Friday, January 11, 2019

Who is Pirate Advocate Richard Fitzwilliam?

Dictionary of Virginia Biography (DVB) notes: 
Richard Fitzwilliam (d. by 19 April 1744), member of the Council, was probably the son of Thomas Fitzwilliam and Mary Luttrell Fitzwilliam of County Dublin, Ireland. Very little is known about his personal life, including the dates of his birth and death and whether he married or had children.
"Very little is known about his personal life"... sound familiar? Isn't this the exact same thing that people used to claim about Edward "Blackbeard" Thache? A genealogical-historical study proved the formerly "mysterious" pirate quite an average wealthy British-American gentleman with a large Jamaican family - even a daughter and also a conservative grandfather who studied the ministry at Oxford! - not such an unknown or "villainous" enigma.

Well, again, let's blow this "very little is known" thing apart, shall we?

The same source also noted that: "Vain, self-centered, stubborn, inflexible, and greedy, Fitzwilliam often found fault with others, and his combative willfulness annoyed numerous influential Virginians."

I certainly do not doubt that Richard Fitzwilliam was a controversial man, but many English gentlemen (the 1% in any century) who gave up everything that such privileged blowhards enjoyed about their ancient English (and Irish) civilization to make their lives and futures in the jungle wilderness of early America did often exhibit similar characteristics!

Also, when's the last time you considered living in the Amazon rain-forest... without internet or cellphones?

Still, many American historians have difficulty contemplating that a wealthy, privileged man like Richard Fitzwilliam - or Edward Thache, for that matter - would ever venture to this godforsaken and remote cesspool of European religious detritus, with wild unknown beasts and Jacobite rebel prisoners - a land which Native Americans liked, understood well, lived upon for thousands of years, and from which they simply wished Europeans would just bugger off!

Fitzwilliam Museum Interior
This bias often crept into their analyses. A similar bias infects our British cousins who tend to think that absolutely no British Fitzwilliam ever had anything to do with America! And... if you look at the interior of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, you could hardly believe that any British family who inspired such artistic grandeur could ever have lived in a remote provincial backwater like early 18th-century America!

Likewise, the American-focused DVB saw Richard Fitzwilliam as an "outsider," just another foreign Blackbeard-ish interloping enigma: "January 1715 Fitzwilliam received an appointment as comptroller of customs in Currituck, North Carolina. A year or two later he moved to Virginia to be collector of customs for the lower district of James River. On 13 August 1717 Fitzwilliam petitioned the governor and Council for a grant of land in Hampton and permission to erect a wharf there."

Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood (essentially another foreign interloper and relative of the king) regarded Fitzwilliam's customs accounts - and his favor of pirates (specifically, Edward Thache's quartermaster, but also a few others at New Providence Island) - as contrary to his service "to his Majesty" and on 18 August 1719 informed the commissioners of customs in London that he was "guilty of malfeasance." A Royal Navy ally of Spotswood, Capt. Ellis Brand of HMS Lyme, mentioned in a letter to the Admiralty of "One [Richard] Fitzwilliams a Costom house Officer in Virginia as being an Agent for the pyrats and in what Manner we ware perplext with law Suits...." For Brand and Spotswood, Virginia, much like North Carolina, was wholly filled with pirates and their supporters, for Brand also regarded the Virginian Judge of Vice-Admiralty, John Holloway, as if he were a corrupt Donald Trump appointee, bearing a huge conflict of interest, actually serving as a lawyer for pirate William Howard, Blackbeard's quartermaster! Holloway also had Capt. George Gordon of HMS Pearl arrested for false arrest of William Howard and fined ₤500!

Fitzwilliam eventually left the office of collector of customs on 17 November 1720, obviously (from a modern point-of-view) because of the "contrary and factious people" of Virginia, but he returned to that position on 1 April 1721.

Why were Virginians seen by Spotswood and modern Americans as "contrary and factious"? The subject of piracy in America involves a complicated political-historical and intentional misunderstanding, involving early media and both sides of the Atlantic, deftly hiding the early beginnings of our nation... you'll just have to read my book to fully understand what I mean.

