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Pieces-of-Eight
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Spanish Treasure FleetHavana harbor was a hotbed of activity as the 1750 Spanish treasure fleet readied itself for the long and perilous voyage to Spain. It was August and the hurricane season was already upon them. ... the vessels assembling beneath the mighty guns of Morro Castle numbered just seven. They had been placed under the overall command of Captain-General Don Juan Manuel de Bonilla, a brave and courageous man but one occasionally prone to indecision.

The most important ship was the Admirante, or "admiral" of the fleet, Bonilla's five-hundred-ton, four-year-old, Dutch-built Nuestra Señora de Guadeloupe, alias Nympha. She was owned by Don Jose de Renturo de Respaldizar, commanded by Don Manuel Molviedo, and piloted by Don Felipe Garcia. Guadeloupe was a big ship, and had been alotted a substantial cargo of sugar, Capeche dyewoods, Purge of Jalapa (a laxative restorative plant found in Mexico), cotton, vanilla, cocoa, plant seedlings, copper, a great quantity of hides, valuable cochineal and indigo for dyes, and most importantly, as many as three hundred chests of silver containing 400,000 pieces-of-eight valued at 613,000 pesos. Among her passengers was the president of Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, as well as a company of prisoners. (Shomette 2007:19)

So writes Shomette in his enlightening tale of a routine Spanish treasure shipment casting its fate to the wind. Another account reports just five ships and names only de Guadeloupe. And according to a TreasureNet™ post by rik, there are as many as eight ships in the armada under Bonilla's command:

  1. Nuestra Señora de Guadeloupe alias Augusta Celi or Nympha, with Captain Molviedo, owned by Respaldizar;
  2. the King's 50-gun frigate, Nuestra Señora del Carmen alias La Galga, Don Daniel Mahoney, captain;
  3. the King's small brigatine or Zumaca schooner Nuestra Señora de la Merced, or La Mercede, Don Antonio Barroso, captain;
  4. a Portuguese ship, Nuestra Señora de los Godos alias Arinton, captained by Don Pedro de Pumarejo and Don Francisco de Ortiz;
  5. a small Portuguese frigate with Cartagena registry, San Pedro or Saint Peter, John Kelly, commander;
  6. a Cartagena registered Snow packet boat, El Salvador alias El Henrique, owned by Don Francisco Arizon, Don Juan Cruanio, captain;
  7. a small frigate, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad y San Francisco Xavier, owned by Don Jose de Respaldizar and Don Manuel de Molbudro; and, possibly,
  8. a sloop from Compeche, La Marianna, Don Antonio Ianasio de Anaya, commander.

Pieces-of-Eight:  one ounce Spanish dollars that could be cut into eight bits to make changeThe small armada carries important passengers like the Governor of Havana and family, the quartermaster general of Chile and family, a treasure and luxury item shipment of the King's own company, and a silversmith as representative of another precious cargo's owner. They are similarly laden with more Spanish Reales (known as pieces-of-eight), valuable commodities, diamonds, and precious metals, all extracted from the conquest of Central and South America. But it is de Guadeloupe that is the greatest prize, with more than 12 tons of silver in 400,000 pieces-of-eight, each of which weighs one ounce. The early American silver dollar is based upon this coin and its weight / value in silver. That is why 25¢ is known as two bits. Two pieces (or bits) of eight make a quarter. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

The King is anxious for a successful voyage and transit of his goods. These valuables are sorely needed to replenish the Spanish treasurer from years of conflict with England and France, known in Europe as the War of Austrian Succession and, in the colonies as, King George's War. Mother Nature has other plans. This time, Bonilla's own flagship and its precious cargo will be jeopardized by the fierce weather. It will force him to trust a former enemy in a desperate encounter with English privateers turned pirates - including some FitzRandolphs and a young Joseph (Thorne) Jackson of Woodbridge, New Jersey, that are the original subjects of my research.

