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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

How Captain Phips Became a Knight of the Golden Fleece

By Cotton Mather (1663–1728)

[From Magnalia Christi Americana. 1703.]

HE was of an inclination cutting rather like a hatchet than like a razor; he would propose very considerable matters to himself, and then so cut through them that no difficulties could put by the edge of his resolutions. Being thus of the true temper for doing of great things, he betakes himself to the sea, the right scene for such things; and upon advice of a Spanish wreck about the Bahamas, he took a voyage thither; but with little more success than what just served him a little to furnish him for a voyage to England; whither he went in a vessel, not much unlike that which the Dutchmen stamped on their first coin, with these words about it: Incertum quo Fata ferant. Having first informed himself that there was another Spanish wreck, wherein was lost a mighty treasure, hitherto undiscovered, he had a strong impression upon his mind that he must be the discoverer; and he made such representations of his design at White-Hall, that by the year 1683 he became the captain of a king’s ship, and arrived at New-England commander of the Algier-Rose, a frigate of eighteen guns and ninety-five men.

To relate all the dangers through which he passed, both by sea and land, and all the tiresome trials of his patience, as well as of his courage, while year after year the most vexing accidents imaginable delayed the success of his design, it would even tire the patience of the reader; for very great was the experiment that Captain Phips made of the Italian observation, “He that cannot suffer both good and evil, will never come to any great preferment.” Wherefore I shall supersede all journal of his voyages to and fro, with reciting one incident of his conduct, that showed him to be a person of no contemptible capacity. While he was captain of the Algier-Rose, his men growing weary of their unsuccessful enterprise, made a mutiny, wherein they approached him on the quarter-deck, with drawn swords in their hands, and required him to join with them in running away with the ship, to drive a trade of piracy on the South Seas. Captain Phips, though he had not so much of a weapon as an ox-goad, or a jaw-bone in his hands, yet, like another Shamgar or Samson, with a most undaunted fortitude, he rushed in upon them, and with the blows of his bare hands felled many of them, and quelled all the rest.

But this is not the instance which I intended; that which I intend is, that (as it has been related unto me) one day while his frigate lay careening, at a desolate Spanish island, by the side of a rock, from whence they had laid a bridge to the shore, the men, whereof he had about an hundred, went all but about eight or ten to divert themselves, as they pretended, in the woods; where they all entered into an agreement, which they signed in a ring, that about seven o’clock that evening they would seize the captain, and those eight or ten which they knew to be true unto him, and leave them to perish on this island, and so be gone away unto the South Sea to seek their fortune. Will the reader now imagine that Captain Phips, having advice of this plot but about an hour and a half before it was to be put in execution, yet within two hours brought all these rogues down upon their knees to beg for their lives? But so it was! for these knaves considering that they should want a carpenter with them in their villainous expedition, sent a messenger to fetch unto them the carpenter, who was then at work upon the vessel; and unto him they shewed their articles; telling him what he must look for if he did not subscribe among them. The carpenter, being an honest fellow, did with much importunity prevail for one half hour’s time to consider of the matter; and returning to work upon the vessel, with a spy by them set upon him, he feigned himself taken with a fit of the cholick, for the relief whereof he suddenly run unto the captain in the great cabin for a dram; where, when he came, his business was only, in brief, to tell the captain of the horrible distress which he was fallen into; but the captain bid him as briefly return to the rogues in the woods, and sign their articles, and leave him to provide for the rest. The carpenter was no sooner gone but Captain Phips, calling together the few friends (it may be seven or eight) that were left him aboard, whereof the gunner was one, demanded of them, whether they would stand by him in the extremity which he informed them was now come upon him; whereto they replied, “They would stand by him, if he could save them;” and he answered, “By the help of God he did not fear it.” All their provisions had been carried ashore to a tent, made for that purpose there; about which they had placed several great guns to defend it, in case of any assault from Spaniards, that might happen to come that way. Wherefore Captain Phips immediately ordered those guns to be silently drawn and turned; and so pulling up the bridge, he charged his great guns aboard, and brought them to bear on every side of the tent. By this time the army of rebels comes out of the woods; but as they drew near to the tent of provisions, they saw such a change of circumstances, that they cried out, “We are betrayed!” And they were soon confirmed in it, when they heard the captain with a stern fury call to them, “Stand off, ye wretches, at your peril!” He quickly saw them cast into a more than ordinary confusion, when they saw him ready to fire his great guns upon them, if they offered one step further than he permitted them; and when he had signified unto them his resolve to abandon them unto all the desolation which they had purposed for him, he caused the bridge to be again laid, and his men begun to take the provisions aboard. When the wretches beheld what was coming upon them, they fell to very humble entreaties; and at last fell down upon their knees, protesting, “That they never had anything against him, except only his unwillingness to go away with the king’s ship upon the South-Sea design; but upon all other accounts they would chuse rather to live and die with him than with any man in the world. However, since they saw how much he was dissatisfied at it, they would insist upon it no more, and humbly begged his pardon.” And when he judged that he had kept them on their knees long enough, he having first secured their arms, received them aboard; but he immediately weighed anchor, and arriving at Jamaica, he turned them off.

