Book of Mormon/Plagiarism accusations/Comoros Islands and Moroni/Captain Kidd

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Joseph Smith, Captain Kidd and the Comoro archipelago

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Question: Could Joseph Smith have acquired the names "Moroni" and "Cumorah" from stories of Captain Kidd that he read in his youth?

Captain William Kidd is known to have operated in the vicinity of the Comoro archipelago. One author notes that "During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Comoros, and especially Anjouan, were popular as both a hunting ground and headquarters for Indian Ocean pirates." [1]

  • Ex-Mormon Grant Palmer asserts that Joseph Smith acquired the names "Cumorah" and "Moroni" by reading stories of Captain Kidd in his youth. Palmer concludes that it is "reasonable to assert that Joseph Smith's hill in the "land of Camorah" [Comorah/Cumorah], "city of Moroni," and "land of Moroni/Meroni," is connected with the ilhas [islands] de Comoro"/"Camora," the Moroni/Meroni settlements, and these pirate adventures. [2]
  • Critic Ronald V. Huggins asserts that Captain Kidd was "hanged for crimes allegedly committed in the vicinity of Moroni on Grand Comoro." [3]

The primary inspiration for stories about Captain Kidd, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, fails to mention the names "Comoro" and "Moroni/Meroni/Maroni"

The primary inspiration for Captain Kidd stories and legends, Charles Johnson's 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, fails to mention the names "Comoro" and "Moroni/Meroni/Maroni" in conjunction with Kidd's exploits. It is the responsibility of those who make this claim to produce some sort of documentary evidence that these names existed in stories that were available to Joseph Smith.

Positive evidence against this claim

The Book of Mormon Onomasticon project done through Brigham Young University gives compelling etymologies for the names Moroni and Cumorah.

"Other Mormon scholars who have written on this..."

It is claimed by some critics that "For some Mormon apologists, the evidence is so compelling [that Captain Kidd stories influenced these names] that they have suggested that Lehi and his family may have encountered the Comoros islands on their initial voyage from the Arabian Peninsula to the western hemisphere, and that the Nephite civilization therefore may have retained a collective knowledge of the names of "Comoros" and "Moroni".[4]

This is in line with a Wikipedia article that states the following:

Alternative origin of the name


Close-up of 1808 map of Africa with the small Comoros islands labelled "Camora" (near center, just below marked line of latitude) Grant H. Palmer has theorized that Smith created the name "Cumorah" through his study of the treasure-hunting stories of Captain William Kidd, because Kidd was said to have buried treasure in the Comoros islands (known by the Arabic name, Camora, prior to being occupied by the French in 1841). Previous to announcing his discovery of the Book of Mormon, Smith had spent several years employed as a treasure seeker. Since the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon printed the name "Cumorah" as "Camorah," it has been suggested that Smith used the name of the islands and applied it to the hill where he found buried treasure—the golden plates. Complementing this proposal is the theory that Smith borrowed the name of a settlement in the Comoros—Moroni—and applied it to the angel which led him to the golden plates.

Others posit that this line of argument commits the logical error of appeal to probability. They also point out that it is highly unlikely that Smith had access to material which would have referred to the then-small settlement of Moroni, particularly since it did not appear in most contemporary gazetteers. However, other Mormon authors have suggested that the ancestors of the Nephite people may have encountered the Comoros islands on their initial voyage from the Arabian Peninsula to the western hemisphere, and that the Nephite civilization therefore may have retained a collective knowledge of the names "Comoros" and "Moroni".[5]

Notice the very odd language from Wikipedia that seems to be trying to apply evidence from Mormon authors accepting the Capitan Kidd theories and stating that the Lehites may have stopped in this port to resupply. We go to the footnote for more information that reads:

One Mormon author suggests that Lehi and his family may have re-supplied at Moroni during the voyage: W. Vincent Coon, Choice Above All Other Lands, pg. 68; see also “How Exaggerated Setting for the Book of Mormon Came to Pass” and “A Feasible Voyage”. This position reflects the argument of others that the tradition that Lehi and his company voyaged across the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and finally the Pacific Ocean is "extreme" and non-authoritative: May, Wayne N., THIS LAND: They Came from the East, Vol. 3, pp. 12–15; Olive, P.C., The Lost Empires & Vanished Races of Prehistoric America, p. 39.

The first thing we can rule out with all confidence is that these men have connected the Capitain Kidd stories to the Book of Mormon. They're both still faithful and don't believe that Joseph plagiarized anything for the Book of Mormon. The next thing we need to learn is why they believe that the "tradition that Lehi and his company voyaged across the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and finally the Pacific Ocean is "extreme" and non-authoritative...". W. Vincent Coon and Wayne May are researchers for the Book of Mormon that believe that the Book of Mormon took place in the Heartland geography (which encompasses primarily the Eastern to Mid United States). They were trying to find evidence that the Lehites were able to sail southward, away from the Arabian peninsula, around Africa, and then come from the east, through the Atlantic Ocean, to the Florida Peninsula, and used this as evidence of that assertion. From the post cited by Wikipedia written by Coon:

One possible location where they may have re-supplied is the island of Grand Comore; about 200 miles off the eastern coast of Africa. The capitol port city of the island, by the way, has a Semitic name – "Moroni".[6]

This says nothing that could support a critical theory that the Capitan Kidd stories are supported by these men. It only says that there is a city, in Comore, with the name Moroni. And to reiterate, there are still no contemporary sources that tie Moroni and Comore in the same map. Critics that would like to argue that the men are using this as supporting critical assertions about the Capitan Kidd stories are seriously misreading their sources.


