Thomas Tew

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Thomas Tew
— Pirate —
Pyle pirate tales.jpg
Thomas Tew relates his exploits to Gov. Fletcher of New York. Painting by Howard Pyle.
Nickname The Rhode Island Pirate
Type Pirate / Privateer
Place of birth Greenboro, North Carolina
Died 1695
Place of death Arabian Sea
Years active 1692–1695
Rank Captain
Base of operations Newport, Rhode Island, New York City and Indian Ocean
Commands Amity
Wealth about £8,000; Equiv. US $112.8 million today;[1] #3 Forbes top-earning pirates[2]

Thomas Tew (fl. 1675–1695), also known as the Rhode Island Pirate, was a 17th-century English privateer-turned-pirate. Although he embarked on only two major piratical voyages, and met a bloody death on the latter journey, Tew pioneered the route which became known as the Pirate Round. Many other famous pirates, including Henry Every and William Kidd, would follow in Tew's path. Much of what is known about Tew is derived from Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates,[3] which is a mixture of fact and fiction. When reading about Thomas Tew it is important to be able to distinguish between truth and story.

Captain Johnson said "Tew, in Point of Gallantry, was inferior to none."

Life and career[edit]

Regardless as to when he first arrived in the East indies, Thomas Tew evidently served out his sentence of labour and resumed a seafaring lifestyle in the East Indies rather than return to England. He worked his way up the ranks towards suitability for commission and captaincy of a ship - by no means an overnight process. According to testimony at the inquest after his death, Thomas Tew was known to be operating in the area of Jamaica about 12 years before he ever set sail for the Indian Ocean circa 1690. Contrary to general opinion, Captain Thomas Tew never did live in Newport, Rhode Island, and he was not as young as 18 years old as some references and family trees suggest. In fact, Captain Tew did not first arrive in New England until 1694 after his first pirate cruise to the Indian Ocean, by which time he was likely in his late forties or early fifties and well seasoned. He had quite the reputation for profanity, his drinking of rum and he is often pictured smoking a pipe - a habit he likely acquired in the East Indies.

Thomas Tew is often reported in modern texts as having been married and having two daughters, but as will be pointed out that is modern fanciful fiction - not fact.[4] There is no supporting evidence to support such a claim, especially not in any historical documentation from the late 17th and early 18th century. Names of the suggested family are never mentioned, let alone any verifiable recorded evidence of a marriage or births of any children being presented. However, the fanciful stories persist and grow as time passes. The factual evidence regarding Thomas Tew the Pirate is limited and tedious to sort through - consisting primarily of extremely limited and often disregarded records prior to his arrival in the Americas and far more post-death statements given under inquisition testimony over a few years subsequent to his death. Any association made with the 17th century Tew family of Rhode Island has evolved purely from unsubstantiated conjecture. Firstly there exist no Quaker records whatsoever about this Thomas but there does exist detailed Quaker records regarding Richard Tew's family of Rhode Island - and Thomas Tew the pirate is not contained therein (although he has been subsequently added in many modern genealogical references and family trees). Such conjecture never questions how Thomas Tew acquired his seafaring skills, nor questions the fact that the Tew family of Rhode Island was not involved whatsoever at the inquests and trials that occurred over several years subsequent to Captain Tew's death. Further no one has ever presented plausible evidence of how any such family travelled about with Captain Tew, nor what ever might have become of such a family subsequent to Captain Tew's death and the ensuing inquest and trials. The point is not to be critical, but rather to stress that Captain Thomas Tew the Pirate has evolved over the centuries into a rather fictional or mythical character, whereas his factual life has become hidden and distorted from reality in most modern texts and references.

Frankly the evidentiary facts are:

  1. Thomas Tew was of the Tew family line that settled along the ports in southern England became and involved with shipping and seafaring activities.[5]
  2. Thomas Tew was not the first to encounter difficulties with the law as a close relative of his was charged in the murder of a Bailiff and others were charged with respect to infractions such as theft etc from ships.[6]
  3. Thomas Tew the Pirate was originally sent to the East Indies as a convict to serve a labour sentence.[7]
  4. Sworn testimony at inquisition placed Thomas Tew in the East Indies more than 12 years before he first appeared in New England in 1694.
  5. The post-death inquisitions and trials that ensued after Captain Tew's death were to determine primarily who was culpable and to what degree with respect to the purposes behind the obtaining and granting of a ship's commission under the King's authority for known piracy activity.[8]
  6. There do not exist any evidentiary facts whatsoever with respect to any pre-piracy or post-piracy association or close family relationship with the Tew family of Rhode Island.
  7. There does not exist any verifiable evidence that Thomas Tew the Pirate had any family with him for the very short eight to nine month duration that he was actually in New England (and thus no source references for these two latter facts).

