- Historic Sites
William Phips and the Big Jackpot
Maybe the American success myth began with this carpenter’s helper who rose to riches, a title, and a governorship
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Phips got to the Bahama Banks only to discover that “his” wreck had been located and exploited by others. He decided to return to England, but he had yet to reckon with those colorful vultures, his crew. They decided to stay where they were and turn pirate. Phips quieted the first mutinous outbreak with his fists, but shortly thereafter the ship was put into a deserted cove, unloaded, and hove down for repairs. The malcontents, while ashore gathering provisions, decided to return, imprison the captain, and leave him to rot on the island.
Phips learned of the plot, however. A loyal guard was rounded up, and the disembarked guns were dragged back aboard. When the amateur pirates returned, Phips had them covered and shouted, “Stand off, wretches, or be it at your peril.” He then announced his intention to sail away and abandon them.
Cowed and frightened, they were glad to be allowed back aboard, and the ship made straight lor Jamaica where they were all discharged. Back to England came the Rose, and with it a Phips who seemed washed up. His voyage was a failure, he had neglected his business lor at least two years, and his reputation in Boston must have been in a low state after his crew’s lusty exploits. But on the way back he had picked up one last card to play. During a stop at Puerto Plata, on the northern coast of Hispaniola, then a Spanish possession, he heard of another wreck. A treasure ship had supposedly gone down in 1642 on one of the reels in the Puerto Plata area—either Handkerchief Shoal, almost due north, or Ambrosia Bank, to the southeast of it, or the South Riff, between Ambrosia Bank and the island itself.
It was not much of a card. An Englishman named Edward Stanley had been looking vainly for the same wreck for three years. The entire New England merchant marine shared a folklore about sunken treasure ships. Where would capital be found for such a risk?
It was found in the hands of a syndicate headed by the Duke of Albemarle. Phips must have worked miracles to bring off this fund-raising coup. As a promoter he had outgrown any provincial backwardness.
Two ships were provided, the James and Mary and the Henry of London, fully supplied, with money furnished for divers and salvage gear. The investors had a touch of prudence, though. They put aboard £500 worth of cargo to trade with the Spaniards, to cut the losses if nothing whatever was found.
Phips put into Puerto Plata in December of 1686. Then, unaccountably, caution overwhelmed him. He stayed in port, dutifully trading his cloth and knickknacks to the Hispaniolans in return for dry hides, and on January 13 sent out Francis Rogers and William Covell, his mates, to search in the Henry .
Rogers and Covell found a shoal spot between Ambrosia Bank and the South Riff. Now known as Silver Bank, its center is 68 nautical miles from Puerto Plata. They began looking, in the ship’s boat, among a group of rocks they called “boilers” from their appearance amid a frothing sea.
A day of search had yielded nothing, when, on the way back to the Henry, one of the mates looked down into the almost transparent waters and saw a sea feather. This was a coral plant with large, vine-shaped leaves, veined in red. He thought it would make an interesting keepsake and motioned a diver over after it. A moment later the man bobbed to the surface with a shout. A number of ship’s guns were lying on the floor of the reef nearby.
The next dive brought up a small casting of silver, called a “sow,” and that was it. The quest was over. The jackpot was in. Covell and Rogers worked the wreck for three days, taking up solid silver in its various Seventeenth-Century molds, “sows,” “pigs,” “champeens,” and “dowboys.” They also got coin to the tune of some 2,000 silver Spanish dollars—the “pieces of eight” of Treasure Island. Then they ran for Puerto Plata, where Rogers went aboard the James and Mary and with the straight face of an old sailor loving a practical joke told Phips that they had searched the reef and found nothing. It must have made an old man of Phips for a time. Sadly he entered the story in the log. Some time later both mates came to the captain’s cabin again, and while one of them diverted him with talk, the other “slipt the Sow of Silver on one side under the table.” Then Phips saw it, asked where it came from, and cried:
“Thanks be to God! We are all made.”
Which they were. All hands were put to work, and from mid-February to mid-April, 1687, crews dove and raked and grappled, and hoisted royal wealth into the holds—jewels, plate, coin, bars, ingots coming up in dripping baskets. The great gamble had paid off.
When the two ships anchored in the Thames in June, a joyful procession of backers streamed aboard. The final heft of the treasure was some 65,466 pounds troy weight. The value was over £200,000, of which Phips’s share was some £12,000. It is hard to translate this into modern purchasing power, but it was enough to bring Phips immediately into the wealthy class.
Success had come to the Captain, and now it brought him a dizzying rise. Phips was knighted by King James II. Medals were struck in his honor, at least one broadside was written, and the hero settled back to enjoy being the focus of London gossip and the lion of society.