Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
XII. A MAlNE SlNDBAD.
MANY a Maine boy has had a story worth the telling, even in those old days when privation and struggle for existence were the common, almost the universal, lot. Energy and unyielding grit were developed in the hard conditions of life, as well as in unselfish heroism and patriotism. There were many greater heroes and patriots than William Phips; but his were such strange fortunes for a Yankee boy that we read them as we read an "Arabian Nights" tale; and whether we think him a reckless adventurer, or a planner and performer of shrewd business enterprises, we may, at least, always admire his tireless energy.
There were twenty-six children in the Phips family, who lived in the little settlement of Woolwich, on the Kennebec, and twenty-one of these were sons. Twenty-one reclaimers of the wilderness, twenty-one defenders against the Indians,—that was the way in which they reckoned sons in those days. The elder Phips was a gunsmith by trade. He had emigrated from Bristol, England, while the colonies were yet very new, and taken up his residence on their outskirts. William, who was born on the 2d of February, 1651, must have thought, in his earliest years, that the universe was composed of wilderness and wild Indians.
He was one of the youngest of the twenty-six, and his father died when he was but a lad. The boy had no opportunity even to learn to read, but, is soon as he was old enough, was set to tending sheep, and he followed this unambitious and unexciting calling until he was eighteen. But Woolwich was on the river, and the forests contained much fine timber, and so the settlers had early taken to shipbuilding. The sheep-tender had a restless and roving spirit, and when he saw the ships sail off to distant and unknown shores his heart burned within him. No one, however, would take him as a sailor; and so, as the next best chance in life, he apprenticed himself to a ship carpenter.
Apprenticeships were long and dreary in those days. For four years young William Phips served his master, and the only relief he found from the uncongenial and monotonous labor was in an occasional coasting trip. His serving time being over, his friends tried to induce him to settle down in the ship-carpentering line at home; but the ancient divine Cotton Mather, who was his friend, says that "visions of future greatness had already visited him and tempted him to seek, in the great, untried world, the fulfillment of his dreams."
Even in his sheep-tending days he was accustomed to boast to his companions that he was "born for better things;" and his after career shows quite plainly that he had the visionary mind, which is not apt to be a fortunate characteristic, and which is seldom allied to such force and energy as he possessed. This force and energy would almost assuredly have brought him success of some kind; it was his adventurous spirit and his visionary mind that determined the very unusual character of the success.
Finding that no good luck came in his way, he tried to find it by going to Boston. This was in 1673, when he was twenty-two years old. There he worked at his trade of ship-carpentering for about a year, and in his leisure time learned to read and write. And there he married the widow of a merchant named Hull. She was many years older than he, and she possessed a small fortune. He used this pecuniary advantage to extend his business, and made a contract to build a vessel for some Boston merchants on Sheepscot River, near the mouth of the Kennebec. He had launched the ship, and was preparing to load it with lumber for the Boston market, when an Indian attack on the Sheepscot settlement forced him to change his plans. The settlers, fleeing from their burning homes and the merciless savages, took refuge on board Phips's new ship, which lay in the river.
So, instead of carrying a cargo of lumber, he immediately sailed away with the unfortunate settlers, and landed them, free of charge, in Boston. This failure of his plan caused him financial difficulty; but his sanguine temperament preserved him from despondency, and he always prophesied loftiest greatness when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb. When his wife's views of the future were gloomy, he would confidently assure her that he should "yet have the command of a king's ship, and would buy her a fair brick house in the Green Lane of North Boston."
He had credulity enough to mistake his own sanguine expectations for mysterious presentiments. But he was not wholly a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions. He never ceased to try with might and main to get the king's ship and the fair brick house; but for the next ten years he seemed to come no nearer to success. He built ships and made short trading trips, with only sufficient success to keep him from want; and if he was engaged in any more ambitious schemes, they came to nothing.
About 1684 there was a sudden, exciting opportunity to acquire great wealth, which was stirring the imaginations and arousing the greed of all the European nations. Spain had received a great influx of wealth from her colonies in the West Indies and South America, and it had come in the tangible, intoxicating shape of coin and bullion. Secret expeditions and open piracies were undertaken to secure a share of Spain's wealth.
