1789 Cravens Bastion Charleston
Friday, October 07, 2022

During a decade of naval warfare in the 1740s, a number of British warships brought scores of Spanish-speaking prisoners to Charleston. South Carolina’s provincial government confined most of these mariners within cramped facilities behind iron bars, but provided comfortable accommodations and relative freedom to the gentlemen officers. In today’s program we’ll explore the forgotten details of the capture, incarceration, and exchange of Hispanic prisoners during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, also known as La Guerra del Asiento.

Spanish-speaking people have inhabited the Lowcountry of South Carolina since the sixteenth century, but stories of their experiences form a very small part of the written history of this area. As I described in in Episode No. 216, the overlapping territorial claims of Spanish Florida and English Carolina that commenced in the 1660s generated tension and hostility that lasted into the nineteenth century. Hispanic people were generally not welcome in the British colony of South Carolina until the political landscape began to change during the American Revolution. There were Spanish-speaking visitors in and around Charleston before the Revolution, of course, but they appeared in very small numbers, and very few documentary records of their presence have survived.



During a relatively brief period of international warfare in the 1740s, however, the inhabitants of urban Charleston witnessed the near-constant presence of Hispanic people within the colonial capital. I first became aware of this phenomenon while reading through the manuscript journals of the provincial government, now held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia. Further details, I then discovered, appear in the contemporary newspapers printed in Charleston and other colonial seaports. Among those pages, one finds dramatic stories of swashbuckling battles and harrowing adventures on the high seas, events that brought waves of Spanish-speaking mariners to the capital of South Carolina as prisoners of war.

The written history of the Palmetto State includes numerous books and articles describing the warfare between Britain and Spain during the 1740s, but none focus on the Spanish-speaking (and Francophone) prisoners who inhabited Charleston during that decade. The surviving documentary record of this topic is incomplete and scattered, rending theirs a difficult story to tell. It’s impossible to determine precisely how many Hispanic prisoners came here, and just a handful of personal names survive. The details of their respective arrivals and departures are also difficult to trace, but thoroughly intriguing. In an effort to raise awareness about this forgotten chapter of South Carolina history, I’ll offer a brief overview of a complex topic.


Why were there Hispanic prisoners in Charleston during the 1740s?

The presence of Spanish-speaking prisoners in Charleston during this era was the result of a decade-long war between Britain and Spain and their colonial subjects in the Americas. Anglo-American historians generally refer to this conflict as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, while Latin-American writers generally describe it as La Guerra del Asiento. This Anglo-Spanish conflict commenced in October 1739, several months before a broader European debacle known as the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748). France then entered the fray in the spring of 1744, triggering an offshoot known today as King George’s War (1744–1748). All of this belligerent nomenclature is confusing, but the aforementioned ear and the Asiento are particularly relevant to the history of South Carolina.

Back in 1713, a number of European nations settled a twelve-year war with a peace treaty signed at the Dutch city of Utrecht. British negotiators, taking advantage of Spain’s weakness, secured a trade agreement (Asiento) with a thirty-year monopoly on the sale of enslaved Africans to Spanish agents in the Americas. This contract, or Asiento de Negros, also permitted Britain to send annual trading vessels full of British goods to several Spanish colonial ports. The lucrative arrangements of 1713 expanded Britain’s investment in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, set the stage for a flood of illegal commerce in the distant colonies, and presaged future conflict between the European nations.

In the years after the Treaty of Utrecht, Britain’s Royal Navy increased the number of small warships sent to protect each of its American colonies. The Spanish Navy (Armada Española) sent fewer warships to its Caribbean colonies, however, relying instead on a network of private contractors. The governors of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other Spanish territories licensed privately-owned vessels, called guardacostas, to patrol the Caribbean Sea and adjacent waters. In the years after the advent of the Asiento, Spanish officials complained repeatedly about British merchant vessels trading illegally among the Latin colonies, while numerous British mariners passing through the Caribbean complained about the belligerent interference of mercenary guardacostas.

