Of Captain Thomas Tew

Thomas Tew

America’s Robin Hood of the Red Sea

By Christine L. Putnam

After a several days at sea, the Captain gathered his crew on deck. In the scorching sun, he offered his men a choice: continue as privateers risking their lives for someone else’s profit or set sail on a new course for the Red Sea where the easy prey of Arabian ships offered riches beyond their wildest dreams. The crew would have to decide -- privateer or pirate? Their answer changed history...

Thomas Tew
America’s Robin Hood of the Red Sea

Christine L. Putnam

One of the most notorious sea outlaws of the 17th century never considered himself a pirate. Captain Thomas Tew resented any suggestion that his maritime enterprises involved acts of high seas terror akin to piracy. And he had good reason.  From Boston to New York, merchants respected the businessman who brought them essential goods demanded by colonists. His crew never fired a shot against anyone but England’s enemies. Friends and neighbors welcomed the colonial gentleman privateer into their homes and hailed him as a hero. Thus, as a privateer, Captain Tew enjoyed a career protected by law, respected through tradition, and maintained with success for the benefit of society, especially well-financed businessmen. However, increased danger and limited profits began to sour Tew’s enthusiasm for his sea trade.  Perhaps, he had been too quick in condemning this pirate business, after all.

Unlike most sea captains of his day, Thomas Tew came from a wealthy and respected Rhode Island family. He had married, and fathered two daughters. But adventure on the high seas, escape from daily colonial life, and easy revenue, lured him to the sea.  A black-market created in opposition to England’s Navigation Acts of 1650, which restricted imports to the American colonies, provided Tew with the foundation for his privateering business. The clean shaven and well-dressed sea captain established trade between American merchants and privateers in the West Indies.  In 1690, Tew left his family and launched a base of operations in Bermuda.[1] There, he and other privateers preyed on French and Spanish shipping which provided the colonies with vast cargoes of vital goods.

Two years later, England’s peace with Spain ended the legal pillaging of Spanish ships.  In Bermuda, Tew, like other privateers, tradesmen, and government officials, watched his revenues drop. In the spring of 1692, a group of these gentlemen formed a consortium to finance a secret raid on a French settlement off the Guinea Coast which they hoped would reinvigorate privateering on the high seas[2]. To lead the expedition, they needed a tough, experienced, and trustworthy sea captain. They selected Captain Thomas Tew. Without hesitation, Tew accepted their offer, but envisaged secret plans of his own.

The consortium provided Tew with an 8-gun sloop, the Amity.  Preparations for the expedition took several months with Tew overseeing everything from the recruitment of the ship’s crew to the placement of guns on her deck. He enlisted over sixty veteran mariners with guarantees of generous plunder, but kept the specifics about the voyage and the target to himself.[3] But as ship and crew stood ready to leave on the ship’s deck, Captain Tew stood on the dock. Tew refused to set sail without the proper legal authorization required for privateers recognized by the Crown. Bermuda Governor Sir John Richier issued the letter of marque in December giving Tew the authority to capture and destroy French forts and factories off the Guinea Coast.[4] The orders seemed clear and concise. As the Amity sailed out of the harbor, the gentlemen of the consortium felt confident that the restoration of their wealth and prestige lay in good hands.

A second ship with a letter of marque from the Governor of Bermuda accompanied Tew and the Amity.  Captain George Dew had orders from the consortium to assist Tew in the expedition off the Guinea Coast.  While at sea, a murderous storm thrust both ships against crashing waves and violent winds. When peaceful seas returned, the Amity appeared unscathed, but the topmast of Captain Dew’s ship lay in near ruins.  Dew had no choice, but to return to Bermuda for repairs.

The Amity continued on alone.

