The New England Knight:
Sir William Phips, 1651-1695

366 pages,
ISBN: 0802081711

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An Unlikely Adventure
by Gerald Owen

Sir William Phips is notable as a persistent but rather ineffectual enemy of Canada and Acadia. He is also remarkable for the parts he played in two transitions into the modern age. As a treasure-seeker, he gave a great stimulus to a new activity, namely, investment promotion; writers ranging from Daniel Defoe to Maynard Keynes have held this to be a turning-point. And as Governor of Massachusetts, he put an end to the Salem witchcraft trials.

One of the first American writers, the Puritan intellectual Cotton Mather, wrote a eulogistic life of Phips. This new biography is of course very different, but to some extent it is a long critical annotation of Mather's Pietas in Patriam. Fittingly, one author is Canadian-a professor at St. Mary's University in Halifax-and the other is American-a professor at Salem State College. (You can guess from the names which is which.)

William Phips was born and grew up on a farm on the coast of Maine. Cotton Mather may have exaggerated the poverty and humility of his beginnings, but in any case he came from a rough and remote frontier. Archaeology now tells us that his family's farm house at least had a foundation, but the windows had no glass: middling status, in that setting.

He became a ship's carpenter, and got into ship-building. Then he started looking for sunken Spanish treasure in the Caribbean, following up vague rumours of old shipwrecks. Though in the end he was spectacularly successful, there is no sign that he was an ingenious searcher. Somewhere off Jamaica, after much disappointment, says Mather, "one of the Men looking over the side [of an canoe], into the calm Water, he spied a Sea Feather [an attractive bit of coral]; whereupon they had one of their Indians to Dive and fetch this Feather, that they might however carry home something with them.."

The diver saw great guns. And then, lumps and lumps and lumps of silver.

Phips must have been good at improvising with difficult people. On his first treasure expedition, the crew were joint venturers; he had to renegotiate their ill-defined partnership agreement under threat of mutiny. On the voyage that turned out so well, he managed to persuade the crew to stick with the plan, though they could hardly understand why they didn't all switch to something more practical: piracy. One sees why Baker and Reid say that Phips's greatest achievement was perhaps in getting so much silver safely back to England.

Though Phips's life is hardly like the plot of Treasure Island, the story of his extricating himself from various messes is fascinating business history. He must have good at making connections, too; this book reveals a mixture of social mobility and immobility. The ex-shepherd from Maine did have a distant cousin called Sir Constantine Phips, but it's not obvious how he got access to rich noblemen, and then to three successive kings of England.

The Crown had a healthy share in the Jamaican voyage. When it succeeded so well, in 1687, Phips was suddenly a sort of public benefactor. James II made him the first American-born knight. He was now a celebrity as an entrepreneur, or, in the language of the day, as a "projector".

In his Essay upon Projects, Defoe dates the birth of "the Projecting Humour" to 1680, but "'twas a hopeless brat, and had hardly any Hand to own it, till the Wreck-Voyage, perform'd so happily by Captain Phips, afterwards Sir William; whose strange Performance set a great many Heads to contrive something for themselves."

Grave economic historians have attributed a "financial revolution" to the speculation that followed Phips's good fortune. Baker and Reid are cautious about this. In any case, Phips was now rich. A little later, after the Revolution of 1688, he got involved with Increase Mather (Cotton's father) in lobbying with the new regime in Britain to sort out the confused status and governance of Massachusetts. Phips emerged as Governor.

For Massachusetts at the time, the main frontier was to the east. Baker and Reid strongly bring out Phips's continuing attention to the promise of this hinterland-a promise of wealth to New England and himself. His desire for the conquest of Acadia and Canada was a natural extension of his lifelong interest in what is now Maine.