During the 1720s and 1730s, the British Parliament received hundreds of reports of violent encounters at sea between English- and Spanish-speaking mariners. The most memorable case, but certainly not the bloodiest, was that of Captain Robert Jenkins, master of a British brigantine called the Rebecca. While sailing along the coast of Spanish Florida, the Rebecca was boarded by a Spanish guardacosta in April 1731. The Cuban captain, Don Juan León de Fandiño, plundered the merchant vessel and sliced off one Captain Jenkins’ ears as a token of disrespect. Written testimonials of such hostile encounters accumulated in the House of Commons until Britain finally declared war against Spain in October 1739. News of the war arrived in South Carolina in the spring of 1740, and was formally proclaimed in Charleston on the 28th of April.[1]


How did these Hispanic prisoners come to Charleston?

All of the Hispanic prisoners held in Charleston during the 1740s were captured at sea. The majority were mariners, brought here by one of the warships of Britain’s Royal Navy in the aftermath of a bloody engagement. Charleston became a regular Naval post in 1720 (see Episode No. 148), but the port’s proximity to the Caribbean Sea—the center of Anglo-Spanish conflict—brought a larger number of visiting warships to the Carolina coastline. During that turbulent decade, Charleston hosted a stable of Royal Navy frigates and a parade of visiting sloops-of-war.

As in many other American port communities, the merchants of Charleston also sponsored a number of privateers—privately-owned vessels outfitted for combat and licensed by the provincial government. South Carolina issued letters of marque to a relatively small number of local privateers in the 1740s, but private warships from other colonies regularly traversed local waters on their way to and from the hunting grounds in the Caribbean.[2]

The prey of these Anglo-American warships was a diverse mix of sloops, schooners, snows, and ships sailing principally from Havana, Cuba, St. Augustine, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Because the larger warships of L’Armada Española rarely ventured beyond the Caribbean Sea, the Hispanic vessels captured and brought to Charleston were generally privateers and guardacostas based in the aforementioned ports.

The Charleston newspapers of the 1740s contain numerous descriptions of dramatic and bloody sea battles, most of which related to the exploits of local combatants. If you’re a fan of naval history, or if you’re looking for inspiration for a swashbuckling novel or screenplay, the weekly South Carolina Gazettes of the 1740s are overflowing with original material. You can find those colonial-era papers online behind a paywall, or you can visit the South Carolina History Room at CCPL’s main branch to read them on microfilm for free.

The population of Spanish-speaking prisoners in Charleston during the 1740s also included a small number of maritime passengers who were non-combatants. Among the men captured in early 1742, for example, was a Spanish priest. Another “Spanish gentleman prisoner” who arrived in the summer of 1748 carried “a silver headed cane” and wore “a black silk Spanish collar, a hat, and a silk robe of his order,” which might also have identified him as a cleric.[3] When His Majesty’s ship the Rose captured a rich Spanish prize in December 1744 (see Episode No. 184), the victor brought to Charleston the nephew and the secretary of the Viceroy of New Granada and several other “Spanish officers of distinction.”


How many Spanish-Speaking prisoners were held in Charleston during the 1740s?

The incomplete nature of the surviving records from the 1740s renders it difficult to pinpoint the precise number of prisoners of war held in Charleston during that era. The local newspapers occasionally mention numbers of prisoners brought to town, but those figures don’t necessarily match those found in the extant legislative records. Detailed accounts of feeding and clothing the prisoners, which might have provided more accurate numbers, have long since disappeared. Nevertheless, some useful figures appear among the journals of the colony’s executive board, called His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, which was ultimately responsible for receiving and transferring prisoners of war.

A few days after King George’s proclamation of war against Spain was read aloud in Charleston in 1740, for example, Lieutenant-Governor William Bull reported to the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly that there were more than two dozen Hispanic prisoners in the capital.[4] Over the subsequent months and years, their numbers waxed and waned cyclically as warships delivered successive waves of prisoners and the provincial government pursued methods to send them away.

