November 28, 2014
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Then and Now
We had our share of rogues and rascals
Terry D'Amato Spencer

A captain who was competent and could return with a rich cargo was honored in Rhode Island no matter what his status was in other colonies. Such a man was Captain William Kidd.

Kidd was a welcome guest and business associate of many prominent Rhode Islanders. He spent a great deal of time in South Kingstown, Newport and Jamestown, and many Rhode Islanders still busy themselves looking for some of his buried treasure. Captain Kidd's ship, the “Adventure Galley,” was a common sight in Newport and Jamestown, where he often visited with his old friend, Captain Thomas Paine, a retired pirate. Booty taken by Kidd and others could be purchased from another "retired" pirate, William Mayes, owner of the White Horse Tavern. The flamboyant and successful Captain Kidd started his career as a privateer.

When the wars between England and France were over, he returned to New York, where he was regarded as a prominent citizen and businessman. When other privateers had continued raiding against the orders of Lord Bellomont, Royal Governor of New York, Maine and New Hampshire, Kidd was asked to go to the Caribbean to stop these "pirates." Instead of stopping them, Kidd came under the influence of a notorious pirate named Culliford and became a pirate himself.

Through Paine's influence, Kidd was able to get financing from Rhode Islanders and a place to deliver his prizes. Bellomont, infuriated by both Kidd and Rhode Island, was determined to put a stop to this and finally got a warrant for Kidd's arrest. Friends of the captain persuaded Kidd that he would get a full pardon if he surrendered in Boston. Instead of a trial in the colonies, as was expected, Kidd was sent to London, where he was hanged after being found guilty of piracy and of murdering one of his crew. Rhode Island's governor, Samuel Cranston, was accused of harboring Kidd, and many Rhode Islanders were charged with conspiracy and investing in piracy. The controversy became so heated that Rhode Island was in danger of losing its charter in 1701.

Other pirates and/or privateers who did much the same as Kidd fared much better. Such a man was Captain Thomas Tew. He was denied a commission from Rhode Island in spite of offering a bribe of 500 pounds for one because of his obvious pirate connections and crew, but he managed to get one from Bermuda. Rhode Islanders invested heavily in Tew, and he was able to extend his base of operations as far as the Indian Ocean. When he decided to retire he was able to pay his backers over 10 times their original investment, and he became a very rich and highly respected ship owner.

The lure of making a fortune on the sea attracted Simon Potter. He turned legalized piracy, or privateering, into a fortune and was the founder of the powerful DeWolf dynasty in Bristol. In 1744 Potter managed to get a privateering commission from Governor William Green. Like many Rhode Islanders, he entered King George's War for profit, not patriotism.

By the time he was 24 years of age, the unschooled, illiterate Bristol native not only bought a privateering commission but was owner of one-fourth of the ship he commanded. He very wisely recruited young, talented Marc DeWolf as his clerk. With a flimsy 90-ton sloop, with but 10 guns and a crew of 80, Potter was careful to avoid any large French vessels and instead went after small or unarmed prey.

His first profitable encounter was an attack on a Jesuit mission in a French colony on the coast of South America. Potter's often drunken crew dressed in the typical pirate uniform of red kerchiefs, open shirts, loose knee breeches and broad belts. They terrorized the defenseless community. They captured peaceful Indians and later sold them as slaves. They stole everything from the church, including chalices, ciboriums and even the priests' vestments. Not satisfied with that, they stole blankets, clothes and even took the brass hinges and locks off doors. After terrorizing the old priest there, they set fire to the church and the village.

With the gold, silver and other valuables he stole, plus the “booty” from five small ships he captured, Potter was able to return to Rhode Island and invest in shipbuilding and real estate. With DeWolf, now his brother-in-law, he established the slave trade in Bristol. Making money became an obsession with Simon. Not content with the large profits, Potter even ordered his captains to "water the rum" when trading with the African natives. He once told his nephew that he would "plough the sea" to make a profit.

This "ornery" and "contentious" man became a leading citizen of Bristol and a pillar of the church. Under his guidance, his nephews, the DeWolf brothers, made tremendous fortunes from trafficking in human flesh through the slave trade.

Others, like the Wanton brothers, William and John, turned from privateering to politics. Both were governors of the state and heavy investors in privateering. Even Stephen Hopkins, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was not above taking money when he was governor of Rhode Island for the granting of the privateering privilege.

Slave trading, privateering, real estate swindles, harboring of pirates and selling of political favors were all part of the colonial scene and more often than not were rewarded with fortune and honor, while the petty thieves, those who smiled in church and those who defied the authorities, suffered the brunt of a "righteous society." In defense of Rhode Island, which was considered by her neighbors to be a lawless colony, this is but one aspect of the story. It should be noted that of all the colonies, Rhode Island was the most advanced in many areas and the most tolerant in religion.


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