Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a descendant of Captain George Anson, the former local celebrity whose name is permanently affixed to Charleston’s first suburb, Ansonborough. Charles Anson, a great nephew of the famous captain, has had quite a distinguished career of his own, principally in the service of Her Majesty’s diplomatic corps around the world. During a recent literary sojourn to Charleston, however, Charles was eager to learn more about the Carolina exploits of his forbearer, Capt. Anson, and I was happy to share with him a few facts and stories. Captain George Anson was in Charleston, both on and off shore, during a colorful period of eleven years between 1724 and 1735, and there are many interesting anecdotes about his exploits here. For the purposes of brevity, however, and in honor of Charles Anson’s diplomatic service, I’d like to focus on a single, little-known incident that took place in the early days of Capt. Anson’s long naval career. To establish the proper historical the context of this 1725 story, let’s begin with a quick journey back to the 1660s.
When Charles II of England granted the colony of Carolina to a group of Lords Proprietors in 1663, the province included all the land between English Virginia and Spanish Florida. On paper, at least, the southern border of Carolina included the northern part of Florida, all the way down to what is now Jacksonville. Conversely, Spain considered the northern boundary of Florida to extend as far north as Saint Helena Sound, in modern Beaufort County, South Carolina. After a few years of disagreements, in 1670 England and Spain both signed the Treaty of Madrid, in which both parties agreed to respect each other’s settlements in the Caribbean and on the North American mainland. The Treaty of Madrid did not specify the precise boundary lines between Carolina and Florida, however, and this oversight led to many decades of bickering and bloodshed. During the international conflicts known as the War of Spanish Succession (or Queen Anne’s War, 1702–1713) and the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718–1720), the governments of South Carolina and Florida asserted their respective claims with threats and by force.
In the summer of 1722, less than two years after the latest peace treaty, British soldiers under the command of the Governor of South Carolina constructed a small, rudimentary fort, named Fort King George, at the mouth of the Altamaha River, near the southern border of the colony (now part of the town of Darien, Georgia). The purpose of building this fort, located approximately 130 miles southwest of Charleston, was to encourage British colonists to settle along the southern frontier of South Carolina, thereby reinforcing British claims to that territory. The Spanish crown considered this property to be the northern frontier of Florida, however, so in 1723 the Spanish ambassador to the Court of St. James formally complained to King George about this intrusion. The king instructed his Board of Trade and Plantations to investigate the matter, and so they dispatched letters of inquiry to South Carolina. The provincial government of South Carolina replied in March of 1724, insisting that Fort King George and the property in question were legitimately located within the chartered boundary of South Carolina. At the highest levels of the British government, it was clear that this border dispute on the other side of the Atlantic could potentially fracture the crown’s fragile peace with Spain.
In the late spring of 1724, George Anson sailed from England as captain of His Majesty’s Ship the Scarborough, a sixth-rate, twenty-gun frigate of the Royal Navy. It was the second command for the twenty-seven-year-old Anson, and his first posting in the American colonies. As commander of the naval vessel assigned to the Carolina station, Capt. Anson’s principal duty was to protect the shipping coming to and departing from South Carolina. We were enjoying a period of relative peace in the mid-1720s, but the Atlantic Ocean was still home to a number of unscrupulous smugglers attempting to evade the letter of the law as well as a handful of pirates who occasionally harassed the regular shipping between Charleston and the West Indian islands. More important than law enforcement and pirate catching, however, was the duty to ensure that Spanish vessels from Florida or Cuba didn’t violate the tenuous peace that existed between the crowns of Britain and Spain. Thus Capt. Anson’s assignment in South Carolina included an important diplomatic component in addition to the customary nautical and military duties of His Majesty’s station ships.
Before departing England in 1724, Capt. Anson likely received a thorough briefing about the simmering border dispute between South Carolina and Florida. Whatever actions he undertook while protecting the Carolina coastline, he would be held accountable to both King and country. Shortly after his departure, the Spanish ambassador in London renewed his complaints to King George about the Carolina fort on the Altamaha River. The king ordered an investigation, and so in 1725 the Duke of Newcastle, head of the Board of Trade, sent diplomatic instructions to South Carolina’s acting governor, Arthur Middleton, president of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina. Middleton and the Council were ordered to meet face-to-face with representatives of the government of Spanish Florida, and to attempt to resolve their issues “in the most civil and friendly manner, so as to avoid all occasions of interrupting the friendship and good correspondence subsisting between the two Crowns.”
On Thursday, 2 September 1725, a Spanish vessel flying the white “flag of truce” appeared just outside the sandbars forming the entrance to the harbor of Charleston. As protector of our coastline, the HMS Scarborough hailed the Spanish vessel and confirmed the peaceful nature of her mission. She carried two Spanish emissaries from St. Augustine seeking an audience with the British governor of South Carolina. Satisfied with her credentials, Capt. Anson and the HMS Scarborough escorted the Spanish vessel into Charleston harbor.
