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Thomas Tew

The end of buccaneering in the Caribbean led to an increase in the number of pirates looking elsewhere for rich pickings. One such area was West Africa, where the slave trade was in its heyday. By 1690 a Portuguese monopoly along the slaving coast had been broken open, allowing an influx of English, French, and Dutch slavers. The English even operated the trade under the dubious cover of the R.A.C. (Royal African Company). Originally known as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, it received an English monopoly over the slave trade through a royal charter issued by Charles II in 1660 after the Restoration. In fact its most distinguished member was the king's brother, James, Duke of York, so as a royal monopoly it received the protection of the Royal Navy, whose task was to seize rival English slave traders and drive off foreigners-effectively the French, Portuguese, and the Dutch, although by this time the Dutch had largely driven out the Portuguese. Friction was inevitable and came to a head in 1667 in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the conflict in which Sir Christopher Myngs met his end.

Slaves captured by agents of the R.A.C. to be sold to the Americas were gathered at trading posts on the Guinea Coast, and branded with the letters D.Y. (after the Duke ofYork) or R.A.C. By the early 1680s, some 5000 slaves per year were being transported, a figure that had doubled by 1689, when the R.A.C. lost its monopoly, to the benefit of other British ports like Bristol. At this point it turned very profitably to also trading in gold, and gained another exclusive right to provide the English Mint, giving the Guinea coast of Ghana its alternative name of the Gold Coast, and the coin the realm nicknamed the "guinea."

Not surprisingly, pirates became an increasingly prevalent threat along the West African coast, despite naval patrols and the fortification by army units of slave-trading stations like the Cape Coast Castle on the Gold Coast. It was only a matter of time before pirates from the Americas and Europe ventured around the Cape of Good Hope and into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, which they did in the last decades of the 17th century, finding it a perfect hunting ground. Along the ocean's northern shores, in the Arabian Sea, sailed Indian and Arab ships carrying a wealth of potential plunder. But the richest prizes afloat anywhere were the Dutch or English East Indiamen, bringing the wealth of the East to the markets of Europe. For a period of 30 years the Indian Ocean was a hotbed of piratical activity, and from its breadth sprang some of the most enduring pirate legends.

Piracy was hardly a new phenomenon in the region. Long before the first trading contacts between Europe and India, piracy was commonplace in many parts of the Indian Ocean. Pirates operated along the western coast of India and along the coasts of Arabia and Persia. Although heavily armed warships and war galleys of the Indian Moghul empire patrolled the northern Indian Ocean and Arab potentates maintained their own naval patrols, the stretch of water was too vast for such measures to quash the constant piratical activity. The arrival of European and American pirates only made the situation worse.

By 1690 the great Moghul empire-gripped by internal dissension, internecine warfare, and losing ground to the East India Company-had also lost its grip of the region's sea lanes. Although Indian and Arab maritime trade thrived, the ability to protect shipping declined. This -was the situation that faced the first Western pirates to round the Cape of Good Hope, and they saw it as a golden opportunity. Men such as Henry Every and Thomas Tew preyed on this shipping with great success and, for about 20 years, European pirates controlled the waters of the Indian Ocean. The large island of Madagascar, set solidly across the trading route, became an ideal pirate base. Attacks on the East India Company's ships by pirates such as William Kidd and Edward England caused such an outcry in London that the government was obliged to introduce maritime convoys and increase nava patrols. By 1720 the pirate threat from European and American rovers had passed, only to be replaced by one that was even more difficult to contain. The collapse of centralized Moghul government created political turmoil in India and allowed adventurers to carve out coastal fiefdoms for themselves. Inevitably, these petty despots turned to piracy as the main contribution to their economy. For the first half of the 18th century, pirates on India's west coast, such as the highly successful Angria dynasty, attacked local shipping and vessels of the East India Company with impunity, protected from reprisal by strong fortifications and a fleet of trained pirate vessels.

