During the Colonial period, Rhode Island's reputation was sullied and her character was seriously jeopardized by allegations that she was a haven for pirates. Much of this came from charges levied by Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, Governor of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York from 1697-1701. Lord Bellomont charged the government (of Rhode Island) "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."
On another occasion, Bellomont, whose bad temper in regard to Rhode Island was often blamed on the fact that he suffered from gout, is quoted as saying, "The most irregular and illegal in their administration that ever any English Government was.…" He also accused Governor Samuel Cranston of harboring pirates and "conniving at pirates and making Rhode Island their sanctuary."
Similar charges were levied by Bellomont's predecessor in New York Governor Fletcher, who said in 1696, "Rhode Island pays no obedience to any command from the crown." Even earlier in 1683, Governor William Coddington had been accused of refusing to arrest certain pirates.
While these charges against Rhode Island and her governors certainly have substance, it is probably well to remember that in each century historians writing about pirates point out repeatedly that piracy would be impossible without the support of the general public. During the Colonial Period in Rhode Island, the pirates and privateers provided the colonists with inexpensive goods. This type of enterprise pertained even to the Spanish colonies as seen by the careers of John Hawkins and Sir Walter Raleigh. Both these "Sea Dogs" traded with the Spanish colonists, bringing to them very inexpensive English goods that would otherwise be unattainable.
In Rhode Island the pirates brought much-needed gold and silver coins. Throughout the period money was very scarce and many justified their trading with known pirates by the argument that business in the small colony would die without it. Vessels of doubtful antecedents could be found in Newport's outer harbor through much of the Colonial period.
One of the very successful pirates turned pillar of society in the early was Godfrey Malbone. Wilfred Munro, in his l88l Picturesque Rhode Island, tells us that Malbone, as a young man, ran away to sea and later (early 1700s) settled in Newport and became a merchant prince. Munro says, "Dark and full of mystery are some of the tales that are told concerning him...His ventures upon the sea seem to have been unusually lawless, even for that lawless age…."
Malbone engaged in smuggling. He had an entrance to an underground passage from his home, which afforded easy communication with the beach and thus enabled him to "elude the vigilance of the custom-house officers." Munro tells us that his "corsairs" preyed upon both Spaniard and Frenchman with an impartial disregard for treaties and he apparently preyed upon the Dutch as well.
On 1745 two of his privateers, described as large and beautiful vessels, sailed out for the Spanish mainland on the day before Christmas. They ran into a violent snowstorm and the gale soon changed to a hurricane. Munro says, "Newport had 200 widows in consequence for the ships were never heard of afterwards."
Malbone was also famous for his great hospitality. After each successful voyage he invited his buccaneerish crews to a splendid feast in his princely banquet-hall. "At the close of the repast' when the fun was waxing fierce and furious, the shipping-books were produced and his impulsive guests were easily induced to enroll themselves for new ventures."
One of the most told tales concerning Godfrey Malbone centers on his beautiful mansion. The lovely structure, called the finest mansion in the colonies, was started in 1744. The structure was two stories high and boasted a circular staircase leading to the cupola upon its roof. The staircase itself was a work of art and is reputed to have cost more than most houses. Munro tells us, "the construction of the edifice [cost] $100,000...an enormous sum for the days when one might live in elegant style for $500 a year."
In 1766 Malbone, now a pillar of society, entertained a very elite company of Newport merchants in his elegant banquet hall. We are told, "Just as the slaves were placing the viands upon the table, the house caught fire, and the flames spread so rapidly that all attempt to save it were in vain." The old pirate after a string of oaths swore that "though his house was undoubtedly lost, his dinner should not be". He ordered the servants to bring the table out on the lawn, fetch the rare old wines from the cellar, and by the light of the burning dwelling, the feast was finished.
One of the stories concerning the fire and the total destruction centers on Mrs. Malbone. She apparently disregarded her husband's early background for we are told, "That elegant lady refused to allow the rude tread of plebeian feet to soil her beautiful drawing rooms, even for-the purpose of saving the mansion from destruction."
The story of Rhode Island's privateers and pirates will be continued.