Thomas Tew and the Pirate Utopia of Libertatia

Thu, 06/02/2016 - 9:08am -- Redwood Staff

Thomas Tew, dreaded pirate and local rum namesake, lived a life out of a Daniel Defoe novel. Before Tew was a pirate, he was a respected member of a prominent Newport family, who had a wife and two daughters. Not much else is recorded of his early life before he sails into Bermuda in 1691. There is some speculation that Tew was active as a known pirate before this time, but it is during this particular trip to Bermuda, that he decides a pirate’s life is the one for him.

Tew arrived in Bermuda, 1691, to purchase a share in the sloop Amity. He was chosen as captain, gathered a crew of volunteers, and sailed with another sloop to capture a French factory in Goree, on the River Gambia as part of his privateering commission. When a storm rose up and took down the other sloop, Tew saw his opportunity and presented an alternative business plan to his crew:

“You probably realize that the attack on the French factory will be of little value to the public and will give none of us any reward. There is not any prospect of booty. Speaking for myself, I took the commission for the sake of employment, so I am of the opinion we should turn our thoughts to bettering our condition. If so inclined I shall shape a course which will lead us to ease and plenty for the rest of our days. “

A writer of the time, Johnson (who many believe to be a pen name for Daniel Defoe), claims all hands were with Tew, shouting: “A gold chain or a wooden leg – We’ll stand by you!” From this point Tew enters the Red Sea and takes a huge fortune from an Arabian vessel. With their treasure, the men headed for Madagascar. 23 members of Tew’s crew took their share and went ashore while the remaining crew sailed for America. Almost as soon as they left, they fell in with another ship. Seeing another opportunity for financial gain, Tew hoisted the colors and fired a shot, only to see that the other ship was also a pirate vessel. This ship was the Victorie, captained by the famous French pirate, James Mission. It was rumored that Captain Mission had set up his own pirate colony on Madagascar dubbed Libertatia, and after being wined and dined aboard the Victorie, Tew was cordially invited to see the pirate kingdom.

Map of Madagascar, possibly showing Libertatia (Creative Commons)

In the port of Libertatia, Tew was amazed to see how strongly fortified and defendable the city was. Mission and other pirates made a habit of attacking slave ships off the coast of Africa, freeing the slaves on board, and taking them back to Libertatia to live and work alongside the other pirates. Tew stayed in the pirate utopia for quite awhile, and then took down a few more ships to amass his fortune – among them an English ship that carried 240 slaves that many of Tew’s crew recognized as relatives. Not all missions from Libertatia were for gold and glory – many pirate captains, including Tew, were sent on a four month journey to chart and survey the treacherous coast of Madagascar. This way, they could discover and record dangerous shoals, easy routes, and possible channels for future piratical fraternization. Once returned from this task, Tew proposed to Captain Mission that trade should be established with America, and volunteered to sail back and set things up. Storms in the Caribbean forced him to sail to his home port of Newport, instead, where he was warmly welcomed. Tew brought so much Arabian gold into the city that for a while the coins, worth twice the value of Spanish dollars, were common not only in Newport, but in New York city as well.

A few months later, Tew returned to Libertatia, taking over a few more ships along the way. One day , a pirate ship came into the harbor followed by five Portuguese navy ships. The pirates were at first unconcerned about the ships since they knew how well guarded the port was. However, their tune changed rapidly after all but one ship made it past the outer fortifications. Quickly the pirates doubled their efforts, sinking two more ships in the inner harbor, boarding a third, and chasing away the remaining two. This battle became widely known and a point of pride for pirates everywhere.  Unfortunately for Tew, this would be the beginning of the end.

After the battle, he was given the task of sailing into the Indian Sea and acquiring new recruits for  Libertatia. He went to see an old quartermaster who had left after the first run of the Amity, who could offer no recruits but did extend an invitation for Tew to stay for dinner. As the two feasted, a terrible gale whipped up and threw the Victorie ashore, drowning all the pirates aboard. Tew could only watch as his crew disappeared into the ocean. Caught without a ship or means of communication, Tew could only wait for another pirate to come along. Luckily, Captain Mission started a search party after a few weeks, and found Tew. Unfortunately, he had more bad news.  After Tew had left on the Victorie, another ship had left and the natives of Madagascar had struck Libertatia while it was weak – massacring men, women and children. Captain Mission saw the way the fight was going, and ran aboard a ship on the pier to make his escape.  Only 45 pirates survived the attack of Libertatia. Thoroughly discouraged, both pirates decided to take a break and return to their respective homes for awhile. Another unpredictable storm struck, and Mission’s ship went down within sight of Tew’s, who could do nothing to help his friend.

"Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. 

A depressed Tew returned to Newport, where he quietly settled down at his home. Other pirates squandered their wealth, as they are wont to do, and ultimately a group convinced Tew to take up privateering again. Through the financial assistance of the Governor of New York, Benjamin Fletcher, Tew sailed again in November, 1694. This time, he went to the Red Sea, where he fell in with the pirate armada of “Long Ben” Avery. Twenty-five Arab ships passed them in the dead of night, and Avery gave chase – taking two ships over. His booty was approximately 240,000 pounds of gold and silver. Tew, whose ship was not fast enough to keep up with Avery, came upon a vessel of his own a few days later and attacked it. Perhaps it was the years he spent ashore, or his own over-confidence, but Tew realized too late that he would be defeated. He was shot in the stomach, and as Captain Johnson observed: “held his Bowels with his Hands some small Space; when he dropp’d it struck such a Terror in his men, that they suffered themselves to be taken, without making Resistance.” Thomas Tew died at sea, far from his native Newport, where he had planned to live in peace and quiet during his declining years. In the three years of his pirate activity, Thomas Tew amassed a fortune worth $111 million today, and is considered the third wealthiest pirate in American history.

Thomas Tew (Creative Commons)

In 1945, Edward Rowe Snow, author of Pirates and Buccaneers of the Atlantic Coast, was contacted by a descendant of Thomas Tew. She asked for the author’s help in locating Tew’s treasure chest, which another relative had allegedly seen on Cape Cod around 1920. The family story was that the chest was left in Chatham by Tew’s grandson, and then was sold to a collector. Snow managed to track down the chest and acquire it for a considerable sum.  Before it could be delivered, the woman died and her heirs had no interest in a dusty old treasure chest, so Snow found himself the owner of it instead.

 

Today, Thomas Tew is known mostly as the name of a rum. Recently, the Toy Library in the Redwood Annex has been renamed the Thomas Tew Toy Room, in honor of our very own Newport pirate. 

 

P.S. - It is possible that Libertatia never existed. The accounts we have of the settlement, as well as some of the details about Captains Tew and Mission are found in writings by a certain Captain Johnson. Many believe this is a pen name for Daniel Defoe, and thus many of the pirate adventures were never real. What do you think? Click here to read more about the Daniel Defoe theory.