Thomas Tew relates his exploits to Gov. Fletcher of New York. Painting by Howard Pyle.
|Nickname||The Rhode Island Pirate|
|Type||Pirate / Privateer|
|Base of operations||Newport, Rhode Island, New York City and Indian Ocean|
Thomas Tew (fl. 1692–1695), also known as the Rhode Island Pirate, was a 17th-century English privateer-turned-pirate. He embarked on two major piratical voyages and met a bloody death on the second journey, and he pioneered the route which became known as the Pirate Round. Many other famous pirates followed in his path, including Henry Every and William Kidd.
Much of what is known about Tew is derived from Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, 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
It is frequently written that Tew had family in Rhode Island dating back to 1640, but it is not known where he may have been born. He may have been born in New England. One theory is that he was born in Maidford, Northamptonshire, England before emigrating to the colonies as a child with his family, although there is only a little circumstantial evidence for this. He lived at one time in Newport, Rhode Island. Tew is reported as being married with two daughters. According to one source, his wife and children all greatly enjoyed the New York City social scene after Tew struck it rich, but there is no supporting evidence elsewhere for this.
In 1691, Tew moved to Bermuda. There is evidence that he was already reputed as a pirate at that time, but no modern historian has determined whether this reputation was earned or not. He may simply have engaged in privateering against French and Spanish ships.
He was in close relations with fellow pirate Captain Want who was his closest ally.
First pirate cruise
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. He and another captain obtained a privateer's commission from the lieutenant governor of Bermuda to destroy a French factory off the coast of West Africa. Thus equipped, Tew set sail in December, ostensibly to serve as a privateer against French holdings in The Gambia. But not long out of Bermuda, Tew announced his intention of turning to piracy, 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.
Tew reached the Red Sea and ran down a large ship en route from India to the Ottoman Empire, some time in late 1693. 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.
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.
Tew reached Newport in April 1694. Benjamin Fletcher, royal governor of Province of New York, became good friends with Tew and his family. Tew eventually paid off the owners of the Amity, who recouped fourteen times the value of the vessel.
Second pirate cruise
In November 1694, Tew bought a new letter of marque from Fletcher and set out for another pirate cruise. His crew numbered thirty to forty men at departure this time. However, by the time he reached Madagascar, he apparently increased his force to 50 or 60 men.
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.
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.
Captain William Kidd, before he himself allegedly 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.
- Captain Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates
- Thomas Tew
- Pirate Thomas Tew
- Douglas Botting, The Pirates, Time-Life Books, 1978, p. 67.
- Merchant, 25.
- Christine L. Putnam, "Of Captain Thomas Tew"
- Merchant, 26.
- Botting, p. 67-69.
- Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates London: Printed for, and sold by, T. Woodward, 1728, p. 86.
- Johnson, p. 86-87; Thomas Tew
- Johnson, p. 87.
- Thomas Tew (website by Paul Orton)
- Pirate ship list – Amity
- Botting, p. 82; Putnam ; Johnson, p. 108-09.
- English Letter of Marque Against Pirates, 1695 also reprinted in Merchant, 41-2.
- Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life Books, 1978.
- Johnson, Charles. The History of the Pirates: containing the lives of Captain Mission…. London: Printed for, and sold by, T. Woodward, 1728.
- Merchant, Gloria. Pirates of Colonial Newport. The History Press, 2014.
- Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter, 2003.