warning to other sailors considering piracy as a career path.

Zacks's account, told in an informal and compelling manner, is a persuasive one. Quoting directly from Kidd's own letters and notes and those of other contemporaries, the author convincingly places the reader in events that transpired three centuries ago. In what must have been a mammoth job of sifting through dry, dusty records on two continents, he builds a case for the man who was accused of piracy but acted like a man guilty of nothing except perhaps walking occasionally too close to the line dividing legal and illegal actions.

Where "The Pirate Hunter" truly works is Zacks's decision to weave the story of pirate Robert Culliford into that of Kidd. The two men were acquainted with each other, though hardly as friends. Their paths had crossed several times, including a time Culliford stole a ship from Kidd. Ironically, Culliford was pardoned for piracy only minutes before Kidd was sentenced to death.

Zacks also takes the time to examine many of the myths and facts surrounding pirates, though he weakens the quality of his work with occasional unnecessary vulgarity.

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Whether "The Pirate Hunter" succeeds in rehabilitating Kidd's reputation after centuries of slander is a question for the coming years to answer. What Zacks's effort has done is present a lively and fascinating case of a man who suffered a huge injustice.

• Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.