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Monday, March 22, 2021

Spotswood's Failed Attempt to Steal Spanish Treasure!


Three views of Mammon, Greed, or John Milton's "Devil of Covetousness" It's quite obvious how "Mammon's" appearance changed through time from the 18th century until now - from a little-feared miserly old man to finally corrupting into the actual Devil himself! The beast of Mammon matured after the United States confidently became a nation.

Americans are absolutely obsessed with and covetous of property. But, why? Have Americans always been greedy, or was this a learned behavior?  Property had special meaning to the population of a land-starved island nation like Great Britain - America's motherland. Property became the basis for the freehold, franchise, or the right to vote - actual political power over others. As the British Isles filled with people, this power became a premium and localized in the hands of only a few. It's estimated that, in the eighteenth century, only 3% of the population of Great Britain had the right to vote - a right so absolutely cherished by Americans today - a right then solely dependent on property ownership. 

How did that change - specifically for America - as opposed to Great Britain - and a new nation of Mammon-worshiping property-owners evolving from that land-starved island nation? 

LAND! Pure power - glorious dirt that glittered like silver or gold treasure! America was thought by Europeans to be virtually unlimited in land. It was a dream or utopia to all Europeans, but especially to island-dwelling Protestant Englishmen.

Only one problem: that vast unlimited land - that access to ultimate power - was already possessed by Catholic Spain. This was an annoying fact to not only previously (before the Spanish Armada failure of 1588) power-starved Englishmen, but also the Native American or Indians who had first lost their land to the Catholics the century before! 

Of course, Indians lost more than just land - their remarkably tolerant Creator also suffered great discrimination and abuse by all Christians! Indians might find solace in the fact that Christians just as often abused each other - it seems that Protestants and Catholics rarely got along and appeared to truly worship no god at all, but greed itself - treasure, or Mammon, the "Devil of Covetousness!"

How was the land-starved Englishman to obtain a piece of Spanish America? For the English in 1663/5, it was merely an act of claiming Spain's territory - yeah, just saying, or writing on paper that they owned it!


Clearly, actual possession meant having to steal it, as the Spanish had done to the technologically less-advantageous Indians and created the piratical land "beyond the lines of amity" in the first place!

Owing to the fact that the Atlantic Ocean most obviously blocked their way, theft on the water, or piracy and marine raids were the chosen methods of the greedy Englishman to relieve Spain of its stolen property - to possess it for themselves, not to return it to its rightful owners, of course.

Of course, the idea of "property" evolved a bit in this martial Mammon-loving American atmosphere into more than just land - thanks to sugar or "White Gold." Slaves - the engine of sugar wealth - also became precious objects to be possessed. Specie, of course, was always valuable, as the non-imaginary measure of value itself. That the United States inherited Mammon's capitalism from its early piratical English forebears reveals itself in the American "dollar" named and valued after the Spanish "piece of eight" dollar. The older generation of American today may remember referring to a quarter dollar as "two bits" or 1/4 of "eight bits" or the traditional division of Spanish "piece of eight" coins into eight parts or "bits."

But, stealing Spain's wealth - silver and gold cobs, or Spanish dollars and jewels - while it resulted in little enduring power, it still provided immediate benefits of instant wealth, the quick and gratuitous path to Mammon! Not to mention that it would deliver further blows to the Catholics! British citizens of means invested regularly in privateer and wreck-fishing enterprises to steal Spain's treasure. 

One Spanish wreck in the late 17th century afforded a small group of five English investors - including the king himself - a chance to make virtual fortunes... enough for one of them to build a new mansion in Kent! This was only one Spanish treasure ship!

On July 30, 1715, a hurricane crossed through the Windward Isles and slammed directly into La Florida at precisely the same moment that Spain's long-held-up treasure fleet, consisting of eleven treasure galleons with three years worth of the income for Seville aboard, passed through the straits of Florida on their way home. Eleven treasure ships were blown against the shallow shores, spilling 14 million pesos worth in silver alone... not to mention whatever value the gold and jewels might add to this golden siren's lusty song!

