Friday, December 18, 2020 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

In the 1740s, a fierce war raged among European superpowers for naval supremacy across the Atlantic world. Spanish and French vessels sought to paralyze ship traffic moving through the port of Charleston, but the British Navy and privateers patrolled the shores to protect South Carolina’s valuable commerce. In December 1744, one of His Majesty’s warships captured an obstinate enemy vessel in the Caribbean and brought her prize back to Charleston. While unpacking her mysterious cargo in the days before Christmas, the crew discovered the most amazing cache of riches ever witnessed in the American colonies.

The story of what I’m calling the “Christmas treasure” of 1744 took place against the backdrop of an international conflict known today as “the War of Jenkins’ Ear.” From the British perspective, the principal cause of this nine-year war was Spanish interference in the lucrative shipping trade between England and her colonies in the Caribbean and North America. Tempers flared in London and beyond because there were huge fortunes to be made in transporting African slaves to the New World, bringing sugar, rice, and other commodities back to Europe, and selling British manufactured goods to American colonists. The Spanish government, on the other hand, was frustrated by British colonial trade practices it deemed unfair and illegal and sought to protect Spanish commercial interests across the region. The war’s curious name was coined in the 1850s, but it refers to a specific incident that took place off the coast of Florida in 1731. In April of that year, a Spanish patrol boat, or guardacosta, commanded by Captain Juan de León Fandiño attacked a British merchant vessel, the Rebecca, and plundered everything on board. To send a message to the British government, Captain Fandiño severed the left ear of the brig’s captain, Robert Jenkins, and advised him to show it to his king. The Fandiño-Jenkins affair was one of hundreds of similar incidents reported back to London in the 1730s, and diplomatic tensions escalated throughout the decade. After years of simmering hostilities, Britain finally declared war against Spain in October 1739. To make matters worse, the King of France eventually sided with his Catholic neighbor, and so in March of 1744, Britain declared war against the French as well. This tangled international web of combatants dragged on for nearly a decade and is known by several names, including the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the War of Austrian Succession, King George’s War, and the Seventh Anglo-Spanish War. It was finally resolved in October 1748 by the Treaty of Aix la Chapelle, in which everyone simply returned to the political status quo that existed before the war. 


In the Caribbean colonies and along the southern coastline of North America, the War of Jenkins Ear was primarily a maritime conflict fought on the open ocean. The main target of aggression on all sides was the valuable commercial shipping plying among the various colonies and carrying goods to and from Europe. The persistence of warfare throughout the 1740s endangered all of this maritime commerce and produced a devastating economic impact. Here in South Carolina, for example, British merchant vessels arriving at or departing from the port of Charleston frequently found Spanish and French privateers roving just offshore, waiting to intercept them. Rice and other colonial products couldn’t be shipped safely out of Carolina. Ships carrying necessities and luxury goods from England, as well as captives from Africa, had to sail through a dangerous enemy gauntlet to get into Charleston harbor. Because the flow of intercolonial commerce formed the lifeblood of the local economy, the decade of war created a sustained depression for the people of South Carolina.

To protect and defend her colonial interests, the British government deployed a large navy across the Atlantic world. Most of this defensive force consisted of smallish warships, generally sixth-rate frigates mounting about twenty cannon, each of which was assigned to a specific port and responsible for patrolling a specific territory. As I described in an earlier program (see Episode No. 148), Charleston hosted a large number of British station ships between 1720 and 1775 and frequently received visits from warships assigned to nearby ports. During the dangerous 1740s, this collective naval force routinely shepherded convoys of merchant vessels into the Atlantic Ocean and cruised the waters of the Carolinas, Georgia, and the Bahama Archipelago. To augment their defenses, many American investors in various colonies outfitted their own privately-funded warships, called privateers, to attack the enemy’s merchant shipping trade. The Spanish and French colonies in the Caribbean funded their own privateers, of course, which harassed British and colonial merchant ships along the Southern coastline of North America and across the Caribbean Sea. All of these armed vessels were pretty equally matched, and so in the 1740s there was a constant game of cat-and-mouse taking place along the Carolina coastline. Whenever one of our British station ships or privateers captured an enemy vessel, they commandeered the “prize,” as they called it, and sailed it to Charleston. Here it would be condemned in the provincial Court of Vice-Admiralty, and the captors would all share a portion of the booty found onboard.[1]