The British sailors were the most daring, and there were many semipiratical expeditions from England, like Drake's and Raleigh's. This was the time of Robert Kidd's career, and it has even been asserted that English lords and earls were associated with that famous pirate.
This Spanish wealth gave rise to a mania for hunting for mines of gold and silver; it was the cause of the settlement in Virginia, made by a division of the Plymouth Company, and we have read how a returned Indian captive cunningly misled the English by a fiction of gold and copper mines.
Exaggerated reports were spread abroad of the treasure which was transported in galleons from the West Indies and South America to Spain, and every account of a wreck aroused wild hopes of recovering the treasure. This was the sort of thing to attract the man into whom our visionary Maine boy had developed.
Somewhere about the Bahama Islands, a Spanish vessel, laden with treasure, had been wrecked, and Phips made a voyage in search of the wreck in his own small vessel. He found the wreck, but the value of the treasure recovered from it was not sufficient to pay the expense of the voyage. Before he returned he had heard of a vessel, far more heavily laden with gold, that had been wrecked, more than half a century before, near Porta de la Plata.
During all the fifty years the sunken treasure had been a fireside and a fo'c's'le tale, but no resolute effort had been made to find it. Phips had the spirit, but not the funds, for the undertaking. So he set out for London, to try to interest the English government in the recovery of the treasure. That he should have succeeded has always been considered a marvel. A Yankee sea captain, without influence, education, or property, he was appointed, before the year was ended, to the command of the Rose Algier, a ship equipped with eighteen guns and ninety-five men, to search for the sunken treasure. One version of the story is that Phips found access to the king himself, who loved a ship and a sailor, and was himself of a romantic and adventurous turn.
However this may have been, the Rose Algier and her bold commander sailed away, unprovided with proper implements to prosecute the search for the treasure, and with no pilot who knew where the ship went down.
The crew that he had shipped was a lawless one, eager for Spanish treasure, but unused to the discipline of a warship. The irksome restraints and the fruitless searching for treasure in the depths of the ocean soon wearied and discouraged the sailors. Phips was obliged to contend with open mutiny, and the demand that the ship should be used for a piratical expedition against small Spanish settlements and Spanish ships.
For a time his courage and determination held the mutineers in check; but at length the reckless sailors came armed to the quarter-deck, and attempted to compel him to adopt their plans of piracy.
Phips, unarmed, and taken by surprise, was yet able to make prisoners of several of the leaders of the mutiny, and to frighten the others into submission. Soon afterwards the ship was found to need repairs, and Phips was obliged to anchor at a small and uninhabited island. It was necessary to make an encampment on shore for the ship's stores, which had to be removed on account of the repairs.
The ship was careened by the side of a great projecting rock, and a little bridge built to the shore. This enabled the mutinous crew to retire to the woods and form, in privacy, a new plan. They agreed to return to the ship in the evening, overpower Phips and the seven or eight men who were with him, and put them ashore upon the barren island; then the mutineers, who were nearly a hundred in number, would take possession of the ship, and use it for any piratical expedition they might choose.
Only a slight chance, or Providence, prevented the success of the wicked scheme. The conspirators decided that the carpenter, who was on board the vessel, would be a necessary, and probably a willing, member of their party. They invented a pretext to send for him; and when he came, and they found him somewhat reluctant to join them, they threatened him with instant death. He pretended to accede to their demands, but when he returned to the ship for his tools, they sent two or three men with him as a watch and guard. Once on board, he feigned a sudden illness, and ran down to the cabin for medicine.
There he found the captain, and hastily whispered to him the danger. Phips's orders to him were to return to the shore with his guard, and to pretend that he was in full agreement with the mutineers. The rest was to be left to Phips.
He called to him the faithful few who remained with him upon the vessel, and gave them their orders. It was now within two hours of the time when the mutineers would return from the woods to carry their dastardly plan into execution. They had carried several guns on shore; and from these Phips ordered the charges to be taken. All the other ammunition, was removed to the ship. Then the bridge was hurriedly taken up, and the ship's loaded guns were trained to command the approach to the encampment.
