Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Tower of London's Only American Prisoner: Henry Laurens

The Tower of London, originally a royal castle-palace, later a royal prison, has housed many famous prisoners in its thousand year history, including the Little Princes, Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. But only one was an American: Henry Laurens, during the American War for Independence. [Image: Henry Laurens, Boston Magazine, 1784]

Laurens, who had made a fortune in the slave trade in his native Charleston, South Carolina, and owned several plantations, became a leading Patriot during the conflict between colonists and mother country. He served as President of the Continental Congress in 1777-78. Congress then named him minister to the Netherlands. He made a successful voyage there in the spring of 1780, gaining some financial assistance from the Dutch. On a second voyage that autumn, a Royal Navy frigate captured his ship at sea, along with a draft of a treaty with the Netherlands, a document that led the British government to declare war on that country. 

The British government lodged Laurens in the Tower on suspicion of treason. Laurens recorded that the guards of the Tower serenaded him with a rendition of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" when he arrived to take up residence, passing through Traitors Gate on the Thames. (below)

Laurens remained in the Tower for more than a year. During that time two artists painted his portrait, an indication that his treatment was not especially harsh. The portraits are by Lemuel Francis Abbott and John Singleton Copley.

The mildness of Laurens' treatment owed something to important British friends, notably the enormously rich Richard Oswald, a former slave trading partner. Laurens had been Charleston agent for the slave factory at Bunce (AKA, Bance) Island, Sierra Leone, in which Oswald was heavily invested. [Image: 18th century drawing of Bunce Island]

Oswald secured Laurens' release from the Tower on bail in December 1781. Not long after, the British government exchanged Laurens for Lord Cornwallis, the British general who surrendered to Washington at Yorktown in October 1781. Oswald later became chief British negotiator at the peace talks in Paris. 

After Laurens' release, the US government ordered him to join the American peace delegation of John Adams, John Jay, and Benjamin Franklin. [Image: Benjamin West, American Peace Delegation, Paris, 1782, unfinished. Laurens is in the red coat, Franklin, Adams, and Jay to his right.]

Laurens put off going to Paris for months, pleading ill health. He did not arrive until late November, the day before the preliminary treaty was to be signed. He insisted on an addition to the treaty: that the British government return all runaway slaves to their American masters. Thousands had run away to British lines. Despite the fact that the British government had promised the runaways freedom, Oswald agreed to Laurens' addition, and the clause went into the final document. 

The runaway clause proved largely unenforceable. Sir Guy Carleton, the new British Commander in America, refused to hand over thousands of them under his protection in New York. Before evacuating the city, Carleton shipped them to Nova Scotia. Some of them later went to Sierra Leone, where they established a freedmen's colony and the current capital, Freetown. [Image: Early Freetown]

After the preliminary treaty was signed, Laurens returned to Britain and served briefly as US minster to the former mother country. In 1784, he returned to South Carolina. He spent his remaining years restoring his fortune and estates. He avoided politics, dying at his favorite plantation, Mepkin in 1792, surrounded by his slaves. His body was cremated, allegedly one of the first cremations in the United States. Today, Mepkin is a Trappist monastery, Mepkin Abbey.

[Images of Mepkin, by Charles A. Fraser, early 19th century]

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