Below is the strange tale of William Phipps, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, and his successful search for fabulous sunken treasure in the Caribbean, as written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Before we get into that tale, here are some odd facts:
Although the story appears, for the most part, to have been authentic, the part that seems questionable has to do with William’s extremely humble, stereotypically humble, beginnings. Even if he was born in poverty, one would think, wasn’t his family likely connected in some at least distant way with other individuals named Phipps, some of whom were persons of wealth and position?
Hawthorne, in his account, places William Phipps into an association with two highly unlikely individuals – King James and the Duke of Albemarle. This is an association which seems outrageously unlikely if there was not more to the tale than Hawthorne tells us.
Hawthorne has Phipps first going to King James for funding for his sunken treasure recovery venture. Actually, it wasn’t King James who first outfitted Phipps, but instead King Charles II. But Charles only lived to 6 February 1685.
Then his brother King James II enters into the picture, having taken the throne by that time. When Phipps returned to the king, asking for funding for a second expedition, it was King James II who refused funding, which brought the Duke of Albemarle into the picture.
The second creation of the Dukedom of Albemarle involved George Monck, the first Duke of Albemarle (1608-1670), and Christopher Monck, the second Duke (1653-1688). Then Henry FitzJames (1673-1702) was styled the so-called first Duke of Albemarle (1673-1702), as the first Jacobite creation, in 1696. FitzJames was an illegitimate son of James II, and this is where it begins to get very interesting.
James II was born in 1633. The first Jacobite Duke of Albemarle was an illegitimate son of King James II. An illegitimate daughter of King James II was Catharine Darnley. She is referred to in printed histories as James’s “natural” daughter, which means his illegitimate daughter.
She married James Annesley, which made her the Countess of Anglesey. Then because of her second marriage, which was to John Sheffield, she became Duchess of the County of Buckingham and of Normanby.
James Annesley and his wife Catharine Darnley (again, the daughter of King James II) were the parents of Catharine Annesley, born in 1701. She married William Phipps in 1718.
That William Phipps was born in 1698 and was christened in Middlesex. He was a son of Constantine Henry Phipps, born in 1655 or 1656 in Reading, Berkshire, England. His father, in turn, was Francis Phipps, born in 1610, who is positioned as a patriarch in the Four Visitations of Berkshire.
Francis, according to heraldry sources, married Anne Sharpe, but appears to have also remarried later to Sarah, widow of Col. John Jeaffreson of St. Kitts in the Caribbean.
What is going on here? William Phipps didn’t marry Catharine Annesley until about 24 years after Sir William Phips/Phipps had died. And yet here are some amazing oddities:
- Sir William Phipps supposedly comes from a dirt-poor family with presumably no social connections, yet marries into high society.
- Then he starts a business of transporting goods from the West Indies to Boston.
- He approaches King James II, who just happens to father a woman who later married a Phipps of supposedly an entirely different Phipps family but with connections to the West Indies.
- That woman’s brother just happened to be the Duke of Albemarle, apparently the same one who financed Sir William Phips’s second expedition.
- The William who married the daughter of King James was descended from the family of Francis Phipps of Reading, Berkshire, England, with West Indies connections.
This clearly suggests something going on that was covert and that has escaped the history books. Just what, exactly, will take some more digging. It even makes one wonder whether Sir William could have been the immigrant who “got in a fight with some big wheel in England and killed him.” At least, there seems to be some hint of a possibility that this was a man with connections who, for whatever reason, had fallen from grace.
From Nathaniel Hawthorne, Grandfather’s Chair: True Stories from New England History and Biography (New York: University Publishing Company, 1901), pp. 46-52:
Chapter 10: The Tale of the Sunken Treasure.
“And what became of the chair?” inquired Clara.
“The outward aspect of our chair,” replied Grandfather, “was now somewhat the worse for its long and arduous services. It was considered hardly magnificent enough to be allowed to keep its place in the council chamber of Massachusetts. In fact, it was banished as an article of useless lumber. But Sir William Phipps happened to see it, and, being much pleased with its construction, resolved to take the good old chair into his private mansion. Accordingly, with his own gubernatorial hands, he repaired one of its arms, which had been slightly damaged.”
“Why, Grandfather, here is the very arm!” interrupted Charley, in great wonderment. “And did Sir William Phipps put in these screws with his own hands? I am sure he did it beautifully! But how came a governor to know how to mend a chair?”
“I will tell you a story about the early life of Sir William Phipps,” said Grandfather. “You will then perceive he well knew how to use his hands.”
So Grandfather related the wonderful and true tale of The Sunken Treasure.
Picture to yourselves, my dear children, a handsome, old-fashioned room, with a large, open cupboard at one end, in which is displayed a magnificent gold cup, with some other splendid articles of gold and silver plate. In another part of the room, opposite to a tall looking-glass, stands our beloved chair, newly polished, and adorned with a gorgeous cushion of crimson velvet tufted with gold.