This story draws from several different accounts of the events retold from personal records and government documents. The Spanish perspective is taken from Bonilla's log and Spanish documents as referenced in Donald Shomette's recent compilation of shipwreck tales. The English and Dutch perspectives are contained in colonial government correspondence and news articles. The Jersey pirates' tale is told by shipmate William Waller in his 1750 testimony to the New Jersey Provincial Justices. The New Englander sloop's story was passed down in the family of one of the ship's owners. But there are also two jokers in the pack, Owen Lloyd and William Blackstock. It is Blackstock, alias William Davidson, who tells their story in his 1750 testimony before Dutch West Indies Justices. He'll also tell us how some of the treasure gets buried on the "real" Treasure Island - and what happens to it next. Be sure to follow the links to learn more about these stories.

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Dangerous Shoals

Acts of Piracy

Justice

It is also the start of November 1750 when Blackstock returns to Norman Island with the fisherman, Thomas Walts, to find that his share of church plate has been stolen. Word had spread and the locals proved just as opportunistic as the pirates. The council president's son is said to have retrieved "at least twenty bags of Spanish coins", the island marshall got 30 bags, and yet another is said to have found "a considerable quantity of 'plate'". Fearing a total loss, Blackstock and Dames use 1,000 Reales to buy Purser's boat but are denied permission to embark with their share of the goods until the council has considered the matter.

Nearly a week passes before the council decides that Blackstock and Dames can leave, but only after selling their cochineal and indigo to local interests. Knight describes for us the final fate of Lloyd, Blackstock, and their crew.

On the 14th of November, Blackstock and Dames finally set out from the British Virgins with Captain Purser and a Mr. Young as passengers, and an old Tortola "Negro" as crew. Although the ship's papers gave her destination as North Carolina, the shallop headed first for St. Eustatius, where Purser and Young disembarked. There, while lying off the road at Oranjestad, Blackstock caught wind that Owen Lloyd had been apprehended and at that very moment was a prisoner in the island’s fort. From what little straight talk they could muster, Blackstock and Dames pieced together that after leaving Norman Island Lloyd and the crew had sailed directly to the Danish-held island of St. Thomas. There, the men sold off the cargo and abandoned the sloop, making a pact to never associate with one-another again. Soon after, Lloyd purchased another sloop and set out for the Leeward Islands, but word of his misdeeds preceded him. He had been immediately arrested upon setting foot on St. Eustatius.

The story of Owen Lloyd's capture, as told to Blackstock and Dames by a loose-lipped Mulatto with one blue eye, was made even more troubling by the informant’s repeated references to Lloyd as, "a villainous pirate." It was then that the two decided to go their separate ways. Dames, who longed for cooler waters, had a mind to take the first available berth on a northbound schooner and leave the West Indies in his wake; while Blackstock was reasonably sure that with legal title to the shallop, and a proper sea-pass from President Chalwell, he had a fair chance of steering clear of any trouble. That was, of course, as long as Owen Lloyd hadn’t given any names. With this resolve, Blackstock handed over to Dames four hundred and fifty pieces-of-eight for his one-half part in the shallop, and ordered the old “Tortola Negro” hand to put the homesick Virginian ashore.

By evening the shallop was driving hard under a full press of sail, the island of St. Martin off her starboard bow. His shoulder braced against the wheel, Blackstock gazed out into the setting sun "Nowhere on Gods own earth," he declared only to himself, "do Satin's fires battle so hard to consume the day."

Before another night had passed, William Blackstock languished in chains: the unwilling guest of the Honorable Governor Gumbs of Anguilla. And as to the whereabouts of Dames, or any other members of the sloop's crew, he really couldn’t say.

Wadsworth relates that Wade returns home on a another ship sent by Mrs. Binney, one of the owners of Three Sisters. That ship and the rest of its cargo is left with the Dutch - a total loss on her maiden tour.