During the first three years of the war, it’s also possible that the Anglo-American privateers bringing Spanish prize vessels to Charleston did not deliver all of their prisoners to local authorities. Here, as in other American colonies, private warships often pressed captured mariners into service aboard the victorious vessel. This practice in Spain induced a number of London merchants to lobby the British government to settle an agreement, or “cartel,” with the Spanish government to encourage the exchange of prisoners of war.[5] Representatives of both nations settled the terms of a prisoner cartel in February 1742, but details of its terms did not arrive in Charleston until the end of the year.[6] During the first years of the war, therefore, at least some Hispanic prisoners visiting Charleston labored on board the privateers that captured them.[7]

Despite all these caveats, the surviving records do include a few useful numbers. In September 1742, for example, a young lady named Eliza Lucas (before she married Charles Pinckney) reported that there were eighty (80) Spanish prisoners in town at that moment.[8] Eliza’s observation is confirmed by a contemporary report to the provincial government, which was then struggling to house the people in question. Following the capture of a large Spanish brigantine in April 1746, local officials grappled with the presence of at least 118 Hispanic prisoners in Charleston.[9]

Over the course of nine years of warfare, between the spring of 1740 and the autumn of 1748, the total number of Hispanic prisoners incarcerated in Charleston probably included between four and five hundred individuals. When one considers that the provincial government also had to content with a lesser number of French-speaking prisoners during the latter years of the war, the magnitude of the situation comes into better focus.


How were these prisoners of war treated in Charleston?

The reception afforded to the Hispanic prisoners of war delivered into the custody of South Carolina provincial government varied according to the social distinctions of that era. The vast majority of the prisoners, identified as “common sailors” by local officials, were incarcerated within the same crowded, uncomfortable, unsanitary facilities usually reserved for criminals. In December 1742, the legislature resolved that each prisoner should receive at least one pound of fresh meat each day and a quart of rice or peas. Subsequent complaints from prisoners and reports from jailors suggest, however, that supplies rarely met the prescribed quota.[10]

Through the labors of South Carolina’s Commissary General, John Dart, the provincial government also provided limited quantities of clothing, blankets, and shoes to prisoners in need of basic amenities. Doctor John Gaultier submitted several bills to the legislature for attending the wounded men among the prisoners and providing medicines on various occasions. Joseph Tobias, a Sephardic Jew residing in Charleston, translated at official interrogations of prisoners and visited the incarcerated men to gather information about their welfare.[11]

The common sailors incarcerated in Charleston had few opportunities for exercise or recreation during their temporarily residence. Because of security concerns, and a general Anglo-American distrust of Spanish-speaking Catholics during the eighteenth century, these men were not allowed to walk the streets or bath in local waters. On occasion, however, a portion of the Hispanic prisoners were obliged to labor alongside the enslaved men who were building and repairing the fortifications around urban Charleston and other public-works projects of the 1740s.[12]

In contrast to the harsh conditions endured by the common sailors, the naval officers among the prisoners fared much better in Charleston. White, English-speaking government officials in South Carolina recognized these Hispanic gentlemen as their peers, despite differences of language and religion, and treated them with the same hospitality that they might have expected to receive if they found themselves in Havana or St. Augustine. With the assistance of Commissary Dart, Spanish-speaking captains such as Don Domingo de la Cruz, Don Julian de la Vega, Don Gasparo de Ruiz, and other officers secured private accommodations in local boarding houses, took their meals at local taverns, caroused with local personalities, and enjoyed the liberty to perambulate through most of urban Charleston. Officials warned the visitors to keep their distance from the town’s fortifications and waterways, but those instructions were repeatedly violated. The gentlemen prisoners no doubt reconnoitered the town, gathering intelligence later shared with officials in nearby Spanish colonies.[13]

The aforementioned disparity between the treatment of common sailors and gentlemen officers reflected the traditional class distinctions common to both British and Spanish society during the mid-eighteenth century. In contrast to this cultural continuity, the treatment of another class of prisoners in Charleston reflected a divergence between the two societies. A relatively small but indeterminate number of the prisoners brought here in the 1740s were identified in local records as “Spanish Indians,” and some as “Spanish Negroes.” Anglo-American officials in South Carolina, informed by their own social prejudices, concluded that such prisoners were not subjects of the King of Spain, and not deserving of fair treatment. These Spanish-speaking men of Native American and African ancestry were sold as slaves in Charleston and dispersed into the community. Their names and identities appear only in advertisements for runaway slaves, and in petitions from their Hispanic colleagues submitted on their behalf to the provincial government. In several recorded cases, however, a handful of Hispanic men were released from slavery in Charleston and rejoined their fellow prisoners of war to await repatriation.[14]


Where in Charleston were these prisoners confined?