In the chair sits a man of strong and sturdy frame, whose face had been roughened by northern tempests and blackened by the burning sun of the West Indies. He wears an immense periwig flowing down over his shoulders. His coat has a wide embroidery of golden foliage; and his waistcoat, likewise, is all flowered over and bedizened with gold. His red, rough hands, which have done many a good day’s work with the hammer and adze, are half covered by the delicate lace ruffles at his wrists. On a table lies his silver-hilted sword; and in a corner of the room stands his gold-headed cane, made of a beautifully polished West India wood.
Somewhat such an aspect as this did Sir William Phipps present when he sat in Grandfather’s chair after the king had appointed him governor of Massachusetts. Truly there was need that the old chair should be varnished and decorated with a crimson cushion, in order to make it suitable for such a magnificent-looking personage.
But Sir William Phipps had not always worn a gold-embroidered coat, nor always sat so much at his ease as he did in Grandfather’s chair. He was a poor man’s son, and was born in the province of Maine, where he used to tend sheep upon the hills in his boyhood and youth. Until he had grown to be a man, he did not even know how to read and write. Tired of tending sheep, he next apprenticed himself to a ship-carpenter, and spent about four years in hewing the crooked limbs of oak trees into knees for vessels.
In 1673, when he was twenty-two years old, he came to Boston, and soon afterwards was married to a widow lady, who had property enough to set him up in business. It was not long, however, before he lost all the money that he had acquired by his marriage, and became a poor man again. Still he was not discouraged. He often told his wife that, some time or other, he should be very rich, and would build a “fair brick house” in the Green Lane of Boston.
Do not suppose, children, that he had been to a fortune-teller to inquire his destiny. It was his own energy and spirit of enterprise, and his resolution to lead an industrious life, that made him look forward with so much confidence to better days.
Several years passed away, and William Phipps had not yet gained the riches which he promised to himself. During this time he had begun to follow the sea for a living. In the year 1684 he happened to hear of a Spanish ship which had been cast away near the Bahama Islands, and which was supposed to contain a great deal of gold and silver. Phipps went to the place in a small vessel, hoping that he should be able to recover some of the treasure from the wreck. He did not succeed, however, in fishing up gold and silver enough to pay the expenses of the voyage.
But, before he returned, he was told of another Spanish ship, or galleon, which had been cast away near Porto de la Plata. [Footnote: “A seaport of Haiti.”] She had now lain as much as fifty years beneath the waves. This old ship had been laden with immense wealth, and hitherto nobody had thought of the possibility of recovering any part of it from the deep sea which was rolling and tossing it about. But though it was now an old story, and the most aged people had almost forgotten that such a vessel had been wrecked, William Phipps resolved that the sunken treasure should again be brought to light.
He went to London and obtained admittance to King James, who had not yet been driven from his throne. He told the king of the vast wealth that was lying at the bottom of the sea. King James listened with attention, and thought this a fine opportunity to fill his treasury with Spanish gold. He appointed William Phipps to be captain of a vessel called the Rose Algier, carrying eighteen guns and ninety-five men. So now he was Captain Phipps of the English navy.
Captain Phipps sailed from England in the Rose Algier, and cruised for nearly two years in the West Indies, endeavoring to find the wreck of the Spanish ship. But the sea is so wide and deep, that it is no easy matter to discover the exact spot where a sunken vessel lies. The prospect of success seemed very small, and most people would have thought that Captain Phipps was as far from having money enough to build a “fair brick house” as he was while he tended sheep.
The seamen of the Rose Algier became discouraged, and gave up all hope of making their fortunes by discovering the Spanish wreck. They wanted to compel Captai Phipps to turn pirate. There was a much better prospect, they thought, of growing rich by plundering vessels which still sailed in the sea than by seeking a ship that had lain beneath the waves full half a century. They broke out in open mutiny, but were finally mastered by Phipps and compelled to obey his orders. It would have been dangerous, however, to continue much longer at sea with such a crew of mutinous sailors; and, besides, the Rose Algier was leaky and unseaworthy. So Captain Phipps judged it best to return to England.
Before leaving the West Indies, he met with a Spaniard, an old man, who remembered the wreck of the Spanish ship, and gave him directions how to find the very spot. It was on a reef of rocks, a few leagues from the Porto de la Plata.
On his arrival in England, therefore, Captain Phipps solicited the king to let him have another vessel and send him back again to the West Indies. But King James, who had probably expected that the Rose Algier would return laden with gold, refused to have anything more to do with the affair. Phipps might never have been able to renew the search if the Duke of Albemarle and some other noblemen had not lent their assistance. They fitted out a ship, and gave the command to Captain Phipps. He sailed from England, and arrived safely at Porto de la Plata, where he took an adze and assisted his men to build a large boat.
