A Blupete Biography Page

Sir William Phips "STUCK IN A FRAME"
(1651-95): -- CLICK HERE --

Phips was born on a farm on the Kennebec, the youngest of 26 children. He never attended school. After having learned carpentry, young William walked to Boston to seek his fortune. He was not in Boston for long before he befriended a ship's captain, Roger Spencer. Spencer had a daughter, Mary. Mary had married John Hull, a ship builder, who died while Mary was still yet a young woman. William Phips was to marry her. And thus we can see, how, at a comparatively young age, Phips was to become a captain of a trading sloop carrying codfish and pineboards to the West Indies and molasses in return.

While in the Caribbean Phips became fascinated with the stories of sunken Spanish treasure. He again demonstrated his innate ability to ask the right questions of the right people. He interviewed a number of old sailors who had distinct recollections of Spanish treasure ships and how a number of them were lost at sea. One story was particularly intriguing and involved the loss of an entire fleet of Spanish galleons, 16 of them. They had left Puerto Plata loaded with treasure. They had first sailed north in order to catch the current and wind which would eventually bring them to their Spanish homeland. This route, however, required navigation through treacherous Bahamian waters. The Spanish treasure fleet sailed on November 16th, 1643. The word that Phips had, some forty years later, was that a hurricane blew up just two days after the fleet had set out to sea. Phips -- by then an accomplished Caribbean navigator -- calculated the location of about where the fleet likely got itself into trouble: north of Puerto Plata on a reef off the Turks, the reefs of Ambrogian Shoals.

For such treasure hunting, Phips knew he would need some heavy backing. He went to England. In his typical way, Phips was soon to find the right people to talk to and found the right things to say. His various audiences led to the very top, to no less than the king of England, Charles the 2nd. Intrigued, Charles set Phips up with a Royal Naval frigate, the Rose of Algier, 18 guns and manned by 95 English tars. With his new command, and after calling by at Boston, in February of 1684, Phips was soon engaged sounding the waters of the Ambrogian Shoals. He did not meet with immediate success. Prior to the discovery of the treasure, long days and hot sun got to the crew and he had his hands full trying to keep everybody enthused; indeed, at one point he called into a Caribbean port, Port Royal, Jamaica, and discharged the lot of them and picked up a new crew. Having not found what he was looking for Phips returned to England. The crown, however, had lost interest and was no longer interested in speaking to Phips, this wild colonial dreamer. In London, Phips went from one moneyed person to another trying to sell his dream (at one point he was thrown into prison). Finally, Phips and his tale of sunken Spanish treasure was to take hold; a company was formed. Phips was fitted out and returned to the Caribbean in two ships, James of London (22 guns) and Henry of London (10 guns). On his second run at it, in 1687, Phips found what he was looking for. The discovery was made at the tail end of the season; and, after getting some of the treasure aboard, he struck out for England to re-provision. Though I do not know the dates, presumably Phips lost no time getting back to the Bahamian reefs to raise one of the most fabulous treasures ever found. In 1688, Phips returned to London with his ships ladened with 37,538 pounds of pieces of eight, 25 pounds of gold and 2,755 pounds of silver. One tenth of this treasure went to the king, one sixteenth to Phips and the rest to his investors. Phips was to return to America rich. He was knighted and appointed the first Royal Governor of Massachusetts (unpopular appointment): not bad for a little boy from the American frontier with no connections and no education.1

It was to be in 1690 when Phips played his short role in the History of Nova Scotia. He laid siege to the Acadian capital of Port Royal. The French garrison having consisted of around only 70 men who were behind unfinished fortifications, versus, Phips' superior forces (a fleet of seven vessels and 450 militia2). Thus, it is easy to understand why the French governor, Meneval, prudently surrendered up the place. After spending 12 days pillaging Port Royal, the forces of New England went on to wreck havoc on the rest of Acadia, including: Castine, La Harve, Chedabucto and the settlements at the head of the Bay of Fundy. "Massachusetts had made an easy conquest of all Acadia; a conquest, however, which she had neither the men nor the money to secure by sufficient garrisons." Leaving the community under a provisional government consisting of a council of local French leaders, Phips returned to Boston to bask in his glory.