It was around sunset when the Scarborough brought the Spanish vessel to an anchorage near Fort Johnson, which stood on the northeasternmost point of James Island, about two miles from Charlestown by water. In the parlance of that time, the Spanish vessel was kept “under the guns of the fort” for security purposes. In fact, this precaution was the normal protocol for all incoming vessels, regardless of their origin or mission. After anchoring “within pistol shot” of Fort Johnson, such vessels were required to send a boat to the fort to state the nature of their visit and to show their passports. If a visiting ship made any suspicious or hostile moves from this anchorage, the cannon and muskets inside Fort Johnson could quickly batter it into submission.
With both vessels now safely at anchor, Capt. Anson and several members of his crew launched their pinnace (a large rowboat with an auxiliary mast and sail) and rowed over to greet their visitors. The captains of each vessel exchanged salutations, and Capt. Anson was introduced to a pair of Spanish emissaries, Don Francisco Menendes Marquis and Don Joseph Primo de Riviera, sent to negotiate on behalf of the governor of Florida, Don Antonio de Benavides Bazán y Molina. Considering the importance of preserving the uneasy peace between their respective nations, we can imagine that the young George Anson conducted himself with all the poise, geniality, and ceremony that the occasion required. Moments later, Anson, the emissaries, and a small Spanish entourage of Native American allies and enslaved Africans descended into the pinnace and commenced the short journey to town.
As the British longboat calmly rowed past the fort under a twilight, late summer sky, the sound of gunshots suddenly erupted. The water splashed violently around the pinnace as some unseen guns fired at the unarmed open boat from behind the walls of Fort Johnson. The commander of the fort, Capt. James Sutherland, was apparently unaware of the diplomatic mission of the Spanish vessel then riding at anchor under his guns, and so he and his men fired several warning shots at the boat heading to Charleston. From a distance of several hundred yards and under the growing cover of darkness, Capt. Anson was relatively powerless to silence this grave diplomatic blunder. We can imagine that Anson and his men must have dropped their oars and ducked for cover, all the while shouting their objections towards the fort. Perhaps they waved a Union jack vigorously, or even fired a few pistol volleys in return.
In Capt. Sutherland’s defense, Capt. Anson appears to have deviated from the normal protocol. The surviving documentary record of this event is brief and woefully incomplete, but it appears that the Spanish flag-of-truce vessel, escorted as it was by the HMS Scarborough, neglected to follow the normal protocol of first visiting the commander of Fort Johnson explaining its mission. Perhaps the twenty-eight-year-old Capt. Anson should have sent a second boat (which he probably had on hand) to notify Capt. Sutherland of the diplomatic mission then in progress. Perhaps Capt. Anson did dispatch such a message to the fort, and perhaps Capt. Sutherland didn’t receive it or didn’t understand it. We may never know the details of what really happened, but we do know that George Anson’s reputation far eclipsed that of his trigger-happy comrade. During his long tenure as commander of Fort Johnson, from 1723 until his death in 1740, James Sutherland was the subject of numerous complaints from visiting ship captains, the fort’s neighbors, and even from Sutherland’s own men.
After a few volleys, and perhaps a loud chorus of complaints, the firing stopped and the Scarborough’s pinnace proceeded on her short journey across the harbor to Charleston. The immediate danger was over, but we can imagine that Capt. Anson did his best to prevent the potential collapse of diplomatic relations in this moment of crisis. He knew that the Spaniards in his boat signified far more than just the government of a small, New World colony. As representatives of the Spanish crown, whose report would ultimately reach the Spanish ambassador in London, Don Francisco and Don Joseph were the diplomatic vanguard of a world superpower that was Britain’s traditional enemy. With this fact in mind, George Anson must have known that any blunders committed in Charleston at that moment had the potential to ignite an international conflict. We can only imagine the sort of reassuring, diplomatic language that Capt. Anson must have used to reassure his Spanish guests. “Please do not mistake the ignorance of a few,” he might have said, “for the temper of our sovereign King. You are quite welcome here, and on my honor, your mission will proceed with safety.”
The longboat carrying the Spanish entourage arrived at a wharf along “the Bay” of Charleston (now East Bay Street) late on a Thursday evening, during a period when the government was not in session and most of the legislative members were out of town. The visiting dignitaries were provided with lodgings fit for gentlemen of their station, while their retinue of Indian and African retainers found lodging in less commodious apartments. Meanwhile, express riders set out to retrieve President Middleton and the rest of His Majesty’s Council from the countryside. The two diplomatic parties first met on Monday, September 6th, at which time Don Francisco Menendes Marquis and Don Joseph Primo de Riviera simply presented their credentials and several letters from the Governor of Florida before withdrawing for the day.