Mariners from all across the Atlantic community jumped to the altar to worship Mammon - or covet some treasure for themselves.

One of those men by the name of Josiah Forbes, mariner of Philadelphia, made a fateful provisioning call at Virginia on his way back from the Florida wrecks. The acting governor of Virginia - of gentlemanly stature - even royal, owing to his family connections to the ruling King George I - was Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood. 

Spotswood, perhaps for the first time, glimpsed the massive proceeds possible from the wrecks in Forbes' hull and, of course, held him on suspicion of piracy - if for no other reason than to keep him in Virginia. He later wrote - attempting to formalize his decision to hold his prisoner - that Forbes had  since been discovered to have been imprisoned by the Spanish and having escaped them before sailing for Virginia. There you have it! Forbes was already a criminal to their "friends" the Spanish!

Despite all the warnings - and being possessed by Mammon - the corrupt idea probably leapt from Spotswood's greedy brain that he might get some of that treasure for himself! And... of course (tongue firmly planted in cheek), to further the national goals of Great Britain - God Bless the King!

There had also been rumors of much competition - a great many mariners of every sort collecting on the island of New Providence to fish the very same wrecks. They also raided vessels who had already fished the wrecks and took their treasure - I mean, why do the dangerous job of diving when you didn't have to? Not to put too fine a point on it, but many upstanding gentlemen lost many a good slave that way...

Another thing that Spotswood must have considered: How long would the treasure hold out with that many people fishing it up from the sea floor? Spotswood had to act quickly if he would benefit from this golden opportunity...

Still, the acting chief of Virginia was far too genteel and could not fish the treasure himself. So, he chose another man - a partner of sorts - to take care of the dirty business for him. 

Capt. Harry Beverly, styled - after 1720 - of "New-lands," or the newest lands of his 32,000 acres, or his plantation in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, would build a vessel and sail for such a king's ransom in Spotswood's stead.

Beverly was a man of means - son of Major Robert Beverly - an original immigrant in 1663 (coincidentally, when Carolina first claimed Spain's New World territory). Harry was then a first generation American born to the gentlemanly immigrant Beverly family of Beverly, Yorkshire. The Beverlys became founding fathers in Virginia, along with other allied families such as Carters, Armisteads, Churchills, and Fairfax. They became ancestors of great statesmen and presidents of the United States!

There would be many investors in this venture as well as Spotswood - all rich and some, just as wealthy as Spotswood. Indeed, Beverly's entire family had hoped for a piece of the coveted Spanish wealth as evidenced by his step-sister Elizabeth Churchill's notation in her will of 1716 "if Mr. Harry Beverley brings back any money or other returns from the wrecks, her share should go to certain of her grandchildren." The "other returns" may have referred to silver and gold plate or jewels. All treasure was most welcome. 

The Beverly's were already quite wealthy - Harry himself, of course, owning as many as 32,000 acres of land at the time of his death. So, the expected immense fortune in specie only sparked a side-diversion for these early wealthy Americans - they did not need the money. But, adventure was in the offing! For Beverly, this expedition would resemble an international playboy's fancy, if you will. 

Beverly needed help building his vessel and engaged his step-brother Walter Keeble - less than ten years apart in age and likely close for most of their 30 something years, as of 1716. Together, according to CO 137/12, they had a square-sterned sloop constructed on the Piankatank River, on the south side of their then Middlesex County residence. Spotswood armed this sloop Virgin with eight cannon from his own colonial stores, obviously anticipating trouble in those Spanish waters. 

