"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Famed wreck reported found, “untouched”

Dec. 14, 2007
Courtesy Indiana University
and World Science staff

Archaeologists have reported finding the wreck­age of a ship aban­doned by the stor­ied 17th cen­tu­ry “pi­rate” Capt. Wil­liam Kidd as he raced to New York in an ill-fat­ed at­tempt to clear his name.

Charles Beeker examines possible wreckage from Capt. Kidd's Quedagh Merchant (Courtesy IU)

The researchers an­nounced on Dec. 13 the dis­cov­ery of the rem­nants, un­der less than 10 feet (3 me­ters) of Car­ib­be­an sea­water.

Ma­rine pro­tec­tion ex­pert Charles Beeker said his team has been li­censed to study the wreck­age and to con­vert the site in­to an un­der­wa­ter pre­serve, ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic. 

Beeker, di­rec­tor of ac­a­dem­ic div­ing and un­der­wa­ter sci­ence at In­di­ana Un­ivers­ity Bloom­ing­ton, said it’s re­mark­a­ble that the wreck has eluded many sear­ches giv­en its loca­t­ion, just 70 feet off the coast of Catalina Is­land in the Do­min­i­can Repub­lic. 

“I’ve been on lit­er­ally thou­sands of ship­wrecks in my ca­reer,” Beeker said. “This is one of the first sites I’ve been on where I haven’t seen any loot­ing. We’ve got a ship­wreck in crys­tal clear, pris­tine wa­ter that’s amaz­ingly un­touched. We want to keep it that way, so we made the an­nounce­ment now to en­sure the site’s pro­tec­tion from loot­ers.” 

The ship, the Quedagh Mer­chant, could shed much light on pi­ra­cy in the Car­ib­be­an and the co­lor­ful Capt. Kidd, said Cal­i­for­nia state un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­o­lo­gist John Fos­ter, one of the re­search­ers. “I look for­ward to a me­tic­u­lous study of the ship, its age, its ar­ma­ment, its con­struc­tion, its use, its con­tents and the re­con­struct­ed wreck­ing pro­cess that re­sulted in the site we see to­day,” Fos­ter said. “Be­cause there is ex­ten­sive, writ­ten doc­u­menta­t­ion, this is an op­por­tun­ity we rarely have.” 

His­to­ri­ans dif­fer on wheth­er Kidd, an Eng­lish­man, was fundamentally a pi­rate or a pri­va­teer—some­one who cap­tured pi­rates. Af­ter a con­vic­tion on pi­ra­cy and mur­der charges in a sensa­t­ional Lon­don tri­al, in 1701 he was left to hang over the Riv­er Thames for two years.

Kidd op­er­ated in a setting rife with le­gal am­bi­gu­i­ty, ac­cord­ing to Lib­by Kle­kow­ski, a his­to­ri­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mas­sa­chu­setts Am­herst. Eu­ro­pe­an na­tions were us­ing “every possible means” to vie for the new­found wealth of the Amer­i­cas, she notes in an on­line es­say. Among these, gov­ern­ments would give pri­vate ships of­fi­cial leave to at­tack en­emy na­tions’ ves­sels; even in peace­time, there was the “let­ter of re­pris­al,” al­low­ing pri­vate ships to assault boats of a form­er en­e­my to re­cov­er losses due to ear­li­er wars.

But it was always a fine line be­tween legally sanc­tioned acts and pi­ra­cy, Kle­kow­ski went on. “Were you a le­git­i­mate pri­va­teer or a pi­rate when a cor­rupt gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ee on an ob­scure is­land in the Car­ib­be­an gave you a com­mis­sion to sail and then claimed a share of the cap­tured good­s?” Kidd had the bad luck, Kle­kow­ski added, of sail­ing at a time when such tac­tics be­gan fal­ling out of ac­cep­tance. Gra­dual­ly “the pri­va­teer/pi­rate be­came an out­law. But Wil­liam Kidd could not know any of this when he be­gan his life up­on the sea.” 

His final undoing, she writes, began when—in a bind for fresh food on a scurvy-wracked ship—he il­le­gally cap­tured the trea­sure-laden Que­dagh Mer­chant from an inf­luen­tial near-East­ern businessman. Stren­uous com­p­laints en­sued, prod­ding Bri­tain into le­gal action. His­to­ri­ans say the ves­sel car­ried pricey satins and silks, gold, sil­ver and more. Kidd left the ship in the Car­ib­be­an as he sailed to New York on a less flashy sloop to clear his name of crim­i­nal charges, claim­ing his crew had forced him into the deed.

An­thro­po­lo­gist Geof­frey Con­rad, di­rec­tor of Indiana Un­ivers­ity’s Math­ers Mu­se­um of World Cul­tures, said Kidd en­trusted the ship to men who re­portedly looted it, then set it ablaze and adrift down the Rio Dul­ce. Con­rad said the wreck’s loca­t­ion and the forma­t­ion and size of the canons, which had been used as bal­last, are con­sist­ent with the ample his­tor­ical records. Pieces of sev­er­al an­chors also turned up. “Rig­or­ous arch­ae­o­l­og­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­t­ions... will con­clu­sively prove that this is the Capt. Kidd ship­wreck,” Con­rad said.