It's not a stretch to say that the wealthy English-appointed govermor Spotswood had a particularly low opinion of the average Virginia "ignorant" citizen, as he styled them on 22 December 1718, when he explained to the Board of Trade why he illegally assassinated Edward Thache in North Carolina - not in his own colony (actually, a privately-owned one), by the way. The very English (and anti-American) Spotswood also called Fitzwilliam, who "undertook" the cause of pirates, and his ilk "knavish," causing the citizens to choose "such Representatives as are agreable to them."Clearly, Spotswood saw Americans as a low class sort.

The DVB then tells:
The conflicts with officials [actually local Burgesses] in Virginia did no injury to Fitzwilliam's career. By late in July 1725 he was appointed surveyor general of customs for the southern district of America, which included the mainland colonies from Pennsylvania southward and also the Bahamas and Jamaica.
Eventually, as the DVB also notes, Fitzwilliam left Virginia after even the House of Burgesses censured him, "relinquished his position as surveyor general of customs in September 1731 and by 3 January 1733 had received an appointment as governor of the Bahamas... Richard Fitzwilliam died four years later, probably in Dublin, and was buried there on, or shortly before, 19 April 1744 in the Parish of Donnybrook."

 Yes... he was appointed to yet another supposedly grandiose position - though the Bahamas were even more remote and lacking in resources than the mainland American wilderness!

Richard, 5th Viscount FitzWilliam of Merrion's will in England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858 - PROB 11; Piece: 732 - dated 20 April 1744

Imagine my surprise at finding Richard, 5th Viscount FitzWilliam of Merrion's will in England and Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858 - PROB 11; Piece: 732 - dated 8 January 1743, but probated in 20 April 1744! Remember the death date of 19 April 1744 given by the DVB? Burke's Peerage, as quoted on the Wikipedia page, imagines the 5th Viscount Fitzwilliam to be a totally different person (but, certainly not): "Richard FitzWilliam, 5th Viscount FitzWilliam PC [a member of the Privy Council of Ireland] (c. 1677 – 6 June 1743) was an Irish nobleman and politician. The will was written and dated several months before this latest date of death assessment, so it does not disqualify the comparison with the Virginian collector Fitzwilliam.

In reality, the family's history is well-preserved. From this genealogical perspective (with little, if any political bias), Richard was the only son of Thomas FitzWilliam, 4th Viscount FitzWilliam and his first wife Mary Stapleton, daughter of the English statesman Sir Philip Stapleton." Still, I think I know why 19 April 1744 was assumed by the DVB to be his date of death... I'll come back to this.

Thomas 4th Viscount and Mary Stapleton Fitzwilliam, parents of Richard 5th Viscount Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

Moreover, Thomas and Mary "Luttrell" Fitzwilliam (as quoted by the DVB) versus Thomas and Mary "Stapleton" Fitzwilliam (quoted by Burkes)? Why the confusion? Well, the Luttrells were related, but not that way: Thomas Luttrell married Richard Fitzwilliam's aunt Mary, sister of Thomas 4th Viscount Fitzwilliam. Mary Stapleton (shown in the picture above) was clearly Richard's mother.

The first line of this will states "Richard Fitzwilliam Esquire late Governor of the Bahama Islands in America," and his wife is shown as "Right honourable Frances [Shelley] Lady Viscountess Fitzwilliam" so if there's any question about whether this is the same Richard Fitzwilliam who gave Spotswood multiple ulcers, let's just settle that question here and now! It's our guy!

Portrait of Richard (5th Viscount FitzWilliam of Merrion) & Frances Shelley FitzWilliam, b. circa 1677; 1685, d. 06 June 1743; aft 1762. Frances separated from her husband c.1730. She entered a convent abroad. The fact that she entered a convent indicates that she stayed Catholic, even as her children were bapt. Protestant. Source: Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

Again, the history given by Wikipedia (about the English statesman) for Richard, 5h Viscount Fitzwilliam states that he "became a member of the Irish Privy Council in 1715. He was elected Member of Parliament for Fowey in 1727, a seat he held until 1734."