The theft so soon after the war creates a stir among the English colonists, the Spanish, and the colonial Governors, alike. The following item announcing the encounter, is published November 15, 1750, in The Pennsylvania Gazette with a New York dateline. It attests to fear among some that this piracy will leave fellow Englishmen vulnerable to similar mistreatment. (Poff)

NEW-YORK, Nov. 12.
By a Vessel from North-Carolina, we have a melancholy Account, that two English Sloops having been hired there by the Spaniards to carry the Money saved out of one of the Galleons lately lost near Ocacock Bar, to Virginia; they took their Opportunity to make off with the Treasure, while all the Spaniards were ashore; one of the Sloops got clear off, but the other missing Stays, run ashore, and was recovered by the Spaniards:—It is much feared the Master and Mariners will meet with condign Punishment, besides bringing a lasting Infamy on the British Nation, for their Treachery to People in Distress;—and give the Spaniards a Plea for using poor Englishmen ill, that may have the Misfortune to fall into their Hands. They will doubtless think they ought to have Justice done them; notwithstanding if any of our Vessels from the Bay happen to be lost on their Coast, or put into their Ports in Distress, they not only seize the Vessel and Cargo, but make the Men Prisoners; altho’ they have in Nature no more Right to the Wood in the Bay, than the English have to the Mines in Mexico. Their Depredations and Captures on the High Seas by their Guarda Costas, is a Piece of Villainy, little inferior to this Robbery; tho’ tamely suffered by us, who are near becoming the Dupes of all Nations.

Economic issues were also unresolved. Shomette (p38) observes that Guadelope's owner likely follows a lead on the money stolen by the other sloop, Seaflower. At about the same time, he is reported making inquiries in the Boston area.

In mid-November, it was reported in Boston that a mysterious, unnamed "Spanish gentleman belonging to a large and rich ship of his nation" lately cast away on the Carolina coast, possibly Respaldizar, was in town attempting to locate and retrieve $150,000 in silver coin and other effects, including $100,000 worth of cochineal, purloined from the wreck of the Guadeloupe by Zebulon Wade's sloop Seaflower, which was believed to be in new England. Bostonians were anything but positive about the Spaniard's chances. "But we dare not promise," wrote one newspaper editor, "upon the skill in Astrology as to predict that all the money, &c. will be recovered, and that the master and his accomplices will be apprehended. For a man with such a number of dollars about him, may be said to have powerful hands."

It also appears that not everyone is as convinced as Blackstock and Dames that all the loot buried on "Treasure Island" has been discovered. Singer points out that "The book Lagooned in the Virgin Islands by H. B. Eadie mentions a letter dated December 22, 1750 which refers to 'trouble-some Spaniards infesting the seas around the Virgin Islands' and their recovery of part of the loot from the caravel Nuestra Señora which had been buried at Norman Island."

On New Year's Eve, the New Jersey Governor acknowledges the arrest and escape of William Waller. From his home in Burlington, Jonathan Belcher writes a note of congratulations to Judge Nevill on his efforts. He also informs Nevill that he heard that Elizabeth Waller, the jail keeper's wife, was bribed for her assistance in Waller's escape. Belcher writes that the sheriff will be held accountable and adds that he will present the whole affair before his council. (Collections v.10, p.265; NJ Archives s1 v16, p244) It would seem that Waller was detained immediately after his testimony/confession in early November. If so, the newlywed mariner has had less than those weeks before setting sail to spend with his bride.

The Duke of Bedford writes the Governor Belcher on 10 January, 1751, "relating to the Spanish Wreck Lost last fall on the Coast of North Carolina." He desires the opinion of the Governor's Council regarding the incident. The Duke follows that on February 1 with a copy of the Treaty with Spain. (NJ Archives s1 v16, p308) Seven days later, Governor Belcher presents the judge's reports and testimony of the crew to his Council, asking for their opinion. Council members present at that Burlington session are Misters Reading, Alexander, Rodman, Johnston, Kemble, and Saltzar. (NJ Archives, v16 , p277-280)

The Council later interviews the examiners, prepare their reply on the 17th, and present their findings the next day in another session at Burlington. In attendance are the Governor and Council as listed before except for the presence of Mr. Hude and absence of Mr. Kemble. Charles Read is again Secretary to the Governor's Council. They present their opinion as follows. (NJ Archives s1 v16, p282)

We beg leave humbly to report to your Excellency that we have considered the said papers and sent for Samuel Nevill together with James Smith Esquire of Woodbridge before whom the said Depositions were taken & examined them as what further they heard or know Concerning the matters in the papers aforesaid and upon the whole are of Opinion that there is great Reason to Suspect every one of the mariners on Board the said Sloop to have been Guilty of Robbery and Piracy and some to suspect even the Petitioner, and Therefore that the prayer of the Petitioner be not granted.

