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William Phips the treasure hunter was knighted for his success

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Ships on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about William Phips first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

William Phips,  picture, image, illustration

William Phips in search of wrecked Caribbean treasure ships by Roger Payne

The treasure hunt was going badly and the crew of the British ship Rose of Argier had changed from being simply bad-tempered to openly mutinous. It had all seemed so different six months before – King Charles II of England had loaned the ship in return for a share of any treasure found and the crew had scrambled for places alongside their confident Commander, William Phips. They had come to the coast of Florida, sure that Phips knew the exact location of a great Spanish treasure ship and eagerly looking forward to the prospect of riches to come.

The only thing they could not have known was that William Phips had bluffed his way to the command of this expedition. He had no special knowledge, only guesswork, a large share of determination and the hopes and ambitions which now looked as if they were lost for ever. It was an ugly situation on the Rose of Argier. The men had gathered on the poop deck and their ring leaders, four sturdy seamen, were facing Phips with their demands.

Since the treasure was lost, and they could not stomach a return to England empty handed, the ring leaders were demanding that they turn pirate. Despite the fact that England was not at war there were plenty of Spanish ships for the taking and if they all risked their necks, why, the prospect of riches more than made up for it.

Phips listened impassively at first, arms folded, then argued more and more fiercely as the men refused to take his advice. He was being out-manoeuvred and he knew it. In a few minutes he would lose command if he took no action. Suddenly, he took the only course of action he could think of. Striding forward, he gripped two of the men by their shirt fronts and flung them back over the poop rail with tremendous force. Then he turned on the others, fists raised and in less than a minute the other two had been knocked senseless on the deck. There was no more talk of piracy, and William Phips had lived to fight another day. There were many who had good cause to thank him for this swift action for although his hints and promises were usually no more than bluffing he eventually found his fortune. In fact, taking into account the rise in values over the centuries he may still claim to be perhaps the most successful treasure hunter of them all.

The Phips family emigrated to America from Bristol in 1650, the same year that William was born. They were an extraordinary family, not least from their size, for there were 26 children who grew up on the family farm at Montsweag Bay, Maine. When his father died in 1668 William decided that he might seek his fortune some other way and so he apprenticed himself to a local shipbuilder, leaving the rest of the family still farming.

He was a bright young man, full of determination and a fierce conviction that he would become a success and soon it seemed as if his hopes would be realised. He had his own trading ship and the chance to make a quick profit – but in his desire to cut corners he got caught up in a local Indian war. These were days when fierce, isolated battles could wipe out whole communities of settlers and Phips was faced with an appalling dilemma.

On the one hand, he had sunk all his money in a cargo of lumber which was ready to be taken aboard and would command a rich price down the Kennebec river in the booming new towns. But on the other hand his family and neighbours were being constantly menaced by the local Indian tribe. Hunting parties who went far beyond the area of the buildings had been ambushed and Indian scouts had been seen near the stockade walls. An attack, for which they were ill prepared, seemed imminent.

Then, on the morning that William Phips started to load his cargo came the news that several hundred Indians were believed to be massing for the attack only a mile away. There was not a moment to be lost. The lumber was off-loaded and an urgent but unhappy procession of family, friends and neighbours came aboard. With them, they clutched what few small possessions they could carry and, tearful and angry, they abandoned the little settlement which had been their home. William Phips, too, left behind his fortune and, like them, arrived in Boston safe, but with the prospect of starting all over again.

For several nights he was so depressed that only the waterfront taverns offered a cheerful haven. There he listened to tales of the looting of wrecked Spanish galleons and there he heard, for the first time, the story of the Concepcion.

Like so many treasure ships from the Spanish American colonies the Concepcion had foundered during her voyage, in 1641, from Havana to Cadiz. She was the flagship of the flotilla which was bringing back home the accumulated wealth of two years, mostly in silver – perhaps as much as 100 tons of bullion – but she foundered in a hurricane among the scattered coral reefs off the coast of Florida.

The few survivors told their tale and the treasure hunt was on. But the first few expeditions were unsuccessful and thus it was that Phips had to try and persuade someone that he alone could unlock the secret of the Concepcion’s exact position.

The audience with the King went well. Phips spoke rapidly to Charles II and his courtiers, bluffing, making vague promises and always ready to reassure. But Charles drove a hard bargain. His normal royalty on treasure hoards was half the proceeds, but in return for his ship, the Rose of Argier, he demanded a further quarter share. Phips did not like it, but the lure of the bullion was too strong. He had crossed the Atlantic to find a backer and he was desperate for support. Now, despite his half-mutinous crew, the presence of the King’s “spies,” and a growing feeling of uncertainty he had to prove himself as a treasure hunter.

The difficulties were multiplied by the fact that other ships were in the same area, and looking for the same treasure. But despite his vain blustering and the fact that he had only the haziest notion of what he was searching for Phips did gain valuable experience and some treasure in this, his first treasure hunt. He returned with about £500 worth of treasure, but Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, assessed the wear and tear on the ship at £700 and Phips could not obtain royal backing for another attempt.

Private backers, mostly rich noblemen, were easier to find and by December 1686 Phips was back in the Caribbean, ready to start the hunt again. Two months later, unhappy and depressed, he was ready to give up, but dramatically the reward for his persistence suddenly presented itself. His sister ship caught sight of the Concepcion in clear water on the side of a reef and now the race was on to salvage what they could before bad weather struck.

The wreck was lodged between two rocks in some 40 feet of water, and partly overgrown with coral. For six weeks divers with only the most primitive equipment made constant journeys down, stopping only for bad weather and the Sabbath.

The result exceeded Phips’ wildest dreams and when, in June 1687, he finally anchored at Gravesend, excitement ran high.

An armed guard was quickly placed round the ship and officials of the Royal Mint were called in to take an inventory of the treasure. By the time they finished the total recorded was:

37,538 troy pounds of pieces of eight.
27,556 pounds of bullion.
347 pounds of plate and 26 pounds of gold.

At that time the value was placed at £200,999. Now it would amount to well over a million pounds.

William Phips’ share was £12,000, and a grateful government loaded him with honours. He was knighted, given a chain of gold and received with honours given previously only to men like Sir Francis Drake. But Phips was anxious to return to the Concepcion, for although the easy pickings had gone he believed that much more still lay waiting to be salvaged in the galleon’s strong room. In the meantime others had looted the wreck and eventually Phips, despite ingenious attempts to devise an underwater explosion, had to admit defeat. The strong room seemed impenetrable, but he still managed to return with another £12,000 worth of treasure.

Phips returned to America, where his adventurous life continued. He led expeditions against the French in Canada, built himself a fine brick house and even started to draw up plans for yet another treasure hunt. He wanted to search for the fabulous table made by a Spanish governor (a prize that is still sought) from 3,310 pounds of solid gold. But he died before these plans could be finalised.

In the meantime, William III made him the first royal Governor of Massachusetts. It was a difficult task and sometimes Phips, coming across an insoluble problem, remembered his own most difficult moment upon the Rose of Argier. Then the Governor would settle the matter once and for all, in his own peculiar way. Up would go his fists and the King’s representative would deliver one lusty blow after another until the argument was resolved!

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