When the mutineers appeared from the woods, Phips hailed them, and warned them that they would be fired upon if they came near the stores. The bridge was then laid again, and the faithful sailors began to remove the stores to the vessel. The mutineers were told that if they did not keep at a distance they would be abandoned to perish upon the island—the fate they had planned for the captain.
The mutineers had no ammunition, and therefore could make no resistance; and so all they could do was to throw down their arms and profess their penitence and their willingness to abandon their piratical scheme. They were finally allowed to return to the vessel, but they were deprived of their arms, and a strict watch was kept over them. Phips, feeling that it was not safe, with this crew, to spend any more time groping in the ocean for the old Porta de la Plata wreck, now sailed to Jamaica and discharged most of his crew, shipping a small number of such other seamen as were to be found. He felt that the ill success of his venture was due to. he fact that he had no exact knowledge of the place where the Spanish vessel was lost. He therefore sailed to Hispaniola, where he found an old Spaniard who knew the precise locality of the sunken treasure. It was a reef of rocks a few leagues to the north of Porta de la Plata. Phips immediately returned to Porta de la Plata and searched about the reef vainly for some time. Before he was ready to abandon hope, the condition of his ship, leaky and not half manned, obliged him to return to England.
The English admiralty appreciated his persevering efforts and the skill with which he had managed the mutinous crew, but it would not again fit out a national vessel for his undertaking. It was generally considered a visionary scheme. The story of sunken treasure near the Porta de la Plata reef sounded like an old wives' tale. But Phips persisted. When the government failed him, he resorted to private individuals, and finally induced a few English gentlemen, one of whom was the Duke of Albemarle, to fit out a vessel and to give him the command. This company obtained of the king a patent, giving it the exclusive right to all wrecks that might be discovered, for a certain number of years.
This time there were proper implements for making submarine researches, at least so far as they had been invented in those days. Phips is said to have contrived and made with his own hands some of the drags and hooks.
When he reached Porta de la Plata, he built a stout rowboat, using the adz himself, with his crew. Seizing an opportunity when the sea was unusually calm, he sent eight or ten men, with some Indian divers, to examine the reef, while he remained on the ship. The water was deep about the reef's precipitous walls, and very clear, and the men hung over the boat's side, straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of some fragment of the old ship said to have lain there for more than half a century.
But there was no wreck to be seen. They sent the Indian divers down at different places, all in vain. They were about to leave the reef, when one of the sailors saw a curious sea plant growing in a crevice of the rocks, and sent one of the divers to get it. The diver found in the same spot several old ship's guns. The other divers went down at once, and one brought up a great ingot of silver which proved to be worth £200 or £300. Excited and overjoyed, they placed a buoy over the spot and returned to the ship.
Phips, prepared by sad experience for disappointment, was incredulous of their report until they showed him the ingot. "Thanks be to God!" he cried. "We are all made."
Every man on board at once set to work groping and grappling for the sunken riches, and in a few days they had drawn up treasure of the value of £300,000. They had found, first, that part of the wrecked ship where the bullion was stored; afterwards they found bags of coin which had been placed among the ship's ballast.
The bags had become crusted so thickly with a calcareous deposit that they had to be broken open with irons. When they were burst open, out poured the coins in a golden shower. There were precious stones, also, of much value.
This great good fortune proved to be very ill fortune to a friend of Phips, who had come in a small vessel to his assistance. He was a sea captain of Providence, Rhode Island, named Adderley, and he had by chance been of some help to Phips in the former voyage. With his small crew he managed to load his vessel, in a few days, with 'treasure to the value of several thousand pounds. This sudden, unexpected wealth overthrew the poor captain's reason, and he died insane a year or so afterwards.
Before Phips had wholly explored the wreck, his provisions became exhausted. But the men were so enchanted with their good fortune that they refused to leave the spot until their hunger made the gold seem valueless. On the last day of their search they brought up about twenty heavy lumps of silver.
