T HIS is the story of a poor boy who lived on a miserable plantation on the Kennebec River, in New England, yet who ended by becoming a nobleman of Old England. His name was William Phips, and he had twenty brothers and five sisters. In his early life he tended sheep, and learned the trade of a ship carpenter. He then went to Boston, where he learned to read and write and, later on, married a good wife. He settled down to hard work, and after ten years became Captain of one of the King's ships. Little did he know he was about to face the great adventure of his life, as we shall see.
These were the days when Spanish ships were seeking silver and gold and precious stones on the coast of Peru; when they were carrying their cargoes back to the old country, if they were fortunate enough to escape the pirates! Some of these cargoes went to the bottom in storms, or ran foul on dangerous reefs. Many were the stories of precious wrecks along the shores of the Bahamas.
On one of his trips to the Bahamas, Phips heard of a Spanish wreck "wherein was left a mighty treasure" at the bottom of the sea. He made up his mind to be the discoverer of that ship and to recover that treasure, if it was possible. Many a man would have laughed at the story, or would have hesitated over the task; but Phips was not like other men. He was born for great adventure, and herein he saw his chance.
Forthwith he sailed for England, and sought the wealthy people of the realm. He was a comely man, full of honesty and sincerity, and Royalty at Court listened to his smooth words with apparent confidence. For he came back to New England, Captain of his King's ship, and with full power to search the seas for silver and gold in sunken cargoes.
Phips's task was not an easy one. Fifty years had passed since the particular ship of which he had heard had sunk; hence the exact spot was not easy to find. All that was known was that it was somewhere near the Bahamas. But men have ventured in search of gold on far less certainty than this, and Phips was not one to be dismayed.
He took his crew to the Bahamas, and began his long and discouraging search. He dredged here and there; he questioned the old inhabitants along every coast; he used every means of information and discovery. But without success.
At length his crew grew mutinous. They wanted to turn pirates, and to set sail for the South Seas. Accordingly, one day they rose, and marched with drawn swords to the Captain, saying, "We will have no more of this. Take us to more profitable waters under the black flag, or we will heave you overboard. We will be pirates henceforth, and will not search the bottom of the sea for ships, when there are plenty to be found on top of it."
Phips was aghast at this mutiny, and, besides, he was unarmed and helpless. Still he was by far the most powerful man on board, and was terrible in his wrath. Slowly he approached the ring-leader, as if to parley with him. Then, with bare hands, he leaped upon him, knocked him down, seized his cutlass, and attacked the others with fury. So impetuous was the onset that in a short time the deck was strewn with wounded men, while many others fled in dismay, begging mercy of the infuriated Captain.
Soon after the mutiny, Phips sailed back to Jamaica in order to get a new crew, more disposed to do as they were told. The treasure-ship must be somewhere, and its riches haunted him day and night. He sailed to Hispaniola in search of information. He met a very old Spaniard who said he knew where the ship was sunk, and who told of the spot on a reef of shoals, a few leagues from Hispaniola, and not far from Port de la Plata which was so named because of a boat-load of sailors who landed there with plate saved from the sinking vessel.
This was enough for our hero. He needed more men and more money, so he bravely returned to England to beg for both. He had a hard time to convince any one of his story, but Phips was very plausible and the account of how he quelled the mutiny on his vessel won him many admirers. Such was not an easy task in those days of adventure. However, it was not long before Captain Phips found himself headed for the lost treasure on the quarter-deck of a new ship, well manned and equipped.
He reached Port de la Plata in due time. It was now about 1685. He set about getting ready a great canoe, hollowed out of the trunk of an enormous tree. The point selected by him for search was a terrible reef, known as "The Boilers," where the sea foamed over a sloping reef—no man knew how deep. Phips anchored his ship near the perilous spot, made ready his divers and his diving-bell, got out the canoe, and set to work with a slow and steady resolve to see the undertaking through or else perish.
Days passed in vain search. The weather was calm and the ship's supplies were abundant. The men did not complain, but dived down, along the reef, looking everywhere for signs of a lost vessel. One day a boatman, gazing into the clear water, saw, growing out of what seemed to be a rock, what he thought was a beautiful sea feather, usually to be found in sea gardens. So an Indian diver went down after it and brought it up in his hands.
"That was not a rock, but a great gun you saw," said the diver to his companions in the boat.
"What do you say? Gun! Gun!" they cried. "It must be what we are seeking! On board, all you divers!" There was intense excitement in the canoe.
Other Indians were sent down, and one of them came back with a lump of silver in his hands. It was a bar worth a thousand dollars. "I found it near the gun. There are other guns and other lumps like it,—many, many!" he explained, his eyes almost starting from their sockets.
The sailors roared with joy. At last the place was found! Their search was over! They were masters of the silver-ship! Riches untold were in their possession! They marked the spot with a buoy, and rowed back to the ship to inform Phips of what they had found and to show him the bar of silver.
"Thanks be to God, our fortunes are made," cried the Captain, and at once repaired with his men to the spot marked by the buoy.
There was no indifference now on the part of the crew. Every diver went down and every sailor lent a hand. Bar after bar was brought up from the ocean's depths, and stored away, as well as cases of silver coin, gold in large quantities, together with pearls and precious stones. Never was there such treasure dug up from the bottom of the ocean, where it had lain for half a century. It was worth a million and a half dollars. The work continued until provisions were exhausted and the men were ill. Though the sunken ship held more, they had to leave it where it was. Phips sailed to England and showed his treasures to the King, and to his friends. He was the most honest and generous man of his day, and paid his crew liberally. He gave his patrons a large share of his fortune, and his employees had nought to complain of. What remained to him after this still left him a very rich man, and for a time he was the most talked of man in England.
As for the King, he was so well pleased with the adventure, and with the admirable manners of Phips, that he made the latter a knight, which meant that he was called "Sir William" from that time on. And this is the story of how a plain country boy of New England came, through his manly qualities and his love of adventure, to belong to the aristocracy of England.