Tew, of Rhode Island by Rowan Stevens


A Fighter from the Seas

On a lovely morning in the early part of the eighteenth century two vessels might have been seen approaching each other at that point where the northern waters of the Mozambique Channel mingle with those of the Indian Ocean. The day was mild and the wind light and variable. The ships rolled lazily on the languid swell, and a couple of leagues to the south and east of them the low, green shores of Madagascar were dimly visible.

As the vessels drew near to each other the smaller of the two, a large brig-sloop with raking masts and a narrow, speedy-looking hull, put down her helm, rounded into the wind, and ran the black flag up to her main peak. The other, a trim and sturdy ship-rigged craft, with something of a man-of-war look about her lofty spars and graceful lines, seemed little perturbed by this significant display of the pirate emblem. She hove to, however, and the two vessels lay rolling idly on the blue water a long musket-shot apart.

Before the sloop had time for any further demonstration one of the ship’s quarter-boats was lowered and brought to the starboard gangway, and into her stepped a spare, dark, wiry-looking man of medium height, evidently the Captain. The boat shoved off and made for the sloop, the Captain steering, and the crew pulling with the long, regular stroke of man-of-war’s men.

So far the ship had displayed no colors, and the peculiar nonchalance with which her crew had behaved towards the pirates excited the latter’s marked apprehension. Could she be a public ship in disguise? If so, then farewell to the buccaneer’s hopes of brave booty in the Indian seas, for the wind had fallen and the vessels were drifting nearer together.

The dark man seized the life-lines as they were extended to him from the pirates’ gangway, and climbed up the ladder with catlike agility.

“What ship is this?” he asked, curtly, ignoring the crew that pressed ominously about him, and addressing himself to a tall man of a quiet but commanding appearance who stepped forward to meet him.

“This is the sloop Hope, sir, and I am her commander, Thomas Tew, at your service.”

“And I am Captain Misson of the ship Victoire, lately of his French Majesty’s service, but now from the seas.”

The expression “from the seas” at once allayed the fears of Tew’s pirates, for the buccaneers of that day thus characterized themselves in their answering hails.

The crew went about their duty, and the two captains entered the cabin, where they began a friendly conversation, and informed each other of their respective histories.

It seemed that Mr. Richier, the Governor of Bermuda, had fitted out two sloops on the privateer account, one commanded by Captain George Drew, and the other by Thomas Tew. They were instructed to make their way to the river Gambia, in Africa, and to attempt the taking of the French factory of Goree on that coast. The vessels sailed together and kept company for some time, but, a violent storm coming up, Drew sprung his mast and they lost each other.

Tew, separated from his consort, thought of providing for his future with one bold stroke. Accordingly he summoned his crew to the mast, and addressed them upon the subject of his plans.

He told them that they were afloat in a fine craft bent upon a dangerous mission, with no prospect of advantage for themselves, but only for their employers. That he was little inclined to risk his health and his life except for some great personal gain, and finally he proposed bluntly that they should throw off their allegiance to Governor Richier, and go “on the account,” as piracy was called in those days.

 The crew listened eagerly, and at the conclusion of his speech sung out as one man:

“A gold chain or a wooden leg. We’ll stand by you, Captain.”

Tew then made sail for and doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and as he entered the Red Sea on his cruise northward came up with a ship bound from the Indies to Arabia. She was richly laden, and carried three hundred soldiers to aid the crew in defending her cargo; but, notwithstanding her superior force, the pirates carried her with a dash, and shared fifteen thousand dollars a man in plunder. They then stood down the coast towards Madagascar, and the Victoire was the first ship they had sighted since leaving their prize.

Misson listened with interest to Captain Tew’s story, and then gave him a brief account of his own adventures. He said that, having gone to sea as a sub-officer on the ship Victoire of the French royal service, he had participated in an engagement with an English man-of-war; that all his superior officers had been killed in the action, and that he had assumed command and sunk the Briton; and that after this his crew had requested him to retain command and go “on the account” for himself. He confessed that he had willingly acted upon their suggestion, had made several prizes, and established a colony on a bay to the northward of Diego Suariez, on the island of Madagascar. He informed Tew further that he was much impressed with the courage with which the Hope had borne down to engage a vessel so much her superior in size and strength as the Victoire, and that, as he could not have too many resolute fellows as his allies, he would be glad to join forces with Tew’s men.