The Providence captain and his crew were obliged to take an oath of secrecy, and to promise that they would content themselves with what treasure they had already found. But what with the poor captain's insanity and the crew's imprudent boasting, the secret leaked out; a Bermudan ship visited the wreck, and when Phips went back, every ounce of treasure had been carried away. Phips suffered great anxiety in getting his vast treasure to port; but he finally landed it safe in England.
When the profits were divided and the seamen had their promised gratuity, there remained as Phips's share only about 6,000. King James expressed great satisfaction with the results of the enterprise, and in recognition of Phips's services he bestowed upon him the honor of knighthood.
The Woolwich sheep-tender was now Sir William Phips. He was requested to remain in England, with the promise of an honorable and lucrative position in the public service; but his heart was drawn to his native New England. The Massachusetts colony, to which Maine now belonged, was distressed. Her charter had been taken away, and her governor, Sir Edmund Andros, was imperious and grasping.
Increase Mather, then president of Harvard College, undertook a voyage to England to plead the cause of the colony, and immediately found a champion for his cause in the person of the new knight, Sir William Phips. Sir William had reputation at court and was thought to enjoy the king's personal favor; and such advantage as was gained by Mather's mission is undoubtedly to be ascribed to Phips's influence. But when Phips applied directly for the restoration of its former privileges to the colony, King James replied: "Anything but that, Sir William!"
Unable to succeed in this great object, Sir William was determined to be of service to his country in some way. He seems to have been really patriotic, and, no doubt, also cherished a desire to enjoy his wealth and honors at home, where he had been advised to stick to sheep-tending and ship-carpentering.
When a lucrative position under the commissioners of the navy was offered him, he applied for the office of sheriff of New England instead. He received this, and sailed in the summer of 1688 for New England. He found, when he arrived in Boston, that his patent as sheriff would not secure him the possession of the office, Governor Andros and his party being determinedly opposed to him. But he built for his wife the fair brick house in Green Lane, which he had promised her five years before. The name of Green Lane was changed to "Charter Street," in compliment to Sir William. His house stood at the corner of Charter and Salem streets. It was later used as an asylum for boys, but was demolished many years ago.
His wife had her fair brick house, and the Duke of Albemarle sent her a present of a gold cup, whose value is variously stated at from one to four thousand dollars. We hear of her again in the dreadful witchcraft times, when Sir William, after fighting bravely through the Indian wars, had come to be captain general and governor in chief of the province of Massachusetts Bay, in New England. Then it was intimated that the governor's good lady was a witch; for when she was solicited for a favor in behalf of a woman committed on accusation of witchcraft, and in prison for trial at the next assizes, she granted and signed a warrant for the woman's discharge.
When Sir William became governor of Massachusetts, his good fortune began to wane. He was continually annoyed by the defects of his early education, although his knowledge of human nature and his confidence in his own powers concealed many imperfections. It is said that his signature looked always like the awkward, unformed hand of a child.
He was unpopular, and knowing the disesteem in which he was held, he became peevish and irascible. On more than one occasion he used his cane upon officers who failed to agree with him. He often expressed a wish to "go back to his broadax again." Complaints against him were preferred to the king, who refused to condemn him without a hearing, but ordered him to come to England to defend himself.
His friend Cotton Mather declares that Sir William was assured that he should be restored to his governorship. But the disaffection against him was so great that this is improbable. It is certain that he remained in England, and his scheming mind was soon filled with new enterprises.
One was a plan to supply the English navy with timber from the great primeval forests of Maine. The undertaking is said to have been feasible, and Phips was thoroughly well fitted to carry it out. The other plan was to go on another search for shipwrecked treasure, and, indeed, the desire for this exciting sort of adventure had never wholly left his eager mind.
A ship with the Spanish governor Bobadilla on board had been wrecked somewhere near the West Indies. Phips proposed to have the Duke of Albemarle's patent renewed to himself, and to try his fortune again. But in the midwinter of 1695 he took a cold which resulted in a fever, and caused his death in the forty-fifth year of his age. He was buried in the Church of St. Mary Woolnoth.