Among the first Western pirates to operate in the Indian Ocean was a legitimate American sea captain named Thomas Tew. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Tew was no hard done by sea-hand, but the scion of a respectable and prosperous Newport, Rhode Island family. With England and France at war, Tew moved south to Bermuda in 1690 to become a privateer and join those already making handsome profits from preying on French shipping bound for Canada.

Once ensconced on the island, Tew's adequate funds enabled him to join a consortium to buy a share in the sloop Amity, which was being fitted out for a privateering cruise. The consortium appointed Tew captain and Bermuda's governor, a Royal Naval officer named Sir Robert Robinson, granted him letters of marque that allowed him to attack French vessels on the high seas and French slaving stations on the African coast.

In 1691 the Amity hauled anchor and sailed from Bermuda with George Drew, another local privateer, bound for West Africa. Their target was the French settlement of Goree (Dakar, Senegal), which was to be attacked in conjunction with the Royal African Company. The two ships became separated in a storm when Drew lost his mast and, now alone, Tew gathered together his crew and proposed they turn to piracy.

He foresaw little gain for themselves in attacking the French factory, since the R.A.C. would appropriate what spoils were to be had. It was said he argued that it was better to risk life for plunder than for government. His crew agreed and the Amity set course for the Cape of Good Hope, then entered the Indian Ocean. Tew stopped briefly at Madagascar before sailing north and into the Red Sea. In the Straits of Bebelmandeb he fell on an Arab merchant ship, which was captured without any pirate casualties. The haul was impressive; enough to ensure a share of 3000 English pounds per head, with a larger portion reserved for Tew and his Bermudan backers.

Late in 1693 Amity again stopped in Madagascar and, according to the General History, Tew met the French pirate Misson, who had founded the colony of Libertatia (sometimes given as Libertalia), a form of pirate Utopia. Johnson described it as a fortified harbor, with a marketplace, houses, and docks. The society at Libertatia was an egalitarian one, where all men enjoyed the same rights, even black slaves set free from captured slave ships. However appealing, there is no evidence that either Misson or Libertatia ever existed outside of Johnson's imagination, and the author's literary purpose may have been to underline the leveling nature of pirate society, a theme that runs all the way through his book.

What is known is that by April 1694 Tew had returned to Newport, Rhode Island, where he paid off his crew and fellow consortium shareholders, sold the Amity, and went to live ashore, the very picture of gentry and a toast among the cream of colonial society. During his sojourn in New England, Tew visited New York and met Benjamin Fletcher, the English governor. Fletcher was later to describe Tew as "agreeable and companionable."

After several months and some pressure from members of his old crew, Tew decided to return to sea. Having encountered difficulties in obtaining letters of marque from other colonial governors, Tew went straight to New York in October 1694 and presented his suit to Fletcher, who willingly provided him with a privateering commission to harass and attack French shipping heading for Canada, in return for a share of 300 pounds.

Not a particularly scrupulous man, it is unlikely that Fletcher was under any misapprehension about Tew's real agenda. Two contemporary accounts make it clear that all Boston knew Tew was fitting out "three small ships, a sloop, a brigantine, and a barque..." at Rhode Island, ready to sail for the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Fletcher's successor, the Earl of Bellamont, said that Tew's real intentions, were well advertised in New York.

In November 1694, Tew left in his new sloop that he had also named Amity, accompanied by two other privateers turned pirates: Thomas Wake and William Want. Want had served with Tew on the previous voyage and was apparently a trusted associate. The small fleet stopped again in Madagascar, and for the next few seasons Tew cruised independently, in association with his two fellow New Englanders, or as part of a pirate squadron.

On this last point, according to Johnson this also included another famous pirate, Henry Every. Certainly by 1696 Tew was regarded as such a serious threat to the crown that in January of that year King William III (1672-1702) gave a certain Captain William Kidd of New York a special commission. In it Thomas Tew (written as "Too") was specifically named as a pirate and, as a pirate-hunter, Kidd was told to seek him out.