It might surprise the reader that I have no dispute with these dates or the positions which he held.

According to the DVB, he received a commission in January 1715 as "surveyor of Elizabeth River" and "comproller of customs in Currituck, NC" but that he moved to America within the next two years and settled instead in Virginia. These positions he received as a result of patronage, or favor, and they carried a definite financial reward:

Richard FitzWilliams, Surveyor of Elizabeth River, Virginia; same time
Richard FitzWilliams, Comptroller at Currituck, North Carolina; 11 July 1715 to Midsummer 1716

Note that he simply collected the money - he never had to actually assume the responsibility. This is similar to the corruption that later sparked the American Revolution. For example, you may not realize that Alexander Spotswood was not actually the governor of Virginia in Blackbeard's time, but the "Lt. Gov." The actual governor at this time was George Hamilton, Lord Orkney, who had responsibilities to the Prince of Wales at the time and never left England for America! He still received the appointment as a political favor and still collected his ₤2000 salary, though! Spotswood's salary was only half of Orkney's despite the fact that he is the one who actually administered Virginia for the Crown!

Even the Treasury assumed that Lord Orkney would not actually assume the governorship of Virginia - perhaps they did not expect the refined aristocratic gentleman to travel to such a dangerous and remote wilderness - but they didn't mind paying him for it!:
    September 1711:
George, Earl of Orkney, Lieutenant and Governor General: by letters patent: with the salary of 2,000l. per an.
    Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant Governor: by royal commission: with an allowance of half the Governor's salary in the latter's absence.
Later, Fitzwilliam became a collector for the lower district of James River - which brought him into direct contact with pirates not even a year later. "On 13 August 1717 Fitzwilliam petitioned the governor and Council for a grant of land in Hampton and permission to erect a wharf there." So, there's no evidence that he was in America much before this date.

Being elected a member of the Irish parliament for Fowey in 1727 appears to pose more difficulty - probably also due to a misunderstanding of how patronage worked. DVB states "On 14 December 1727 the governor and Council appointed him one of the commissioners to survey and settle the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina. He offered to sell the colony a tent for the expedition, suggesting that his interest was more mercenary than altruistic. Fitzwilliam's investment in an iron foundry the following year [1728] reflects a similar desire for personal profit without regard for improving Virginia's infrastructure.

No dispute that he was a corrupt rich guy! 

But, this appointment did not prevent him from assuming his position in Parliament. Again, such appointments were often political and not pragmatic positions. Indeed, The Excise Crisis: Society and Politics in the Age of Walpole, in its Appendix C shows "Richard Fitzwilliam, Viscount Fitzwilliam, Fowey" on a list of "Absent Members." He did not have to actually live and serve in Ireland in 1727! Still, the survey of the Virginia-North Carolina boundary did not actually begin until spring of 1728. He really could have been anywhere in 1727 - at least until he accompanied his fellow commissioners on the 1728 survey! Furthermore, another peerage account showed that he served on "his Majesty's Privy-Council" since September 1714, marrying Frances, only daughter of Sir John Shelley of Michalgrove in Sussex - another position for which he was no doubt absent. He apparently ignored a lot of his "official" responsibilities! I have to wonder if his wife accompanied him in America for any of these remote appointments - perhaps he ignored her, too! After all, she later left him for a convent and I did compare him to Donald Trump... lol.

Location of "Mount Fitzwilliam," still the official governor's residence in Nassau, New Providence, the Bahamas
Mount Merrion House (Dublin, Ireland) - The Fitzwilliams built Merrion Castle on lands which are today the property of the Sisters of Charity and St Mary's Home and School for the Blind. By 1710 Merrion Castle was in such a bad state of repair that Richard, the 5th Viscount Fitzwilliam, selected 100 acres (0.4 km²) on which he built Mount Merrion House, surrounding the house by an 8-foot-high (2.4 m) granite wall. The house was completed in 1711 and served as a new seat by the 5th Viscount Fitzwilliam on the hill at Mount Merrion. The Fitzwilliam family left for England (Dover Street in St. George, Hanover Square, Middlesex) around 1726. Although the family no longer lived in Mount Merrion House, they retained possession of it, and rented the house out. "Mount Merrion and Its History" by Francis Elrington Ball, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1898), pp. 329-344.

