By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
One of the first pirates to sail the sea route known as the Pirate Round, and certainly the one who make it sound like a good idea to all the other brethren of the coast, was Captain Thomas Tew, the Rhode Island Rover. Tew, like so many others, started out his career with, at least, a fig leaf of a commission.
Targeting the Red Sea Vessels
In 1692, the governor of Bermuda and some other backers, including the Royal African Company, contracted with Tew to harass French shipping near the Gambia, and the factory at Goree Island, which is off the coast of Senegal.
It’s not clear whether Tew ever intended to honor the strictures of his charge, but, whatever his early intentions, he never went to West Africa. Instead, he turned South for the Cape of Good Hope.
Tew had a better idea than bothering the French for uncertain profit. Red Sea vessels presented a compelling case for piracy, especially once the Caribbean had been looted and relooted enough times by the 1680s and ’90s.
Most enticing were the large pilgrim ships bound for Mecca, which often carried wealthy merchants. According to A General History of The Pyrates, which focuses on the late golden age, Tew made a rousing speech urging his men to join him in piracy, since following orders as privateers might get them killed, but would not make them rich.
Their apocryphal but memorable response was, “A gold chain or a wooden leg will stand with you”.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Captain Tew Scores Big
Rounding the cape, they steered North to Bab el-Mandeb, the opening of the Red Sea, where, as the General History puts it,
He came up with a large ship, richly loaden, bound from the Indies to the Arabia, with three hundred soldiers on board, besides seamen. Yet Tew had the hardinefs to board her, and soon carried her, and, ‘tis said, by this prize, his men shared near three thousand pounds a piece.
This estimate is probably considerably too high. Adam Baldridge put it at 1,200 per man. But, there seems to be little question that Tew had scored big.
The captain, enamored of the success, wanted to keep raiding in the hopes of finding other ships from the same convoy, but its quartermaster disagreed.
They headed instead to Nosy Boraha, which they called St. Mary’s, where the English ex-pirate, Adam Baldridge, had a sort of semi-licit enslaving and pirate trading settlement. Though no longer cruising himself, Baldrige was perfectly happy to trade with pirates and to help them secure passage home aboard the ships he illegally helped to fill with African captives destined for the Americas.
Having, with Baldridge’s assistance, careened and resupplied the ship, Tew returned to Rhode Island in triumph, securing Governor Caleb Carr’s complacence with a hefty gratuity.
Benjamin Fletcher: The Pirate Friendly Governor
The now wealthy Tew, charmed the governor of New York, the pirate-friendly Benjamin Fletcher, whose wife and daughters were reportedly seen gutting about town in new finery purchased with pirate gold.
The governor himself sported a new gold watch. Fletcher sold Tew a new commission in 1694 for the bargain price of 300 pounds. And he set out again on his ship, the facetiously named Amity.
The New Hero: Captain Henry Every
By then, though, word of his exploits had spread, and he encountered a number of other aspiring pirates at Bab el-Mandeb, including Captain Henry Every, who would soon eclipse him in fame.
Although it is not entirely clear what happened, but by some accounts, the Amity engaged in battle with one of the ships Every was chasing, and Tew was fatally wounded.
A General History reports with its usual lurid schadenfreude,
A shot carried away the rim of Tew’s belly, who held his bowels with his hands some small space. When he dropped, it struck such a terror in his men that they suffered themselves to be taken.
However, other accounts report that the Amity missed the ships that Every would famously engage, because it was lost or a slow sailor.
Captain Tew Dies in Battle
Tew died in battle with a different ship in 1695. Some of his men kept the Amity, and others made their way home and back to piracy by stealing and enslaving ship named the Charming Mary.
Adam Baldridge, who was probably in the best position to know, recorded that on 11 December 1695, the Amity appeared on St. Mary’s without her captain.
Tew being killed by a great shot from a Moors’ ship, John Yarland master.
Yarland, whose name was also spelled Ireland, would years later confirm Baldrige’s account, and also insist that both he and Tew had been forced into piracy. In Tew’s case, this seems unlikely. But, John Yarland was a capable navigator, when such men were not easy to come by, it’s possible he told the truth in his case.
Whatever be the truth behind what really happened to Tew, he passed out of the historical record on his second Red Sea voyage. Tew had tried to make lightning strike twice, and ended up apparently dying ignominiously. Luckily, the man that Tew inspired, Henry Every, took his lightning and sensibly retired passing from history, not into a confused footnote like Tew, but, instead into legend.
Common Questions about Captain Thomas Tew
According to A General History of The Pyrates, Captain Thomas Tew made a rousing speech urging his men to join him in piracy, since following orders as privateers might get them killed, but would not make them rich.
Thomas Tew charmed the governor of New York, Benjamin Fletcher, whose wife and daughters were reportedly seen gutting about town in new finery purchased with pirate gold.
John Yarland confirmed Adam Baldrige’s account of the Amity and its captain’s fate, and also insisted that both he and Thomas Tew had been forced into piracy.