Now, with a small company of other men he sailed from thence to Hispaniola, where, by the policy of his address, he fished out of a very old Spaniard (or Portuguese) a little advice about the true spot where lay the wreck which he had been hitherto seeking, as unprosperously as the chymists have their aurisick stone; that it was upon a reef of shoals, a few leagues to the northward of Port de la Plata, upon Hispaniola, a port so called, it seems, from the landing of some of the shipwrecked company, with a boat full of plate, saved out of their sinking frigate; nevertheless, when he had searched very narrowly the spot, whereof the old Spaniard had advised him, he had not hitherto exactly lit upon it. Such thorns did vex his affairs while he was in the Rose-frigate; but none of all these things could retund the edge of his expectations to find the wreck; with such expectations he returned then into England, that he might there better furnish himself to prosecute a new discovery; for though he judged he might, by proceeding a little further, have come at the right spot; yet he found his present company too ill a crew to be confided in.

So proper was his behaviour, that the best noblemen in the kingdom now admitted him into their conversation; but yet he was opposed by powerful enemies, that clogged his affairs with such demurrages, and such disappointments, as would have wholly discouraged his designs, if his patience had not been invincible. “He who can wait hath what he desireth.” Thus his indefatigable patience, with a proportionable diligence, at length overcame the difficulties that had been thrown in his way; and prevailing with the Duke of Albemarle, and some other persons of quality, to fit him out, he set sail for the fishing-ground, which had been so well baited half an hundred years before; and as he had already discovered his capacity for business in many considerable actions, he now added unto those discoveries, by not only providing all, but also by inventing many of the instruments necessary to the prosecution of his intended fishery. Captain Phips arriving with a ship and a tender at Port de la Plata, made a stout canoo of a stately cotton-tree, so large as to carry eight or ten oars, for the making of which periaga (as they call it) he did, with the same industry that he did every thing else, imploy his own hand and adse, and endure no little hardship, lying abroad in the woods many nights together. This periaga, with the tender, being anchored at a place convenient, the periaga kept busking to and again, but could only discover a reef of rising shoals thereabouts, called “The Boilers,”—which, rising to be within two or three foot of the surface of the sea, were yet so steep, that a ship striking on them would immediately sink down, who could say how many fathom, into the ocean? Here they could get no other pay for their long peeping among the boilers, but only such as caused them to think upon returning to their captain with the bad news of their total disappointment. Nevertheless, as they were upon the return, one of the men, looking over the side of the periaga, into the calm water, he spied a sea feather, growing, as he judged, out of a rock; whereupon they bade one of their Indians to dive, and fetch this feather, that they might, however, carry home something with them, and make, at least, as fair a triumph as Caligula’s. The diver bringing up the feather, brought therewithal a surprising story, that he perceived a number of great guns in the watery world where he had found his feather; the report of which great guns exceedingly astonished the whole company; and at once turned their despondencies for their ill success into assurances that they had now lit upon the true spot of ground which they had been looking for; and they were further confirmed in these assurances, when, upon further diving, the Indian fetcht up a sow, as they styled it, or a lump of silver worth perhaps two or three hundred pounds. Upon this they prudently buoyed the place, that they might readily find it again; and they went back unto their captain, whom for some while they distressed with nothing but such bad news as they formerly thought they must have carried him. Nevertheless, they so slipt in the sow of silver on one side under the table, where they were now sitting with the captain, and hearing him express his resolutions to wait still patiently upon the providence of God under these disappointments, that when he should look on one side, he might see that odd thing before him. At last he saw it; seeing it, he cried out with some agony, “Why! what is this? whence comes this?” And then, with changed countenances, they told him how and where they got it. “Then,” said he, “thanks be to God! we are made;” and so away they went, all hands to work; wherein they had this one further piece of remarkable prosperity, that whereas if they had first fallen upon that part of the Spanish wreck where the pieces of eight had been stowed in bags among the ballast, they had seen a more laborious, and less enriching time of it; now, most happily, they first fell upon that room in the wreck where the bullion had been stored up; and they so prospered in this new fishery, that in a little while they had, without the loss of any man’s life, brought up thirty-two tuns of silver; for it was now come to measuring of silver by tuns. Besides which, one Adderly, of Providence, who had formerly been very helpful to Captain Phips in the search of this wreck, did, upon former agreement, meet him now with a little vessel here; and he, with his few hands, took up about six tuns of silver; whereof, nevertheless, he made so little use, that in a year or two he died at Bermudas, and, as I have heard, he ran distracted some while before he died.

