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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Divers Find Pirate Ship Off Madagascar Coast

"There is often a very thin line between heroism and villainy," says historian Kenneth Kinkor.

Captain William Kidd was on a path to becoming a genuine hero when he sailed out of London aboard the Adventure Galley in 1696 bearing a commission from King William III to harass French shipping in the Indian Ocean.

Bad luck and bad decisions, along with a political scandal in England, turned him into one of the most famous pirates of history, the notorious Captain Kidd. He went to the gallows in London five years later.

Captain Kidd's odyssey has been brought into fresh focus by the discovery in late January of the Adventure Galley in a harbor at Sainte-Marie, Madagascar, off the eastern coast of Africa.

The find marks only the third time that a confirmed pirate ship has been located and promises to provide new insight into what has remained "a secret subculture," said diver Barry Clifford, who discovered all three pirate wrecks.

Clifford is a kind of Indiana Jones of the ocean, an authority on shipwrecks and nautical history. His 1984 discovery off Cape Cod of the pirate ship Whydah, sunk in 1717, triggered modern interest in pirate lore and spurred several books and a documentary film.

In 1998, he found the wrecks of 11 French and pirate vessels that sank in 1678 on coral reefs at Las Aves off the coast of Venezuela. The disaster decimated French maritime power and, according to some historians, set the stage for the "golden age of piracy."

Clifford attributes his success in finding the pirate ships to a very simple concept: "Nobody had looked for them before," he said. "For centuries, gold coins had been washing up on the shore of Cape Cod from the Whydah," but nobody sought out the source.

Nobody discovered the Adventure Galley, even though it was sitting in only 6 meters of water, because it was offshore of "one of the poorest countries in the world ... where very few peoplewere thinking about archaeology."

Captain Kidd was born the son of a minister in Greenock, Scotland, in 1645. He went to sea as a youth, working on merchant vessels that sailed between London and New York. By his late 40s, he was an established sea captain married to a wealthy New York widow and thereby came into property on Wall Street. Kidd was often dispatched by New York and Massachusetts authorities to hunt down pirates molesting the American shore. With the aid of the British governor of New York, Lord Bellomont, he received a royal commission to hunt down pirates in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and to seize French shipping. After arming the 287-metric-ton Adventure with 34 cannon and a prize crew of more than 100 men, he set forth on his adventure. "He had a bit of bad luck. The prize crew didn't dip [Kidd's] colors to a British man-of-war," a conventional sign of respect, said Clifford.

Kidd's ship was boarded and most of the crew conscripted into the British Navy. Kidd had to replace them with whomever he could find, many of the new crewmen turned out to be malcontents and former pirates.

During its cruise to the Indian Ocean, the Adventure encountered neither pirates nor French ships that Kidd could legally seize, and his crew, goaded by a miscreant named Hugh Parrot, was rebellious. Kidd's one important seizure was a vessel called the Quedah Merchant, which was of Indian origin, but traveling under a French pass, making it a legitimate target. It carried a cargo worth pounds 30,000, the equivalent of $30 million in today's money.

By the time it reached Madagascar, the poorly built Adventure was listing badly, kept afloat by eight Moors manning pumps around the clock. Fifty of Kidd's crewmen had died of disease and 97 deserted at Sainte-Marie.

Kidd was forced to abandon the Adventure, sailing for the Americas in the Quedah Merchant. When he reached the West Indies, he learned he had been declared a pirate. Sailing to New York to meet with Lord Bellomont, whom he hoped would intercede on his behalf, he buried treasure at several points along the way - making him one of the very few pirates who ever buried treasure.

But the British government was being pressured by both the Indian mogul who owned the Quedah Merchant and the powerful East India Co., which was at risk of losing business in India.

Bellomont arrested Kidd and sent him to England, where he was tried, convicted and hanged on May 23, 1701. His license to seize French vessels conveniently disappeared during the trial, only to turn up after his death on the prosecuting attorney's desk.