Reported here 280 years ago (Feb 1739): British naval captain says his cargo has been stolen and he is a prisoner of the Spanish

Front page January 23 1738 Belfast News Letter. The edition is in bad condition, which sections missing. The paper is equivalent to February 3 2019 in the modern calendar
Front page January 23 1738 Belfast News Letter. The edition is in bad condition, which sections missing. The paper is equivalent to February 3 2019 in the modern calendar

From the sixth surviving News Letter, Jan 23 1738, (Feb 3 1739 in today’s calendar). Parts of the paper have been lost over time. In this case, we have pieced together a missing section from another 1739 journal, as explained below:

A Letter from Capt. Vaughan, now a Prisoner at Cadiz, to his Owners at Bristol, Dec. 4. O.S. 1738.

The letter from the jailed captain is in a section of the newspaper that has been torn and lost over time but it has been possible to piece it together from a similar report in an English journal at the time

The letter from the jailed captain is in a section of the newspaper that has been torn and lost over time but it has been possible to piece it together from a similar report in an English journal at the time

GENTLEMEN,

I Suppose you are not unacquainted that I sail’d from Port Royal the first of June last, bound for Bristol: But having endeavour’d for the Windward Passage for three Weeks, I was forced to bear away for the Gulph, being the 29th day of the same Month, in the Lat. of 14 Deg. and 28 Min. Cape Antonio, of the West End of the Island of Cuba, bearing S. and by E. 55 Leagues distant, I was met by a Spanish Man of War of 14 Guns, and 150 Men, who fired at me to bring to, and order’d me to send my Boat on board: which I accordingly did, with my Mate and four Men, with the Credentials, and Clearance from Jamaica. They immediately ordered my Men on board their Ship, and sent 18 of theirs, and a Lieutenant, on board ours; who immediately demanded all the Keys of my Chests, Srutores, &c. They began to rummage, but found nothing in my Chests, but in a Passenger’s Chest they found four or five Pieces of Eight, upon which they declared that she was the King of Spain’s lawful Prize; but afterwards they found one Stick of Logwood: This was all they found to make a Prize of her; though they told me if they found nothing, they would carry her into Port; and if the Governor thought fit to clear her, he might.

I was immediately ordered out of the Ship, with all the People, and put on board their Man of War, which in a few Days arrived at the Havannah, and the Prize in about eight or nine Days after. Upon her Arrival, I heard that they had found the Money I had hid in a Water Cask, but they gave an Account of no more than 2700 Pieces of Eight; but I had on board 4500, and upwards; so the Officers and Men stole the rest. The Ship was brought into Porte in the most Ignominious Manner they could think of, with the Ensign half Mast, and the Union downwards.

I was detained 14 Days on board a Man of War closely confined, but afterwards had the Liberty of walking about on Parole. The Ship had been put up to Sale about a Week before I left Havannah: The most that was bid for her was 1800 Pieces of Eight. The Cargo they sold one amongst another for about a tenth Part of the Value, viz. Sugar at four Reals per C. the rest in Proportion, for they say, if they are obliged to make Restitution, they can pay no more than the Amount of this sham Sale. I sail’d from the Havannah in October, bound for this Place, and thought to be clear when I got here; but they have put me into this Castle, where I am closely confined, notwithstanding all the Intercession the Consul made, who offered the Governour to be bound for my Appearance in any penal Sum he thought proper; but that Favour could not be obtain’d, for no other Reason that I know of, unless it is because I was born in Great Britain.

When I was taken, they took all my Clothes, and Linen, except what I had on my Back; they even took my Watch out of my Pocket. It is my Opinion, that Manifesto’s, Memorials, and Representations cannot heal these Wounds, nor put a stop to their Proceedings: Immedicabile Vulnus Ense rescindendum est. For as soon as the Admiral at the Havannah would sail for Cartagena, there was another Armada, consisting of a Sloop, and two Half Galleys, to be sent out with 200 Men to hunt the English, as they term it.

It is impossible for me to be in every Respect particular, for it would take more Room than the Compass of a Letter would admit of; but the few Hints here wrote, will give some Idea of the Treatment Englishmen meet with abroad from these People. I have wrote by this Post to the English Minister at the Court of Madrid.

The Consul here took my Declaration Yesterday, which he also transmits to Madrid.

He firmly believes, I shall have full Satisfaction for both Ship and Cargo, which I valu’d at nine Thousand Pounds sterling: And if you represent this to the British Court before I come Home, I desire you will put the like Value, for I can make it appear that she consisted of that Value. Thus far I can venture to say, that if ever there is Restitution made for these Depredations, your Chance is much fairer than others, being taken by a Man of War, all other Vessels having been taken by Guarda Costa’s.

I am,

GENTLEMEN,

Your most Obedient Servant,

JASON VAUGHAN.

[Much of the middle section of this letter is missing in the surviving News Letter copy, due to a huge tear in the paper. However, the same letter from Mr Vaughan is reproduced in The Political State of Great Britain Volume LVII, a journal, for the first half of 1739, so it is possible to fill in the gaps.

A Piece of Eight is a Spanish dollar, roughly worth a British pound. The term is still known today from stories of piracy. The Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, for example, is set around this time, mid 1700s.

The 4,500 Pieces of Silver, mentioned above, is equivalent to about £1 million today. The 1,800 bid for the boat is about £400,000 today. And the £9,000 cargo on board is about £2 m.

News Letters from 1739 are full of reports of tension with Spain, and the widespread belief that the Spanish did not behave legally. This culminated late in 1739 in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, between Britain and Spain]