Tew answered that before entering into an alliance with Misson he would prefer to examine the workings of the latter’s colony. Misson agreed to this, and the Victoire and the Hope sailed in company for Libertaita, as Misson called his new republic.

Just at sunrise the two ships passed between the fortified headlands that guarded the entrance to the pirate stronghold, and Tew, standing on his quarter-deck and following the motions of the Victoire, was astonished at the strength of the harbor he entered, and the discipline that seemed to prevail there.

With the timbers and guns of captured ships Misson had constructed and armed two powerful forts which stood on the headlands at the entrance to the harbor. On a little island, where the channel branched, a brown earthwork pointed ten heavy cannon so as to rake the seaward approaches, and far back of it, on the edge of the bay, the walls and roofs of a fortified town reared themselves orderly amid the green of the tropical foliage. Everywhere was the appearance of industry and discipline. On a beach near the town a group of sailors was engaged careening a small brig to scrape the sea-growths from her sides, another party was filling water-casks at a well-constructed reservoir, and the rattling of echoes of carpenters’ hammers came from a couple of storehouses in process of construction near the water’s edge. From a citadel in the centre of the town and from flag-staffs erected on both forts and the water-battery the flag of Libertaita fluttered in the breeze, vigilant sentries walked the ramparts with military tread, and as the Victoire and the Hope let go their anchors in the gentle ground-swell of the harbor, a battery of eighteen-pounders roared out a welcome of nine guns.

Tew was charmed with the appearance of the place, and upon going ashore with Misson had his favorable impressions strengthened and confirmed. The captains were received with great respect by Caraccioli, Misson’s lieutenant, who admired not a little the courage that Tew had displayed in capturing his prize and in giving chase to Misson.

The colony at this time was peopled by over one thousand men, many of them having been captured by Misson in his prizes. Of these three hundred had taken on with him, one hundred were natives of the island of Mohilla, with whose queen Misson had formed a matrimonial and political alliance, and the remainder were prisoners whom Misson intended to send to their homes, and whom he employed in the mean time as laborers around his fortifications.

The day after the arrival of the captains at Libertaita a formal council was held. Tew promptly expressed his willingness to join forces with Misson, and was made second in command.

The question of the disposition of Misson’s numerous prisoners was brought up at once. It was decided to tell them that Misson had formed an alliance with a prince of the natives, and to propose to them that they should either assist the new colony or be sent up the country as prisoners. On this decision being imparted to them, seventy-three of the prisoners took on, and the remainder desired that they be given any other fate than that of being sent up into the wild and savage interior; so one hundred and seventeen of them were set to work upon a dock near the mouth of the harbor, and the other prisoners, lest they should revolt, were forbidden, under pain of death, to pass certain prescribed bounds. The Hope lay in the harbor as a guard-ship, and the Johanna men were armed and put on patrol duty; but while the pirates were providing for their protection they did not forget their support, and large quantities of Indian and European corn and other grain were sowed in the fertile fields of Libertaita.

Soon after this it was decided to send away the prisoners, as they were too much of a burden for the infant colony. They were accordingly summoned before the captains and told that they were to be set at liberty. Misson informed them that he knew the consequence of giving them freedom; that he expected to be attacked as soon as the place of his retreat was known, and had it in his hands to avoid further trouble by putting them all to death; but that Captain Tew had agreed with him to practise humanity, and that they were to have their property restored to them, and were to sail for a friendly coast the next morning in a ship that was well provisioned but unarmed. All he asked was that they should never serve against him. An oath to this effect was cheerfully taken, and away the prisoners sailed to the nearest European settlement.

