rogue island

a short history of piracy in the smallest state in the union

On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island cemented itself as a colony of contrarians. A full two months before the official signing of the Declaration, the few inhabitants of this tiny scrap of land in a yet-unformed nation declared independence from the British crown. Though 12 other colonies were soon to follow, Rhode Island was notorious for its independent (and perhaps reckless) streak. Critics called it “Rogue’s Island,” though the famed Boston preacher, Cotton Mather, preferred the more colorful “sewer of New England.” Rhode Islanders weren’t particularly well-liked by their colonial neighbors. Puritans and pirates didn’t tend to get along, and in the case of Lil’ Rhody, it seems many settlers were just more devoted to grog than they were to God.

Pirates had ported near the state’s larger towns (Newport in particular) for nearly a century before the Declaration of Independence. In fact, the Italian pirate Giovanni de Verrazano spent 15 days exploring and making maps in Newport as early as 1524 and compared the area to the Isle of Rhodes in the Aegean sea upon his return to Europe. When New England magistrates John Clarke and William Coddington purchased Aquidneck Island in 1638, they called it “Rhode Island,” likely inspired by Verrazano, and the colony blossomed. Piracy flourished in the ensuing decades, partially as a way to support the fledgling settlement’s economy. Pirates could obtain a “privateering” license from local officials that allowed them to capture enemy ships and sell the looted goods out of the hulls of their vessels, the “catch” being that a portion of the profits would go to the government. This program kickstarted a steady stream of government income that didn’t rely on taxing citizens, so even the most God-fearing skeptics soon welcomed pirates into their communities. At least two pirates were founding members of Newport’s Trinity Church, and several others married into prominent families to become leading citizens in their own right.

Economics aside, no pirate story is complete without mention of buried treasure. Captain William Kidd was one of the most famous pirates to use Rhode Island as a pit stop during his voyages. On one of these journeys, from 1697 to 1698, he captured The Quedah Merchant, a vast ship belonging to the ruler of the island of Madagascar. Replete with $500,000 worth of rare silks, silver plates, and other treasures, the Merchant acquisition so thrilled Kidd that he abandoned his original ship, The Adventure Galley, in the middle of the ocean. Newly rich (and by default, a little reckless), Kidd sailed to the West Indies, hoping to trade some of his bounty and turn an even greater profit. Unfortunately, his privateering license wouldn’t transfer, and his name had been conveniently omitted from the 1698 Act of Grace, which granted amnesty to pirates frequently more bloodthirsty and notorious than the comparatively mild Kidd. In other words, Kidd was declared a pirate, and piracy was a crime. If he wanted to keep his loot, he needed to clear his name. What better place than New England to become a new man?

Kidd swiftly set sail for the American coast, or at least as fast as one could on a boat weighed down with countless pounds of precious metals. All of this wealth mysteriously disappeared upon his arrival, which has fueled centuries of speculation that Kidd’s treasure is buried in a number of locations from Long Island to Block Island. Rhode Island Governor Samuel Cranston caught wind of Kidd’s voyage. Still bitter about having been captured by pirates as a young man, he was prepared to do anything in his power to prohibit more from entering his shores. Cranston arranged for 30 armed men to apprehend Kidd, but Kidd fired two cannon shots and scared them off before they got the chance. Anticipating his imminent arrest, Kidd hastily sought to hide his wealth on land, distributing it among trusted confidants so that he could reclaim it upon his release. A retired Rhode Island privateer, Captain Thomas Paine, reportedly received the most gold, which he buried near his home in Jamestown.  Kidd was convicted of piracy and hanged just a few years later. His treasure has never been found.

The story of Captain Kidd reflects the shift in attitudes toward piracy in the early 18th century. As settlements developed and the seeds of independence began to take root, local officials became increasingly concerned with crime in the colonies. If they were to separate from England, they had better fashion themselves a worthy nation ready to compete with the motherland on the world stage. The growing merchant class welcomed this crackdown, as the low prices pirates charged for stolen goods posed a major threat to reputable business. These tensions came to a head in 1723, when 26 pirates were hanged at Gravelly Point, one of the largest neighborhoods in Newport, in the largest public execution in colonial history.

Whether you prefer Captain Hook or Captain Jack Sparrow, there’s no question that pirates are a ubiquitous part of contemporary pop culture. More interesting, however, at least if you’re a history geek like me, are the real ones, whose stomping grounds are not too far from the ones we frequent every day. Looting may be more exciting than the library, that’s for sure, but who’s to say treasure can’t be found in both? In a pinch, there’s always Newport and the rest of the Ocean State to explore. Just remember to pack a shovel.