Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

Sir William Phips and the Silver-Ship

The story of a poor boy, born on the edge of the wilderness,—"at a despicable plantation on the river of Kennebec, and almost the farthest village of the eastern settlement of New England,"—yet who ended his life as governor and nobleman, is what we have to tell. It is one of the most romantic stories in history. He was born in 1651, being a scion of the early days of the Puritan colony. He came of a highly prolific pioneer family,—he had twenty brothers and five sisters,—yet none but himself of this extensive family are heard of in history or biography. Genius is too rare a quality to be spread through such a flock. His father was a gunsmith. Of the children, William was one of the youngest. After his father's death, he helped his mother at sheep-keeping in the wilderness till he was eighteen years of age, then there came "an unaccountable impulse upon his mind that he was born to greater matters." The seed of genius planted in his nature was beginning to germinate.

The story of the early life of William Phips may be told in a few words. From sheep-tending he turned to carpentry, becoming an expert ship-carpenter. With this trade at his fingers' ends he went to Boston, and there first learned to read and write, accomplishments which had not penetrated to the Kennebec. His next step was to marry, his wife being a widow, a Mrs. Hull, with little money but good connections. She lifted our carpenter a step higher in the social scale. At that time, says his biographer, "he was one tall beyond the common set of men, and thick as well as tall, and strong as well as thick; exceedingly robust, and able to conquer such difficulties of diet and of travel as would have killed most men alive. He was of a very comely though a very manly countenance," and in character of "a most incomparable generosity." He hated anything small or mean, was somewhat choleric, but not given to nourish malice.


Pond Island, Mouth of the Kennebec.

To this notable young man there soon came an adventure. He had become a master workman, and built a ship for some Boston merchants on the river Sheepscote, a few leagues from his native Kennebec. The vessel was finished, and ready to be loaded with lumber; but its first cargo proved to be very different from that which Phips had designed. For Indians attacked the settlement; the inhabitants, flying for their lives, crowded on board the vessel, and Phips set sail with a shipload of his old friends and neighbors, who could pay him only in thanks. It is not unlikely that some of his own brothers and sisters were among the rescued. Certainly the extensive family of Phips must have spread somewhat widely over the coast region of Maine.

William Phips's first adventure had proved unprofitable except in works of charity. But he was not one to be easily put down, having in his nature an abundance of the perilous stuff of ambition. He was not the man to sit down and wait for fortune to come to him. Rather, he belonged to those who go to seek fortune. He was determined, he told his wife, to become captain of a king's ship, and owner of a fair brick house in the Green Lane of North Boston. It took him some eight or nine years to make good the first of these predictions, and then, in the year 1683, he sailed into the harbor of Boston as captain of the "Algier Rose," a frigate of eighteen guns and ninety-five men.

It was by the magic wand of sunken silver that our hero achieved this success. The treasures of Peru, loaded on Spanish ships, had not all reached the ports of Spain. Some cargoes of silver had gone to the bottom of the Atlantic. Phips had heard of such a wreck on the Bahamas, had sailed thither, and had made enough money by the enterprise to pay him for a voyage to England. While in the Bahamas he had been told of another Spanish wreck, "wherein was lost a mighty treasure, hitherto undiscovered." It was this that took him to England. He had made up his mind to be the discoverer of this sunken treasure-ship. The idea took possession of him wholly. His hope was to interest some wealthy persons, or the government itself, in his design. The man must have had in him something of that silver-tongued eloquence which makes persuasion easy, for the royalties at Whitehall heard him with favor and support, and he came back to New England captain of a king's ship, with full powers to search the seas for silver.

And now we have reached the verge of the romance of the life of William Phips. He had before him a difficult task, but he possessed the qualities which enable men to meet and overcome difficulty. The silver-ship was said to have been sunk somewhere near the Bahamas; the exact spot it was not easy to learn, for half a century had passed since its demise. Sailing thither in the "Algier Rose," Phips set himself to find the sunken treasure. Here and there he dredged, using every effort to gain information, trying every spot available, ending now in disappointment, starting now with renewed hope, continuing with unflagging energy. His frequent failures would have discouraged a common man, but Phips was not a common man, and would not accept defeat.

The resolute searcher had more than the difficulties of the sea-bottom to contend with. His men lost hope, grew weary of unprofitable labor, and at last rose in mutiny They fancied that they saw their way clear to an easier method of getting silver, and marched with drawn cutlasses to the quarterdeck, where they bade their commander to give up his useless search and set sail for the South Seas. There they would become pirates, and get silver without dredging or drudging.