The boat was intended for the purpose of going closer to the reef of rocks than a large vessel could safely venture. When it was finished, the captain sent several men in it to examine the spot where the Spanish ship was said to have been wrecked. They were accompanied by some Indians who were skillful divers and could go down a great way into the depths of the sea.
The boat’s crew proceeded to the reef of rocks, and rowed round and round it a great many times. They gazed down into the water, which was so transparent that it seemed as if they could have seen the gold and silver at the bottom, had there been any of those precious metals there. Nothing, however, could they see; nothing more valuable than a curious sea shrub, which was growing beneath the water, in a crevice of the reef of rocks. It flaunted to and fro with the swell and reflux of the waves, and looked as bright and beautiful as if its leaves were gold.
“We won’t go back empty-handed,” cried an English sailor, and then he spoke to one of the Indian divers. “Dive down and bring me that pretty sea shrub there. That’s the only treasure we shall find.”
Down plunged the diver, and soon rose dripping from the water, holding the sea shrub in his hand. But he had learned some news at the bottom of the sea.
“There are some ship’s guns,” said he, the moment he had drawn breath, “some great cannon, among the rocks, near where the shrub was growing.”
No sooner had he spoken than the English sailors knew that they had found the very spot where the Spanish galleon had been wrecked so many years before. The other Indian divers immediately plunged over the boat’s side and swam headlong down, groping among the rocks and sunken cannon. In a few moments one of them rose above he water with a heavy lump of silver in his arms. The single lump was worth more than a thousand dollars. The sailors took it into the boat, and then rowed back as speedily as they could, being in haste to inform Captain Phipps of their good luck.
But confidently as the captain had hoped to find the Spanish wreck, yet now that it was really found, the news seemed too good to be true. He could not believe it till the sailors showed him the lump of silver.
“Thanks be to God!” then cries Captain Phipps. “We shall every man of us make our fortunes!”
Hereupon the captain and all the crew set to work, with iron rakes and great hooks and lines, fishing for gold and silver at the bottom of the sea. Up came the treasure in abundance. Now they beheld a table of solid silver, once the property of an old Spanish grandee. Now they found a sacramental vessel which had been destined as a gift to some Catholic church. Now they drew up a golden cup, fit for the king of Spain to drink his wine out of. Perhaps the bony hand of its former owner had been grasping the precious cup, and was drawn up along with it. Now their rakes or fishing-lines were loaded with masses of silver bullion. There were also precious stones among the treasure, glittering and sparkling, so that it is a wonder how their radiance could have been concealed.
There is something sad and terrible in the idea of snatching all this wealth from the devouring ocean, which had possessed it for such a length of years. It seems as if men had no right to make themselves rich with it. It ought to have been left with the skeletons of the ancient Spaniards who had bene drowned when the ship was wrecked, and whose bones were now scattered among the gold and silver.
But Captain Phipps and his crew were troubled with no such thoughts as these. After a day or two they lighted on another part of the wreck, where they found a great many bags of silver dollars. But nobody could have guessed that these were money-bags. By remaining so long in the salt water they had become covered over with a crust which had the appearance of stone, so that it was necessary to break them in pieces with hammers and axes. When this was done a stream of silver dollars gushed out upon the deck of the vessel.
The whole value of the recovered treasure – plate, bullion, precious stones, and all – was estimated at more than two millions of dollars. It was dangerous even to look at such a vast amount of wealth. A sea-captain who had assisted Phipps in the enterprise utterly lost his reason at the sight of it. He died two years afterwards, still raving about the treasures that lie at the bottom of the sea. It would have been better for this man if he had left the skeletons of the shipwrecked Spaniards in quiet possession of their wealth.
Captain Phipps and his men continued to fish up plate, bullion, and dollars, as plentifully as ever, till their provisions grew short. Then, as they could not feed upon gold and silver any more than old King Midas could, they found it necessary to go in search of better sustenance. Phipps resolved to return to England. He arrived there in 1687, and was received with great joy by the Duke of Albemarle and other English lords who had fitted out the vessel. Well they might rejoice, for they took by far the greater part of the treasure to themselves.
The captain’s share, however, was enough to make him comfortable for the rest of his days. It also enabled him to fulfill his promise to his wife, by building a “fair brick house” in the Green Lane of Boston. The Duke of Albemarle sent Mrs. Phipps a magnificent gold cup worth at least five thousand dollars. Before Captain Phipps left London, King James made him a knight, so that instead of the obscure ship carpenter who had formerly dwelt among them, the inhabitants of Boston welcomed him on his return as the rich and famous Sir William Phipps.