December 18, 2014
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Then and Now
Pirates: Thomas Paine drives pirates from Block Island
Terry D'Amato Spencer

On a number of occasions Rhode Island has benefited from her liberal policies toward those who engaged in piracy and quasi-legal escapades on the high seas. Usually these adventurers claimed to have been licensed as privateers or to have salvaged quantities of Spanish coin from shipwrecks.

One of these pirates who made such claims was Captain Thomas Paine, who became a much-respected landowner and a pillar of the Church of England. Rhode Island governor William Coddington Jr. refused to arrest Paine despite charges by various royal officials such as Sir Thomas Lynch, governor of Jamaica, Governor Liburne of the Bahamas, royal agent William Dyer, and Deputy Revenue Collector Thatcher of Boston. In 1683 Paine was allowed to live in Newport and accounted for his huge fortune in hard currency as coming from finding an abandoned Spanish wreck in the Caribbean.

Efforts to jail Paine for piracy fell on deaf ears, as the adventurer purchased land in Jamestown and seemed to settle down to a quiet life as a landed aristocrat. Rhode Island's confidence in Paine was rewarded handsomely in time. Not only did the captain add precious gold and silver to Rhode Island's treasury, he became one of the colony's most respected heroes by driving French pirates from Block Island in 1690.

Prior to that time, the veteran sea rover married Mercy Carr, the daughter of Judge Caleb Carr of Jamestown. Carr, who was a very influential Rhode Island judge, had established a ferry between Newport and Jamestown in 1675. Later, he and his sons opened a ferry between Jamestown and the mainland. Carr (1623 & 1695) became governor of Rhode Island in May 1695. He was the first governor to be paid for his service and the fourth governor to die in office.

According to Howard M. Chapin's 1930 narrative on the famous captain, Paine settled in Jamestown after his marriage and built his house on the estate called "Cajacet." Even before being admitted as a freeman, Paine was on the grand jury in Newport in 1688 and quickly established himself as a civic-minded citizen.

Chapin adds, "In July, 1690, Rhode Island was amply rewarded for giving shelter seven years earlier to Captain Thomas Paine. A fleet of French privateers arrived off the coast about July 12. Their commander was Captain Pekar or Picard, who is unquestionably identical with the buccaneer Pierre Le Picard...and with the Captain Picard, whom Sir Thomas Lynch described as a pirate in 1682." Chapin goes on to describe the atrocities committed by the alleged pirates and how Paine drove them from Block Island.

In 1689, at the outbreak of hostilities between the English and the French (King William's War, 1689-97), pirates led by Captain Pekar and accompanied by an Englishmen, William Trimming, obtained a privateer's license from the French, Edward Field, in his excellent 1902 State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, tells us that the French privateers with a number of vessels approached Block Island in July 1689. (Note: Chapin sets the date as July 12, 1690). Field tells us that the privateers sent a small boat ashore and were met by Block Islanders who were well armed, "not knowing whether their visitors were friends or foes."

William Trimming, according to Field, convinced the Block Islanders that the commander of the fleet was the famous George Asten, who had achieved success in his privateering exploits against the Spanish and the French. Trimming added that the leaders were Englishmen but the crews were French and Spanish. He asked for a pilot to lead the fleet to Newport so they could purchase necessary provisions.

Trimming was believed. A pilot agreed to show the visitors the way to Newport, and the small fleet set sail. Within a short time the pilot and his crew were lured on board one of the vessels, made prisoners, and were forced to reveal the strength of Newport and Block Island.

The story of Captain Paine and Captain William Kidd will be continued.


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