American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

“PIETAS IN PATRIAM: THE LIFE OF HIS EXCELLENCY SIR WILLIAM PHIPS” (1697, 1702). Author Cotton Mather (1663-1728) himself never voyaged extensively at sea, yet his life was shaped by maritime experience. A Boston native and a minister, Mather was surrounded by sea culture and exhorted sailors to lead godly lives and to take lessons from maritime tragedies. In 1724 his favorite son, Increase, was lost at sea.

Mather selects the life of William Phips (1651-1695) for the most extensive biography in his Magnalia Christi Americana: or, The Ecclesiastical History of New-England (1702); it is also the most maritime. One of America’s earliest self-made men, Phips rose from poverty and obscurity to become one of the most powerful men in the colonies. His success was funded entirely by the treasure he recovered from a Spanish wreck.

Unlike Mather’s lives of John Winthrop and William Bradford, his life of Phips shows not a religious man of self-sacrifice but an ambitious figure driven by secular gain. Mather notes that Phips’ primary virtue was his capacity for change. Phips’ greatest transformation was his rise from poor sheepherder on the Maine frontier, to Boston’s first royal governor. Unwilling to set aside his ambitions, Phips outfitted a frigate and sailed for the Caribbean,* where he had heard tales of sunken Spanish treasure. Although his first two expeditions failed, Phips prevailed upon James II in 1686 to underwrite a third expedition, which proved to be wonderfully successful. After locating the sunken wreck, Phips returned to England with more than £50,000 in Spanish treasure. For his efforts, Phips received not only £16,000 of the booty but also a knighthood and a commission as a high sheriff.

Upstart sea captain and treasure hunter, Sir William was named first royal governor of Massachusetts, but his years as governor were unremarkable. He returned to Boston in May 1692 during the Salem witch hysteria, and after appointing a court of oyer and terminer, he left for the frontier to focus on problems with Native Americans. When he returned in the late summer, the Salem executions had already taken place, and the witch hysteria had reached its peak. With even his own wife being accused, Phips sought advice from the leading ministers, and, on their recommendation, he stopped the trials and released the remaining suspects. Yet the colony was fractured with political factionalism, and Phips quarreled openly and sometimes violently with members of the opposition. In 1694 he returned to London to answer their charges of corruption and misconduct in office. Before he could clear his name and while planning yet another treasurehunting expedition, Phips died in London in 1695.

As sailor, treasure-hunter, and soldier, Phips was consumed with material success; Mather struggles to place his secular ambitions within the greater context of New England’s spiritual quest.

Daniel E. Williams