Thus did there once again come into the light of the sun a treasure which had been half an hundred years groaning under the waters; and in this time there was grown upon the plate a crust like limestone, to the thickness of several inches; which crust being broken open by iron contrived for that purpose, they knocked out whole bushels of rusty pieces of eight which were grown thereinto. Besides that incredible treasure of plate in various forms, thus fetched up, from seven or eight fathom under water, there were vast riches of gold, and pearls and jewels, which they also lit upon; and, indeed, for a more comprehensive invoice, I must but summarily say, “All that a Spanish frigate uses to be enriched withal.” Thus did they continue fishing till, their provisions failing them, ’twas time to be gone; but before they went, Captain Phips caused Adderly and his folk to swear that they would none of them discover the place of the wreck, or come to the place any more till the next year, when he expected again to be there himself. And it was also remarkable that though the sows came up still so fast, that on the very last day of their being there they took up twenty, yet it was afterwards found that they had in a manner wholly cleared that room of the ship where those massy things were stowed.

But there was one extraordinary distress which Captain Phips now found himself plunged into; for his men were come out with him upon seamen’s wages, at so much per month; and when they saw such vast litters of silver sows and pigs, as they called them, come on board them at the captain’s call, they knew not how to bear it, that they should not share all among themselves, and be gone to lead “a short life and a merry,” in a climate where the arrest of those that had hired them should not reach them. In this terrible distress he made his vows unto Almighty God, that if the Lord would carry him safe home to England, with what he had now given him, “to suck of the abundance of the seas, and of the treasures hid in the sands,” he would forever devote himself unto the interests of the Lord Jesus Christ and of his people, especially in the country which he did himself originally belong unto. And he then used all the obliging arts imaginable to make his men true unto him, especially by assuring them that, besides their wages, they should have ample requitals made unto them; which if the rest of his employers would not agree unto, he would himself distribute his own share among them. Relying upon the word of one whom they had ever found worthy of their love, and of their trust, they declared themselves content; but still keeping a most careful eye upon them, he hastened back for England with as much money as he thought he could then safely trust his vessel withal; not counting it safe to supply himself with necessary provisions at any nearer port, and so return unto the wreck, by which delays he wisely feared lest all might be lost, more ways than one. Though he also left so much behind him, that many from divers parts made very considerable voyages of gleanings alter his harvest; which came to pass by certain Bermudians compelling of Adderly’s boy, whom they spirited away with them, to tell them the exact place where the wreck was to be found.

Captain Phips now coming up to London in the year 1687, with near three hundred thousand pounds sterling aboard him, did acquit himself with such an exemplary honesty, that partly by his fulfilling his assurances to the seamen, and partly by his exact and punctual care to have his employers defrauded of nothing that might conscientiously belong unto them, he had less than sixteen thousand pounds left unto himself; as an acknowledgment of which honesty in him, the Duke of Albemarle made unto his wife, whom he never saw, a present of a golden cup, near a thousand pound in value. The character of an honest man he had so merited in the whole course of his life, and especially in this last act of it, that this, in conjunction with his other serviceable qualities, procured him the favours of the greatest persons in the nation; and “he that had been so diligent in his business, must now stand before Kings, and not stand before mean men.” There were indeed certain mean men—if base, little, dirty tricks, will entitle men to meanness—who urged the king to seize his whole cargo, instead of the tenths, upon his first arrival; on this pretence, that he had not been rightly informed of the true state of the case when he granted the patent, under the protection whereof these particular men had made themselves masters of all this mighty treasure; but the king replied, that he had been rightly informed by Captain Phips of the whole matter, as it now proved; and that it was the slanders of one then present which had, unto his damage, hindered him from hearkening to the information; wherefore he would give them, he said, no disturbance; they might keep what they had got; but Captain Phips, he saw, was a person of that honesty, fidelity, and ability, that he should not want his countenance. Accordingly the king, in consideration of the service done by him in bringing such a treasure into the nation, conferred upon him the honour of knighthood; and if we now reckon him a knight of the golden fleece, the style might pretend unto some circumstances that would justifie it. Or, call him if you please, “the knight of honesty;” for it was honesty with industry that raised him; and he became a mighty river, without the running in of muddy water to make him so. Reader, now make a pause, and behold one raised by God!