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  • “To Banter the Age”Sir William Phips and the Wonders of the Modern World
  • Joe Conway (bio)

Upon William Phips’s return to London from his successful 1687 treasure-hunting expedition to the Caribbean, a broadside titled “An Exact and Perfect Relation” appeared in print to tell the history of this remarkable man and his seemingly magic voyage. The “Relation” claimed that the story of the New Englander and his crew’s exploits, financed by a group of investors led by the Duke of Albemarle, was one “to surmount belief it self ” (1). Indeed, the broadside’s insistence to its potentially incredulous readers that its words constituted “An Exact and Perfect Relation” of true events, howsoever “wonderful,” parallels the recounting within the text of the “Relation” of the serial efforts of Phips to convince Charles II, James II, Albemarle, and other capitalists to overlook the “improbability of the Adventure” and finance it (1). No wonder many balked at funding Phips’s project, and “lookt upon [it] as a Chimera” (1). Claiming to know the specific whereabouts of a long-lost Spanish vessel sunk forty years prior off the coast of Hispaniola, Phips proposed to recover the gold and silver from the bottom of the sea and bring it back to England. Who, the broadside asks, would lend credence (or cash) to such a scheme? “For certainly,” it continues, “to tell Mankind of taking up the Cargo of above 40 years Wreck in full Sea 17 fathoms from any Shoar in nine Fathom Water, would be thought to banter the Age, and turn the same to ridicule” (1). Nevertheless, Captain Phips succeeded, bringing back £250,000 in treasure (mostly silver), a feat for which James II knighted him. Always in desperate need of hard money, the king welcomed an influx of precious metals into his realm. Meanwhile, the public was sent buzzing over Phips’s success that promised, in the broadside’s words, to “fill our Pockets with Coyn, as well as our Ears with astonishment” (1).

As this last line indicates, the narrative of Phips’s success stimulated [End Page 271] both public finance and public fantasy. Economic historian Christine MacLeod has shown that the wide publicity received by Phips’s voyage sparked an investment bubble in diving-engine patents throughout the decade of the 1690s (558). People, as one commentator noted, were “tickled in the ear with the vast Wealth of Gold and Silver that should be taken out of the Sea” (Angliae 21). The story’s ability to prompt what the broadside alternately calls “astonishment” and “wonder” in its readers simultaneously “tickled” and troubled many of the authors who wrote about the culture of irrational exuberance that followed in the wake of Phips’s sensational return. Indeed as I will argue in this essay, the affective excess produced out of the textual event that Daniel Defoe called “Phips his Wreck-Voyage” (16) ultimately compelled its many commentators across the Anglo-Atlantic empire of letters to confront the limits of those secular, rational, and scientific discourses that prevailed in the Enlightenment public sphere.

If, as many cultural critics have noted, what distinguishes secular modernity is the diminished feeling of enchantment that pervades it, Phips’s story, so often accompanied by literary tropes borrowed from the magic narratives of romance, seems to recall events belonging to more archaic times (the broadside, for example, compares his actions to a scene out of The Odyssey [2]). This is so, even though the obscurely born, unbaptized, and unlettered Phips’s skillful negotiation of circum-Atlantic information and finance networks marked him as a mobile social actor whose secular path through material achievement to social prestige might serve as the very model of a modern life history. The cognitive dislocation that Phips often produced in those contemporaries who wrote about him seems to derive from this liminal position he held in the 1690s Anglo-American imaginary. Phips: both a sign of the present and a spirit from the past.

Phips’s success, while celebrated throughout the 1690s Atlantic world, had a direct biographical influence on the three writers I will consider here: Daniel Defoe, Cotton Mather, and Hans Sloane. Of the three, Mather’s...


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