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Thomas Tew
? - 1695
Pyle pirate tales.jpg
Thomas Tew relates his exploits to Gov. Fletcher of New York. Painting by Howard Pyle.
Nickname: The Rhode Island Pirate
Type: Pirate
Place of birth: Maidford, England
Place of death: Arabian Sea
Years active: 1692 - 1695
Rank: Captain
Base of Operations: New York City and Indian Ocean
Commands: Amity
Wealth: about £8,000
Later work: see his son Ratsimilaho

Thomas Tew (?-1695), also known as the Rhode Island Pirate, was a 17th century English privateer-turned-pirate. Although he embarked on only two major piratical voyages, and met a bloody death on the latter journey, Tew pioneered the route which became known as the Pirate Round. Many other famous pirates, including Henry Every and William Kidd, would follow in Tew’s path.

Captain Charles Johnson said "Tew, in Point of Gallantry, was inferior to none."


Life and career

Tew claimed to have ancestors in Rhode Island dating back to 1640,[1] but he was probably born in Maidford, Northamptonshire, England before immigrating to the colonies as a child with his family.[2] He lived in Newport, Rhode Island. Tew was married and had two daughters; his wife and children all greatly enjoyed the New York City social scene after Tew struck it rich.[3]

Around 1690, Tew moved to Bermuda. Although there is evidence that he was already reputed as a pirate at that time, no modern historian has determined whether this reputation was earned or not. He may simply have engaged in privateering against French and Spanish ships.[4]

He was in close relations with fellow pirate Captain Want. Captain Want was his closest ally.


First pirate cruise

In 1692, Thomas Tew obtained a letter of marque from the governor of Bermuda. Various Bermudan backers provided him with a vessel: the seventy-ton sloop Amity, armed with eight guns and crewed by forty-six officers and men. Thus equipped, Tew set sail in December, ostensibly to serve as a privateer against French holdings in Gambia.[5] But not long out of Bermuda, Tew announced his intention of turning to piracy, asking the crew for their support since he could not enforce the illegal scheme without their consent. Tew’s crew reportedly answered with the shout, “A gold chain or a wooden leg, we’ll stand with you!” The newly minted pirates proceeded to elect a quartermaster, a common pirate practice to balance the captain’s power.[6]

Tew reached the Red Sea and ran down a large ship en route from India to the Ottoman Empire, some time in late 1693. Despite its enormous garrison of 300 soldiers, the Indian ship surrendered without serious resistance, inflicting no casualties on the assailants. Tew's pirates helped themselves to the ship’s rich treasure, worth £100,000 in gold and silver alone, not counting the value of the ivory, spices, jewels and silk taken. Tew’s men afterward shared out between £1,200 and £3,000 per man, and Tew himself claimed about £8,000.[7]

Tew urged his filibusters to hunt down and rob the other ships in the Indian convoy, but yielded to the opposition of the quartermaster. He set course back to the Cape of Good Hope, stopping at the island of St. Mary’s on Madagascar to careen.[8]

Tew reached Newport in April, 1694. Benjamin Fletcher, the royal governor of New York, became good friends with Tew and his family. Tew scrupulously paid off the owners of the Amity, who recouped fourteen times the value of the vessel.

Second pirate cruise

In November, 1694, Tew bought a new letter of marque from Fletcher and set out for another pirate cruise. His crew numbered thirty to forty men at departure this time.[9]. However, by the time he reached Madagascar, he apparently increased his force to 50 or 60 men.[10]

Arriving at the Mandab Strait at the mouth of the Red Sea in August, 1695, Tew found several other pirates hoping to duplicate his prior success, including Henry Every in the powerfully armed warship Fancy. Tew and the other pirate captains decided to sail in concert.

In September, 1695, a 25-ship Mughal convoy approached the Mandab Strait, slipping past the pirates during the night. Tew and his fellow pirates pursued. The Amity overtook one of the Mughal ships, believed to be the Fateh Muhammed, and attacked it. Tew was killed in this battle, reportedly disemboweled by a cannon shot. Demoralized, Tew’s crew surrendered immediately, though they were freed later when Every’s Fancy captured the Fateh Muhammed.[11]

The final resting place of Tew’s remains is unknown, but he is said to be the father of Ratsimilaho, a man who created a kingdom on the east coast of Madagascar. In addition, it has been claimed that Tew was one of the named founders of the mysterious and possibly fictional pirate colony of Libertalia.

Captain William Kidd, before he himself turned pirate, was commissioned by King William III to hunt Tew down. Unknown to either Kidd or the King, Tew was already dead when the commission was issued.[12]


Thomas Tew's sea chest is the only known sea chest with provenance leading back to a pirate, and can be seen in Pirate Soul Museum, a pirate themed museum in the Florida Keys.[13]

Rhode Island's Coastal Extreme Brewing Company, makers of the Newport Storm brand of beers, are distilling a rum [9] named after their state's patron pirate. The Rum was launched for sale in local stores in October 2007.


Possible flag of Thomas Tew

Tew’s personal standard is said to have been a white arm holding a sword on a black field, perhaps meaning "we are ready to kill you.” Contemporary evidence for this flag is lacking.


  • Botting, Douglas. The Pirates. Time-Life Books, 1978.
  • Johnson, Charles. The History of the Pirates: containing the lives of Captain Mission…. London: Printed for, and sold by, T. Woodward, 1728.
  • Zacks, Richard. The Pirate Hunter, 2003.


  1. ^ Thomas Tew. [1]
  2. ^ Pirate Thomas Tew. [2]
  3. ^ Douglas Botting, ‘’The Pirates,’’ Time-Life Books, 1978, p. 67.
  4. ^ Christine L. Putnam, “Of Captain Thomas Tew” (article). [3]
  5. ^ Botting, p. 67-69.
  6. ^ Charles Johnson, ’The History of the Pirates: containing the lives of Captain Mission….’’ London: Printed for, and sold by, T. Woodward, 1728, p. 86.
  7. ^ Johnson, p. 86-87; Thomas Tew. [4]
  8. ^ Johnson, p. 87.
  9. ^ Thomas Tew (website by Paul Orton). [5]
  10. ^ Pirate ship list – Amity. [6]
  11. ^ Botting, p. 82; Putnam [7]; Johnson, p. 108-09.
  12. ^ English Letter of Marque Against Pirates, 1695. [8]
  13. ^ Pirate Thomas Tew - Treasure Chest

External links


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