Historians have often portrayed Phips as a bumbler, not without cause. But this book vividly communicates how very awkward life must have been then in North America, and on the adjacent seas. It would have been hard not to be incompetent. One of Phips's triumphs was a superficial conquest of Acadia. Quite an easy conquest, too. The French had sent an engineer to Port-Royal (now Annapolis) to strengthen its walls. But "like almost all engineers," complained an official, "he had views that were too vast, disproportionate to what he had to do." He knocked down the old walls, started new ones, but ran out of time and left a gaping hole, through which Phips and the "New English" could more or less walk in.

The sensible Acadians humoured him by acknowledging British sovereignty, while obeying the French-but above all they went on farming and trying to mind their own business.

Phips's invasion of Canada was a remarkable cock-up (partly because the New Yorkers failed to show up and do their bit at Montreal). When he called on Frontenac to surrender at Quebec, the Canadian Governor General memorably said, "I have no answer to make to your general except from the mouths of my cannons." The British manoeuvres included throwing explosives up in the air towards the walls of Quebec, and trying to drag some boats around.

Phips was not such a bad peacemaker. He apparently drew on his early knowledge of the Natives in Maine, to enter into a comparatively sensible treaty with the Abenaki, who were usually French allies.

His business interests got rather entangled with his public duties, and he was recalled to London to answer what were more or less conflict-of-interest charges. His governorship might have survived, but he himself did not: he caught the flu in London and died, aged forty-four.

Baker and Reid give us an admirably thorough account of the evidence, in well-rounded context. Their prose is capable and sometimes vivid. But one welcomes the quotations from Phips's contemporaries with relief. Everyone seems to speak graphically, pungently-even bureaucrats in their memoranda, as if every civil servant then was like Simon Reisman. Cotton Mather is ornate and playful in his prose. It's as if a TV evangelist of our day-with a theology much like Mather's-were to suddenly start speaking like Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy. An example from Pietas in Patriam: "Such Thorns did vex his Affairs while he was in the Rose-Frigot; but none of these things could rotund the Edge of his Expectations to find the Wreck."

Perhaps because of the uncertain degree of Sir William's literacy, his own voice rarely comes through. His personality remains dim to us. He was often a blusterer, but not, it seems, a bad man. As Baker and Reid say more than once, he had an unlikely career. Whether through ability or chance, he was mixed up in some extraordinary doings. For lack of much access, we cannot take great interest in him as an individual. What then of the doings?

Anyone who puts a stop to a reign of terror is a hero, even if this might have been done sooner, even it was partly done from self-interest. The momentum of rumour in the Salem affair might before long have threatened Sir William and Lady Phips themselves. But to oppose such a craze is to risk arousing suspicion that one is indeed on the side of the Devil-or whoever the enemy of the day may be. Perhaps Phips was the passive recipient of the thoughts of his brains trust, the Mathers. But Cotton Mather clearly shows Phips actively seeking their advice, and acting on it.

The amazing thing about the Salem trials is not that they happened, but that they were interrupted. Since the late fifteenth century, the Western European countries had all been afflicted by witchcraft prosecutions. Although Perry Miller, the great scholar of New England Puritanism, may well have been right in saying that the Salem trials did not alter American intellectual debates at the time, the fact remains that such horrors were not renewed in New England.

The arguments of the Mathers and their friends were based on premisses so alien to us, so unbelievable that we can hardly imagine discussing the issue with the people of that time. What is hopeful about this story is that logic and justice can sometimes prevail, even if the overwhelmingly prevalent view of the facts is deeply mistaken.

We must praise and thank Phips and the Mathers because they stood up for a technical point: that "spectral evidence" should be inadmissible. If someone's likeness appeared in a dream or vision as an agent of the Devil, that should not go towards proof of his or her guilt. Why? Not because the whole business was a goofy, dangerous superstition. The Mathers argued that such evidence was tainted precisely because the Devil had power to deceive by producing spectres: he is the great liar and the great accuser. Once this point was vigorously made, the whole prosecution began to unravel-though not before some people were killed. Better too late than never. Reasonableness won, without the help of modern rationalism.

