|Born||January 20, 1745
|Died||September 7, 1821
Margate, Kent, United Kingdom
|Occupation||Scientist, writer, spy and double agent during the American Revolutionary War|
Bancroft served as secretary to the American Commission in Paris during the Revolutionary War. During this period, he acted as a spy for Britain, reporting on dealings between France and the United States.
Bancroft was born on January 20, 1745 in Westfield, Massachusetts. His father died of an epileptic seizure when Bancroft was only two years old, and his mother had to support the family alone. His mother remarried five years later, and they moved to Connecticut to live with his stepfather, David Bull.
In Connecticut, Bancroft studied under Silas Deane, a schoolmaster who later became an important politician and diplomat, with whom he would work in Paris. At the age of sixteen, Bancroft was apprenticed to a physician in Killingworth, Connecticut, but ran away after a few years. Many years later, Bancroft returned and repaid his debt to his former master.
On July 14, 1763, Bancroft departed New England for the sugar-producing slave colonies of Dutch Guiana, where he became a doctor on a plantation. He soon expanded his practice to multiple plantations and wrote a study of the local environment. Based on observations of experiments already being performed on live eels by Dutch colonists in and around Surinam and Essequibo, Bancroft concluded that American eels discharged electricity to stun their prey, rather than by imperceptibly swift mechanical action, as had previously been argued. His was perhaps the first account of the electricity of American eels to be published in English. Although he left South America in 1766, he published An Essay on the Natural History of Guiana, in South America in London 1769, where he embarked on a career as a man of letters with the encouragement of Franklin. Bancroft later wrote extensively about the chemistry of dyes, based in part on his work in Dutch Guiana, contrasting non-European dyeing techniques unfavorably with the learned 'philosophical chemistry' of natural philosophers such as himself.
In London, Bancroft's Natural History of Guiana (1769) attracted the attention of Paul Wentworth, New Hampshire's colonial agent in London, who hired Bancroft to survey Wentworth's plantation in Surinam and make recommendations for more efficient operation. Bancroft spent two months in Surinam at Wentworth's plantation before returning to London. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1773 as " a gentleman versed in natural history and Chymistry, and author of the natural history of Guiana" Bancroft now encountered another colonial agent in London, Benjamin Franklin, representative of Pennsylvania. Bancroft and Franklin became friends, and Bancroft agreed to become a spy for Franklin.
Spying for Franklin
Bancroft was employed to gather information from British political and military sources for Franklin. It's not clear whether Bancroft continued spying after Franklin left London in 1774. Most agree, nonetheless, that Bancroft maintained his position as an agent for the colonies. When the Committee of Secret Correspondence sent Silas Deane (Bancroft's former teacher) to France in 1776, Franklin wrote Deane telling him to contact Bancroft. This suggests that Franklin believed that Bancroft would be a source of useful information for Deane.
Deane arrived in France on June 7, 1776; the next day he wrote Bancroft, asking him to come to Paris. In the letter, Deane said they would discuss procuring goods for trading with the Indians, and enclosed thirty pounds (a generous amount) for travel expenses. Bancroft met with Deane on June 8, and learned that Deane's purpose in France was to win French aid for the Americans against Britain. While Bancroft declined the invitation to attend negotiations, he did serve as Deane's assistant and interpreter. Deane's negotiations resulted in France sending some supplies to the Americans.
Deane told Bancroft that American leaders hoped to embroil Britain in a war against other foes (specifically, an alliance of France and Prussia), which they hoped would distract Britain. Though Deane and other Americans thought France would form the alliance, this ploy came to nothing. But it greatly troubled Bancroft. On July 26, 1776, Bancroft returned to London. Before leaving France, he assured Deane that he would spy for the colonies in Britain. 
Spying for the British
Though Bancroft had worked for Franklin and Deane, he was not a great enthusiast for American independence, and the possibility of a French war against Britain alarmed him. Despite his promise to Deane, he had reservations about doing anything that might promote a rift between Britain and the American colonies.
In London he met Paul Wentworth, recently recruited by the British Secret Service. Wentworth arranged for Bancroft to meet Secret Service chief William Eden and Lords Suffolk and Weymouth. Bancroft agreed to be a double agent for Britain.
Soon after this, Franklin arrived to take over the negotiations with France. Bancroft was ordered to associate himself with Franklin. Fortuitously, Franklin appointed Bancroft as secretary to the American Commission in Paris. For his spying, the British promised Bancroft a pension of 200 pounds. (This amount was later increased to 500 and then 1,000 pounds.)
Bancroft reported under the cover of weekly letters to "Mr. Richards", signed "Edward Edward", about "gallantry" (the writer's exploits with ladies). But between the lines of the cover text, Bancroft wrote his reports in a special ink. Every Tuesday, he put the letter in a bottle, tied a string around the bottle, and left the bottle in a hole in a certain box tree in Paris, after 9:30 PM. A British official retrieved the message and replaced it with new orders. Bancroft would return later that night to recover his bottle. It is said that, through this method, George III saw the French-American Treaty of Alliance just two days after it was signed. In addition, Bancroft was often sent on spying missions to London by Franklin and Deane, so he was able to report directly to Lord Suffolk and others.
Franklin's possible knowledge of Bancroft's intrigue
There is some debate as to whether Franklin knew that Bancroft was a British spy. Franklin wrote that even though he suspected one associate of being a British spy, as long as he (Franklin) did not provide the suspect with any private information, there was nothing to worry about, and the spy need not be dismissed. Even if Franklin did discover Bancroft's true loyalty, he never revealed it explicitly in any of his extant writings. Regardless, Bancroft was successful but ineffective; that is, he certainly gathered a good deal of information, but the British did not prevent the French-American alliance.
Life after the Revolutionary War
At the end of the Revolutionary War, Bancroft obtained patents giving him the right to import chinkapin (yellow) oak bark into Britain and France, becoming wealthy from this trade. In 1794, Bancroft published Experimental Researches Concerning the Philosophy of Permanent Colors, a book he updated in 1814. He was also elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1797.
Bancroft's activity as a double agent remained hidden until 1891, when British diplomatic papers were disclosed to the public.
- Intelligence in the American Revolutionary War
- Intelligence operations in the American Revolutionary War
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