One of the principal characters in today’s story is His Majesty’s Ship the Rose, a sixth-rate, three-masted ship launched in England in late August of 1740. Her keel was just over 87 feet in length, while her main deck measured 106 feet. At her widest point, her breadth was 31 feet, and her burthen (storage capacity) was nearly 450 tons. The Rose carried twenty cannon on her weather deck, each of which fired iron shot weighing nine pounds. Command of the new HMS Rose was given to a twenty-two-year-old officer named Thomas Frankland (1718–1784), a career sailor who had entered the British Navy at the age of thirteen. In December 1740, Captain Frankland and a crew of 140 men sailed the Rose from England to her first assignment in the Bahamas. Their passengers included the new Governor of the Bahamas, John Tinker (1700–1758), and a military engineer, Peter Henry Bruce, who was assigned to the Bahamas and occasionally worked in Charleston. On her maiden voyage across the Atlantic, however, the Rose encountered a violent storm and lost most her rigging and masts. She limped into Charleston harbor in late February 1741 under makeshift masts, and was obliged to linger here for a while to refit. A few months later she was underway again, and commenced patrolling the Bahamas Banks in the summer of 1741.[2] Although technically assigned to headquarters at Nassau, the Rose visited Charleston on a regular basis over the next few years, and her captain became a regular guest of the town’s social elite. In May of 1743, the 25-year-old Captain Thomas Frankland married the 21-year-old Sarah Rhett (1722–1808), the eldest daughter of the late Col. William Rhett Jr. and Mary Trott of Charleston.[3] The structure known as Rhett’s Bridge since the beginning of the eighteenth century then became Frankland’s Wharf, which, after a series of later conveyances, now forms part of the street called Middle Atlantic Wharf.

The Rose was not the only British frigate visiting Charleston at this time, of course. During the War of Jenkins’ Ear, Charleston hosted several other warships, include the Rye, the Hawk, the Loo, the Swift, the Flamborough, and the Aldborough. These vessels were assigned to patrol, or cruise, at sea, either collectively or separately, from the Carolina coastline south to St. Augustine, and westward around the Bahama Banks. After cruising for a month or three, looking for enemy vessels to capture, the warships would return to port to strip and sell the prize vessels they had captured, and to repair the battle damage they inevitably suffered. Although Charleston was not the official homeport of some of these British warships, like the Rose, it was definitely the preferred port for unloading enemy booty. Social life in Charleston was more genteel and diversified, and the port town offered a wide variety of diversions to separate a sailor from his money. During the early 1740s, our local weekly newspaper, the South Carolina Gazette, printed numerous colorful descriptions of battles at sea, related to the printers by sailors just arrived from the carnage. You can imagine the sea stories being told over jugs of ale and rum at one of the many local taverns. I’ll give you just one brief example, to help set the scene for our main event.

On June 4th, 1742, the Rose was cruising among the Bahama Islands when she fell in with a Spanish guardacosta, a privateer warship carrying ten carriage guns, ten swivel guns, and eighty men, in the company of three recently-captured prize vessels. The Rose engaged the guardacosta in a furious battle lasting four hours, until the Spanish crew, in defiance of their own captain, hauled down their colors and surrendered. A portion of Captain Thomas Frankland’s crew then commandeered the Spanish vessel and sailed her to Charleston, along with the three prize ships that the Rose also recaptured from the enemy. Once the smoke had cleared, Captain Frankland discovered that his stubborn adversary, the commander of the Spanish warship, was none other than Captain Juan de León Fandiño, the man who had famously severed the left ear of Robert Jenkins in 1731. The damaged Rose limped into Charleston harbor in mid-June with her prizes, and was obliged to rest briefly for repairs. She rushed back to duty in July, however, when Spanish forces invaded St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, and that colony called for assistance. Captain Frankland sent the infamous Fandiño to an English prison aboard another ship, then joined a squadron of Carolina vessels to chase the Spanish back to St. Augustine.[4]