But on the Contrary, That your Excellency should give order to ye Judges of the Supreme Court or one of them to Cause the Master & Mariners of the said Sloop to be apprehended & brought before them or him, and that they be Separately & privately Examined Concerning the Piracy and Robbery aforesaid and that care be taken that neither of them have any opportunity to Confer with one another from the beginning of the said Examination till it be finished and particularly how they came away from Carolina, for what reason was the said Sloop seized there, what proceedings had been there against them & the said Sloop, and whatever further Questions may be thought necessary for the Discovery of the Truth; And if upon the papers referred to us, and from what shall be discovered by the Examinations, it shall appear that there is sufficient reason to suspect thye said master & Mariners or either of them to have been Guilty of Piracy & Robbery or either of them that then they be Committed till Delivered by due Course of law: And that in the meantime the pieces of eight Confessed by the said William Waller to have been taken out of the Hold of the said Sloop, after they had been Laden therein by the Spaniards together with the Proceeds of the Effects bought by him with such pieces of Eight be Secured in the hands of Andrew Johnston Esquire His Majesty's Receiver General & Treasurer of the Eastern Division of New Jersey until further Order, and that the utmost Secrecy be Observed in this matter until the said Suspected Criminals be Apprehended.

It takes just six weeks to bring some (or all) of the crew to justice. The following news item appears in The New York Gasette Revived in the Weekly Post Boy. (NJ Archives v19, pp.66-67) A few weeks later, on May 2, 1751, the same report appears in the Virginia Gazette. (Poff)

New York, April 8. We have intelligence from the Jersies, that some Men who belonged to one of the Vessels that attempted to carry off some of the Money belonging to the Spanish Wrecks at Ocacock in North Carolina: were last Week apprehended, and committed to Amboy Jail, as 'tis said, by Orders from the Government.

pieces-of-eight in a drawstring pouchDuring those six weeks, the Prince of Wales dies, paving the way for his son to become King George III in another nine years. Also, on April 20, Governor Belcher informs the Duke of Bedford that he has dissolved and reformed the New Jersey Assembly. He also informs Bedford that Waller had been jailed and then escaped, and that 317 pieces-of-eight were recovered. The money is being kept in the Provincial Treasury. (Collections v.10 p.269) Not until May 30, does Belcher present to his new council the Duke's last three letters (1) asking council's opinion, (2) conveying the Treaty with Spain, and (3) the announcement of the Prince's passing. (NJ Archives s1 v16, p308)

Here the Governor accounts for 317 of the coins, indicating that Waller and the Fitz Randolphs turned over all but four pieces. Therefore, it is most likely that the long list of debts to James Jackson's estate are in fact business accounts and not the distribution of these silver coins to his family, friends, and neighbors, as coincidence might suggest. (NJ Archives, v30, p260) It may well be that James' family are also having difficult financial times as evidenced by his attempt to sell the tavern in March 1749. (NJ Archives, v12, p520) There may have been lots of unpaid bar tabs and maybe a serious illness. This would explain Joseph's interest in sending his share of the pirated booty back home at the first opportunity and James not being there to receive it.

On June 7, 1751, at Perth Amboy, Governor Belcher writes two letters of similar purpose. The available summaries do not mention Waller's escape several months earlier. One, to the Duke of Bedford, acknowledges the receipt of a copy of the Treaty with Spain, signed 5th October preceding, which he has published in one of the papers of Pennsylvania for the better information of the people of New Jersey. He also informs the Duke that of circumstances connected with the shipwreck of Bonilla's vessel on the coast of North Carolina, the subsequent stranding of Mary, with some of the Spanish cargo onboard with the 317 coins mentioned in the April 20 despatch and presumed to have come from Mary.

