'Knight' traces Phips' rags-to-riches odyssey
"The New England Knight: Sir William Phips, 1651-1695"
by Emerson W. Baker and John G. Reid.
University of Toronto Press. 359 pages. 19 black and white illustrations. Hardcover $65, paperback $19.95.
By William David Barry
©Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
Of all the remarkable Mainers who have strode history's stage, few can compete with Sir William Phips (1651-1695).
His is the original New England rags-to-riches story, played out at a time when class meant far more than it does today. Phips, a nearly illiterate farm boy, would become shipbuilder, master mariner, recoverer of sunken treasure, knight, leader of two military expeditions against French North America and governor of a Massachusetts enlarged to include Maine and Nova Scotia. Death at an early age sealed the myth.
In writing Phips' first modern biography, archaeologist Emerson W. Baker and historian John G. Reid faced the problems of scant primary material and the accumulation of legends.
Contemporary detractors portrayed the man as a boastful, lucky, incompetent, greedy and occasionally violent low-brow. Proponents, led by his backer and biographer Cotton Mather, cast him as "Phippius Maximus," a heroic, resourceful, much put-upon Massachusetts patriot of the first order.
Subsequent generations of historians have not known quite what to make of the New England knight and his short, action-packed career.
To their credit, Reid and Baker have not missed the action in this closely researched, well crafted study. Using archaeology and scattered documentation, the authors have fleshed out, as never before, the settlement at Pemaquid and the Phips family farm in what is now Woolwich. Though perhaps less well-off than some of their English-speaking neighbors, the Phips farm was a thriving operation, and young William was hardly the "sheep herder" friends and foes later made him out to be.
The Phips boy was, however, ambitious. Apprenticed as a shipbuilder, he went to Boston probably in connection with the Clarke and Lake trading firm. In 1673, he married Mary Spencer Hull, a widow with some social standing. Mary proved a "strong and intelligent woman who was a partner to her husband in every sense of the word." In spite of thin historical material relating to the future Lady Phips, the writers show that half of the family land transactions in Boston were conducted by Mary. Furthermore, the influence and polish of William's wife shows clearly in several of his major political decisions.
A strong wife and vaunting ambition were not the only sources of William's success. The American branch of his family had strong ties to influential relatives in the old country.
Far from the fortunate rustic who stumbled on a pot of gold, Phips' recovery of "between 205,000 and 210,000 pounds of gold from a 50-year-old Spanish wreck off Hispanola was no fluke. He found wealthy, well-connected backers, ran the operation competently and, in an age celebrated for its flagrant venality, returned to the loot to its backers, including the King. Phips' hard work made him a fortune and gained him a knighthood.
Phips' entry into Massachusetts politics, first when it was part of the short-lived Dominion of New England, and finally as Royal Governor under a restored charter, was fraught with challenges real and imagined. The authors, however, succeed in proving that the stories of the governor's violent outbursts were, in large part, the embellishments of his enemies.
"The New England Knight" is one of the most carefully researched, closely argued Maine-related biographies in memory. Though not always easy reading, it is always enjoyable. Phips' complex personality, and the dense politics of the day, could have made for a dull, indecisive tome. Instead, we are given a distinguished, understandable biography that casts a new light on the English, French and Wabanaki in Maine against the backdrop of great events in the Atlantic world.