It was a dangerous crisis. Phips stood with empty hands before that crew of armed and reckless men. Yet choler and courage proved stronger than sword-blades. Roused to fury, he rushed upon the mutineers with bare hands, knocked them down till the deck was strewn with fallen bodies, and by sheer force of anger and fearlessness quelled the mutiny and forced the men to return to their duty.

They were quelled, but not conquered. The daring adventurer was to have a more dangerous encounter with these would-be pirates. Some further time had passed in fruitless search. The frigate lay careened beside a rock of a Bahaman island, some eight or ten men being at work on its barnacled sides, while the others had been allowed to go on shore. They pretended that they wished to take a ramble in the tropical woods. What they wished to do was to organize a more effectual mutiny, seize the ship, leave the captain and those who held with him on that island, and sail away as lawless rovers of the deep.

Under the great trees of that Spanish island, moss-grown and bowery, in a secluded spot which nature seemed to have set aside for secret counsels, the mutinous crew perfected their plans, and signed a round-robin compact which pledged all present to the perilous enterprise. One man they needed to make their project sure. They could not do without the carpenter. He was at work on the vessel. They sent him a message to come to them in the woods. He came, heard their plans, affected to look on them favorably, but asked for a half-hour to consider the matter. This they were not disposed to grant. They must have an answer at once. The carpenter looked about him; dark and resolute faces surrounded him. Yet he earnestly declared he must have the time. They vigorously declared he should not. He was persistent, and in the end prevailed. The half-hour respite was granted.

The carpenter then said that he must return to the vessel. His absence from his work would look suspicious. They could send a man with him to see that he kept faith. The enterprise would be in danger if the captain noticed his absence. The mutineers were not men of much intelligence or shrewdness, and consented to his return. The carpenter, who had at heart no thought of joining the mutineers, had gained his point and saved the ship. In spite of the guard upon his movements he managed to get a minute's interview with Captain Phips, in which he told him what was afoot.

He was quickly at his post again, and under the eyes of his guard, but he had accomplished his purpose. Captain Phips was quick to realize the danger, and called about him those who were still in the ship. They all agreed to stand by him. By good fortune the gunner was among them. The energetic captain lost no time in devising what was to be done. During the work on the ship the provisions had been taken ashore and placed in a tent, where several pieces of artillery were mounted to defend them, in case the Spaniards, to whom the island belonged, should appear. Quickly but quietly these guns were brought back to the ship. Then they and the other guns of the ship were loaded and brought to bear on the tent, and the gangway which connected the ship with the land was drawn on board. No great time had elapsed, but Captain Phips was ready for his mutinous crew.

To avert suspicion during these preparations, the carpenter, at the suggestion of Phips, had gone ashore, and announced himself as ready to join the mutineers. This gave them great satisfaction, and after a short interval to complete their plans they issued in a body from the woods and approached the ship. As they drew near the tent, however, they looked at one another in surprise and dismay. The guns were gone!

"We are betrayed!" was the fearful whisper that ran round the circle.

"Stand off, you wretches, at your peril!" cried the captain, in stern accents.

The guns of the ship were trained upon them. They knew the mettle of Captain Phips. In a minute more cannon-balls might be ploughing deadly gaps through their midst. They dared not fly; they dared not fight. Panic fear took possession of them. They fell upon their knees in a body, begged the captain not to fire, and vowed that they would rather live and die with him than any man in the world. All they had found fault with was that he would not turn pirate; otherwise he was the man of their hearts.

The captain was stern; they were humble and beseeching. In the end he made them deliver up their arms, and then permitted them to come on board, a thoroughly quelled body of mutineers. But Captain Phips knew better than to trust these men a third time. The moment the ship was in sailing trim he hoisted anchor and sailed for Jamaica, where he turned the whole crew, except the few faithful ones, adrift, and shipped another crew, smaller, but, as he hoped, more trustworthy.

The treasure-ship still drew him like a magnet. He had not begun to think of giving up the search. Discouragement, failure, mutiny, were to him but incidents. The silver was there, somewhere, and have it he would, if perseverance would avail. From Jamaica he sailed to Hispaniola. There his fluent persuasiveness came again into play. He met a very old man, Spaniard or Portuguese, who was said to know where the ship lay, and "by the policy of his address" wormed from him some further information about the treasure-ship. The old man told him that it had been wrecked on a reef of shoals a few leagues from Hispaniola, and just north of Port de la Plata, which place got its name from the landing there of a boat-load of sailors with plate saved from the sinking vessel. Phips proceeded thither and searched narrowly, but without avail. The sea held its treasures well. The charmed spot was not to be found. The new crew, also, seemed growing mutinous. Phips had had enough of mutiny. He hoisted sail and made the best of his way back to England.