The second such letter of June 7, is sent to the Secretary of State, the Earl of Holderness. In it he reports ordering the Treaty to be published in one of the public news prints in Pennsylvania; assures the Secretary that the affair of Don Manuel de Bonilla shall be attended to and the 317 dollars seized are now in the Treasury of New Jersey. In this letter he adds a report that the ship which escaped with Don Manuel's 55 chests of dollars arrived at the Island of St. Thomas and, there, the captain "put himself under the protection of the Danish Government." (Collections v.10, p.271)

On July 1, Belcher now refers to Bonilla's vessel as "lost." He dutifully reports to the Duke of Bedford that the escapee, Waller, has been recaptured and awaits trial. (NJ Archives v7, pp598-600)

On February 12, 1752, in Perth Amboy, and eleven months after their capture is reported in the news, Nevill presents to the Governor and Council an August appeal from the pirates for release from jail. They argue that there have been no charges or trial for six months and they should be released according to the Habeas Corpus Act. The Council advises the Governor that Judge Nevill proceed as he thinks appropriate. Council members present this time are James Alexander, James Hude, Andrew Johnston, Peter Kemble, and David Ogden. (NJ Archives v16, p370)

In Elizabethtown on November 28 of the following year, Governor Belcher writes to the Secretary of State "desiring orders from His Majesty how the money brought into New Jersey from North Carolina, supposed to belong to the subjects of Spain, is to be disposed of." (NJ Archives v10, p302) The Governor's papers retained in the New Jersey Archive do not include any further correspondence regarding the acts of piracy committed against Bonilla and his vessel. The Archives do not report any further official documents regarding the fate of Mary's master and crew.

Not long after the commotion at Ocracoke Inlet, concrete steps are taken to protect it and provide suitable facilities for a port of entry. In 1753 an act is passed by the North Carolina Assembly for "laying out a Town on Core Banks, near Ocacock Inlet, in Carteret County, and for appointing Commissioners for completing the Fort at or near the same place." (Stick, pp38-40)

We do know that Waller is known as a stage-boat operator just two years after the crew petitions for freedom. A 1753 advertisement describes a stage/ferry passenger service between New York City and Philadelphia. (Roll)

A commodious stage-boat will attend at City Hall slip near the Half Moon battery, to receive goods and passengers, on Saturdays and Wednesdays, and on Mondays and Thursdays will set out for Perth Amboy Ferry; there a stage-wagon will receive them and set out on Tuesdays and Fridays in the morning, and carry them to Cranberry, and then the same day, with fresh horses to Burlington, where a stage-boat receives them, and immediately sets out for Philadelphia.

The term "commodious" is used to indicate an improvement over the smaller, keel-less, open scows that once left a party run-aground on a sand bar. In nine years, the three day trip between these major colonial cities will take just two days one way or five days round trip, with a day in Philadelphia for business. New accommodations include larger stage-boats with more sail, known as periauguas or pirogues, and springs on the wagons to better cushion the bumps of poor road surfaces. (Stone, p186)

Likewise, an advertisement in The Pennsylvania Journal dated November 18, 1756, includes a mention of William Waller, mariner, out of Perth Amboy, operating a sloop as a "commodious" passenger-carrying "stage-boat" to New York and back. (NJ Archives s1 v20 p78-79)

Philadelphia and Perth-Amboy Stages.

Notice is hereby given, that we the Subscribers, John Butler, of Philadelphia, at the Sign of the Death of the Fox, in Strawberry Alley, begins his Stage on Tuesday, the Ninth of this Instant November, from his House and will proceed with his Waggon to the House of Nathaniel Parker, at Trenton Ferry; and from there the Goods and passengers to be carried over the ferry to the House kept by George Moschel, where Francis Holman will meet the above John Butler, and exchange their passengers, &c. and then proceed on Wednesday through Princetown and New-Brunswick, to the House of Obadiah Airies, in Perth-Amboy, where will be kept a good Boat, with all Conveniences necessary, kept by John Thomson and William Waller, for the Reception of passengers, &c. who will proceed on Thursday Morning, without Delay, for New York, and there land at Whitehall, where the said Waller and Thompson will give Attendance at the House of Abraham Bockeys, until Monday Morning following, and then will return to Perth Amboy, where Francis Holman on Tuesday Morning following will attend, and return with his Wagon to Trenton Ferry, to meet John Butler, of Phildelphia, and there exchange their Passengers, &c. for New-York and Phildelphia.