The Hispanic officers brought to Charleston in the 1740s, as I mentioned earlier, stayed in private lodgings, the precise locations of which are presently unknown. The extant records of South Carolina’s provincial government contain several references to bills submitted by one Mrs. McKenzie and one John Fouquett, who kept a house in Church Street near Broad Street. Further research into these individuals could pinpoint their address and perhaps identify additional quarters in the town.

The initial and default location for housing the “common” prisoners of war during the 1740s was the Charleston “Work House”—a relatively small brick structure, funded by the provincial government, that opened in 1738 at the southwest corner of what is now Magazine and Logan Streets. Although it was commonly called a Work House, the institution was created on paper in 1736 to serve as a hospital and poor house for indigent White residents of South Carolina. In the spring of 1740, however, the provincial government ordered that all runaway slaves captured across the colony should be housed in the Work House until redeemed by their respective owners or sold.[15] The institution’s original purpose subsequently evolved during the 1740s from a benevolent refuge to a place of incarceration, and the presence of Hispanic prisoners of war probably contributed to that transformation.

Two weeks after the formal proclamation of war with Spain, South Carolina’s provincial government designated a secondary site for the overflow of prisoners of war. At the northeast end of the Bay in Charleston stood a diamond-shaped fortification called Craven Bastion. Within this large brick structure, now under the steps of the U.S. Customs House at 200 East Bay Street, stood a square brick house that provided storage space and accommodations for the resident gunner. In early May 1740, local officials ordered this house to be cleared and fitted for the reception of prisoners. The number of men incarcerated within Craven Bastion at that time is unclear, and the population ebbed and flowed as the war progressed. At its peak in the late spring of 1746, however, 108 men crowded into this space—some no doubt sleeping under the stars.[16]

For the relatively brief period of six months between July 1742 and January 1743, South Carolina’s provincial government confined dozens of Hispanic prisoners within a mysterious facility located near the northeast corner of Broad and Church Streets. The venue in question was described as a “vault” in extant records, and appears to have been an above-ground, windowless space enclosed by gates, in which was found a well of bad water. This “vault” might have been a covered or vaulted passageway associated with the tavern complex operated in the 1740s by Charles Shepheard, now covered by a twentieth-century bank building. The Jenys family owned the property then known as Shepheard’s Tavern, and the provincial government paid Thomas Jenys rent for the use of the mysterious “vault.”[17]

The venue of last resort for housing prisoners of war during the 1740s was the provincial jail. For most of that decade, South Carolina’s only jail was a rented residence located near the northern edge of urban Charleston, on the east side of King Street, about one hundred feet north of what is now called Horlbeck Alley. As I described in Episode No. 128, the provincial jail of that era was generally ill-suited for the incarceration of prisoners, and certainly ill-equipped to handle large numbers of Spanish-speaking combatants. When the house within Craven Bastion was commandeered by a company of British marines in February of 1744, however, the Hispanic residents of that facility were transferred to the provincial jail. Subsequent complaints from the prisoners of war about unfair treatment forced the local government to order their removal in April to the already-overcrowded Work House on Magazine Street.


How and when did these Hispanic prisoners depart from Charleston?