Sworn testimony placed Captain Tew near Jamaica and Bermuda at least by 1682, by which time he had already gained a reputation for dishonest privateering activity - but not for piracy. Around 1690, Captain Tew was operating around Bermuda, and despite the conjecture that he was already reputed as a pirate by that time, no modern historian has verified whether that reputation was earned, factual or not. He may simply have engaged in privateering against French and Spanish ships.[9]

First pirate job[edit]

In 1692, Thomas Tew obtained a letter of marque from the Governor of Bermuda. Various Bermudian backers provided him with a vessel: the seventy-ton sloop Amity, armed with eight guns and crewed by forty-six officers and men. Thus equipped, Captain Tew, and several other ships, including one under the command of a Captain Dew set sail in December 1692, ostensibly to serve as a privateer against French holdings in The Gambia.[10] Although not specifically stated as to who the overall commander of the small fleet was, Captain Tew was definitely not that fleet commander, but rather Captain Tew and most other ships sailed under the overall command of a higher officer. However, upon encountering a tropical storm, some ships were lost and others turned back to Bermuda; the outcome of the fleet commander was not stated, but it appears his ship may have gone down leading which lead to the remaining ships going in opposite directions. Without a fleet commander to over rule him, Captain Tew consulted his crew as to whether they too should turn back and also announced his desire and intention of turning to piracy should they continue. Asking the crew for their support since he could not enforce the illegal scheme without their consent, Tew's crew reportedly answered with the shout, "A gold chain or a wooden leg, we'll stand with you!" The newly minted pirates proceeded to elect a quartermaster, a common pirate practice to balance the captain's power.[11]

Setting up camp in Madagascar, Captain Tew and his crew associated with and received approval of other pirates already operating in the Indian Ocean. Although his earliest exploits there are not well documented (but are mentioned in references to other pirates), Captain Tew and his crew aboard the Amity set sail from Madagascar late in 1693 and reached the Red Sea. Although only equipped with a small sloop and a few canons, Captain Tew and the Amity ran down a large overburdened ship en route from India to the Great Mogul's Ottoman Empire. Despite its enormous garrison of 300 soldiers, the Indian ship surrendered without serious resistance, inflicting no casualties on the assailants. Tew's pirates helped themselves to the ship's rich treasure, worth £100,000 in gold and silver alone, not counting the value of the ivory, spices, gemstones and silk taken. Tew's men afterward shared out between £1,200 and £3,000 per man, and Tew himself claimed about £8,000.[12][13]

Tew urged his filibusters to hunt down and rob the other ships in the Indian convoy, but yielded to the opposition of the quartermaster. He set course back to the Cape of Good Hope, stopping at the island of St. Mary's on Madagascar to careen.[14] where again he they associated with other pirates operating in the Indian Ocean. Democratically, Tew's crew were able to choose who wished to remain and who wished to return to the Americas. With a reduced crew and a re-supplied ship, Captain Tew set sail for the Americas with his sloop the Amity. Recognizing that they no longer held a legal commission for the ship and perhaps under advisement of more senior pirates, instead of heading back to the West Indies, Captain Tew turned his ship northward and set sail for New England.

Their intended final destination is uncertain, but Captain Tew and his crew aboard the Amity reached Newport Rhode Island in April 1694 to re-supply the ship. Evidently, however, the ship and crew did not sail on to their intended destination where they would likely have scuttled and abandoned the ship. Rather for some unknown reason or under someone's influence, the non-commissioned Amity was docked in New York harbour - despite being there without a legal commission of the crown. Benjamin Fletcher, royal governor of Province of New York, became good friends with Tew and his senior crew. Perhaps through Fletcher's connections, Tew eventually paid off the owners of the Amity, who recouped fourteen times the value of the vessel, and thus Captain Tew, the Amity and the crew at least appeared to be free of possible reprisals by the crown. This is the juncture in the history when historical fact becomes fanciful fiction and the exaggerations have since grown. In polite terms, one early author referred to the "ladies" that were entertaining Governor Fletcher and his staff along with Captain Tew and some of his remaining senior crew, - as "daughters dressed in their finest silks". From that "polite" reference to the young ladies of the night, the story grew firstly to them being "Captain Tew's daughters dressed in their finest silks" and the number of daughters was generally referred to as having been three or more. Through time, the number of daughters has been reduced to two, but then Captain Tew's supposed wife was thrown in for good measure - perhaps to totally erase the original author's intent and to instead suggest that everything was above board and sanctioned by all present.