Over the next two years, Captain Frankland and the Rose embarked on a series of cruises and returned to Charleston with a respectable number of Spanish prizes. In the spring of 1744, France joined forces with Spain against Britain, and the five-year-old war escalated sharply. South Carolina’s provincial government responded by expanding the fortifications around Charleston and commissioning more privateers to protect the troubled coastline. Captain Frankland in the Rose and the other local warships began ranging farther afield, looking now for both Spanish and French vessels to plunder. Over the next several months, each of our station ships continued their regular routine of cruising out of Charleston and returning with prize vessels, battle scars, and casualties. It was dangerous work, to be sure, but it became a familiar routine to the local population by the end of 1744. In December of that year, however, this predictable pattern was enlivened by the arrival of a prize that surpassed everyone’s imagination.

The most famous voyage of the HMS Rose began in late September 1744, when Captain Thomas Frankland set out on another routine cruise. On this occasion, the ship’s company included three dozen additional men—Royal marines, commanded by Lieutenant Hector Vaughn, who had survived the wreck of the HMS Loo off the south coast of Florida in 1743. Two months into her cruise, on the first day of December, 1744, the Rose was sailing off the west end of Cuba, more than 700 nautical miles southwest of Charleston. At half-past five in the morning, just as the sun appeared above the horizon, Captain Frankland spied an enemy vessel about three miles to the westward, and he immediately barked orders to give chase. As the crew pressed the rigging and sails into full power, the enemy vessel “clewed her courses, bunted her mainsail, and made all clear to fight.” Meanwhile, the Rose closed the gap between her and the enemy, and everyone realized that they would soon have fire and brimstone for breakfast. By seven o’clock, the Rose was within “half gun-shot” of the enemy ship, which carried ten cannon on each side of her deck, just like the Rose. Captain Frankland ordered his men to raise their British flags, and then fired a warning shot at the unidentified vessel. In response, the enemy hoisted the French flag and fired a bullet that whizzed across the quarterdeck of the Rose. “Upon this,” said a report published in the South Carolina Gazette, “the Rose fired her lee-broadside into her, which [the enemy] return’d [with a broadside of her own], and then began as desperate an engagement as (perhaps) ever was fought between two 20 gun ships.”

Over the next five-and-a-half hours, the Rose and the enemy ship, called La Conception, sailed in tight circles around each other, and fired cannon and small arms at each other without mercy. Throughout the battle, the two ships were so close that the men on deck were firing short-range pistols at each other. On five occasions, the Rose came dangerously close to ramming La Conception. Twice their iron cannon brushed the enemy hull, and their respective bows and stern quarters smashed against each other. During these close encounters, according to the newspaper account, the Rose “gave (and received) the smartest fire that can possibly be imagined from cannon.” In all, the Rose fired eleven broadsides, which succeeded in destroying much of the French ship’s crew and rigging, and disabled four of the enemy’s cannon. At the same time, about fifty sailors on each ship raked the other’s deck with musket fire and iron shot from small swivel cannon. The Royal marines aboard the Rose also lobbed iron “hand granados” at the enemy with “good success,” and sharpshooters perched high up in the rigging fired at their opponents below. “It is often said, amongst the English,” read the newspaper report, “that the French and Spaniards will never endure a close, obstinate fire; but Mons. De Marcan [the captain of the French vessel,] approved himself of a quite different disposition, and was not induced to surrender, ‘till half of his men were killed and wounded, and he once more saw the Rose close upon him, ready for another mortal salute, at which he struck his colours and called for quarters, which was immediately granted.”

At the conclusion of this sea battle, at about half past twelve in the afternoon, the Rose and La Conception were both badly damaged. The French ship lost her main mast, while her rigging, sails, and tackle were “very much shatter’d.” She carried 326 men, more than half of whom were Spanish survivors of a frigate lost at Cartegena. Of that combined French and Spanish force, 116 men were killed and 45 wounded, of which seven or eight died afterwards. The Rose fared much better, however. Only three or four cannon balls pierced her hull, and two more went through Captain Frankland’s own cabin. The ship’s rigging was cut in about twenty places, and all of her masts and yards were badly damaged. Only five were killed and seven to a dozen wounded of the British crew numbering 177 men. As was customary after sea battles like this, the Rose sent several small boats over to the enemy vessel to take away 145 able-bodied prisoners and bring them on board the victor. The enemy’s wounded sailors, and a few other prisoners, remained aboard La Conception, which was then commandeered by Lieutenant John Payne and a mate from the Rose, along with twenty-seven British sailors.