Fitzwilliam was removed from his "absent" responsibilities in Fowey in 1733, about the time he became governor of the Bahamas (replacing Woodes Rogers), where, despite making a lot of useful lime in his kilns and building his home on his newly purchased "Mount Fitzwilliam" estate (reflecting the name of his "Mount Merrion" estate in Dublin) in Nassau, was considered a controversial governor and later removed. As Michael Craton and Gail Saunders wrote in Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People,
The records in general were in a deplorable state. “Tis impossible to get an exact Account of the Persons born, christen’d or buried yearly in this Government,” complained Fitzwilliam, “because no Register has hitherto been kept thereof, nor could the Inhabitants be prevailed upon to acquaint anybody appointed by the Governor [Rogers] when any such happened.”

Efforts to repair the records were made through the SPG-appointed Reverend William Smith, and Governor Fitzwilliam set about making a census with his customary mixture of force and tactlessness. The New Providence free coloreds were especially incensed by the governor and council’s decision to list them separately.
Note that Englishmen of this day were nowhere near as racist as Americans after the Civil War, so this bias against African-Bahamians happened to carry a strongly conservative tone in the 18th century. 

His eldest son, Richard succeeded him as Viscount upon his death on 20 June 1743, which is the date shown on the Wikipedia page. His will was not probated until 20 April 1744, but this is not at all uncommon at this time - Fitzwilliam had possessions in three countries, requiring administration with long letter response times. Thus, the DVB's date of death assumed as "19 April 1744." This demonstrates a modern, if inexperienced, historical presentism. Past historians, inexperienced in modern genealogical methods, obviously assumed that he died the day before, as is most common today. Better training in genealogical methods for historians could easily cure this.

Researched by Baylus C. Brooks - 2019

Henry Herbert, 10th Earl of Pembroke (died 1794), husband of Mary, daughter of Richard 5th Viscount Fiztwilliam. At the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

Obviously, the Virginian statesman and pirate favorite was the same man as the wealthy Irish member of the Privy Council and Parliament. Admittedly, Irish records were quite sparse for the early 18th century, but this Fitzwilliam was well known and recorded in England, as well - he actually died in his home on Dover Street in St. George Hanover Square in Middlesex, England - not in Dublin! So, we can now establish that he was born about 1677, died 20 June 1743 (the date given by Wikipedia and from English records), and had his will (written 8 January 1743 with codicil 12 January) probated 20 April 1744. His mother was Mary Stapleton Fitzwilliam... NOT Luttrell! That was simply an honest genealogical mistake! The confusion, I hope, is finally over! Now, somebody go and fix the DVB and Wikipedia pages!


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from BBC Radio Bristol

300 years ago on Thursday - 22 November 1718 - Bristol born Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard, the most famous pirate in the history of the world), was killed in a violent battle off the coast of North America. And after 300 years we can finally separate the truth from the myth. You can hear the whole story this Thursday at 9am in a one off BBC Radio Bristol special: BLACKBEARD: 300 YEARS OF FAKE NEWS. With new research by Baylus C. Brooks, narrated by Bristol born Kevin McNally - Joshamee Gibbs in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, and produced by Tom Ryan and Sheila Hannon this is a very different Blackbeard from the one in the story books...

You can hear it at

Author Spotlight

#Blackbeard #pirate #twitterstorians


Three Centuries After His Beheading, a Kinder, Gentler Blackbeard Emerges - Smithsonian Online

By Andrew Lawler
November 13, 2018 about the final end of Edward Thache:
Murder at Ocracoke! Power and Profit in the Killing of Edward "Blackbeard" Thache

In commemoration of "Blackbeard 300 Tri-Centennial":

As always, drop by and check out the primary source transcriptions

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