Chronicles of America 

Sir William Phips

Of this rudely adventurous era, it would be hard to find a seaman more typical than the redoubtable Sir William Phips who became the first royal Governor of the Massachusetts Colony in 1692. Born on a frontier farm of the Maine coast while many of the Pilgrim fathers were living, "his faithful mother," wrote Cotton Mather, "had no less than twenty-six children, whereof twenty-one were sons; but equivalent to them all was William, one of the youngest, whom, his father dying, was left young with his mother, and with her he lived, keeping ye sheep in Ye Wilderness until he was eighteen years old." Then he apprenticed himself to a neighboring shipwright who was building sloops and pinnaces and, having learned the trade, set out for Boston. As a ship-carpenter he plied his trade, spent his wages in the taverns of the waterside and there picked up wondrous yarns of the silver-laden galleons of Spain which had shivered their timbers on the reefs of the Bahama Passage or gone down in the hurricanes that beset those southerly seas. Meantime he had married a wealthy widow whose property enabled him to go treasure-hunting on the Spanish main. From his first voyage thither in a small vessel he escaped with his life and barely enough treasure to pay the cost of the expedition.

In no wise daunted he laid his plans to search for a richly ladened galleon which was said to have been wrecked half a century before off the coast of Hispaniola. Since his own funds were not sufficient for this exploit, he betook himself to England to enlist the aid of the Government. With bulldog persistence he besieged the court of James II for a whole year, this rough-and-ready New England shipmaster, until he was given a royal frigate for his purpose. He failed to fish up more silver from the sands but, nothing daunted, he persuaded other patrons to outfit him with a small merchantman, the James and Mary, in which he sailed for the coast of Hispaniola. This time he found his galleon and thirty-two tons of silver. "Besides that incredible treasure of plate, thus fetched up from seven or eight fathoms under water, there were vast riches of Gold, and Pearls, and Jewels . . . . All that a Spanish frigot was to be enriched withal."

Up the Thames sailed the lucky little merchantman in the year of 1687, with three hundred thousand pounds sterling as her freightage of treasure. Captain Phips made honest division with his backers and, because men of his integrity were not over plentiful in England after the Restoration, King James knighted him. He sailed home to Boston, "a man of strong and sturdy frame," as Hawthorne fancied him, "whose face had been roughened by northern tempests and blackened by the burning sun of the West Indies . . . . He wears an immense periwig flowing down over his shoulders . . . . His red, rough hands which have done many a good day's work with the hammer and adze are half-covered by the delicate lace rues at the wrist." But he carried with him the manners of the forecastle, a man hasty and unlettered but superbly brave and honest. Even after he had become Governor he thrashed the captain of the Nonesuch frigate of the royal navy, and used his fists on the Collector of the Port after cursing him with tremendous gusto. Such behavior in a Governor was too strenuous, and Sir William Phips was summoned to England, where he died while waiting his restoration to office and royal favor. Failing both, he dreamed of still another treasure voyage, "for it was his purpose, upon his dismission from his Government once more to have gone upon his old Fishing-Trade, upon a mighty shelf of rock and banks of sand that lie where he had informed himself."

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