Thomas Tew (1649 – September 1695), also known as the Rhode Island Pirate, was a 17th-century English privateer-turned-pirate. He embarked on two major piratical voyages and met a bloody death on the second journey, and he pioneered the route which became known as the Pirate Round. Many other famous pirates followed in his path, including Henry Avery and William Kidd.
Much of what is known about Tew is derived from Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, which is a mixture of fact and fiction. When reading about Thomas Tew, it is important to be able to distinguish between truth and story. Captain Johnson said, "Tew, in Point of Gallantry, was inferior to none."
It is frequently written that Tew had family in Rhode Island dating back to 1640, but it is not known where he may have been born. He may have been born in New England. One theory is that he was born in Maidford, Northamptonshire, England before emigrating to the colonies as a child with his family, although there is only a little circumstantial evidence for this. He lived at one time in Newport, Rhode Island. Tew is reported as being married with two daughters. According to one source, his wife and children all greatly enjoyed the New York City social scene after Tew struck it rich, but there is no supporting evidence elsewhere for this.
In 1691, Tew moved to Bermuda. There is evidence that he was already reputed as a pirate at that time, but no modern historian has determined whether this reputation was earned or not. He may simply have engaged in privateering against French and Spanish ships.
He was in close relations with fellow pirate Captain Richard Want who was his closest ally; Want became Tew's first mate on his first pirate cruise, and sailed his own ship Dolphin alongside Tew's Amity on the second.
In 1692, Thomas Tew obtained a letter of marque from the Governor of Bermuda. Various Bermudian backers provided him with a vessel: the seventy-ton sloop Amity, armed with eight guns and crewed by forty-six officers and men. He and another captain obtained a privateer's commission from the lieutenant governor of Bermuda to destroy a French factory off the coast of West Africa. Thus equipped, Tew set sail in December, ostensibly to serve as a privateer against French holdings in The Gambia. He set out alongside buccaneer, privateer, and pirate George Dew aboard the sloop Amy; shortly out of port they were separated in a storm. Dew's dismasted ship limped alone to Saldanha Bay in south Africa, where he was arrested by the Dutch. Not long out of Bermuda, Tew announced his intention of turning to piracy, asking the crew for their support since he could not enforce the illegal scheme without their consent. Tew's crew reportedly answered with the shout, "A gold chain or a wooden leg, we'll stand with you!" The newly minted pirates proceeded to elect a quartermaster, a common pirate practice to balance the captain's power.
Tew reached the Red Sea and ran down a large Ghanjah dhow en route from India to the Ottoman Empire, some time in late 1693. Despite its enormous garrison of 300 soldiers, the Indian dhow surrendered without serious resistance, inflicting no casualties on the assailants. Tew's pirates helped themselves to the ship’s rich treasure, worth £100,000 in gold and silver alone, not counting the value of the ivory, spices, gemstones, and silk taken. Tew's 45 men afterward shared out between £1,200 and £3,000 per man, and Tew himself claimed about £8,000.
Tew urged his filibusters to hunt down and rob the other ships in the Indian convoy, but yielded to the opposition of the quartermaster. He set course back to the Cape of Good Hope, stopping at Adam Baldridge's pirate settlement at St. Mary's on Madagascar to careen.
Tew reached Newport in April 1694. Benjamin Fletcher, royal governor of Province of New York, became good friends with Tew and his family. Tew eventually paid off the owners of the Amity, who recouped fourteen times the value of the vessel.
In November 1694, Tew bought a new letter of marque from Fletcher and set out for another pirate cruise. His crew numbered thirty to forty men at departure this time. John Ireland, who served as navigator on Tew's Amity during their second cruise, claimed after his own capture that both he and Tew had been forced to serve by the sloop's mutinous crew. According to his deposition, the crew threatened the pair during what would have been a trip from New York to Boston to prepare for privateering against the French. However, by the time he reached Madagascar, Tew apparently increased his force to 50 or 60 men.
Arriving at the Mandab Strait at the mouth of the Red Sea in August 1695, Tew found several other pirates hoping to duplicate his prior success, including Henry Avery in the powerfully armed warship Fancy as well as fellow Rhode Island pirate captains Joseph Faro and Thomas Wake, plus William May and Richard Want. Tew and the other pirate captains decided to sail in concert.
In September 1695, a 25-ship Mughal convoy approached the Mandab Strait, slipping past the pirates during the night. Tew and his fellow pirates pursued. The Amity overtook one of the Mughal ships, believed to be the Fateh Muhammed, and attacked it. Tew was killed in this battle, reportedly disemboweled by a cannon shot. Demoralized, Tew's crew surrendered immediately, though they were freed later when Every’s Fancy captured the Fateh Muhammed. Minus Tew, the Amity under John Ireland returned to Baldridge's settlement to refit; they later swapped the Amity for Richard Glover's Charming Mary and plundered ships in the Indian Ocean under captain Richard Bobbington but a number of them were captured soon after.
The final resting place of Tew's remains is unknown, but he is said to be the father of Ratsimilaho, a man who created a kingdom on the east coast of Madagascar. In addition, it has been claimed that Tew was one of the named founders of the mysterious pirate colony of Libertatia.
Captain William Kidd, before he himself allegedly turned pirate, was commissioned by King William III to hunt down several named pirates, Thomas Tew and John Ireland among them. Unknown to either Kidd or the King, Tew was already dead when the commission was issued.