During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Rhode Island greatly displeased her sister colonies and the British magistrates because of her attitude towards pirates and privateers. Along with a host of accusations, Rhode Island was accused of openly tolerating piracy, illegally commissioning privateers and having illegal admiralty courts.
As early as 1653, Rhode Island commissioned privateers to war against the Dutch and claimed she was totally within her rights to grant these commissions as a means of defense. When the colony began to issue licenses to known pirates, it drew severe criticism from various royal governors who attempted to revoke Rhode Island's Charter.
It is often difficult to distinguish between a pirate and a privateer. By definition, a pirate is a criminal who plunders and robs ships at sea, while a privateer is one operating legally by commission of a duly recognized authority and only preys upon enemies in time of war. In reality, however, both often performed in the same manner and their status was determined by courts within the colony. Rhode Island, in creating its own admiralty court, became notorious for its decisions.
Governor Fletcher of New York wrote in 1696, “Rhode Island pays no obedience to any command from the crown.” At about that time, the British Board of Trade openly stated that the Rhode Island colony was a place where pirates are ordinarily too kindly entertained. They charged that “William Mews, a pirate, fitted out at Rhode Island.” They added that two notorious pirates, Thomas Jones and Captain Want, lived in Rhode Island.
Today, the Ocean State's critics complain that Rhode Island “pirates” retired to Florida or the Caribbean, but in the early 18th century, it was alleged that pirates "retired to Rhode Island" and were honored by the colony. Some of the most notorious residents of the colony at the time were Captain Thomas Tew, Captain William Mays and Captain Thomas Paine.
Very often, the deciding factor in the status of the plundering sea captain was determined by those who invested in him and how much profit could be made. One very obvious case is that of Captain Thomas Tew. When Tew, instead of putting up a bond for 1,000 pounds to safeguard against "unlawful Acts,” offered a bribe of half the amount, he was refused a privateer commission. Tew went to Bermuda and received a license there to war against the French. He went to the island of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa, became a pirate in partnership with the notorious Captain Mission and established a colony in the Indian Ocean as a base for raids. Tew became extraordinarily wealthy and returned to Rhode Island. He repaid the merchants of Newport in whose vessel he sailed, giving them a profit of 14 times the cost of the vessel and the supplies they had given him. Tew retired to Jamestown and became a highly respected ship owner.
Another very infamous "pirate turned pillar of society" was Captain Thomas Paine, friend and confidant of the notorious Captain William Kidd. In 1683 Captain Paine sailed his privateer into Newport. The British tax collector in Boston demanded that the vessel be seized on the grounds that Captain Paine's papers of clearance from Jamaica were forgeries. Rhode Island Governor William Coddington refused to order the vessel seized on the grounds that they seemed to be regular and that the matter should be tried in the courts.
The decision proved fortunate when, in King William's War (l689-1697), Block Island was attacked by the French. In 1689, to stop further raids, Captain Paine was sent to Block Island. Captain Paine and his second-in-command, Captain John Godfrey, were experienced privateers and quickly trapped the French in shallow water. With just 90 men, Paine repelled an attack by 200 Frenchmen. The French casualties were estimated at 100 while Paine's losses were only one man killed and six wounded.
When the French learned that Paine was in command they fled. One of their captains, a man named Pekar, had sailed as a mate on a privateer with Paine and is reported as commenting that he "would as soon fight the devil as Paine.”
Paine became a hero to Rhode Islanders and introduced many of his former colleagues to leading Rhode Island merchants. One of these was Captain William Kidd, who began his career as a privateer but found the raiding so lucrative that he turned pirate when the wars ended. In much the same manner that modern criminals need a place to "launder their money,” Kidd needed a place to distribute his illegal contraband. He found Rhode Island an ideal place and was soon a welcome guest and business associate of many prominent Rhode Islanders. Kidd's ship, the Adventure Galley, was often seen in Newport and Jamestown, where he visited Captain Paine. It was no secret that booty taken by Kidd could be purchased from Paine or Captain Mays, another "retired" pirate.
Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, governor of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York, was infuriated with the idea that Kidd was being backed by Rhode Islanders and obtained a warrant for Kidd's arrest. In castigating Rhode Island, Lord Bellomont charged, "The government is notoriously faulty in countenancing and harboring of pirates, who have openly brought in and disposed of their effects there, whereby the place has been greatly enriched."
Governor Samuel Cranston was accused of harboring Kidd and other Rhode Islanders guilty of conspiracy and piracy. In defiance of Bellomont, Captain Paine and others persuaded Kidd that they could arrange for the pirate to set a full pardon if he would surrender to the authorities in Boston. Bellomont had earlier sent Kidd to the Caribbean to stop piracy, but Kidd joined in with the pirate Culliford and became notorious. Paine and others argued that Kidd could use his earlier record of service to England in his behalf and would then be free of all charges.
Kidd surrendered in Boston, but instead of a pardon he was sent to London for a trial. Here he was found guilty of piracy and of murdering one of his crew and was hanged. Many feel that Kidd was lured into a trap by Paine and his associates and that Kidd's treasure was left with Paine for safekeeping and for bribes which never were paid. Even at this late date there have been several expeditions in and around Jamestown that have hoped to find the buried treasure of the noted pirate.
Lord Bellomont felt that he had sufficient evidence to warrant calling for Rhode Island's Charter and received a great deal of encouragement from the aging King William III. Rhode Island’s actions were regarded as acts leading toward rebellion. Fortunately for the small colony, Bellomont died in 1701 and King William died in 1702. Queen Anne, who succeeded William, was soon engaged in wars of her own, and Rhode Island retained her charter and continued to promote privateers.
The story of Rhode Island's rogues, rascals and pillars of society on land and sea will be continued.