I’ve found very little documentary evidence of prisoners of war departing from Charleston during the first three years of the conflict in the early 1740s. Following the settlement of a cartel between Britain and Spain for the exchange of prisoners in 1742, however, a number of references to prisoner swaps can be found in both the records of South Carolina’s provincial government and local newspapers. The protocol outlined by the cartel followed a traditional practice of shipping the prisoners away in unarmed (or lightly armed) vessels flying a white flag, commonly called a “flag of truce.” Extant documents show that the South Carolina government dispatched several hired flag-of-truce vessels each year between the spring of 1743 and the summer of 1748, sailing separately to both Havana and St. Augustine. During that same period, a number of Spanish flag-of-truce vessels from those ports brought to Charleston English-speaking prisoners who had been captured at sea by the enemies of King George II. The bilateral cartel encouraged the speedy exchange of prisoners, who represented a financial drain to both sides, and ensured that men spent no more than a few weeks or months in foreign custody.

The extant records of South Carolina’s provincial government also include a few noteworthy exceptions to the routine prisoner exchanges of the 1740s. Several of the aforementioned passengers who were captured by HMS Rose in 1744—the nephew and the secretary of the Viceroy of New Granada and several other “Spanish officers of distinction”—politely informed the Governor of South Carolina that they did not wish to return to the Spanish colonies. Instead, they wished to go home to Old Spain. After some deliberation, the governor and his advisors agreed to let the affluent Spanish gentlemen board a merchant vessel bound for England.[18]

One Hispanic prisoner, perhaps the most significant man brought to Charleston during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, was shipped to England against his will. Don Juan León de Fandiño, the most successful and notorious guardacosta captain of the early eighteenth century, was captured in the Bahamas by HMS Rose on the 4th of June, 1742. Two weeks later, Captain Thomas Frankland of the Rose brought Don Fandiño’s damaged vessel to Charleston, where it was condemned in the local court of Vice Admiralty and sold at auction. So notorious was the prisoner, however, that Captain Frankland put Don Fandiño and his son aboard a privateer vessel and immediately sent them to a naval brig in Portsmouth, England. Whether or not the famous Cuban corsair ever set foot in Charleston is a now matter of speculation.[19]

The final group of Spanish-speaking prisoners brought to Charleston arrived shortly before the end of the war. They were captured in the Caribbean by HMS Fowey, which then wrecked on the Florida Keys in late June 1748. A passing merchant ship sailing to New York rescued the survivors and brought them to Charleston in early July. News of the cessation of hostilities between Britain and Spain arrived in South Carolina one month later, and was proclaimed on the streets of Charleston on August 12th. How and when the remaining Hispanic prisoners departed Charleston in the autumn of 1748 is a small mystery, but one that might be unraveled with further research.[20]



In the aftermath of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, South Carolina’s provincial government continued to collect bills from local inhabitants who had provided goods and services to the prisoners of war during the 1740s. The settlement of such accounts extended into the year 1751, but I haven’t taken the time to compile even a rough estimate of the total cost of this activity. I will mention one useful anecdote, however. In the spring of 1747, South Carolina’s public treasurer reported that the provincial government had spent £13,415.1.4 for expenses related to “lodging and maintaining of Spanish prisoners since the commencement of the Spanish War, and for flags of truce, sent to the Havana and St. Augustine.”[21] That sum represents a substantial outlay of public funds at the time, but I’ll wager that the final tally was significantly higher.

The story of Hispanic prisoners of war held in Charleston during La Guerra del Asiento in the 1740s is just one of many unexplored chapters in the long and colorful history of South Carolina. An industrious student could easily fill a thesis or dissertation on this topic, and I’m sure a seasoned scholar could wrangle the evidence into a hefty monograph. I guarantee you there are episodes and characters within this forgotten era that could inspire a stimulating novel or a swashbuckling screenplay.

My goal in constructing this brief overview of a sprawling, international topic was to spark interest and point curious readers in the right direction for further inquiry. Modern South Carolina began as an English colony, but the fabric of its past is woven with a diversity of narrative threads. Spanish-speaking people formed a small minority of Charleston’s population in the eighteenth century, but their presence contributed a valuable Latin flavor to our shared history.



[1] South Carolina Gazette, 26 April–3 May 1740, page 1.

[2] The definitive book on this topic is Carl E. Swanson, Predators and Prizes: American Privateering and Imperial Warfare, 1739–1748 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).

