Monday, 11 July 2011

Sea Stories - Captain Kidd

If you are lucky enough to be in sunny (yes...sunny!) Greenock today, pop along to The Tall Ships, where you have two opportunities to see the Captain Kidd musical "Tall Ships Tales", as performed by Inverclyde Schools. It's on the main stage (Bogston end) at 12, then the arena stage (McDonalds end) at 7. Full programme for the days events can be found here.

Kidd's been causing controversy again this week, with grumpy Dundee getting all upset because the new Kidd exhibition in London describes him as being from Greenock. Unlucky Dundee! I'm going to be visiting the Kidd exhibition when I'm down in London next week and will post up a wee review soon. But its already on a winner in my book.

So, in celebration of all things Tall Ships and Captain Kidd related, here's our first ever Kidd story, written by Ray Mitchell, and published in 1999 at the last Tall Ships...

Captain Kidd's Tale
A good Greenock man, turned to bad deeds for the sake of men who will never swing for them, sits in a gaol and tells a man his tale. Who tells another man. Who tells another man...

The Barman
Haven’t seen a night like this in all my life, and Old John’s seen a few nights, I can tell you. Ask anyone; they’ll tell you. Been here longer than most of these old sots can remember, wash my mouth out with soap and water.

Never been emptier than tonight; I can usually rely on Tom and Puckle in the corner putting paid to the problems of the world over a pint of ale, but this storm has even made those two share their drinks and stories at home over a fire. Pity; I like a bit of company in the evenings, but never mind. The weather will clear tomorrow, I’m sure, and then all of the empty chairs tonight will be filled with people who’ll remember how much they like a drink.

Still, never bother; five more minutes and then even I might just get tired of waiting and head off to my warm bed.

Oh-ho; what’s this though? I might think it was a drowned cat out of the rain for a bowl of warm milk and a heat if it weren’t standing on its own two legs. The man staggers in, a quick timely flash of lightning outside illuminating his haggard face for a brief second, and I take a step backward, this old barkeep who’s seen a few sights (ask anyone; they’ll tell you) shocked in his shoes by a rain-soaked traveller.

The man turns toward me slowly, and he must see by my face that I think him a ghost or demon sent by the storm to take my life (or, worse, my pub) because he smiles, his face suddenly like a skull. He slams down on the bar a knapsack that looks as if it’s been on his back three times round the world, and he sits down heavily.
“What have you in those bottles for a man who’s just seen his cousin hanged twice?”
Well, I don’t shock easy, but this makes me pause just a moment, before I draw down a bottle of whisky that hasn’t been drained in a goodly while (the dust on the cork must be twelve year old), and I set it down with two glasses. It surely doesn’t look like this poor creature can afford such fine malt, but he surely looks like he needs it, and now that I’ve seen his hunted face, I surely do too. I pour the amber liquid into the glasses and I say the thing I must have said every night for most of my long life to some weary soul or another.
“Why don’t you tell Old John about it.”

The Traveller
My story is like most others; it ends in horror and heartache, and leaves the listener with more questions than answers. But I will tell you anyway. Perhaps if I tell someone this gnawing feeling at my very gut will move on and leave me in peace.

I have just this day returned from London, where I had travelled off my own back to visit my cousin on the night before his slaughter. Now you might not think this any particular thing, for in these days many men hang for their crimes, but if I tell you that this crime was piracy and treason, and this man William Kidd, then perhaps you begin to take shape of my story in your head, barkeep.
Another drink? Yes. I think so. I think so.

William was blind drunk already by the time they let me see him on a warm evening at the gaol. His only requests to his captors were for more drink, and he shouted cursewords at all and sundry, even for a short while mistaking me for an English guard.
When by and by William had calmed down he began to tell me his tale, a story filled with bitterness and recriminations, the story of a man betrayed and humiliated, of turncoats and bloodshed. It was a tale that in other circumstances I might have paid a penny to sit and listen to in an alehouse, if it did not concern my own flesh and blood.

The Pirate
Are you really there, cousin? I cannot see you. I drink and drink to close my eyes so they will not see the eyes of the man who nooses my neck on the morrow. I hope it works.
I am sorry that I have not been home for many a year now; New York has been my home out of necessity, and I ofttimes yearn for Greenock’s waters and her folks. But now it is too late. Never to look into my family’s eyes again. Never.

You there! Bring me some more of this! And some for my guest! Quick about it now. Has your master not told you to obey the whims of the dying man?

It saddens me to think that these sheeplike oafs will be the last people I clap eyes on afore I go on. Yes, cousin. You are here too. I thank you. You are most kind.

