This edited article about William Phipps originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 737 published on 28 February 1976.
William Phipps was a man with a dream. Put simply, he dreamed of becoming rich. But unlike most people who have such dreams, his chances of making it a reality seemed as near as being an impossibility as you can get.
Born in Maine, in America, in 1650, the 21st son of 26 children, he began his working life as a shepherd, before going on to become first a shipwright’s apprentice, and then a ship’s carpenter. All humble but worthy ways of making a living. But none of them providing the right background, perhaps, to put one on the path to fame and fortune which were both to come to William Phipps.
The reason these things came to Phipps was due mainly to the fact that he was a dreamer obsessed from an early age with the idea of finding a vast hoard of lost treasure which would give him the means to buy a magnificent estate on which he would lead the life of a country gentleman. The treasure hoard, he was convinced, lay somewhere beneath the water of the West Indies.
Phipps was evidently a dogged and patient man, for he made no active attempts to go searching for sunken treasure until he had reached the age of 31, by which time he had risen from ship’s carpenter to master of a ship. For all his dreaming, Phipps was in some ways a realist. He realised for one thing that to organise a large scale treasure hunting expedition one needed a great deal of financial backing. Having come to this conclusion he went to the highest person he could think of who might support his venture – namely Charles II of England.
One can well imagine the scene. The bluff and burly sailor granted an audience by his Royal Highness, who listened at first with tolerant amusement, and then with intense interest as Phipps told him of the fleet of 16 Spanish galleons laden with gold and silver which had all been wrecked in a storm off the Bahama Islands, some 40 years earlier.
The upshot of the conversation was that King Charles agreed to give Phipps the command of a ship manned with a crew of 95 men. In return he was to receive the major portion of any treasure that Phipps might find.
It was an auspicious beginning to Phipps’s venture. But from then on, everything went wrong for him. When he put in at Boston for supplies, his crew immediately went on a wild drunken rampage, and Phipps was only allowed to leave with them after he had paid an enormous fine.
On reaching the spot where he assumed the treasure was, he immediately began a search, which sadly produced nothing. With a heavy heart and empty holds, Phipps set sail for England with nothing to show for his efforts except a chart which he had obtained from an old Spanish sailor, which purported to show the real location of the treasure.
On the way home, his crew mutinied, and he was only able to quell it by swinging one of the ship’s loaded cannon around on them. Unnerved, the mutineers gave Phipps no more trouble.
Even then his misfortunes were not ended. When he reached London, finally, it was to learn that Charles was dead and James II reigned in his place. The new king, Phipps quickly found, was most unimpressed with treasure hunters, especially unsuccessful ones. Phipps’ chart was brushed contemptuously aside, and his ship was taken away from him. As if this were not enough, he was then clapped in jail.
Instead of emerging chastened from his prison cell, Phipps set off cheerfully at once to see if he could find some other exalted person who might be willing to put up the money he required. In view of his singular lack of success as a treasure hunter, he must have had a very persuasive manner, for in no time at all he had succeeded in getting the Duke of Albermarle and some of his friends to provide him with a merchant ship and crew, which was to be accompanied by a tender.
This time the fates were more kind to Phipps. With the aid of the chart he located one of the sunken galleons, a mere 40 feet (12 metres) under-water. For two months, the two ships remained anchored over the wreck while divers went down and filled basket after basket with gold and silver coins and ornaments. When Phipps eventually set off for England, his ship was laden with treasure valued at £3,000,000, an immense fortune in those days.
But Phipps’s troubles were still not completely over. Before his ship reached England, the crew, their greed inflamed by the sight of so much gold and silver, demanded a share of the treasure. Faced with a mutiny, Phipps promised them a share of the spoils. It says much again for Phipps’s powers of persuasion that he was able to induce the Duke to pay them a special bonus.
As for Phipps himself, he was given only a niggardly £20,000, but as a result of his expedition, he found himself famous overnight. After being knighted by James, he returned to New England, where he became the High Sheriff of Massachusetts, and later the colony’s first Governor in Chief.
Although Phipps was now a rich man, he still dreamed of going treasure hunting once again. He never actually set off on another expedition, but on his death, papers were found among his belongings of a project he had been planning: to look for a semi-legendary table of solid gold which the governor of Hispaniola was sending to the King of Spain when the ship was sunk in a storm soon after it had set off on its voyage. The table, if it really exists, is still there for some other treasure hunter to find.
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