Question: What is the relationship between Captain Kidd and the Comoro archipelago?

Captain Kidd operated in the vicinity of the Comoro archipelago

One possibility advanced by critics is that Joseph learned the names "Comoro" and "Meroni" from stories of Captain Kidd. One author notes that "During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Comoros, and especially Anjouan, were popular as both a hunting ground and headquarters for Indian Ocean pirates." [1] The island of Anjouan contained an anchorage named "Meroni." Typically, those that that claim that Camora and Moroni were "common names in pirate and treasure hunting stories involving Captain William Kidd," do not cite a single source supporting their assertion that can be checked.

Pomeroy Tucker: "The stories of Stephen Burroughs and Captain Kidd, and the like, presented the highest charms for his expanding mental perceptions"

References to Joseph Smith being interested in the adventures of Captain Kidd come from some of his contemporaries years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. For example, Pomeroy Tucker in his 1867 book Origin, rise, and progress of Mormonism (37 years after the Book of Mormon was published and 23 years after Joseph's death), portrayed the Smith family as an "illiterate, whiskey-drinking, shiftless, irreligious race of people" and Joseph Smith, Jr. as the "laziest and most worthless of the generation." [7]:16 Tucker offers this insight regarding the young Joseph Smith and Captain Kidd:

Joseph, moreover, as he grew in years, had learned to read comprehensively, in which qualification he was far in advance of his elder brother, and even of his father; and this talent was assiduously devoted, as he quitted or modified his idle habits, to the perusal of works of fiction and records of criminality, such for instance as would be classed with the "dime novels" of the present day. The stories of Stephen Burroughs and Captain Kidd, and the like, presented the highest charms for his expanding mental perceptions. As he further advanced in reading and knowledge, he assumed a spiritual or religious turn of mind, and frequently perused the Bible...[7]:17

Noted here is that the first “dime novel” did not appear until 1860. See Wikipedia article "Dime novel" off-site

Given the common belief that Captain Kidd had hidden treasure somewhere on the east coast, it is not unreasonable to assume that Joseph was familiar with the stories

We would, of course, dispute Tucker's late portrayal of the Smith family as lazy and shiftless, as would the contemporaneous historical records (which are more reliable than late, hostile testimony obviously designed to discredit the Smiths).

However, knowing that Joseph was involved in treasure seeking, and that the great motivation for much of the treasure seeking being performed at the time was the result of a common belief that Captain Kidd had hidden treasure somewhere on the east coast of the United States, it is not unreasonable to assume that Joseph was familiar with the stories.

The legend of Captain Kidd and his buried treasure was, in great part, inspired by Charles Johnson's 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, which does not mention "Comoros" or "Moroni"

The legend of Captain Kidd and his buried treasure was, in great part, inspired by Charles Johnson's 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates.[8] The book recounted the exploits of a number of well known pirates, including Captain Kidd. Johnson's book is said to have contributed to a number of fictionalized stories about Captain Kidd that became popular during Joseph Smith's time. However, the section of this book dealing with Captain Kidd offers little information regarding Comoro or Meroni. In fact, when referring to Kidd's interaction with the Comoros, it only refers to the individual islands by name without mentioning the name "Meroni" or "Maroni" at all. As an example from Johnson’s book:

It does not appear all this while that [Captain Kidd] had the least design of turning Pirate; for near Mahala and Joanna both he met with Indian ships richly laden, to which he did not offer the least violence.[9]

So here we have a reference to Joanna or Anjouan, this has been claimed to be a "direct connection" to Meroni[10] however it is hardly such.. The name "Joanna" refers to one of the islands in the Comoros Archipelago. In fact, "Joanna" (or "Johanna") is the island of Anjouan, upon which the anchorage "Meroni" is located. Charles Johnson's book, however, would not offer the reader one detail: the names "Comoro" and "Meroni" are never even mentioned. If Joseph Smith learned these names from fictional stories relating the tales of Captain Kidd recounted in novels inspired by Johnson's book, how would such stories even contain these names? Where is the "dime novel"? These questions need to be answered. Since the names aren't included in the stories, the critics often have to do some story-telling and combine a few separate arguments to make the case. The argument usually proceeds as follows.

Premise 1: Joseph was likely familiar with the stories of Captain Kidd who operated in the vicinity of the the Comoro Archipelago and... (see premise 2)

Premise 2: Joseph may have been inspired by the stories so much to look at maps of these places where Captain Kidd had sailed and been inspired by the names Comore which is the name of the main island of the archipelago and perhaps Moroni which is its capital.

