Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, Brethren, so I thought an "old-timey" American legend from before the Revolution, Civil War or Wild West might be in order. Today we meet the pirate from Newport, Rhode Island: Thomas Tew.
Tew was born on American shores - most probably right in Newport - in the late 17th century. His family was well to do and he was well educated and gentlemanly. In 1690 , with another war between England and France dragging on, Tew saw an opportunity for adventure and put his mind to taking it. He travelled to Bermuda, then a center of English privateering, and got some time aboard ships under his belt.
By 1692, Tew was ready to step up to Captain. He obtained a letter of marque from Bermuda's Governor Richier. The letter specifically tied Tew and his ship, the Amity, to the Royal African Company of London who probably put down the cash for the ship, men and stores needed for the voyage. The Company was in direct competition with French slavers on the western coast of Africa and Tew was engaged to raid and plunder French settlements and take French slave ships as prizes. With a crew of 60, Amity set out from Bermuda bound for Goree on the coast of Guinea.
At some point during the crossing of the Atlantic, either out of altruism over slavery (probably not) or pure greed (that's my bet), Tew proposed turning pirate to his men. Given the restrictions of Amity's letter of marque, he reasoned that they would be better off as freebooters. Any success that they had would be cash in their hands and not in the pockets of an already rich Company in London. The crew agreed without descent, and Captain Tew set a course for the rich hunting grounds of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
There appears to have been some dawdling involved and in Charles Johnson's A General History of Pirates, published in 1724, Tew puts Amity in at Madagascar more than once between 1692 and 1693. Eventually the decision to turn pirate paid off in the biggest way possible. In 1693, Amity met and engaged an Arab galley in the Straits of Bebelmandebin in the Red Sea. The galley was laden with treasure bound for the palace of the Arab Grand Moghul and her crew put up very little resistance. Without injury to a single man, Tew's crew took the galley. Her cargo amounted to approximately 16 million modern US dollars.
Amity sailed home, not to Bermuda but to Newport. They reached Rhode Island in April of 1694 and were hailed locally as heroes for their success against the "Musilimen". Merchants from up and down the American coast flocked to Newport to purchase Amity's goods. Each crewman was paid between $192,000 and $480,000 in modern coin with Tew receiving even more. History mentions very little about the Royal African Company's reaction to this turn of events, so I have to imagine that Tew slipped them some cash as well.
Tew was feted in New England and he spent time at dinners and parties in Boston, Philadelphia and especially New York where he was a favorite guest of Governor Fletcher. Tew made an impression on the Governor, who is quoted as remarking that he found the pirate "...quite agreeable and companionable, with interesting stories to tell."
After less than a year of partying by land, Tew got the itch to return to sea. He acquired a new ship and a letter of marque - most likely with Governor Fletcher as a patron - and returned to Newport to crew and stock. Men flocked from as far away as the Bahamas to sign on with Tew. His reputation had be made with the enormous wealth allotted to his previous crew. In November of 1694, Tew's ship - again named Amity - set out across the Atlantic this time with two others Captained by Thomas Wake and William Want.
While Johnson's History tells us that Tew met up in Madagascar with a French pirate and started a pirate settlement they named Libertaria, the story is most probably apocryphal. There is no solid documentation of the establishment of a "pirate nation" on Madagascar, and most historians feel that Johnson was trying to illustrate the democratic nature of pirate society with his tall tale.
Although the dates are sketchy, it is clear that Tew again engaged an Arab galley in the Red Sea some time in either late 1695 or 1696. This one was not as agreeable as the last, and cannon fire was exchanged. The fighting was bloody and it appears that Johnson gets Tew's final moments right:
In the engagement, a shot carried away the rim of Tew's belly, who held his bowels with his hands some small space.
Tew died of his wounds aboard Amity. Those of his crew that survived were most probably either executed or enslaved by the Grand Moghul.
Thomas Tew, though largely forgotten in our time, was the quintessential romantic pirate for Americans of his day. Successful, dashing and well spoken, he made a fine impression on deck and in society. In the end, too, he died in action rather than swinging from a rope. That's what legends are made of.