Here trouble and annoyance awaited him. He found powerful enemies. Doubtless ridicule also met his projects. To plough the bottom of the Atlantic, in search of a ship that had gone down fifty years before, certainly seemed to yield fair food for mirth. Yet the polite behavior, the plausible speech, the enthusiasm and energy of the man had their effect. He won friends among the higher nobility. The story of the mutiny and of its bold suppression had also its effect. A man who could attack a horde of armed mutineers with his bare fists, a man so ready and resolute in time of danger, so unflinchingly persevering in time of discouragement, was the man to succeed if success were possible. Finally, the Duke of Albemarle and some others agreed to supply funds for the expedition, and Captain Phips in no long time had another ship under his feet, and was once more upon the seas.

His ship was now accompanied by a tender. He had contrived many instruments to aid him in his search. It is said that he invented the diving-bell. There was certainly one used by him, but it may have been an old device, improved by his Yankee ingenuity.

Port de la Plata was reached in due time, the year being 1684 or 1685. Here Phips had a large canoe or periago made, fitted for eight or ten oars. It was hollowed out from the trunk of a cotton-tree, he using "his own hands and adze" in the work, enduring much hardship, and "lying abroad in the woods many nights together."

The shoals where search was to be made were known by the name of the "Boilers." They lay only two or three feet below the surface, yet their sloping sides were so steep that, says one author, "a ship striking on them would immediately sink down, who could say how many fathom, into the ocean?"

The tender and the periago were anchored near these dangerous shoals, and the work went on from them. Days passed, still of fruitless labor. The men, as they said, could make nothing of all their "peeping among the Boilers," Fortunately they had calm weather and a quiet sea, and could all day long pursue their labors around and among the shoals.

A day came in which one of them, looking far down into the smooth water, saw what is known as a sea-feather, one of the attractive products of those gardens of the seas, growing out of what seemed a rock below him. He turned to an Indian diver, and asked him to dive down and bring it up.

"We will take it to the captain," he said. "It is tiresome going back always empty-handed."

The diver made the leap. In a minute he was back with the sea-feather in his hand. There were signs of excitement on his dusky face as he climbed into the boat. He had indeed a surprising story to tell.

"I saw great guns down there," he said.

"What? guns?" was the general cry.

"Yes, great guns, as from some ship."

"Guns!" The despondency of the crew at once changed to ardent enthusiasm. Had they at length hit upon the spot for which they had so long sought in vain? The Indian was told to dive again, and see what could be found.

He did so. When he came up, their eyes were ready to start from their heads, for he bore with him an object of infinite promise to their wealth-craving souls. It was a lump of silver,—a "sow," they called it,—worth some two or three hundred pounds in money.

The search was over! The spot was found! Fortune lay within their reach! Marking the spot with a buoy, they rowed back to the ship, on which the captain had remained. Here they, disposed to have some sport, declared with long faces that the affair had better come to an end. They were wasting time and labor; the sea had no treasure to yield.

"If we were wise, captain," said the leading speaker, "we'd pull up stakes and sail back for merry old England. There's nothing but failure here. As much work done in digging and drudging at home would bring tenfold more profit."

Phips listened in silence to him and the others, looking from face to face.

"Our disappointments have been many," he replied, in a calm and resolute tone. "Yet I do not despair. I am determined to wait patiently on God's providence. We will find the treasure-ship yet, my lads. Do not lose courage."

Turning his gaze to one side as he spoke, he started violently, and then asked, in a tone so constrained that it seemed the voice of agony,—

"Why, what is this? Whence comes this?"

He had caught sight of the sow of silver, which they had cunningly laid a little out of direct vision.

"It is silver, Captain Phips," said the spokesman. "We did but jest with you. That came from the bottom of the sea. All is well; we have found the treasure-ship."

"Then, thanks be to God, we are made!" cried the captain, clasping his hands in fervent thankfulness.

There was no longer any lack of energy in the labor. All hands went to work with a hearty good-ill. Curiosity to learn what the sea had to yield wrought upon them as much as desire for reward. Up came the silver, sow after sow. In a short time they had brought up no less than thirty-two tons of this precious metal, with six tons besides that were raised and appropriated by a Captain Adderly, of Providence, whom Phips had engaged to help him, and who took this means of helping himself. His crew was small, but his diligence great.

The silver was not all in sows. Much of it was coined, and this coined silver was, in many cases, covered with a crust, several inches thick, of limestone-like material. It came out in great lumps, the crust needing to be broken with iron tools, when out would tumble whole bushels of rusty pieces of eight, Nor was the treasure confined to silver. There came up gold in large quantities, and also pearls and other precious stones. The Spaniards had gleaned actively in those days of old, when the treasures of Peru were theirs for the taking; and the ocean, its secret hiding-place once found, yielded generously. In short, the treasure recovered is said to have been worth nearly three hundred thousand pounds sterling. They did not exhaust the deposit. Their provisions failed, and they had to leave before the work was completed. Others who came after them were well paid for their labor.