Tew's activities are unclear during this period, but it was probably in June 1695 that he entered his old hunting ground of the Red Sea, where he attacked an Arab vessel. Unlike previous prizes, it put up resistance, and Tew was hit by a cannon-ball that ripped open his abdomen, mortally wounding him. As Johnson colorfully describes it, Tew "held his bowels with his hands some small space; when he dropp'd, it struck such a terror in his men, that they suffered themselves to be taken, without making resistance." Their fate has never been uncovered, but the victors surely executed them. Tew was one of the archetypal romantic pirates: dashing, successful (for a time), and able to cheat the gallows through death in action. Like his contemporary Henry Every, Thomas Tew's career served to encourage others to follow in piratical footsteps.

Benjamin Fletcher, however, did not cheat justice for his sponsorship of Tew. Complaints against his corruption made from up and down the American seaboard caused such a stink in the king's ears that he commanded the Council of Trade and Plantations to investigate. The council wrote to Fletcher in February 1697, informing him that: "By information given lately at the trial of several of [Henry] Every's crew, your Government is named as a place of protection to such villains, and your favor to Captain Tew given as an instance of it." Fletcher defended himself, saying: "Captain Tew...came to my table like the other strangers who visit the province. He told me he had a sloop well manned, and gave bond to fight the French at the mouth of the Canada river [St. Lawrence], whereupon I gave him a commission."

The following year Richard Coote, Earl of Bellamont, replaced Fletcher and began to investigate the complaints. In 1698 he reported to the Lords of Trade that the pirates "that have given the greatest disturbance in the East Indies and the Red Sea, have either been fitted out from New York or Rhode Island, and manned from New York." He pointed the finger directly at his predecessor, that Governor Fletcher had issued commissions to Tew and other pirates "when none of them had any ship or vessel in Col. Fletcher's government, yet they had commissions and were permitted to raise men in New York and the design was public of their being bound for the Red Sea. Thomas Tew was a most notorious pirate," went on Bellamont, "complained of by the East India Company...a man of most mean and infamous character, he was received and caressed by Col. Fletcher, dined and supp'd often with him...and they exchanged presents, as gold watches, etc."

Recalled to London in disgrace, Fletcher faced the anger of the Lords of Trade, who agreed that the circumstances and timing of his commission to Tew "makes it highly probable it was not granted for nothing."The right of colonial governors to issue letters of marque in the king's name was not one that assumed the benefit of personal gain. Hanging on to the last shreds of respectability, Benjamin Fletcher said of Tew that he was "not only a man of courage and activity, but of the greatest sense and remembrance of what he had seen of any seaman that I ever met with. He was also what is called a very pleasant man...."

The man who received the commission from William III to hunt down Thomas Tew eventually won the dubious distinction-whipped up by the popular press of the day -of being one of England's most notorious pirates. But Captain Kidd was excoriated for crimes he never committed, and in fact was a considerable failure as a pirate. He only made one privateering voyage and took only one prize of any substance, but it was enough to warrant his arrest and place him on trial for his life.

Angus Konstrom with Roger Michael Kean. Pirates - Predators of the Seas: An Illustrated History . Skyhorse Publishing. 2007.


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The Golden Age Of Piracy | For Buccaneers, The Black Flag Was A Symbol Of Death | Stede Bonnet | William Dampier | Captain William Kidd | Jean Laffite | Henry Morgan | The Queen Anne's Revenge Shipwreck Project | Bartholomew Roberts | A Surprising Number Of Women Ventured To Sea | Edward Teach, Better Known As Blackbeard | Blackbeard Terrorized Sailors On The Atlantic And Caribbean | Thomas Tew | Treasure Island | Piracy Encompasses Two Distinct Sorts Of Offences | Waterborne Mugging
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