[3] South Carolina Gazette, 27 June–9 July 1748, “postscript,” page 1.

[4] Published Commons House Journal, 1739–41, p. 334 (7 May 1740).

[5] In a petition to the British House of Commons, the merchants complained that “upwards of 300 ships and vessels have been already taken . . . by which numbers of his Majesty’s most useful subjects have been reduced to want and imprisonment, or compelled by inhumane treatment, and despairing of a cartel for the exchange of prisoners, have inlisted [sic] in the service of Spain.” See A Short Account of the Late Application to Parliament Made by the Merchants of London upon the Neglect of their Trade: With the Substance of the Evidence Thereupon; As Sum’d up by Mr. Glover (London: T. Cooper, 1742), 4–5.

[6] The text of the cartel is found in National Archives, Kew, SP 108/505. The cartel was settled in Paris on 12 February 1741/2, Old Style, or 23 February 1742, New Style; the British government ratified the cartel on 13 march 1741/2, Old Style, or 24 March 1742, New Style.

[7] See, for example, Lt. Gov. Bull’s text in SCG, 17–24 May 1740, page 2; Edward Jones’s advertisement for runaways in South Carolina Gazette, 25 July–1 August 1740, page 3.

[8] Elise Pinckney, ed., The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739–1762 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 55.

[9] See the clerk’s report in SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No 8, page 180 (9 August 1742); Commissary Dart’s report in SCDAH, photostats of the Journal of His Majesty’s Council, 1746–47 (CO 5/455 at the National Archives, Kew), page 109.

[10] See, for example, J. H. Easterby, ed., The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, September 14, 1742–January 27, 1744 (Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1954), 90–91, 93; SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 11, part 1, page 201–2 (17 April 1744); Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 14, page 25 (21 January 1744/5).

[11] Tobias described his translation services 17 January 1745/6; see J. H. Easterby, ed., The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, September 10, 1745–June 17, 1746 (Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1956), 50.

[12] See, for example, SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 8, page 257 (17 September 1742); Easterby, Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, 1742–1744, 90–95; 139 (3 December 1742); Othniel Beale’s accounts for the fortifications in SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 11, part 1, pages 188–93 (13 April 1744).

[13] At least two Grand Jurys complained of the dangers of allowing Hispanic visitors liberty to wander around town. See J. H. Easterby, ed., The Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, May 18, 1741–July 10, 1742(Columbia: State Commercial Printing Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1953), 283 (3 December 1741); South Carolina Gazette, 15 April 1745, page 1.

[14] See, for example, Edward Jones’s advertisement for deserters in South Carolina Gazette, 25 July–1 August 1740, page 3; SCDAH, Journal of His Majesty’s Council, No. 10, pages 235, 238–39, 249 (9, 11, and 18 June 1743; Council Journal No. 14, pages 22, 95, 113 (19 January, 20 and 23 February 1744/5).

[15] See section XXV of Act No. 670, “An Act for the better Ordering and Governing Negroes and other Slaves in this Province,” ratified on 10 May 1740, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 397–417.

[16] Easterby, ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, 1739–1741, 334–35 (7 May 1740); SCDAH, photostats of the Journal of His Majesty’s Council, 1746–47 (CO 5/455 at the National Archives, Kew), page 109 (1 May 1746).

[17] See Council journal No 8, 1742–1743, page 180 (7 August 1742).

[18] Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, No. 14, pages 20–21, 34, 76–77 (19 and 22 January, 14 February 1744/5).

[19] See Thomas Frankland’s letter to the British Admiralty, 16 June 1742, ADM 1/781; and Frankland’s letter to the commissioners of Portsmouth Dockyard, 21 June 1742, ADM 1/906, both at the National Archives, Kew. A description of the capture of Fandiño also appears in South Carolina Gazette, 28 June–5 July 1742, page 1.

[20] South Carolina Gazette, 27 June–9 July 1748, page 4; 8–15 August 1748, page 1.

[21] SCDAH, photostats of the Journal of His Majesty’s Council, 1746–47 (CO 5/455 at the National Archives, Kew), page 57 (13 March 1746/7).


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