The team ex­am­ined the wreck at the re­quest of the Do­min­i­can Repub­lic’s Na­t­ional Of­fice of Un­der­wa­ter Cul­tur­al Pat­ri­mo­ny. “The site was in­i­tially dis­cov­ered by a lo­cal prom­i­nent res­i­dent of Ca­sa De Cam­po, who rec­og­nized the sig­nif­i­cance of the nu­mer­ous can­nons and re­quested the site be prop­erly in­ves­ti­gat­ed,” said of­fice tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Fran­cis Soto. Beeker and Con­rad have worked closely with the of­fice for 11 years since they be­gan con­duct­ing un­der­wa­ter and land-based ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­search re­lat­ed to the era when the Old World and New World first met. 

Much of their work is fo­cused in the ar­ea of La Is­abela Bay, the site of the first per­ma­nent Span­ish set­tle­ment es­tab­lished by Chris­to­pher Co­lum­bus. The Tai­no were the first in­dig­e­nous peo­ple to inte­ract with Eu­ro­peans. Beeker said much of the his­to­ry of this pe­ri­od is based on specula­t­ion, some­thing he and Con­rad are try­ing to change. 

Doc­tor­ate stu­dent Fritz Hansel­mann, who teaches un­der­wa­ter ar­chae­o­lo­gy at the un­ivers­ity, said only a few pi­rate ships have been found in the Amer­i­cas. This find “con­tin­ues our work down there from the age of dis­cov­ery to the gold­en age of pi­ra­cy, the trans­forma­t­ion of both the na­tive and in­tro­duced cul­tures of the Car­ib­be­an,” Con­rad said.

* * *

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Resting in less than 10 feet of Caribbean seawater, the wreckage of Quedagh Merchant, the ship abandoned by the scandalous 17th century pirate Captain William Kidd as he raced to New York in an ill-fated attempt to clear his name, has escaped discovery—until now. An underwater archaeology team announced Dec. 13 the discovery of the remnants. Marine protection expert Charles Beeker said his team has been licensed to study the wreckage and to convert the site into an underwater preserve, where it will be accessible to the public. Beeker, director of academic diving and underwater science at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, said it’s remarkable that the wreck has remained undiscovered given its location, just 70 feet off the coast of Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic, and because it has been sought actively by treasure hunters. “I’ve been on literally thousands of shipwrecks in my career,” Beeker said. “This is one of the first sites I’ve been on where I haven’t seen any looting. We’ve got a shipwreck in crystal clear, pristine water that’s amazingly untouched. We want to keep it that way, so we made the announcement now to ensure the site’s protection from looters.” The find is valuable because of the potential to reveal important information about piracy in the Caribbean and about the legendary Capt. Kidd, said John Foster, California’s state underwater archaeologist, who is participating in the research. “I look forward to a meticulous study of the ship, its age, its armament, its construction, its use, its contents and the reconstructed wrecking process that resulted in the site we see today,” Foster said. “Because there is extensive, written documentation, this is an opportunity we rarely have to test historic information against the archaeological record.” Historians differ on whether Kidd was actually a pirate or a privateer—someone who captured pirates. After his conviction of piracy and murder charges in a sensational London trial, he was left to hang over the River Thames for two years. Historians write that Kidd captured the Quedagh Merchant, loaded with valuable satins and silks, gold, silver and other East Indian merchandise, but left the ship in the Caribbean as he sailed to New York on a less conspicuous sloop to clear his name of the criminal charges. Anthropologist Geoffrey Conrad, director of the university’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures, said the men Kidd entrusted with his ship reportedly looted it, and then set it ablaze and adrift down the Rio Dulce. Conrad said the location of the wreckage and the formation and size of the canons, which had been used as ballast, are consistent with historical records of the ship. They also found pieces of several anchors under the cannons. “All the evidence that we find underwater is consistent with what we know from historical documentation, which is extensive,” Conrad said. “Through rigorous archeological investigations, we will conclusively prove that this is the Capt. Kidd shipwreck.” The team examined the shipwreck at the request of the Dominican Republic’s National Office of Underwater Cultural Patrimony. “The site was initially discovered by a local prominent resident of Casa De Campo, who recognized the significance of the numerous cannons and requested the site be properly investigated,” said office technical director Francis Soto. Beeker and Conrad have worked closely with the office for 11 years since they began conducting underwater and land-based archaeological research related to the era when the Old World and New World first met. Much of their work is focused in the area of La Isabela Bay, the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement established by Christopher Columbus. The Taino were the first indigenous people to interact with Europeans. Beeker said much of the history of this period is based on speculation, something he and Conrad are trying to change. Anthropology doctorate student Fritz Hanselmann, who teaches underwater archaeology techniques at the university, said there have only been a few pirate ships ever discovered in the Americas. The find “ continues our work down there from the age of discovery to the golden age of piracy, the transformation of both the native and introduced cultures of the Caribbean,” Conrad said.