Rhode Island

Rhode Island

House of Eleazar Arnold, Rhode Island, Built 1693

By the early 1690s, as skipper of a vessel called The Amity, Captain Thomas Tew had become a well-known figure in Rhode Island.

New England historians like George Francis Dow, Edward Rowe Snowe and Howard Chapin assumed that Thomas Tew was a long-time resident of this English colony. This may have been the case, but there is little evidence of any man by that name living in Rhode Island before 1692.

In the seventeenth century, there were many people with the name of ‘Tew’ living in Rhode Island. The immigrant population of the colony was small. It grew from less than a thousand European settlers around 1650 to about six thousand people by 1700.

Some historians think that Thomas Tew was the son or grandson of Mary Clarke and Richard Tew of Maidford, England. Richard Tew was an important man in early Rhode Island history. There are no evidence, however,  which proves any connection between Mary and Richard Tew with the mariner known as Thomas Tew.

This is despite  that the fact there are many surviving documents concerning Richard Tew family. Richard Tew was born in Maidford, England in 1614. He married Mary Clarke in 1633. They left England with three children, William, John and Richard, for America in 1640. The Tew family was part of a wave of migrants known as The Great Migration.

Mary Tew gave birth to a fourth child, aptly named Seaborne Tew, while sailing to America. She had three more children in Rhode Island, Sarah, Elnatha and Mary.

Only three years later, in December of  1643, a man named ‘Thomas Tewe Marriner’ and ‘Tho Toue marriner’ appeared in the records of the ‘Aquidneck Quarter Court Records’ in Newport, Rhode Island. This mariner was involved in disputes over dispute with John Stretton and with John Coggeshall, a future governor of Rhode Island.

Given the dates of marriage for Richard Tew and Mary Clarke, it seems unlikely that this particular mariner was their son.  It is also unknown if the mariner mentioned in the 1643 court records had a connection with the Thomas Tew who appeared in Rhode Island in the 1690s.

There is no doubt however, that at the time of the construction of a house by Eleazar Arnold in 1693, Captain Thomas Tew spent a great deal of his time in Rhode Island. He outfitted his vessel, The Amity, in Newport in the fall of 1692. Tew sailed with a crew of about fifty men to the Red Sea, and returned to Newport in April of 1694.

In December of that year, after having spent a long time preparing The Amity for another voyage to Indian Ocean, Tew set sail from Newport once again.

Captain Thomas Tew never returned to America.

About Thomas Tew

About Thomas Tew

Captain Thomas Tew was a seventeenth century mariner.   In the 1690s, Tew sailed several times from America to the Indian Ocean. He and his crew repeatedly plundered the ships  of the Mughal Empire.   They robbed the subjects of Emperor Aurangzeb of vast amounts of treasure. This Muslim ruler was the most powerful man in the world.  Aurangzeb was greatly angered at the depredations  of Tew and his Christian crewmates.  For a short period of time, Thomas Tew’s exploits against Mughal ships made him one of the wealthiest  skippers in America.

Little is known of Thomas Tew’s early life.  He is usually associated with Rhode Island, but also spent considerable time in New York, Jamaica, Bermuda and Madagascar.  

Thomas Tew has been called a pirate. Yet the voyages to the Indian Ocean which made him famous were legal.  Captain Thomas Tew sailed as a royally commissioned privateer. Tew was licensed as a privateer by several English colonial governors, who acted on behalf of the King and Queen, William and Mary.  

Thomas Tew was authorized  to sail while flying the ‘King’s Colours’.  This meant the vessels Thomas Tew commanded flew the same flag as the British Royal Navy.



Leeward Islands

Leeward Islands

Thomas Tew may have lived for some time in the Leeward Islands.  He was given a privateering commission by the British Governor of this Caribbean archipelago.  

This commission was subsequently referred to by the Governor of New York, Colonel Benjamin Fletcher.

After his term as Governor of New York ended, Fletcher was accused of collusion with pirates.  He was threatened with having his assets seized, or with jail.  One of the charges against him was that he had commissioned Thomas Tew as a privateer.

Benjamin Fletcher successfully defended himself.  He said that he was not the first colonial governor to give Tew a commission. Fletcher stated that before he met Thomas Tew, the mariner had been hired by two other colonial governors.  Fletcher told the Council of Trade and Plantations in London that Thomas Tew had previously been commissioned by the two other Royal Governors.  These were the governors of Bermuda and the Leeward Islands.



Thomas Tew may have lived a good part of his life in Jamaica.  He was definitely there in the early  1680s.  Tew was identified as being on the Caribbean island in the year 1682.  

One of the few references to the early whereabouts of Thomas Tew comes from a man named John Graves.  The year 1682 can be inferred from testimony which Graves gave many years later in England to the “Council of Trade and Plantations.”  This organization, often called the Board of Trade, administered the British colonies in the Americas.  

Graves appeared before the Council in London in 1697.  He was there because he wanted to obtain a position as a government official in the Bahamas. 

By the time of  Grave’s appearance before the Council,  the maritime depredations of Thomas  Tew had made briefly made him the most famous English pirate on earth.  Tew’s piratical ventures were naturally of great concern to the British government. The members of the Council knew that Graves had many years of experience throughout the British colonies in the Americas.   He had already lived and worked in the Bahamas. Graves sailed from Jamaica to New Providence in the Bahamas in 1686.  He was appointed by the Lords Proprietors of the Bahamas as their Secretary for those islands in 1692.    Knowing of Graves’s fast experience in the English Atlantic, the Council members asked himabout Tew.  

The Council of Trade and Plantatations was a new body, which had only been created the year before.  Its half dozen members included formidable figures like William Blathwayt, Secretary of War, and the writer and philospher John Locke.   The Council had taken over management of the colonies from a body known as the Lords of Trade in 1696. Intellectuals like Locke were brought in to put the management of His Majesty’s dominions in the new world on a more professional basis.  The new organization was anxious to assert its authority, and paid particularly close attention to  matters such as piracy.   Anxious to ingratiate himself with this powerful organization, John Graves would therefore have been careful that any information he provided to the Council was accurate.On February 19, 1697, John Graves testified that:

“Two years ago last October I was travelling from New England to New York, when I saw three small vessels, a sloop, a brigantine and a barque, fitting out at Rhode Island. The name of the master of the sloop was Thomas Tue, whom I had known living in Jamaica twelve years before.”

This testimony first of all places Thomas Tew in Rhode Island in October of 1694. This was indeed accurate, as Tew was  indeed in Rhode Island in the autumn of 1694, preparing for a long sailing voyage. Acting as an admiral in charge of hundreds of men , Tew sailed in December of 1694 for  the Bab El Mandeb Straight, at the mouth of the Red Sea.    He had already sailed to Indian Ocean at least twice before.  

While Grave’s testimony makes it clear that Thomas Tew was in Jamaica in 1682. Unfortunately for the historical record, the English official did not provide any more information about what Tew was doing on that island at that time.  

It was completely sensible for a mariner like Thomas Tew to be living on the island of Jamaica in 1682.  Along with Barbados, Jamaica was  economically the most important English colony in the Americas.  More than any other city in the British colonies, the island’s capital, Port Royal, had a reputation as a home for pirates.  By 1682, however, Port Royal was already pasts its pirate heyday.   It was in that year that Sir Henry Morgan, considered by many to be the greatest English privateer of his age, went  into retirement.