The American Who Spied for the British

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Royal Society
Edward Bancroft; artist unknown

Edward Bancroft (1744–1821), the subject of Thomas Schaeper’s engaging biography, was an American who became a singularly well-situated spy for the British. By providing a wealth of detail about the life and times of this much-execrated man, Schaeper balances and softens what has conventionally been seen as Bancroft’s harsh character.

Bancroft’s personality and actions are susceptible to clashing interpretations. How he came to be a leading spy for the British remains, despite his biographer’s brisk and welcome objectivity, something of a conundrum. A man of humble yet respectable Yankee origins, first in Massachusetts, then in Connecticut, where he was a student of Silas Deane, a schoolmaster who went on to become an American diplomat, he made his way in the world by means of an inquisitive, retentive mind and assiduous application. He had also a talent for attracting rich, powerful patrons, a quality he shared with his contemporaries Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

In 1763, after studying medicine in Connecticut with a local physician, he broke his apprenticeship contract, took ship for Barbados, and soon secured a post as “Surgeon to a gentleman of Fortune” who owned plantations on the Demerara River in Dutch Guiana. By twenty he was treating the slaves and slave owners of six large plantations. Despite excellent earnings in a practice that “serves rather as an Amusement, than a Toil,” Bancroft threw over the job to devote himself to the natural history of the region and to writing about it with considerable distinction. After a brief sojourn in New England, he sailed in February 1767 for England, where he found vast opportunities and several men open to furthering his ambitions.

H.W. Brands, a biographer of Benjamin Franklin, observes of Bancroft that “such schooling as he received was largely makeshift and self- administered.” His autodidactic zeal would have made a favorable impression on Americans and Britons who had wrested their own broad educations from an array of sources and circumstances. The empiricism displayed in Bancroft’s Essay on the Natural History of Guiana (London, 1769) would have commended itself to Franklin. And his report on the Mediterranean torpedo fish and the “torporific eel” of South America, which concluded that they produce painful shocks by means of electricity, played to one of the old investigator’s keenest interests.

Franklin, then residing in London, met Bancroft in 1769, and in 1773 he and Joseph Priestley got the young man elected to the Royal Society. It is probably true that Bancroft’s farmer father succumbed to an epileptic fit in a pigsty when he was a small boy. How far, then, he had come by his mid-twenties, when he published not only his Natural History but also a cogent critique of William Knox and George Grenville’s Controversy Between Great Britain and Her Colonies, an assertion of parliamentary supremacy over the colonial assemblies of British North America.

Despite his absences from America and his total inexperience as a …

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