Premise 3: If Joseph did not get the name Moroni from the island of Comore, then he probably turned to maps of the island of Anjouan in the comoro archipelago which had a small anchorage named "Meroni" and combined the names.

Premise 4: If he did not get the names from the maps, then he may have gotten them from new england whalers who knew about these places and then used the names in the Book of Mormon.

Conclusion: It is reasonable to conclude that Joseph had access to and used these names in his "creation" of the Book of Mormon.

So, where do we (as apologists) differ in our assessment?

Premise 1: It isn't unreasonable to assume that Joseph was familiar with the stories of Captain Kidd. However, to date, no evidence has arisen that A) The stories of Captain Kidd themselves contained these names B) The source for which the stories are inspired contain these names. So at this point it's more than unlikely that he goes to maps to look for these names. If a critic had both the presence of names in the stories then the theory about the maps works better. Since we don't have that, there's a big explosion in the theory right here.

Premise 2 and 3: Appeals to probability framed like this are only as good as the documentation that can be provided to move a character towards a particular place at a given time. The claim that Joseph "may" have looked at these maps is smoke in mirrors. There needs to be some source to make this anything more than a smoke screen--meant to distract or add to a shotgun list of claims rather than be honest and coherent in argumentation. There needs to be something that actually connects or comes close to connecting Joseph with these maps. So this argument is flawed by only appeals to probability at best or flawed by the appeal to probability and an argument from silence at worst. Even if he did find these maps, they would have provided little help. But let's assume now that Joseph saw the maps. He would have had to have A) Seen a map of the Comoros archipelago with the Grand Comore island and Moroni as capital city (Moroni as capital city cannot be found as capital of Grand Comore until a few decades after the death of Joseph Smith) or, after looking at this map that supposedly would have the name Comoro and Comore, he would have to have B) Chosen the island of Anjouan out of the four islands in that archipelago, where the name "Meroni" is but a small anchorage at the Northeast corner of the Island, and found a map that contained that name. He has to either see both names on the map of the Comoro Archipelago or have combined the names from separate maps of the entire archipelago and the island of Anjouan. The first option is nearly impossible and the second is very improbable.

Premise 4: As stated for premise 2 and 3 an appeal to probability in this case is only as good as the documentation that can move the character towards a particular objective at a given time. There needs to be evidence that can at least put Joseph close to these people to make the argument compelling.

Conclusion: The argument is full of too many appeals to probability and arguments from silence that the idea is unlikely at best and completely unworkable at worst. Additionally, there is positive evidence against this claim in the form of compelling etymologies (found here, here, and, oddly enough, from a critical website, a citation from which can be found here.)


Question: Was Captain Kidd "hanged for crimes allegedly committed in the vicinity of Moroni on Grand Comoro?"

Kidd was hanged for the murder of his ship's gunner...This act occurred at sea in the vicinity of the Comoro archipelago, not at "Moroni on Grand Comoro"

Was Captain Kidd, as Ronald Huggins asserts, "hanged for crimes allegedly committed in the vicinity of Moroni on Grand Comoro?" Technically, one could answer "yes" - he was certainly "in the vicinity" of the Comoros at the time. However, Kidd was hanged for the murder of his ship's gunner, William Moore, during a mutiny. Kidd was declared a pirate only after he seized the ship Quedah Merchant in 1698. This act occurred at sea in the vicinity of the Comoro archipelago, not at "Moroni on Grand Comoro." None of these actions related to the city of Moroni. The association of these events with "Moroni on Grand Comoro" is an unsupported assertion by the author Huggins, and these specific names have nothing to do with Kidd's execution. This seems to be an attempt by Huggins to more closely tie Kidd's execution with Joseph Smith and Mormonism.


A FairMormon Analysis of "From Captain Kidd's Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism" by Ronald V. Huggins, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36 no. 4 (2003), 22.

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Barbara Dubins, "Nineteenth-Century Travel Literature on the Comoro Islands: A Bibliographical Essay," African Studies Bulletin, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Sep., 1969), pp. 138-146
  2. Grant Palmer, John Whitmer Historical Association vol. 34 no. 1 Spring/Summer 2014
  3. Ronald V. Huggins, "From Captain Kidd's Treasure Ghost to Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought36 no. 4 (2003)
  4. See Jeremy Runnells "Debunking FairMormon; July 2014 Revision"
  5. See Wikipedia "Cumorah" under "Alternative origin of the name"
  6. See http://www.bookofmormonpromisedland.com/Gross%20Geographies.htm
  7. 7.0 7.1 Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867).
  8. The author's name is generally regarded as a pseudonym; some have credited Daniel Defoe as the actual author.
  9. Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (London: C. Rivington, 1724). The second edition of same year is A General History of the Pyrates : from their first rise and settlement in the Island of Providence, to the present time, The second edition with considerable additions (London: T. Warner, 1724), but contains no mention of Kidd.
  10. See Jeremy Runnells "Debunking FairMormon" 2014