After several days at sea, Tew gathered the crew on the Amity’s deck.  In the scorching sun, they listened to their captain reveal the details of their mission to the Guinea Coast. In an unexpected move, Tew admitted that this expedition offered them little plunder at high risk to themselves. As the crew began to grumble, Tew offered a solution. Beyond Africa in the Indian Ocean, the Captain explained, Arab ships weighted down with vast cargoes of spices, ivory, silks, drugs, perfumes, precious stones, and chests of gold and silver, crossed the Persian Gulf and Red Sea every day.[5] Despite the wealthy cargo, Tew continued, these Arab ships traveled with only ill-equipped, feeble guards.  A decision had to be made and Tew left it to his crew: the Guinea Coast and meager French plunder at extreme risk or the Red Sea and Arab ships with little danger and rich spoils for all.

Privateer or pirate?

Tew did not have to wait long for their answer. In one voice the Amity crew vowed, “A gold chain or a wooden leg, we’ll stand by you.”[6] It was the answer the Captain from Rhode Island had expected.

Tew’s letter of marque, which he demanded before leaving Bermuda, no doubt, found itself cast overboard in a sea of irrelevancy. Whether or not Tew admitted he had chosen a pirate’s course here, remains a mystery, but without a letter of marque, neither could he claim to be a privateer. The American sea trader had become a pirate captain regardless of how he felt about such titles.

The Amity set sail for the Indian Ocean and the freedom of the spoils that lay ahead. Few ships, privateer or pirate had ventured to the East which lay shrouded in mystery. The Amity’s crew could only guess at what might lay ahead. 

Storms and intense heat greeted the Amity crew when they sailed into the Indian Ocean moving north toward the Red Sea in April 1693.[7] However, the guaranteed spoils and easy Arab prey failed to materialize.  After several months of criss-crossing the Red Sea, they had only captured failure and frustration.  Tew remained steadfast in his belief that Arab ships would soon arrive, and reminded his crew of the vast wealth awaiting them if only they held out a little longer. The wait continued.

Finally, their reward arrived.  In the midst of another broiling hot day, crewmen spotted the prey they had been imagining for so long -- a great Mogul ship. As she moved toward the Arab port, the Amity gave chase and in no time overcame her. Tew ordered his men to grab their guns and swords and stand ready to board the enemy ship. Across the water on the Mogul ship’s deck, over 300 of her crew braced themselves to fight with muskets, spears, and scimitars.[8] After a tense moment, the Mogul crew put down their weapons in surrender. Not a single member of her crew tried to resist the men of the Amity as they boarded the Mogul ship.

The Amity crew no longer doubted the intelligence, foresight, or skill of their captain. The cargo on the Mogul ship yielded a rich bounty of gold, silver, gems, pearls, spices, and silk worth over £100,000.[9]  Tew kept £8,000 and sent £5,000 to the consortium back in Bermuda while the crew split their share of the gold and silver.[10] The cargo would eventually find its way to the homes of American colonists. Eager to move after more Arab ships, Tew, nevertheless, accepted the quartermaster’s refusal to push the exhausted Amity crew any further.  Instead, Tew ordered the crew to set sail for Madagascar and a well-earned rest.

The Amity found the perfect hideout at St. Mary’s island off the northeastern coast of Madagascar. Here the crew celebrated their plunder, more than any of them earned in a lifetime at sea. Tew and company then continued to “Libertatia” in Madagascar where he stayed with the French pirate, Misson.* Together Tew and Misson led another expedition to the Red Sea where they captured an Arab ship. Again, the Arab crew offered little resistance. Misson took as prisoners 100 young women and girls traveling aboard ship with their families on a pilgrimage to Mecca.[11] Later, he sold them as slaves. If Tew objected to Misson’s clear acts of piracy and terrorism, he offered little resistance.

Tew stayed with Misson in Madagascar through the fall of 1693 while the Amity underwent repairs and preparations for the long voyage back to Rhode Island.[12] Two months later, the Amity set sail for America. On the trip, Tew, still eager to continue his successful raids, scanned the horizon in hopes of capturing one more cargo of spoils. When crewmen spotted a merchant ship from India, the Captain ordered the crew to hoist the black bunting and give chase.  The Indian ship tried to break away, but Tew refused to give up. He ordered the crew to fire the Amity’s cannons. The barrage worked. The Indian ship suffered a devastating blow to both sails and rudder.  Once again, Tew and the Amity’s crew enjoyed a rich bounty with minimal effort or risk.

