Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 2
Spring 2008

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Capt. Kidd painting
Illustration of Capt. Kidd from Horn and Pyle's Book of Pirates

IU diver explores the ruins of Capt. Kidd's shipwreck.
Photo courtesy Indiana University

There Be Pirates

After 35-plus years as an archaeologist, Geoff Conrad has nearly lost count of all his expeditions and fieldwork projects, but "this one," he says, "was different."

"This one" was the discovery of the remains of the last ship captained by the infamous William Kidd. The remnants of the ship, called the Quedagh Merchant, were discovered in shallow waters off tiny Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic. The wreck was identified in mid-December 2007 by a team of Indiana University researchers, of which Conrad was a member. The team was led by Charles Beeker, an underwater archaeologist and director of the Office of Underwater Science in the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at IU Bloomington.

News of the find quickly spread around the globe. In the United States, the IU discovery attracted the attention of CNN, National Geographic, NPR, the Discovery Channel, and many others. "It just shows how much pirates and Capt. Kidd in particular fire the public imagination," Conrad says.

Debate persists about whether Capt. Kidd was pirate or privateer but regardless, his dramatic story has been the stuff of legend for more than 300 years. Born in Scotland, Kidd became a "specialist," Conrad says, who was commissioned to capture pirate ships, then split the take with whoever backed his voyage. "His backers included the colonial governor of New York, members of the British House of Lords, and the King of England," Conrad notes.

In 1698, Kidd and his crew captured the Quedagh Merchant, an act that earned Kidd a charge of piracy. Kidd left the ship, found a sloop, and "high-tailed it back to New York," Conrad says, "because he was sure the governor would clear his name." But Kidd was ensnared in the political scandals and power struggles of his day, especially antagonism between England's Whig and Tory parties. "It became very expedient to just get rid of him," says Conrad.

Kidd was hanged in London in 1701. For years afterward, his body was suspended in a sort of cage along the Thames River as a warning to other would-be pirates.

Modern-day treasure hunters have searched hard for Capt. Kidd's last ship, which his crew stripped of valuables and abandoned in 1699, after Kidd left. "We're pretty certain that the crew took it up a river on the big island of Hispaniola, then set it on fire in the river and set it adrift," Conrad says. "The prevailing winds and currents would have taken it to exactly where we found it."

What the IU team found, partially hidden in sand, were not jewels or gold doubloons, but cannons and anchors. Remarkably, the wreckage was in just 10 feet of water near the shore, which is why the sunken ship went so long undiscovered. "If you were looking for a place where a ship would have been moored, this is not the place you would look," Conrad says. "It's too shallow; there is no good anchorage at all."

Conrad and Beeker have collaborated on numerous land-water archaeological projects, including an ongoing investigation, funded through IU's Office of the Vice Provost for Research, of La Isabela, a settlement established by Columbus in 1494. In fact, Beeker and Conrad were working around Isabela Bay when the Dominican government asked them to investigate the Kidd wreck. The government turned to the IU team because "we've worked with them for a long time," Conrad says. "They trust us, and they know we'll do a good job. They know we're in it for the research, not the treasure."

As Beeker, who has helped the Dominican Republic create underwater parks out of other shipwrecks, puts it, "We believe this is a living museum. The treasure in this case is the wreck itself."

Beeker and colleagues plan to set aside the Kidd shipwreck as a research reserve for two years, after which the location will be converted into an underwater preserve, open to the public.

Meanwhile, Conrad plans to search for evidence of Kidd on land. "We think that Kidd and his crew were camped on Catalina Island for some time,"Conrad says. "I'm going to look for the camp.

"There's very little archaeology of pirate land camps," he continues, "so I don't know what I'll find. I'm not expecting a chest of buried treasure--more like food remains and old campfires--but you never know."

Funding for the Capt. Kidd expedition was provided in part by OVPR; the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation; and the Office of the Provost for IU Bloomington.