It is hoped, that as these Stages are attended with a considerable Expence, for the better accommodating Passengers, that they will merit the favours of the Publick; and whoever will be pleased to favour them, with their Custom, shall be kindly used, and have due Attendance given them by their humble Servants John Butler, Francis Holman, John Thompson, and William Waller.

Stone's History of New York City includes the following description of this early New York to Philadelphia stage route. (Stone, p186)

Another route advertised a commodious 'stage-boat' to start with goods and passengers from the City Hall Slip (Coenties) twice a week, for Perth Amboy ferry, and thence by stage-wagon to Cranberry and Burlington, from which point a stage-boat continued the line to Philadelphia; this trip generally required three days. This was long before the days of steam-boats. These 'stage-boats' were small sloops, sailed by a single man and boy, or two men; and passing 'outside,' as it is still called, by the Narrows and through the 'Lower Bay,' these small passage-vessels, at times, were driven out to sea, thus oftentimes causing vexatious delays. In very stormy weather, the 'inside route,' through the Kills, was chosen. The most common way to Philadelphia, however, was to cross the North River in a sail-boat, and then the Passaic and Hackensack by scows, reaching the 'Quaker City' by stages in about three days. But these passages had their perils.

I find no further public accounts of Captain Samuel FitzRandolph, his sons, Samuel and Kinsey, or the rest of the crew. "Of Captain Zebulon Wade, he was known to have moved from his native Scituate to 'Carolina,' where his son later was found to be a ship’s pilot on the North Carolina Rivers . . ." (Wadsworth)

Piracy continues to be a concern of the royal government. A circular letter dated May 20, 1757, Whitehall, from the Secretary of State to the Governors in North America addresses further piracy with this missive: "In consequence of some of the privateers being guilty of piracy, the Governors are directed to arrest them should they touch any of the ports, and that every privateer be furnished with a copy of instructions as to their conduct at sea." That is all. (NJ Archives v10, p340)

On June 21, 1757, the original subject of this research, 21 year old Joseph (Thorne) Jackson of Woodbridge, mariner, dies. The cause of such a premature death is not reported. His estate is administered by relatives and Friends Abraham Shotwell and Abraham Smith. It appears that he never marries, has no children, and accumulates no estate of value. (NJ Archives v32, p174)

The lost cargo of the ill-fated armada of August 1750 is yet of interest to some treasure hunters. Two hundred fifty years after that fateful storm subsides, a legal tempest brews over dividing up the booty, according to goinglegal.com. The International Registry of Sunken Ships summarizes the case as follows.

In 1998, Sea Hunt obtained permits from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to explore for submersed vessels along the Virginia Coast. After spending nearly a million dollars in its search, Sea Hunt revealed that it had located the sunken remains of JUNO and LA GALGA. In order to resolve title to the shipwrecks, Sea Hunt sought a declaratory judgment from the district court stating that Virginia, rather than Spain, owned the vessels. The United States, fearing that the judgment would persuade other nations to divest its similarly situated shipwrecks, filed a claim on Spain's behalf asserting ownership over the vessels. The district court rejected the United States' efforts, but permitted Spain to file its own verified claim. Then, the district court, applying an express abandonment standard, held that Spain retained ownership over JUNO, but had expressly abandoned LA GALGA through Article XX of the 1763 Definitive Treaty of Peace between France, Great Britain and Spain.

As for the pirated pieces-of-eight and "Treasure Island," Wadsworth reports that “the Spanyards had ploughed and dug the island near all over and had found probably the most of it.” Knight concludes for us it "was estimated by a British Court that investigated this case that the total value of the cargo stolen from the Nuestra Señora de Guadeloupe exceeded 250,000 Spanish dollars. Of the 150,000 pieces-of-eight said to have been buried on Norman Island by Owen Lloyd and his crew, some 57,000 have never been accounted for."

 

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