The month of December is traditionally a time of festivities and feasts, gift-giving and merry-making. Other historians may wax nostalgic about holiday traditions from bygone eras, but this year I want to raise awareness of a different kind of December story. Let’s commemorate the anniversary of Charleston’s Christmas treasure of 1744, a swashbuckling story of adventure and violence on the high seas that brought a mountain of Spanish treasure into the port of Charleston.
The setting for this story is the Carolina coastline and the Caribbean Sea. The time is 1744, shortly after France joined forces with Spain to contest Britain’s territorial possessions in North America and the West Indies (the War of Jenkins’ Ear, 1739-48) . Spanish and French privateers harassing British trading vessels throughout the Atlantic are having a devastating effect on our economy, and British vessels leaving the port of Charleston tread with fear beyond our coastline. To counter these threats, the British Navy has assigned a number of “station” vessels to guard the major port towns, from Boston to Jamaica, and to capture or disable the enemy privateers. From Charleston, the captains of His Majesty’s Ships Rose, Flamborough, Rye, and Aldborough ply their 20-gun frigates between the Carolina coast and the Bahamas, searching for French and Spanish vessels to capture and bring back to Charleston as prizes.
While cruising along the west coast of Cuba on December 1st 1744, Capt. Thomas Frankland (1718–1784) of the HMS Rose spied a suspicious vessel on the horizon and gave chase. Ninety minutes later he was within cannon range, and the unknown 20-gun vessel hoisted a French flag and fired a warning shot. The Rose immediately unleashed a 10-gun broadside that raked men off the enemy’s deck, “and then began as desperate an engagement as (perhaps) was ever fought between two 20 gun ships” (saith the South-Carolina Gazette, 24 December 1744). After several hours of furious cannon fire and hand-to-hand combat, the 400-ton ship, called La Conception, was torn to splinters and surrendered. The French lost approximately 120 of its 326 men in the fight, while the Rose lost but five of its 177 men. After securing the prize, Capt. Frankland and the injured Rose and Conception limped toward Charleston. Arriving in the dark evening of December 16th, the captain sent news of his victory to Governor James Glen, and the story of the Rose and Conception spread throughout Charleston like wildfire.
The details of the ensuing events are a bit fuzzy, owing to a paucity of primary sources, but the general outline of the story survives in numerous printed sources from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Conception was not a Spanish privateer, but rather a French ship bound from Cartagena (Colombia) for Cadiz (Spain) with a large cargo of Spanish treasure from South America. The South-Carolina Gazette described the booty as “one of the richest Prizes taken since the Commencement of the present War with Spain.” Six months earlier, London had welcomed Admiral George Anson (formerly of Charleston) home from his adventures in the Pacific Ocean, from which he brought an astounding haul of Spanish treasure back to England. News of Anson’s success in the Pacific reached Charleston in October 1744, eight weeks before Capt. Frankland’s capture of La Conception, and the citizens of South Carolina couldn’t have been more proud of these naval triumphs. The early, unofficial report of the French prize appears in the South-Carolina Gazette of 24 December 1744, and merits a sample of the description of the cargo captured by the Rose:
“800 Serons [bales or packages] of Cocoa, in each of which ‘tis said is deposited as customary a Bar of Gold, 68 Chests of Silver Coins, (already found) containing 310,000 Pieces of Eight; private Adventures in Gold and Silver Coins, and wrought Plate of equivalent Value, besides which there has been also found a compleat [sic] Set of Church Plate, a large Quantity of Gold Buckles and Snuff-Boxes, a curious Two-wheel’d Chaise of Silver, the Wheels, Axle, &c. all of the same Metal; a large Quantity of Diamonds, Pearl, 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 Knees, Barricado, &c. the Heels of the Prisoners Shoes having been made hollow, were also full of Gold.”
As was customary with naval prizes taken during times of war, the Conception was condemned at South Carolina’s Court of Vice-Admiralty, and its treasure divided among its crew. The “curious two-wheel’d chaise of silver” was made a gift to Capt. Frankland’s wife, Sarah Rhett Frankland (1722–1808), who was the granddaughter of Col. William Rhett of pirate-capturing fame. The extensive battle damage to both the HMS Rose and La Conception required months of repairs, during which time the enemy officers and crew were held as prisoners of war in urban Charleston. Departing on June 1st 1745, the HMS Rose led a convoy of British merchant vessels and La Conception back to England, where the news of Capt. Frankland’s success again caught the public’s attention. Since the treasure was divided among the crew in South Carolina, the English press had to rely on information from Charleston about the value of Frankland’s prize. Nevertheless, it appears that during the decade of war between Britain and Spain, 1739-1748, the value of the booty captured aboard La Conception was second only to Admiral Anson’s 1743 capture of the Manila galleon. In retrospect, the South-Carolina Gazette of 1 June 1745 was quite justified in reporting “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.”
If you’d like to hear more details about Capt. Frankland’s adventure, please join me for a program titled:
“The Rose and La Conception:
Charleston’s Christmas Treasure of 1744″
Wednesday, December 10th at 6 p.m.
2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.
For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.