Fancying himself to be a conqueror of all French territory in North America, Phips, fresh from his Port Royal victory, mustered the forces of New England for an immediate attack on fortress Quebec -- his ambition caused him to play out his trumps. His fleet was increased from seven to 32 ships; and his men, to 2000 (mostly inexperienced militia). Within two and half months of arriving back from Port Royal, he was ready. The principal difficulty of this extended military adventure undertaken in the same season (1690) was that Phips left Boston for Quebec too late in the year; he seemingly made no allowance for an extended siege and the oncoming Canadian winter.

It was around the 20th of August, 1690, that Phips set sail from New England.3 "Bad weather, contrary winds, and lack of a St. Lawrence pilot" hampered Phips' progress, such that, his forces were not to anchor in the basin at Quebec until very late in the season. Frontenac, to the extent he could, given that he only had 3,000 men, was ready for this invasion from New England. Phips made a bit of a run at it; but, as we can see from the historical accountings, by October the 23rd, a disappointed Phips had packed it up and was making a run for it down the St Lawrence and back to Boston: the defeat for the New England invaders, this time around, was "complete and disastrous." (DCB).

It would seem that in the following years, Phips settled in to play out his role as a royal governor at Boston. It was a role for which Phips had little training and his rough ways were to soon get him into considerable trouble. Certain influential people at Boston were able to bring considerable pressure on the new regal regime4 that had established itself at London, and, eventually, charges were laid back in England; so serious were these charges, that Phips was called to London to answer them. Arriving in England in the fall of 1694, Sir William prepared himself to face his adversaries; but, before any formal hearing got under way, Phips suddenly died on February 18th, 1695. He was buried in London in the yard of the Church of Woolnoth.

It was said by Fortescue that Phips was "ignorant, brutal, covetous and violent"5; and no historian that I know of has taken a counter view. However, it is clear, that, from the earliest point in his career, Phips had a flair for making himself attractive to powerful and influential men; and, even more important, the ability in the first place to spot them.

"His education had been elementary, his mental endowment was limited, and he was fond of boasting of his self-made career in rather a coarse manner. He was inclined to be rude and hot tempered and on one occasion, while he was governor [Boston], did not hesitate to cane the collector of the port and a Captain in the Royal navy, actions which indicated that he was quote unfitted for such a position. The truth is that Phips was a self-made man of the roughest type. He owed everything to his luck in recovering treasure from a sunken vessel; for this he received a title and obtained the favour of royal parasites who gladly took from him the lion's share. He returned to Massachusetts a marked man, possessing wealth and the king's favour. His capture of Port Royal was the result neither of boldness, ability, nor military qualities. The place fell without any defence. The terms of capitulation were much better than they need have been, had he taken precautions to ascertain the true state of affairs. When he realized that the Governor and Father Petit had scored over him, instead of accepting the situation like a gentleman, he sought and found an excuse to break the terms, and behaved like a cad, even taking the money and personal effects of the Governor, which the Council at Boston later forced him to give back." (Webster's work on Villebon, p. 190.)


[1] The details of this fascinating story have been set forth by Elsie Churchill Tolson in her article, "Treasure for the Taking," NSHQ#5:1, p. 21.

[2] I take my information from DCB; the French made the number of Englishmen at 700 (defenders always over estimate the attackers).

[3] Phips was faced with the same problem that all the conquerors and would be conquerors of Quebec faced: the same problem faced by Napoleon and Hitler: only natives stand a chance to survive the hard cold winters of the north. If those from the south would like to conquer the people of the north: they best get the earliest start in the spring of the year as they possibly can and to go with double the force.

[4] James (VII of Scotland and II of England) was defeated in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689 and the reign of William and Mary then commenced. William and Mary were to be the first English royalty that were to be truly reigned in by the people. This was mainly due to the writings of an influential Englishman by the name of John Locke. Plainly the era had arrived, at least in England, where no ruler could ignore the complaints of the people.

[5] Sir John Fortescue (1859-1933), the English military historian, as quoted by the DCB.


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Peter Landry
2012 (2020)