Sloops offshore at Virginia

Spotswood would have to be politically delicate. The English and Spanish were then at peace. The War of the Spanish Succession or Queen Anne's War had just ended in 1714. The original claim of Carolina in 1663/5 would take time to actualize. Any theft from the Spanish had to be covert, so as not to begin another international incident - not right away, at any rate. The war had been a long one and the king undoubtedly did not want to start again so soon. They must at least pretend to honor the treaty while getting whatever they could of the treasure. 

On 15th of June 1716, Lt. Gov. Spotswood commissioned Beverly's Virgin and gave him instructions... these instructions (in CO 5/1317), of course, mention the source of the treasure first:

Whereas I have Received Information that divers Ships Richly Laden having been cast away in the Channel of Bahama & other...

The all-capitalized part about "Ships Richly Laden" I'm sure never went unnoticed. And, then, his wording proceeded to his competitors:

... and that under pretence of fishing for the Said Wreck'd Goods, divers persons as well his Majesties Subjects as others have Assembled themselves with their Vessells armed and equipped in Warlike manner, commiting depredations & other Acts of Hostility, upon the Spaniards & other Nations in Amity with His Majesty [at peace; Treaty of Utrecht] and that the Said persons have also taken possession of the Island of Providence, and intend to  Strengthen themselves there under a Governor of their own choosing...

Oh, Spotswood's words made him appear quite concerned about their Spanish neighbors! Well, he was a royal official who should at least appear to be doing his duty!

As to Bahamian pirates - or, his challengers for the treasure - the literately loquacious Spotswood never made any pretense about his disgust for these wannabee usurpers of authority and "low-life" commoners in his lengthy diatribes. Annoying for such a refined gentleman as he, these "ne'er do wells" occupying New Providence and fishing his wrecks were a nuisance to all - and a threat to all legitimate attempts to steal/fish the treasure!

On 23rd June, Beverley departed from Virginia. According to Spotswood in his complaint to the Board of Trade, Beverly's voyage did not go well from the start:

... two days after he left the Capes of Virginia he mett with a strong wind at South West, which carry'd him into the latitude of 28d. 40m. and longitude of 6 degrees [east - approx. longitude of Bermuda] from the said Capes, where on 5th July he found himself close by a ship and a sloop, which proved to be a Spanish man of war called the St. Juan Baptista, commanded by Don Joseph Rocher de la Pena...

... The man of war fired three shots at Beverley's sloop (which had the English colours flying on board) and then ordered him to come on board, where (without ever looking into his papers or so much as asking for them) only demanding from whence he came, he was made prisoner and his boats crew confined apart. The men of the Spanish ship immediately went on board his sloop, beat and stript all the men[,] broke open their chests, plundered and carry'd off all the cargo, and brought the men [as] prisoners on board the man of war, where they were forced naked as they were to work as the Spaniards ordered them, except Beverley himself, and Mr. Peter Whiting and George [Keeble] his officers.
On the 30th they arrived at Porto Rico, where the Spaniards sold most of the goods belonging to Beverley's sloop, and then on 11th May, they came to St. Domingo.
At both which places Beverley[,] conscious of his honest intentions, desired a trial but was denyed, untill they should arrive at La Vera Crux, whither the Spanish Commander declared he intended to carry his prisoners. It appears also by the letters from Beverley that he had sent divers letters to the Governour of St. Domingo, setting forth his case, and praying for a tryal, but no answer was returned, neither was Beverley or any of his men suffered to go on shoar or permitted to speak to anyone at either of these places, and since 14th Aug. Beverley nor any of his men have been heard of.

Spotswood seemed to scream out to his fellow Englishmen, "Oh, the horror!"

Apparently, Rocher and the Mexican government never believed Beverly's protestations of innocence. Only six months before, Jamaica's anti-pirate privateer Henry Jennings simply walked onto the beaches of the Spanish territory of La Florida - at St. Sebastian Inlet, even below the 29th parallel or the southern limits of the Carolina "claim" - and stole all the treasure already recovered by their salvers and spiking their cannon as they left - for good measure. This was clearly an act of war - it appeared that Jennings was not so worried about restarting the just-ended conflict and again violating the treaty! 