When they had gone Misson returned to the work of improving his town, and gave the command of his ship, the Victoire, to Tew, who, with one hundred and sixty picked fellows, set out to sweep the seas. He sailed down the wind to the coast of Zanzibar, and off Quiloa made up to a large ship which backed her main-topsail and laid by for him. Tew engaged her for four hours, losing many men, but finding her a Portuguese public ship of fifty guns and three hundred men, much more than a match for the little Victoire, he attempted to make off. The Victoire, however, was so foul from her long service that she could not show her customary clean pair of heels, and the stranger, proving fast and weatherly, drew up with her. The Portuguese Captain, a gallant officer of great height and herculean strength, lay alongside the Victoire and boarded her at the head of his men; but the pirates, not used to being attacked, and expecting no quarter, made so desperate a resistance that they not only drove back the enemy with loss, but were enabled to board in their turn. At first only a few followed the Portuguese as they leaped back into their own ship; but Tew, perceiving the desperate resolution of these, sang out, “Follow me, lads!” and sprang over his enemy’s rail. The Portuguese opposed the pirates firmly for a time, but to Tew’s cry, “She’s our own! Board her! Board her!” his men replied in continually augmenting numbers, and drove the defenders back to the main-hatch. Here a bloody conflict ensued, for the Portuguese Captain fought in the front rank of his men, and with voice and example encouraged them to combat. Seeing this, Tew rushed forward to meet him, and the two captains crossed swords with equal bravery. The crews paused to observe the duel, and watched with fiercely excited eyes the flashing sabres and shifting poises of their champions. The Portuguese had a longer reach, and was much taller and stronger than the pirate, but the latter had the agility of a panther, and was noted as one of the best swordsmen of his day. Time and again the Portuguese made a dash against his adversary with point or blade, only to be met with an accurate parry or a quick return stroke that forced him backward nearer and nearer to the open hatch. Finally Tew parried a furious lunge and delivered his terrible return stroke on the neck of the Portuguese, who threw up his hands and fell backward down the hatch. This ended the fight, and the crew of the public ship called for quarter.

With his rich prize, which yielded him one hundred thousand pounds in Spanish gold, Tew put back to port, where, notwithstanding his severe loss, his courage and dash were loudly acclaimed by the colony. Caraccioli persuaded two hundred and ten of the Portuguese to join the Libertaitans, and among them, to Misson’s great pleasure, was found a school-master, whose services he at once devoted to the instruction of his negroes.

Two sloops of eighty tons each had been built in a creek, and when they were finished they were armed with eight guns apiece out of a Dutch prize, and sent on a trial trip. They proved to be fast, weatherly vessels, and on their return from their first trip to sea Misson proposed to send them out on a voyage of survey to lay down a chart of the shoals and deep water around the coast of Madagascar. As Tew was an excellent navigator he was given command of the expedition and of one of the sloops, while the school-master, who proved to be a good seaman and skilful surveyor, commanded the other. The sloops were manned with a crew of fifty blacks and fifty whites each, and their four months’ voyage enabled the negroes not only to learn how to handle the boarding-pike, but, as they were anxious to learn and be useful, to pick up a fair knowledge of French and seamanship. They returned with an excellent chart and three prizes. Misson now determined to make a foray in force, and, dividing five hundred men, white and black, between the Victoire and the Hope, he and Tew set out for the high seas; of course a strong force was left behind as a garrison.

Off the coast of Arabia Felix they fell in with a ship of one hundred and ten guns belonging to the Great Mogul. This ship carried a crew of seven hundred men and nine hundred passengers, and towered monstrously above the low sides of the pirate vessels; but Tew on the starboard quarter and Misson on the port bore up gallantly, and engaged her. To the opening broadsides of the pirates she thundered an awful response. Soon the wind died out, and thick clouds of smoke lay motionless on the water; under its cover Tew brought the little Hope alongside, and, with his cutlass between his teeth and his pistol in his hand, clambered up the lofty side. He had barely reached the rail when he was severely wounded and knocked overboard by a pike-thrust. However, he soon came to the surface, and managed, at the head of a few of his men, to enter one of his enemy’s lower-deck ports. In the mean time Misson had boarded the Mussulman on the port quarter, and a hand-to-hand fight was going on over the rail. Misson was hard pressed by numbers when Tew appeared from the fore-hatch. One glance at this murderous-looking figure, with bloody and smoke-grimed garments, rushing at them sword in hand from behind, was enough for the Mussulmans, and with a wild shriek of “Allah!” they broke and fled down the hatches, leaving the pirates in possession.

HE WAS KNOCKED OVERBOARD BY A PIKE-THRUST

This proved a most valuable capture, as over one million pounds, besides many rich silks, spices, valuable carpets, and diamonds were stored in the prize’s hold and strong-boxes.