In April 1694, the Amity sailed into American waters, and finally arrived home in Rhode Island.[13] The people of Newport welcomed Tew as the conquering hero and rejoiced in his taking plunder from “heathen moors”.[14] Young men begged Tew to let them sail with him on his next voyage. New England merchants rushed to acquire the cargo of goods so desperately sought after by colonists.  Stories of the Amity’s exploits on the Red Sea charged through the colonies and the grateful colonists proclaimed Tew high seas Robin Hood.  Tew, with his wife and daughters, received dozens of invitations to dine with the most prestigious families in the colonies, including the governor of New York.

While he enjoyed his new found fame and status, Tew refused all appeals to lead another cruise to the Red Sea.  Back in Newport, the famous captain planned a peaceful retirement on the lavish estate he purchased with Arabian gold and silver. His expedition, however, had ignited interest in the vast wealth and easy prey of Arab ships. Tew had opened the door to the East and everyone wanted to rush in and take the spoils.  New England merchants eager for another generous cargo of goods, young men with dreams of grand sea adventures, and local colonists in need of vital items and rich stories, felt disappointed that their Robin Hood of the Red Sea preferred the quiet of the land to the roaring of the sea.

Everyday life on the manor seemed ill-suited to the daring sea captain and soon Tew felt restless and impatient.  Perhaps, pressure from New England merchants and fading fame also played a role in his change of heart.  No matter the reasons, Tew felt he had to embark on one more voyage.  He ordered the Amity refitted with six new guns and other preparations made to ready her for the expedition.[15] Once again, Tew refused to sail without proper authorization from the Crown. Governor Fletcher of New York acquiesced in exchange for a £300 bribe.[16] The Amity left Rhode Island in November 1694 destined for the Red Sea.[17] Tew promised his wife and daughters that he would see them again in the spring. This time, the captain assured his family, he would retire from the sea for good.

As the Amity sailed out of the harbor, crewmen hoisted up the captain’s new flag: black cloth with a white, powerful arm wielding a cutlass. Perhaps, Tew had finally settled the debate in his own mind between privateer and pirate, or maybe he no longer worried about the semantics of language. Either way, with his illegally obtained letter of marque and his pirate flag flying in the wind, Tew’s intentions for the voyage resonated loud and clear with the crew: plunder and spoils at any cost and to hell with anyone who tried to stop them.

When Tew arrived at Perim Island in the Red Sea, he discovered that other pirates had equally ambitious plans for Arab ships. Henry Avery, captain of the Fancy had already enlisted Captain Want of the Dolphin and Captain Faro of the Portsmouth Adventurer along with captains, Wake of the Susanna and Mues of the Pearl.[18] Working together, Avery planned to overpower the famed Mocha Fleet which carried thousands of pilgrims and rich cargo on an annual voyage to Mecca. With nothing to lose and much to gain, Tew agreed to join the pirate group.

The first port of call for the Mocha Fleet was the Arabian port of Mocha which gave its name to the convoy headed to Mecca. With Avery’s Fancy as the flagship, each pirate vessel patrolled autonomously on the lookout for any sign of the Mocha Fleet. After weeks of searching and waiting in the Indian Ocean, all assumed they had missed their opportunity. To be sure, Avery sent a boat into Mocha but expected the worst. Much to everyone’s surprise, crewmen returned with good news -- the Mocha Fleet, anchored nearby, prepared to sail any day! The crews of each ship waited and watched the horizon.

A week later on a moonless Sunday night, the 25 large ships of the Mocha Fleet slipped unobserved past the pirates on watch.[19] On Monday, when Tew and the other captains realized what had happened, they ordered their ships made ready at once for what would be a frenetic pursuit. None of the pirate ships had expected a long sea journey, nor had they stocked their ships for such. After panicked crews rushed to their ships ready, a maddened chase after the Mocha Fleet ensued. Months of waiting had made every captain and crew determined to get their prizes at any cost.

