The life story of William Phips is one of those that, if you novelized it, agents and publishers would scoff at as too amazing to be “believable”. Truth, as the philosopher said, is stranger than fiction.
According to the biography written by Cotton Mather of Salem Witch Trials fame (more on that later), Phips was born one of many children in the far northern area of the Territory of Massachusetts. The place of his birth is not named but it can be reasonable surmised that he was raised on the coast of what is now the U.S. State of Maine. Phips, who was known as Will until his fortunes changed, grew up relatively wild. His sailor father probably died at sea and his mother had all she could do to feed and cloth her huge brood. Teaching them to read was not part of the program.
By his teens, Will himself had gone to sea. He became a carpenter’s mate and was rated carpenter aboard the fishing vessels that plied the Newfoundland cod trade by the early 1670s. Reading between the lines of Mather’s stony writing one gets the impression of a gregarious and handsome young man who enjoyed his life at sea. Will was tall; “taller than most”, Mather says. And he seems to have had a way with the ladies. This particular talent would serve Phips extremely well.
Somehow, young Will met an upstanding and decidedly well-to-do Boston widow named Mary and managed to get her to agree to marry him. The couple wed in 1674 and, though Mather is specific as to Will’s age at the time – 23 – he tactfully avoids mentioning Mary’s. This leads me to wonder whether or not she may have been a “woman of a certain age”. Whatever the relationship actually amounted to, the new Mrs. Phips seems to have had great plans for her husband. She taught him how to read and write almost immediately and tried to horn him into the high society of Boston.
Society would have nothing to do with the sailor from Maine but that seems to have mattered very little to Will. At least on the surface. Some time within the first year of his marriage, Will got it into his head to go treasure hunting. And not just any treasure by half. Will planned to go “wracking” for the storied Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion. She sunk in dirty weather off the coast of Jamaica over thirty years earlier and she was reputed to have gone down with billions in treasure aboard. Mary seems to have caught the bug; probably due to Will’s almost unbelievable gift of salesmanship. She financed her husband’s trip to England, where he hoped to talk King Charles II into backing his project.
In another of the many unbelievable twists that comprise Phips’ life, he met Sir John Narborough on arriving in London. Narborough had a life long fascination with not only buccaneering and the wracking trade but the wreck of la Concepcion itself. He was an avid fan of Henry Morgan, in the modern sense of the word “fan”, and he may have hoped that being involved in Phips’ Jamaican venture would bring him not only wealth but a nod from his aging hero. He jumped on Phips’ bandwagon and introduced the young Colonist to the King. Charles bought in as well, and Phips was given a ship and crew almost miraculously.
Phips took to his new command like a fish to water. He sailed into Boston Harbor to acquire stores for his venture as if he were an Admiral aboard a flagship. He demanded that all ships in the harbor strike flags in deference to his royal commission and even fired a gun over the bow of a ship that refused to do so. A man named John Knepp, who had been purposefully put aboard Phips as a spy by Charles II, protested vehemently to anyone who would listen. Mary Phips got wind of the trouble with Knepp and advised her husband to not only curb his behavior but make very, very certain that Knepp was on his ship when he weighed anchor for Jamaica.
The appearance of propriety never fell away from Mary in this or any other of her husband’s follies. That said, it is interesting that when Knepp got wind of Mrs. Phips’ advice to her husband, he assumed that her insistence on him being aboard on route to Jamaica implied that Phips would toss him overboard in blue water. Knepp stayed in Boston and wrote a scathing report to the King as well.
Things turned ugly for Phips for awhile thereafter. His initial attempts at wracking were spoiled by mutinous uprisings and bad weather. When he returned to England for more money and a new ship in 1685, Charles II died. The new King James II had more to deal with than a sailor’s pipe dream and Phips was left without funding. Interestingly, the newly named Governor of Jamaica stepped in. Via his wife, the crazy Elizabeth, the Duke of Albemarle heard of Phips and decided to bankroll his venture. With the help of a few other backers, Will – now 34 years old – was up and running again.
Though Daniel Defoe wrote of Phips’ adventure as “… a Lottery of a Hundred Thousand to One odds”, good fortune returned to the boy from Maine. In February of 1687, Phips’ divers found the wreck they had hoped for. La Concepcion yielded up a fortune in diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and silver. The King’s portion in taxes alone amounted to well over 20 thousand pounds and the entire haul was worth more than the dying Henry Morgan had accumulated on all his raids put together. It was probably the most successful expedition in the 100 year history of the wracking trade.
Phips returned to England where he was feted at court. The King made him a knight and offered him an Earldom in Scotland complete with land and castle. William Phips, though, was more interested in returning home. He took his share of 11,000 pounds back to Boston and brought with him the King’s appointment to the position of Provost-Marshal of New England. He and Mary settled into a charming mansion on Green Lane and the Duke and Duchess of Albermarle sent Mary a gold cup worth a thousand pounds.
On May 14, 1692, William Phips was named Lord Governor of New England; the only stain on his term being his tacit approval of the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials. In the end, though, Phips lived well. And certainly that was the best revenge on all who ever snubbed him for an illiterate sailor.