Second pirate cruise[edit]

In November 1694, less than nine months after he first arrived in New England, under influence and persuasion from Governor Fletcher - Captain Tew obtained a new letter of marque (essentially a crown sanctioned commission) from Fletcher and set out for another pirate cruise. His crew numbered thirty to forty men at departure this time.[15] However, by the time he reached Madagascar, he apparently increased his force to 50 or 60 men.[16]

Arriving at the Mandab Strait at the mouth of the Red Sea in August 1695, Tew found several other pirates hoping to duplicate his prior success, including Henry Every in the powerfully armed warship Fancy. Tew and the other pirate captains decided to sail in concert.

In September 1695, a 25-ship Mughal convoy approached the Mandab Strait, slipping past the pirates during the night. Tew and his fellow pirates pursued. The Amity overtook one of the Mughal ships, believed to be the Fateh Muhammed, and attacked it. Tew was killed in this battle, reportedly disemboweled by a cannon shot. Demoralized, Tew's crew surrendered immediately, though they were freed later when Every’s Fancy captured the Fateh Muhammed.[17][9][18]

The final resting place of Tew's remains is unknown, but he is said to be the father of Ratsimilaho, a man who created a kingdom on the east coast of Madagascar. In addition, it has been claimed that Tew was one of the named founders of the mysterious and possibly fictional pirate colony of Libertatia. This further demonstrates how the possibility of having fathered a child with a local native woman during his stopovers in Madagascar can lead to even more fanciful fiction which is so much more appealing than the basic facts. Capain Thomas Tew's years of piracy were from 1693 to 1695 with nine months of that being in New England and several months sailing between the Americas to the Indian Ocean and back. In sports terms one could say that he batted 500 being successful on his first trip to the plate, however he struck out on only his second at bat and it cost him his life. What stood out with respect to Captain Tew was not so much his success or failure, but rather how he captained the ship in such a democratic manner earning him respect and admiration to the extent that he is now grossly glorified and exaggerated rather than being condemned. He was not a Robin Hood, nor was he a King Arthur; in less than one year of actual piracy however, both he and the "daughters in their finest silks" have gained near immortal infamy that has continued to grow over the three centuries since he perished.

Captain William Kidd, before he himself turned pirate, was commissioned by King William III to hunt Tew down. Unknown to either Kidd or the King, Tew was already dead when the commission was issued.[19]

arm holding a sword on a black field.


  • Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life Books, 1978.
  • Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Pyrates London: Printed for, and sold by, T. Woodward, 1728.
  • Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter, 2003.


  1. ^ Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–2014. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved February 27, 2014.
  2. ^ Woolsey, Matt (September 19, 2008). "Top-Earning Pirates". Forbes Magazine. Retrieved February 5, 2013. 
  3. ^ Captain Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates
  4. ^ Douglas Botting, The Pirates, Time-Life Books, 1978, p. 67.
  5. ^ Deeds and Close Rolls of England 14th through 17th century
  6. ^ Close Rolls late 1500s to mid 1600s
  7. ^ Emigration/Immigration and Transportation records regarding passengers/convicts to the Colonies and the Americas 17th century
  8. ^ Close Rolls re The East Indies and the Americas
  9. ^ a b "Of Captain Thomas Tew" Christine L. Putnam
  10. ^ Botting, p. 67-69.
  11. ^ Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates London: Printed for, and sold by, T. Woodward, 1728, p. 86.
  12. ^ Johnson, p. 86-87
  13. ^ Thomas Tew
  14. ^ Johnson, p. 87.
  15. ^ Thomas Tew (website by Paul Orton)
  16. ^ Pirate ship list – Amity
  17. ^ Botting, p. 82
  18. ^ Johnson, p. 108-09.
  19. ^ English Letter of Marque Against Pirates, 1695

External links[edit]