Tew’s crew had also rushed and panicked to get the Amity ready for pursuit. Soon, they sighted a smaller Arab ship, the Fateh Mohamed within range and gave chase. Tew, no doubt, assumed this Arab ship, like all of the others, would yield to his crew without a fight.

On a hot September day in 1695, Tew’s plans fell apart.[20] His abrupt pursuit, unyielding determination, and flawed calculation proved fatal.

When the Amity fired her cannons, the Arab ship fired back. Although taken off guard, Tew did not give in. He ordered the crew to fight, most likely ensuring them that the spoils would more than make up for any bloodshed. The Amity crew tried to board the Arab ship but her crew responded with gunfire. The two ships exchanged a deadly salvo of cannon fire, neither willing to break off the engagement. Thick smoke filled the air. The Amity crew scrambled on deck and continued the barrage while they waited for further orders from their trusted Captain Tew. As a cloud of smoke cleared, they saw Tew lying on deck in a pool of blood.  He had been hit in the abdomen and if he had time to utter any last words, they remain lost to history. Tew died within minutes.

The Amity broke off the engagement and allowed Avery’s crew to take over the battle.  They buried Captain Thomas Tew at sea as was the custom and fitting manner to the Rhode Island mariner. The crew then sailed to St. Mary’s and elected a new captain, Bobbington. They traveled to the Indies and fell victim to the Moors before disappearing from all accounts.

In Rhode Island, Captain Thomas Tew was mourned as a successful businessman-privateer, a well-dressed gentleman and familyman, and a sort of colonial Robin Hood who robbed the wealthy and provided essential goods for his neighbors. Under England’s repressive legislation, men like Tew found that the fine line between privateer and pirate mattered little to people desperate for necessary items to ease the demands of colonial life. Their plight and the potential for easy success encouraged Tew to venture into unchartered waters. Although never considered a pirate in his lifetime, Tew inspired the very occupation he seemed to resent. After the success of the Amity in the Red Sea, mutinies increased and more sailors became pirates then ever before.  In the ten years following Tew’s first voyage to the Red Sea, over 1,500 pirates moved their operations to Madagascar and nearby islands.[21] The Rhode Island gentleman had not only earned his reputation as a successful privateer, notorious sea captain, and feared pirate, he had catapulted maritime history into an entirely new direction. Thomas Tew, the Robin Hood of the Red Sea, exposed the wealth of the East and in doing so, opened the doors to a golden age of piracy.  His legacy continued long after a fateful day in September robbed the captain from one last cargo of spoils.   


[1] Angus Konstam, The History of Pirates (New York: The Lyons Press, 1999), 126.

[2] Frank Sherry, Raiders and Rebels: The Golden Age of Piracy (New York: Hearst Marine Books, 1986), 25.

[3] Sherry, 25.

[4] Charles Grey, Pirates of the Eastern Seas, 1618-1723 (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd., 1933), 126.

[5] Sherry, 27.

[6] Jenifer Marx, Pirates and Privateers of the Caribbean (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co, 1992), 209.

[7] Sherry, 28.

[8] Marx, 209.

[9] Marx, 209.

[10] Jan Rogozinski, Pirates! Brigands, Bucanners, and Pirates in Fact, Fiction, and Legend (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1995), 337.

* There is no evidence that Libertatia or Misson existed. He is mentioned in a few books, including Patrick Pringle’s, Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1953), 136.

[11] E.O. Hoppé, Pirates, Buccaneers, and Gentlemen Adventurers (New York: Barnes and Company, 1972), 100.

[12] Rogozinski, 337.

[13] Pringle, 137.

[14] Marx, 209.

[15] John Franklin Jameson, Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period (New York: The MacMillan Co, 1932), 167.

[16] Hoppé, 101.

[17] Pringle, 138.

[18] Alfred Sternbeck, Filibusters and Bucaneers, trans. Elizabeth Hill and Doris Mudie (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1930), 224.

[19] Sternbeck, 224.

[20] Sherry, 33-34.

[21] Sherry, 98.