Buy why did Puritan clergymen like the Mathers take to Phips? Was it that he was a famous entrepreneur? Did it have something to do with "the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism"? I find no such theme in Cotton Mather's Pietas in Patriam.

"Projecting" was a great theme of the day, however, most notably in two writers very like and very unlike each other, Swift and Defoe. In Gulliver's Travels, we can see how the word "projectors" covers shady stock promoters, policy wonks, and (most foolish of all!) technological scientists. Defoe, though no whitewasher, is far more friendly to projectors. He is one himself: his Essays on Projects is mostly a compilation of his proposals: for banks, insurance companies, lotteries, pensions, education of women.

And for a military academy. He goes so far as to say that "the Art of War" is "the highest Perfection of Human Knowledge", because of its destructive inventions, which "can imitate God Almighty himself and rain Fire and Brimstone out of Heaven, as it were." Defoe attributes the rise of projecting in large part to the long war with France that was set off by the Revolution of 1688. In his view, the country had been greatly enriched by the war. The economic take-off was not a result of commerce exactly, but of commercial losses! The destruction of merchant ships and the interruption of trade had induced businessmen to come up with all sorts of schemes, with "projects", to recover their position by means of the savings of non-projectors. The entrepreneur is not someone who has patiently accumulated. The new age is one of disjunction between those who have new ideas and those with other resources.

Noah's Ark was a "project", mocked by his contemporaries, Defoe tells us. This radical Protestant also praises the Tower of Babel; it was a "right project" because it was "too big to be manag'd and therefore likely to come to nothing." But his main explanation of the basis of entrepreneurism is like a revised version of the Prodigal Son. The "Errors of a Man's Youth" will bring him to die "in a Ditch, or in some worse place, an Hospital." There are only three ways to avoid this: suicide, crime, and projecting. Some projectors are con men, some have beneficial inventions.

And some are silly, "yet Success has so sanctified some of those other projects , that 'twould be a kind of Blasphemy against Fortune to disallow 'em; witness Sir William Phips's Voyage to the Wreck; 'twas a mere Project, a Lottery of a Hundred thousand to One odds; hazard, which if it had fail'd, everybody wou'd have been asham'd to have own'd themselves concern'd in; a Voyage that wou'd have been as much ridicul'd as Don Quixot's Adventure upon the Windmill: Bless us! that Folks should go Three thousand Miles to Angle in the open Sea for Pieces of Eight!" (Mather plays on the same fishing imagery.) "Why, they would have made Ballads of it, and the Merchants wou'd said of every unlikely Adventure, 'Twas like Phips his Wreck-Voyage.

".there is a kind of Honesty a man owes to himself and to his family, that prohibits him throwing away his Estate in impracticable, improbable Adventures; but still some hit even of the most unlikely, of which this was one, of Sir William Phips, who brought home a cargo of near 200000 l. sterling, in Pieces of Eight, fish'd up out of the open Sea remote from any shore, from an old Spanish Ship which had been sunk above Forty Years."

There are always more geese than swans, Defoe says. Or again, many eggs must be hatched to produce a certain number of chickens who will lay so many eggs.. The hack writer has a theory close to that of this century's greatest economist, Joseph Schumpeter, summed up in his phrase "creative destruction".

In a more idealistic passage, Defoe says, "Every new Voyage the Merchant contrives, is a Project; and Ships are sent from Port to Port, as Markets and Merchandizes differ, by the help of strange and Universal Intelligence, wherein some are so exquisite, so swift, and so exact, that a Merchant sitting at home in his Counting-house, at once converses with all Parts of the known World. This, and Travel, makes a True-bred Merchant the most Intelligent Man in the World, and consequently the most capable, when urg'd by Necessity, to Contrive New Ways to live."

In 1688, King James was, they say, danced out of three kingdoms to the tune of Lilliburlero. By the end of the seventeenth century, the age of Bre-X, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the Internet had arrived.


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