The period from 1630 to 1730 is considered the golden age of piracy and Rhode Island was a major haven for buccaneers. The wars between England, Holland and France gave rise to privateers who were licensed by their respective governments to raid enemy shipping. This pretext to raid enemy ships was nothing less than legalized piracy.
When the wars were over very few seamen wanted to go back to the life of a sailor. Sailors of the time were treated like slaves with severe punishment for minor offences, terrible food and no prospect for improving their lives.
Rhode Island became a center for piracy with ships being outfitted, privateer letters of marque given by corrupt officials, and goods and services bought and sold, all without paying taxes to England. Critics of the time sometimes referred to Rhode Island as “Rogue’s Island” and called it “the sewer of New England.”
To supplement their crews it was common practice for pirates to force seamen from the captured ships to join their crew. Sometimes the forced seamen grew to like the rover life and became pirates themselves, others refused participating only unwillingly.
Some of the forced men did become wealthy but many more died either by the blade of a cutlass or the hangman’s noose. In 1682 Samuel Cranston, who would become Rhode Island’s longest serving governor became one of these forced men.
Cranston was the son of former Rhode Island Governor John Cranston. He was born in Newport and lived there his entire life. At age twenty–one he married Mary Hart, the granddaughter of Roger Williams, thus uniting two powerful political families of Newport. The war with France had left Samuel with few financial prospects so he decided to pursue business interests in the Caribbean.
Cranston purchased a ship, hired a captain and crew and set sail for the Caribbean. Soon after arriving off Key West, Florida a pirate ship was sighted. The pirates demanded complete surrender but Cranston’s captain decided to resist. A fierce battle ensued but the pirates superior numbers soon won the battle. Enraged by the captain’s resistance the pirates murdered the entire crew except for Cranston.
Cranston would remain a prisoner of the pirates for seven long years. After capture, he was brought to an island off the coast of Honduras where the pirates had their stronghold. After being treated like a slave all Cranston could dream about was getting back to the new bride he’d left behind.
When an opportunity finally arose he was able to outfit a small boat and escape the island. He sailed for six days until he spotted a merchant ship, was rescued, and brought to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The crew donated money to Cranston and he booked passage to Boston. Upon arriving in Boston he learned that his wife Mary, thinking him dead, was about to marry another man.
Having no money left Cranston walked to Newport driven on by his need to arrive before his wife married a Mr. Russel from Boston. According to some accounts he arrived the day of the wedding so dirty and bedraggled that he was not recognized at his own home. Thinking him a beggar he was taken in and fed by the servants.
He asked to see the mistress of the house saying he had a message from her husband. After being escorted to Mary he told the story of the capture and escape finally revealing himself. He proved his identity by showing Mary a distinguishing scar on his forehead. Mary was overjoyed and the marriage ceremony was turned into an event celebrating his return.
Cranston was in his late 30s when he began his political career. Virtually with no political experience he was selected as Governor for the colony in 1698. Cranston was the 18th Governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
He served as governor for twenty nine years until 1727. He was elected to office 30 times and served as governor longer than any other individual in the history of both the colony and the state of Rhode Island.
Cranston presided over the transformation of Rhode Island from a struggling group of villages to a flourishing agricultural province. Cranston’s most notable accomplishment was to bring his colony into a working relationship with the imperial government in London while preserving the colonies charter.
Samuel and his first wife Mary had seven children. After Mary’s death in 1710 he married his brother’s widow Judith Parrett. Upon his death in 1727, Samuel Cranston was buried in the in Newport. He shares a large marker with his father John Cranston.
Perhaps it’s not so remarkable that Rhode Island has had such a history of piracy for it has been the refuge of non-conformists and outcasts going back to its founding by Roger Williams. Many people agreed about Rhode Island’s bad reputation including Dutch historian Thomas Janvier. He called Rhode Island “the abode of notorious hard characters” and referred to some of its citizens as “loose fish of thievish proclivities.”
The phrase queer fish and loose fish came to mean a man of doubtful character which began the expression “fishy.” So if something or some one seems fishy to you, you can blame it on Rogue Island.”