One of the most successful pirates of all time and Rhode Island’s most notorious was Captain Thomas Tew. He became known as the Rhode Island Pirate and was related to a respected Newport family. He embarked on two major piratical voyages but was destined to meet a bloody death on the second voyage.
Tew lived in Newport, Rhode Island, and is reported as having been married with two daughters. In a Forbes magazine article on top-earning pirates, Tew was ranked third behind Sam Bellamy and Sir Francis Drake. Tew’s wealth in 2010 dollars was an estimated $103 million.
In 1693 Tew obtained a letter of marque from the lieutenant governor of Bermuda to destroy a French factory off the coast of West Africa. His ship was the seventy-ton sloop Amity armed with eight cannons and crewed by forty-six men. Instead of sailing to Africa and attacking the French, he decided that there was more profit to be had as a pirate.
Tew called all hands on deck and announced his intention of turning to piracy. He explained that he saw the prospect of danger but not treasure in the venture. He preferred to risk his life for profit and asked his crew if they would follow him. Tew’s crew reportedly answered with the shout, “A gold chain or a wooden leg, we’ll stand with you!”
Tew and his crew sailed around Africa to the Red Sea. Merchantmen known as the Mocha Fleet traveled regularly with wealthy Muslim pilgrims between India and Arabia. A convoy of six ships was sighted being guarded by a large well-armed Indian dhow. Despite the ship’s enormous garrison of 300 soldiers and crew, the ship surrendered without any serious resistance. Tew’s crew suffered no casualties in the engagement.
The 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 crew of 46 men would afterward share between £1,200 and £3,000 per man. Tew claimed about £8,000, an incredible fortune at that time, which made him a rich man.
Tew sailed back to Newport in 1694 and was well received by the people of the town. Rhode Island at the time was a known haven for pirates whose plunder was welcomed by the local merchants. Tew and his crew auctioned off the plundered goods including calicos, muslin, silk, spices and dyes on the docks without fear of arrest. Tew eventually paid off the owners of the Amity who recouped fourteen times the value of their investment in the vessel.
Tew could have retired in Rhode Island but the lure of adventure and the sea called and after only nine months he decided on another cruise. Tew wrote, “I found the call of the sea and the lure of the ‘grand account’ too great to resist.”
Tew had no problem finding a crew for his second voyage because of the success of his first one and the promise of great wealth. Tew went to his friend Governor Benjamin Fletcher of New York for a new privateering commission. Tew was described as being slight, dark, and about 40 years old. He was very elegantly dressed in a blue jacket with gold lace, white linen trousers that ended at the knees, embroidered stockings, a gold chain around his neck, and a jewel-handled dagger on his belt.
In 1695 Tew and four consorts arrived at the mouth of the Red Sea and found several other pirates including Captain John Avery in the powerfully armed warship Fancy. Tew and the other pirate captains decided to sail in concert. The pirates waited two months for the large 25-ship Mughal convoy that would be making its annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The rich convoy slipped by Tew and Avery during the night so the pirates set out in pursuit.
After three days the Amity overtook one of the Mughal ships and attacked it. Tew was killed instantly when a cannonball disemboweled him. Demoralized, Tew’s crew surrendered immediately but were freed later when Avery captured the Mughal ship.
Avery, on the Fancy, had more success and after a skirmish captured the Fateh Muhammed, freeing Tew’s crew and plundering £60,000 in gold and silver. Their next victim was the powerful ship Ganj-i-sawai that belonged to the Great Mogul. She had 80 cannons and a large crew of 400 men and 600 passengers. A battle ensued until a cannon exploded on the Mughal’s deck, killing several men. The pirates then shot down the ship’s mainmast and, despite being outnumbered, boarded the ship.
Following several hours of ferocious hand-to-hand combat on deck, the pirates emerged victoriously. Although many pirates were reportedly killed, the payoff was incredible. Avery had captured up to £600,000 in precious metals and jewels, including a ruby-encrusted saddle and bridle intended for the Great Mogul.
There was outrage and rioting when news of the attack reached India. The British Parliament was under pressure to do something about the Red Sea pirates. In response to the attack a combined bounty of £1,000, an immense sum at the time, was offered for Avery’s and Tew’s capture by King William.
Captain William Kidd was commissioned to lead the first worldwide manhunt in recorded history. This was before Captain Kid himself would turn to piracy and later be hanged. Unbeknownst to the King or to Kidd, Tew was already dead when the commission was issued.
John Avery and his crew fled to the Bahamas. After adopting aliases the crew broke company with most choosing to sail home to England. Twenty-four pirates were eventually captured and six were tried, convicted, and hanged in London in November 1696.
Yet Avery eluded capture even though there was a worldwide manhunt for him. In 1696 he vanished from all records, and his whereabouts and activities after this period are unknown. Unconfirmed accounts state he may have changed his name and retired, quietly living out the rest of his life in either Britain or an unidentified tropical island in the West Indies. Many still believe that Avery’s treasure is still out there.
In 1723, only 27 years later, the hanging of twenty-six pirates at Gravelly Point in Newport signaled the end of the golden age of piracy and the end of Rhode Island being used as a haven for pirates. The Salem Observer wrote: “…this was the most extensive execution of pirates that ever took place at one time in the Colonies; it was attended and cheered by a vast multitude from every part of New England.”