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An ‘exciting’ find, but is it Capt. Kidd’s?

IndianaU. team thinks it’s located the pirate’s sunken ship Quedah Merchant in Dominican waters

IndianaU. team thinks it’s located the pirate’s sunken ship Quedah Merchant in Dominican waters

Pirate, privateer, adventurer — exactly who Capt. William Kidd was has remained a mystery for centuries, along with the whereabouts of the schooner he abandoned in 1698. At least part of the mystery, however, may have been solved.

An underwater archaeology team from IndianaUniversity has uncovered what could be the partially burned remains of Kidd’s Quedah Merchant in less than 10 feet of water on La Isabela Bay, roughly 70 feet off Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic. “I’ve been on literally thousands of shipwrecks in my career. This is one of the first sites I’ve been on where I haven’t seen any looting,” says Charles Beeker, director of academic diving and underwater science programs at IU, in a press release. “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.”

Anthropologist Geoffrey Conrad, director of IU’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures in Bloomington, says Beeker has been working in the Dominican Republic with its National Office for Underwater Cultural Patrimony (ONPCS) since 1993. Beeker and his students have participated in underwater research projects on shipwrecks for the past 20 years, but the Quedah Merchant is a jewel in their crown.

Last June, the ONPCS asked Beeker and his students to come investigate the wreck after a resident of Casa De Campo saw the ship during a dive. “This is such an exciting discovery,” says Conrad. “Kidd was the political scandal of his age.”

Historians have never agreed on whether Kidd was a pirate or a privateer, and little is known about the Quedah Merchant. Kidd is said to have captured the schooner Jan. 30, 1698. He left the island of Saint Marie, off northeast Madagascar, aboard the Quedah Merchant that year, leaving his 124-foot three-master, Adventure Galley, behind because she was succumbing to rot, according to Lincoln Paine, author of “Ships of the World.”

Later that year Kidd left the Quedah Merchant in the Caribbean to sail a smaller vessel to New York to clear his name. However, the men Kidd entrusted with his ship looted it and set it on fire as it drifted down the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, according to Conrad. It is believed the schooner didn’t burn completely and may have drifted to the Dominican Republic. Kidd eventually was executed for piracy by hanging at London’s Execution Dock May 23, 1701.

During three visits to La Isabela Bay last year between June and August, the IndianaUniversity archaeology department brought back pieces of anchor and wood to test the validity of the wreck. “We have a lot of artifacts here, but we can’t get into details right now,” says Beeker. “We have been meeting with representatives from the Dominican Republic to make sure how much detail we can put out there. We just want everything to be accurate.”

Beeker says he hopes the project can eventually span all departments of the university, not just archaeology and anthropology. “We’ve got a lot of meetings coming up, and this is very exciting for the university,” he says.

Robert M. Goodman, dean of the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, says in the press release that this will help the university increase its international presence. “The archaeological work being done by IU in the Dominican Republic affords us tremendous entrée for wide areas of collaboration,” he says.

The team will continue its research, but so far all the pieces are adding up. “Right now it looks good. We have no definite proof available archaeologically, but we will,” says Conrad. “It is our intention to leave most of it in the water and create an underwater preservation park that will allow the public to have a first-hand look at history and Capt. Kidd.”

Beeker says his graduate students are prohibited from speaking to the media until the university has finished negotiations with the government of the Dominican Republic. “We have roughly 29 magazines begging us for a story, and you’re number 30,” he says. “National Geographic wants to do an exclusive on us. I’m just buried.”