The treasure on board, Captain Phips had new trouble. The men, seeing "such vast litters of silver sows and pigs come on board," were not content with ordinary sailors' pay. They might even be tempted to seize the ship and take its rich lading for themselves. Phips was in great apprehension. He had not forgotten the conduct of his former crew. He did his utmost to gain the friendship of his men, and promised them a handsome reward for their services, even if he had to give them all his own share.

England was reached in safety, and the kingdom electrified by the story of Captain Phips's success. The romantic incidents of the narrative attracted universal attention. Phips was the hero of the hour. Some of his enemies, it is true, did their utmost to make him a wronged hero. They diligently sought to persuade James II., then on the throne, to seize the whole treasure as the appanage of the crown, and not be content with the tithe to which his prerogative entitled him. James II. was tyrannical but not unjust. He refused to rob the mariners. "Captain Phips," he said, "he saw to be a person of that honesty, ability, and fidelity that he should not want his countenance."

Phips was certainly honest,—so much so, indeed, that little of the treasure came to him. His promises to his men were carefully kept; his employers were paid the last penny of their dues; in the end, out of the whole, there remained to himself less than sixteen thousand pounds. The Duke of Albemarle, moved by admiration for his honesty, gave him, as a present from his wife, a gold cup of the value of nearly one thousand pounds. As for the king, he was so pleased with the whole conduct of the adventurer, and perhaps so charmed by Phips's silvery speech, that he conferred on him the honor of knighthood, and the plain Kennebec boy became Sir William Phips, and a member of the aristocracy of England.

Every one acknowledged that the discoverer owed his success to merit, not to luck. He was evidently a man of the highest capacity, and might, had he chosen, have filled high places and gained great honors in England. But America was his native land, and he was not to be kept from its shores.

He became such a favorite at court, that one day, when King James was particularly gracious to him, and asked him what favor he desired, he replied that he asked nothing for himself, but hoped that the king would restore to his native province its lost liberties, by returning the charter of which it had been deprived.

"Anything but that!" exclaimed James, who had no idea of restoring liberty to mother-land or colony.

He appointed Phips, however, high sheriff of New England, and the adventurer returned home as a man of power and station. On his way there he visited the silver-ship again, and succeeded in adding something of value to his fortune. Then, sailing to Boston, he rejoined his wife after a five years' absence, and, to complete the realization of his predictions, immediately began to build himself a "fair brick house in Green Lane."

We have finished our story, which was to tell how the sheep-boy of the Kennebec rose to be high sheriff of New England, with the privilege of writing "Sir" before his name. His after-life was little less memorable than the part of it told, but we have no space left to tell it in.

King James was soon driven from the throne, and King William took his place, but Sir William Phips retained his power and influence. In 1690 he led an army against Port Royal in Acadia, took it, and came back to receive the plaudits of the Bostonians. He next attempted to conquer all Canada from the French, attacked Quebec with a strong force, but was repulsed, largely in consequence of a storm that scattered his ships. The Bostonians had now no plaudits for him. The expedition had cost New England about forty thousand pounds, and there was not a penny in the treasury. The difficulty was overcome by the issue of treasury-notes, an expedient which was not adopted in England till five years afterwards. Charles Montagu, the alleged inventor of exchequer bills doubtless owed his idea to the sharp-witted Bostonians.

The beginning of 1692 found Sir William again in England, whence he came back to his native land as captain-general and governor-in-chief of the colony of Massachusetts. From sheep-boy he had risen to the title of "Your Excellency." Phips was governor of Massachusetts during the witchcraft delusion. The part he took in it was not a very active one; but when, in 1693, he found that grand juries were beginning to throw out indictments, and petit juries to return verdicts of "Not guilty," he ended the whole mad business by emptying the prisons, then containing about one hundred and fifty persons committed, while over two hundred more were accused. In 1693 Governor Phips led an expedition against the Indians of Maine, and forced them to conclude a treaty of peace. In 1694 he went to England, to answer certain accusations against his conduct as governor, and here was taken suddenly sick, and died February 18, 1695.

The noble house of Phips, thus instituted, has steadily grown in rank and dignity since that date, bearing successively the titles of baron, viscount, earl, until finally, in 1838, a Phips attained the rank of marquis of Normandy. It is a remarkable development from the life of that poor boy, one of a family of twenty-six, whose early life was spent in tending sheep in the wilderness of Maine.

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