The prisoners were landed at a point between Ain and Aden, and the captured ship brought back to Libertaita, where, as she had proved a slow and unwieldly craft, she was taken to pieces. Her cordage and knee-timbers were preserved with all the bolts, eyes, chains, and other iron-work, and her guns were used in two strong water-batteries as an additional support to the forts on the headlands.

The colony was now in prime condition; a number of acres had been enclosed, and afforded pasturage for three hundred head of cattle—a purchase from the natives, who had begun to manifest a most friendly spirit—the grain was ripening finely, the storehouses and magazines were well under way, and the dock was finished.

As the Victoire was foul from long service and very loose from recent storms, she was docked and practically rebuilt. When she was floated again she was provisioned for a long cruise, and was about to set out for the Guinea coast when one of the sloops came in, schooner-rigged, with the news that she had been driven to port by five lofty ships, Portuguese, of fifty guns each and full of men.

The alarm was given, the forts and batteries manned, and the men put under arms. Tew was given command of the English and Portuguese, while Misson directed the French and one hundred disciplined negroes. Slowly and majestically the fleet swept on towards the pirate stronghold; as they came within easy gun-shot Tew leaped to the side of his water-battery, and with both arms outstretched stood waving in one hand the black flag, and in the other the banner of Libertaita, with its white albatross on a blue field. A storm of solid shot greeted the daring figure, but he leaped down unharmed, as battery after battery and fort after fort opened with a steady roar against the invader. The Portuguese dashed by the forts triumphantly, but wavered as they came under the fire at close range of the heavy guns of the water-batteries. They had thought to carry all before them with one bold dash, and after passing the headlands had deemed victory assured, but here they were in a hornets’ nest. Under the dreadful fire from Tew’s and Misson’s skilful gunners two of the Portuguese vessels were speedily sunk. The others turned to flee; but they were not to get off so easily. No sooner were they clear of the forts than the pirates manned both ships and sloops, gave them chase, and engaged them in the open sea. The Portuguese defended themselves gallantly, and one of them, which was attacked by the two sloops, beat off the Libertaitans twice; two made a running fight and got off, and the third was left to shift as she could. This last, a fifty-gun ship of three hundred and twenty men, defended herself till the greater number of her crew were killed. Finally, finding that she was left to an unequal fight, she asked for quarter, and good quarter was given. Thus ended Admiral X’s “holiday jaunt to wipe out a nest of pirates,” as the Portuguese Commander-in-Chief had described his expedition in advance.

None of the prisoners were plundered, but, on the contrary, the pirate captains invited to their table the officers of the captured ship, and congratulated them upon their courage and ability.

For some months after this nothing occurred to interrupt the quiet of the colony. Finally, wearying of inactivity, Tew took the Victoire and three hundred men and sailed in search of prizes. Sixty miles from Libertaita he found a strange colony of buccaneers. The ship hove to and the Captain went ashore alone to make the acquaintance of the strangers. While he was absent from the ship a great gale rose and blew the Victoire ashore on a dangerous reef; she went down before his eyes, carrying with her every man of the crew.

 This was not the end of misfortune, for a few nights afterwards the two Libertaitan sloops appeared, and from one of them Misson came ashore with disastrous news. The same night that the Victoire went down the natives had risen and destroyed Libertaita; Misson had saved a quantity of diamonds and bar gold, and fled in the sloops with the remnant of his band; they were now without a ship and without a haven.

The plunder and the men were equally divided between the sloops, and the two captains sailed in company for the coast of America. Misson’s vessel went down with all hands in a gale off Cape Infantes, but Tew made a peaceful voyage to the British colonies. He settled in Rhode Island, dispersed his crew, and lived for a time unquestioned with his wealth. He might have reached an honored old age, with nothing to recall the memories of his past, but at the end of a few years he was persuaded to go once more “on the account.” In the Red Sea he engaged a ship of the Great Mogul, vastly his superior in size and armament. During the action Tew received a mortal wound, but fought on as long as he could stand. When he fell his men became terrified, and suffered themselves to be taken without resistance. They were all hanged; and so ended the last of the Libertaitans.