Before the councilors could begin examining the Spanish papers before them, the Clerk of Council announced that the “Honorable Capt. George Anson, Commander of his Majesty’s Ship Scarborough,” was waiting for an audience with them. Anson was then ushered into the Council Chamber, where, after paying his respects to the board, he “complained to the Council that Capt. Sutherland (Commander of Johnsons Fort) had fired at the Boate or Pinnace belonging to his said Ship, when [he] was on Board the same bringing the Spanish Gentlemen to Towne on Thursday Evening last.” Surviving documents do not record the Council’s reaction to this news, but we can imagine that they must have gasped at hearing of such an outrageous faux pas. Fortunately, there were no casualties, and the incident did not immediately trigger the outbreak of war. George Anson must have been quite outraged over the affair, but the extant record of this meeting merely notes that Anson “desired that Capt. Sutherland might be made sensible of his Error, & make a suitable reparation for the Indignity.”
In response to this simple request, President Middleton ordered the Clerk of Council to send for Captain Sutherland. After a short delay (perhaps he was already nearby, anticipating a summons), Sutherland was ushered into the Council Chamber to stand before the board. “Being called in[,] His Honour the President not only Reprimanded him for what he had done as above, but for his disobedience to the Orders sent him by the Honorable Benjamin De la Conselliere (as eldest Councilor) in the Absence of the President from Towne.” This wording suggests that Capt. Sutherland had indeed received advance notice of the impending arrival of Spanish diplomats, but nevertheless he had failed to follow instructions. For his own part, the record shows, Captain Sutherland spoke a few words “acknowledging his Fault [and then] asked pardon.” President Middleton accepted his apology on behalf of the government, and then ordered Sutherland “to withdraw, & to waite on Capt. Anson at his house, & there ask his pardon.”
I can find no record of the private conversation that took place between Captain George Anson and Captain James Sutherland on the 6th day of September 1725, so we must use our imaginations to conjure up the language and gestures they might have exchanged. Perhaps if one strolls down Laurens Street, the approximate modern location of George Anson’s house, and listens carefully, one might still hear the reverberations of a salty exchange between the two captains.
Over the ensuing several days in early September 1725, President Arthur Middleton and His Majesty’s Council met on multiple occasions with the emissaries of Spanish Florida and negotiated their differences in a most civil manner. The principal issue at hand was of course the boundary line between the two provinces and the presence of the British fort at the mouth of the Altamaha River. The Spaniards argued that the fort was a violation of the Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1670, while President Middleton respectfully asserted the opposite viewpoint. Neither side would give the proverbial inch.
The secondary issue of their negotiation was the return of Africans enslaved by the British who had eloped to Florida in search of freedom. The Spanish emissaries claimed to be powerless in this matter and offered no constructive assistance. Don Francisco and Don Joseph then asked permission to purchase an English sloop, to purchase various supplies, hardware, and medicines, and to hire a surgeon to come to St. Augustine. In response to this shopping list, President Middleton replied that, as the commander in chief of South Carolina for the time being, it was simply not within his power to grant such requests.
On the morning of Monday, 13 September 1725, President Arthur Middleton, the members of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, and Captain George Anson escorted the Spanish emissaries and their entourage to a wharf along the Bay. There they exchanged salutations and parted ways. Capt. Anson’s pinnace ferried the visitors back to their ship, still anchored under the guns of Fort Johnson. Once aboard their respective vessels, the HMS Scarborough and the Spanish ship weighed anchor and, to use a nautical phrase from that era, they stood for the sea. As he had done some eleven days earlier, Capt. Anson and the Scarborough escorted the Spaniards over the bar and into the Atlantic, ensuring that His Majesty’s visitors departed the shores of South Carolina safely and securely.
After eleven years as a part-time resident of South Carolina, Captain George Anson departed Charleston for the last time in May of 1735. Promoted to Commodore in 1740, he led a squadron of British warships in a round-the-world adventure, during which he captured tons of Spanish treasure and returned to London in 1744 as the richest celebrity of the age. He became Admiral Anson in 1745, and then Lord Anson, Baron of Soberton, in 1747. Through an attorney here in Charleston, he subdivided and sold off his Carolina property during the final decades of his life. Capt. Anson’s house, located in the vicinity of modern Laurens Street, is long gone, but his former property still bears the name he coined in 1745, Ansonborough.
This interesting story is just a snapshot of a brief episode in the rich history of our community, but it’s also a story that likely hasn’t been told for nearly three hundred years. Why not? Because it survives as a handful of sentences within just a few paragraphs of text found only in one of the manuscript Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina, held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia. Among these manuscript journals, and thousands of similar documents held at our state archive, you’ll find a treasure trove of untold stories. I found the clues for today’s story few years ago, while mining for historical gems, and share it now in honor of George Anson’s great nephew, as a souvenir of his recent trip to Charleston. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey into the past aboard the Charleston Time Machine, Charles, and hope that you’ll cross the ocean to see us again someday