Once he had settled his crew and prisoners, Captain Frankland realized that his battle-scarred convoy was now in a precarious situation. He had divided his men between two damaged ships, and they were now outnumbered nearly two-to-one. The British mariners were also sailing in enemy waters, where armed guardacostas might find them at any moment. Unable to mount a proper defense in his current condition, Captain Frankland adopted a practical solution familiar to all readers of maritime literature. The Rose sailed nearly a hundred nautical miles northeast of Havana to a deserted Caribbean atoll called Cay Sal, and there deposited 164 prisoners with two small boats, tents, and a month’s worth of provisions. The damaged warships paused briefly at Cay Sal to make a few jury-rigged repairs, and then sailed northward into the Straits of Florida. Rather than veer eastward towards her home port of Nassau, however, the Rose continued along the mainland coast several hundred miles further to Charleston.

After more than a week of slow sailing along the Gulf Stream, the battle-scarred Rose appeared off the bar at the entrance of Charleston harbor on the evening of December 16th, 1744. A pilot sailed out to greet the Rose, and brought back to town some tidbits of information that tantalized the inhabitants and the local press. The next morning, the South Carolina Gazette reported that the Rose had brought back a prize vessel of about 300 tons burthen and approximately fifty prisoners of war. But, the newspaper added, “the particulars are not yet come to hand.” The two damaged warships crossed over the bar shortly thereafter and docked at Captain’s Frankland’s own wharf. In the days before Christmas, he oversaw first the removal of the prisoners and then the captured cargo.[5]

The crew of La Conception told Captain Frankland that their vessel had been launched in the port of St. Malo, in northern France, and was built specifically to carry goods from Cartagena, in South America, back to Europe. When the Rose spotted her on the first of December, she had just departed from Cartagena, and was sailing towards Havana to drop off nearly 200 Spanish sailors and civilian passengers before continuing on to Cadiz, Spain. According to the local newspaper report, the French ship was commanded by Monsieur Adrian de Marcan (or Mercan) and carried the crew of a lost Spanish frigate commanded by Señor Don Pedro de Lessagrate. As was customary, these gentlemen were given private “apartments” in various taverns and boarding houses in urban Charleston, and allowed to perambulate around town, in the company of chaperones, of course. Among the other gentlemen prisoners brought to town were the nephew and the secretary of the Viceroy of New Granada, and several other “Spanish officers of distinction.” The common sailors aboard La Conception were not treated quite so well. Some were crowded into the Work House on Mazyck Street, with white paupers and enslaved runaways, and others were confined within the brick walls of Craven Bastion, where the U.S. Customs House stands today at the southeast corner of East Bay and Market Streets.

Once the prisoners had been removed from the prize vessel, stevedores on the wharf began the laborious task of unpacking her cargo, while maritime officials observed and made detailed inventories for legal purposes. Such activity was a common sight in Charleston during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, but it wasn’t long before everyone in town realized that this prize was different. The French ship was full of secret compartments, private stashes of treasure, and audacious luxury goods. We can only imagine the gossip swirling around town at this time. On Christmas eve of 1744, the South Carolina Gazette published this brief description of the magnificent cargo found on board the prize:

“His Majesty’s ship the Rose, commanded by the brave and active Thomas Frankland . . . has brought in . . . one of the richest prizes taken since the commencement of the present war with Spain, viz. a French ship . . . called the Conception . . . having on board 800 serons [or bales] of cocoa, in each of which ‘tis said is deposited as customary a bar of gold, 68 chests of silver coins . . . containing 310,000 pieces of eight; private adventures [that is, private stashes] in gold and silver coins, and wrought plate of equivalent value, besides which there has been also found a compleat set of church plate, a large quantity of gold buckles and [gold] snuff-boxes, a curious two-wheel’d chaise of silver, the wheels, axle, &c. all [made] of the same metal; a large quantity of diamonds, pearl[s], and other precious stones, upwards of 600 weight of gold, &c. and fresh discoveries are daily made of more treasure. ‘Tis impossible to give an exact account of what is on board this prize, some gold having been secreted even in the [ship’s] knees, barricado, &c. The heels of the prisoners’ shoes having been made hollow, were also full of gold. The silver chaise, the officers and crew of his Majesty’s ship Rose, have unanimously agreed to present to Captain Frankland’s Lady [Sarah Rhett], as a testimony of gratitude to that brave commander.”

As customary in the world of eighteenth-century naval warfare, the local Court of Vice-Admiralty convened a trial to determine the validity of the Rose’s capture of the enemy ship. The court heard testimony about the circumstances of the event and examined the papers of the French vessel. Under the laws of maritime warfare, the Vice-Admiralty court judged La Conception to be a lawful prize, and awarded her valuable cargo to the captors. The ship itself was sold at auction in mid-January 1745 and purchased by Captain Thomas Frankland in partnership with a local merchant named John Watsone.[6] They immediately financed major repairs to the Conception and then began outfitting her for a civilian voyage to England.

Peter Henry Bruce, the military engineer who accompanied Captain Frankland and the Rose to Charleston in early 1741, happened to be working in Charleston when the French prize was condemned in January 1745. In his later memoirs, Bruce recalled that the quantity of gold and silver taken out of La Conception was so great that the shares distributed among Captain Frankland’s crew were delivered by weight to save the trouble of counting it piece-by-piece. The day before the empty ship was put up for auction, said Bruce, the French captain offered to make a private bargain with his captor. Monsieur de Marcan told Captain Frankland that his French ship carried a secret stash of treasure, of which no one else onboard had any knowledge. If Frankland would agree to give him a share of it, Monsieur de Marcan would reveal its location. Frankland agreed, and so the French captain led him to a secret compartment within the ship containing thirty thousand silver pistoles, or doubloons. For his reward, Captain Frankland gave the Frenchman one thousand pistoles—no mean sum at all—but Monsieur de Marcan felt cheated. He complained to the governor of South Carolina, James Glen, but the governor refused to intervene.[7] The published memoirs of Peter Henry Bruce also tell us that Thomas Frankland made another remarkable accidental discovery related to the Conception’s valuable treasure. I’ll let Mr. Bruce tell the story:

“The captain [Frankland] had taken into his own service a brisk little French boy, who had belonged to the French captain, who, having a walking stick of no value, one of the sailors had taken it from him: the boy lamented his loss so much, that captain Frankland ordered [a] search to be made for it, to return it to the boy: the stick was brought to the captain, who seeing it [was] of no value, asked the boy how he could make so much ado about a little trifle. The boy replied briskly, he could not walk like a gentleman, and show his airs without a stick in his hand; upon the captain’s going to return him the stick, he gave [the boy] a tap on the shoulder with it, and finding something rattle in the inside of it, withdrew to a room by himself, and taking off the head of [the stick], he found jewels (according to the French captain’s report) worth twenty thousand pistoles; [The French captain] had given the stick to the boy when he surrendered, in hopes of saving it, as no body would take notice of such a trifle in a boy’s hand.”[8]

From the distance of nearly three centuries, it’s difficult to assess the total value of the treasures unloaded onto Frankland’s wharf around Christmas of 1744. A brief report of the capture of La Conception, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine of London in February 1745, stated that the value of her treasure amounted to £200,000 sterling.[9] A very conservative estimate of that value in current money is greater that £30 million, or more than $40 million. In the wake of the discovery of this phenomenal treasure, the citizens of Charleston showered praise over the valiant Captain Frankland and the crew of the Rose, including the Royal marines under the command of Lieutenant Hector Vaughn. One admirer, calling himself “Will English,” even wrote a poem in honor of Captain Frankland, which the South Carolina Gazette published in March of 1745. I won’t trouble you with the full text of the poem, but I do want to give you a sample of the sort of praise echoing around Charleston at that time:


Where’er the Rose extends her canvas wings,
Glory to thee, defence to trade she brings.
With joy and wonder we your deeds behold,
In action youthful and in counsel old.
Both north and south your virtues do display,
And name thee, Champion of America.