This fact never seemed to cross Spotswood's or Beverly's mind... that the Spanish were already pissed and would take action against any English vessel they might! The Spanish could have opted to declare the treaty null and void after Jennings' Christmas 1715 raid of their treasure - on their own land! What made the Englishmen so sure that the Spanish would just let them take what they wanted and then shake hands - maybe tip back a few mugs of Sangria - with Beverly?

After all, the English pirates and terrorists in Campeche, Mexico had just been expelled from Laguna de Terminos by the Barlovento Squadron out of Vera Cruz that summer, too! By 1716, the Spanish had had quite enough loss from these Englishmen!

Maybe Spotswood hoped that Beverly would just not get caught stealing Spanish property - or treasure. Might it be that Spotswood and Beverly simply took the chance of missing Rocher or any other Spanish Man-of-War that might be out there in the wide-open seas. Beverly was possibly secretly ordered by Spotswood to just take what he could and hightail it back to Virginia. The "official commission" of going after Bahamian pirates might have been simply a ruse to avoid later legalities if caught. We'll likely never know since Beverly never even made it to New Providence before he was captured!

===== update: 3-24-2021 ==============================

In CO 137/12, a letter from Beverley's crew dated December 9, 1716, a few months after arriving at Vera Cruz tells that Beverly intended to go the Bahamas after more treasure from the Spanish wrecks, since they "in hopes to find a Wreck there, having found three Saylors Chests on the Shore among these Islands." Beverley's crew later opted for a piece of the action, as opposed to monthly wages, hoping that the chests were full of treasure. The Spanish undoubtedly suspected Beverly and crew of another operation similar to Jenning's. Still, Beverley, in his next letter of March 6th, 1717, suggests that Lt. Gov. Spotswood's intel of the sea chests ashore at New Providence came to him in May 1716 - the month before commissioning Beverly and Virgin. Therefore, it's likely that Spotswood wanted to collect that Spanish money - not to help the Spanish with their pirate problem. 


Virginia "privateer" Capt. Harry Beverly eventually made it back to his base of Virginia... but, only after the Spanish had thoroughly satiated their anger at Henry Jennings, Harry Beverly, Alexander Spotswood, or any other Protestant heretic thief that might have hoped to steal from them. They ruined the English plans of Spotswood, sold their merchandise, and condemned Virgin. What's more, Rocher and his Barlovento Squadron from Vera Cruz, Mexico most likely captured these annoying English criminals often! Many wreck-fishing vessels must have been condemned at La Vera Cruz.

Jamaican Gov. Lord Archibald Hamilton attempted the same trickery against the Spanish with his ten-privateer fleet in winter of 1715 - to "hunt pirates" - following the wreck of the Spanish fleet in the hurricane earlier that summer. The result was that Henry Jennings - one of those privateers - outright violated the treaty and invaded Spanish La Florida, angering Spain and causing a backlash against English aggression.

I rather think the Spanish had every right to imprison these English terrorists - if one believes in the traditional real (in the sense of property) precept of ownership being 9/10ths equal to possession. 

Some Americans today might disagree with me on anachronistic terms because today, we merely view the victims here as Spanish and Catholic and know that the English successfully stole their property - now, Americans own La Florida!

But, aren't those Americans thieves and racists? Just like the Spanish before them? And we grew up in a nation of piratical Mammon worshipers, so our angry anti-Catholic, anti-Spanish opinions might be skewed by race, greed and the capitalistic profit motive.  

A General History of the Pyrates perhaps said it best when it called America a "Commonwealth of Pyrates!"

I agree. America is the quintessential nation built by greed, Mammon - the commonwealth, the land "beyond the lines of amity!" To the victor go the spoils! 

Only now - after gaining possession of Spain's property - American thieves and racists claim to be democratic and pretend to respect each others' opinions.