We have not much time now. I have to pass on the tale of my betrayal to a friendly soul. I will tell you some things, and then I will give you something, and then you must go, cousin. Do not stay to watch me dance the hempen jig. I beseech you. But stay now, if you are not of hard heart, and listen to the things I must impart.

I never set out in life to be the blackguard and thief they paint me to be. I was appointed by Richard Coote, Earl of Bellamont, to protect the British Isles from pirates, but curse me, I was taken in by the romance of the high seas, cousin. I decided once I had seen the wealth available from looting these ships off the East coast of the dark continent that this was to be the life for me. God would forgive me. He has surely forgiven worse.

But that is not the darkest part of my tale, cousin. Surely not. The King himself gave me leave to raid French ships as they were enemies of Britain, and even a licence to this regard. A licence, if you cen believe that! But nonetheless. I am never a man to look a gift cow in the mouth, and so with this happy arrangement set up, and with several benefactors, chief among them Lord Bellamont, supporting me in my endeavours in exchange for a small share of the loot, things were right sweet for a good while.

For a while, that is, until the Adventure Galley. God, but I never hope to sail in such a tub again! Such a rotten pile of timbers I’ve never captained, and the crew were worse. Picked up in New York  by a lazy first mate (for a pint of ale each, I reckon), they began to plot against me from the start. I even had to kill one o’ them to teach them a lesson. Never meant to kill him, but the man, Gunner Moore they called him, came at me with a chisel. Picked up a bucket and brained him right there. Never meant to kill him. And they call me a murderer for that.

Cousin, here I am getting off the point again. Suffice to say things rocked along roughly for a little while; lootings were thin on the ground and poor food stores had the men sick as dogs and angry as bears. When eventually we raided two goodly rich French ships, the crew were so near the end of their tether they took more than their share of the treasure and deboarded in New York never to be seen again.

Well! Here was I in a good pickle. I had to tell Lord Bellamont that I had no doubloons for him; I span him my hard luck story, and he was not right happy, but that was that. And the next thing I know, there’s a bloody warrant out for my arrest! ‘Piracy and Murder’, they say! Why if the King himself doesn’t know I’m a pirate! If he doesn’t himself condone a little murdering in the name of patriotism! It fair makes you sick.

All sorts of lies they spread about me. Lord Bellamont himself said that I took all the loot for myself (which was NOT from French ships, but stolen from the slit pockets of innocent murdered men, so he says), and murdered my crew! Cousin! I see from your wide eyes you feel the same as me on this matter, do you not? Do you not?

I was fair doomed from there. The judge would not let me appoint a lawyer to defend me, and so I took it to task myself. I found two good crewmen who would speak of my fair name, but they changed their stories and stabbed me in the back (spurred on by the dirty money of Bellamont, I dare say, cousin). Each lie blackening my reputation as a gentleman pirate brought me a step closer to the gallows, with nothing I could do to slow my pace.

And here we are, cousin. Tomorrow I die. Three words which strike fear in my very soul, unable to bear were it not for the good gallon of ale in my belly. It is late now, cousin, and they say you must go soon. But I told you I was going to give you a gift, and I shall.
Lord Bellamont is fair clever, but never more so than a good Greenock man can be, eh, cousin? For before I returned to Boston to my expected arrest, I buried the remaining Adventure Galley treasure. I offered it to Bellamont in exchange for my freedom, but the scoundrel would not accept. So now I give this to you to return to my wife, cousin. Let her die a rich fat lady instead of a hungry waif. Let me do this one thing before I meet my unrighteous end. Say you will.
Say you will.

The Traveller
And so I watched my cousin, William Kidd, a good man of Greenock born, hanged by the neck, against his very wishes. I simply could not leave without seeing it. I cannot explain why.
They had to hang him twice, did you know that? The rope snapped - an act of God, for Christ’s sake - but they simply strung him up again, a man unable even to stand, and killed him for their rich masters. It sickens me.

What’s that you say? The gift? Aah, there’s the thing, Old John. I cannot tell you, good sir, as much as I appreciate your kindly ear and sweet whisky. That must go to William’s wife this very night, or my life be as worthless as his. Speaking of which, I must away, for I hear the wind die down, and miles are before me on this night. Good night to you.

The Barman
There he goes, my weary traveller, and not one word of his tale did I believe, I’ll tell you that for a tanner. I’ve heard true and I’ve heard false, has Old John. Ask anyone; they’ll tell you.

Oh-ho though; what’s this? Must have fallen out of the fellow’s bag as he left. Crumpled and torn and been in the water; but a map’s a map for a’that, so they might say. And is that the word .... Hispaniola? No; impossible. A joke is what this is. And still...the traveller might still be outside; the wind is not low enough for him to have gotten far. I might give it back to him.

I might.


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