By every chief, if feats like this were done,
Peru and Mexico would be our own.
Their golden mountains, envy them no more;
They dig the mine, while we enjoy the ore.[10]


The distribution of the booty from the Conception among the crew of the Rose and the Royal Marines continued throughout the spring of 1745 and concluded shortly before both ships sailed for England.[11] Accompanied by HMS Flamborough and, briefly, HMS Aldborough, the Rose sailed away from Charleston before dawn on June 1st with the Conception and a convoy of six other merchant vessels. The South Carolina Gazette reported their departure later the same day, and remarked that “the Rose man of war is reckon’d to be the richest English ship (with gold and silver, &c.) that has sail’d from America.” After his arrival in England, Captain Frankland reported to the British Admiralty that his ship carried treasure valued at nearly £80,000 sterling, the crew having divided their shares and spent part of their new-found wealth in Charleston.[12]

The story of the Rose and the Conception and what I like to call the Christmas treasure of 1744 is an exciting tale of swashbuckling adventure, but it represents only a small part of South Carolina’s rich maritime heritage. Countless other stories of courage, survival, triumph, and defeat—involving thousands of salty mariners both black and white—can be found in historical records that become more readily available with each passing year. Not all of them are as dramatic as today’s narrative, but collectively they form a significant part of this community’s past that we landlubbers often overlook today. If you’re searching for a bit of armchair adventure this holiday season, you can find plenty of inspiration within numerous books about maritime history and among South Carolina’s early newspapers (microfilm of which you can peruse in our South Carolina History Room). In the meantime—bunt up your holiday rigging, and we’ll meet again at a safe harbor over the horizon.



[1] For more information about privateering during the 1740s, see Carl E. Swanson, Predators and Prizes: American Privateering and Imperial Warfare, 1739–1748 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).

[2] For more information about the Rose and her contemporaries, see Rif Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714–1792: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates (Seaforth, 2007). The tempestuous journey of HMS Rose from England to Charleston is described in Peter Henry Bruce, Memoirs of Peter Henry Bruce, Esq. A Military Officer, in the Services of Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain (London: T. Payne and Son, 1782), 375–83.

[3] Barnwell Rhett Heyward, “The Descendants of Col. William Rhett, of South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 4 (January 1903): 38–39.

[4] For descriptions of the capture of Fandiño, see South Carolina Gazette, 28 June–5 July 1742, “Charles Town, July 5”; The London Gazette, 31 July–3 August 1742, “Whitehall, August 3.” Captain Frankland described the engagement in his letter to the Admiralty, dated 16 June 1742, in ADM 1/1781 at the National Archives of the United Kingdom (NAUK).

[5] South Carolina Gazette, 24 December 1744 (Monday), page 2, contains a detailed description of the capture of La Conception. Frankland described the engagement in his letter to the Admiralty, dated 23 January 1744/5, in ADM 1/1782, NAUK.

[6] R. Nicholas Olsberg, “Ship Registers in the South Carolina Archives, 1734–1780,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 74 (October 1973): 214–15; South Carolina Gazette, 18 February 1744/5 (Monday), page 2, “Custom House, Charles Town. . . . Entered Outwards. Ship La Conception, John Janny, for Cowes.”

[7] Bruce, Memoirs of Peter Henry Bruce, 440–41.

[8] Bruce, Memoirs of Peter Henry Bruce, 441–42.

[9] Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 15, February 1745, page 80. Note that this publication includes new of events occurring throughout the month of February, and thus was actually printed in early March.

[10] South Carolina Gazette, 18 March 1745, page 2.

[11] See the distribution notice published in South Carolina Gazette, 6 May 1745, page 2.

[12] See the local news in South Carolina Gazette, 1 June 1745 (Saturday) page 2; and Frankland’s description of the convoy in his letter to the Admiralty, dated 21 July 1745, in ADM 1/1782 at NAUK.


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