BANCROFT, EDWARD. (1744–1820). Double agent, writer, inventor. Born at Westfield, Massachusetts on 9 January 1744, Bancroft led an adventurous life as a sailor and colonist in Dutch Guiana before settling in London. Here he wrote on American subjects for the Monthly Review and published his Essay on the Natural History of Guiana (1769), which gained him a solid reputation as a naturalist. He also wrote the pro-American Remarks on the Review of the Controversy between Great Britain and Her Colonies (1769), and Charles Wentworth (1770), a novel attacking Christianity. Becoming acquainted with Benjamin Franklin in London, he served as Franklin's spy and later performed in the same role for another American diplomat, Silas Deane, whom he had known as a young man. He also gained the confidence of John Paul Jones. In December 1776 he began spying for the British, as well, assuming the name Edwards. His American friends never suspected Bancroft of his duplicity.
Paid £200, eventually increased to £1000 a year, and promised the post of Regius professor of divinity at King's (Columbia) College when New York was returned to British control, Bancroft was given the mission of spying on the American commissioners in Paris. His reports were sent to Paul Wentworth, another double agent, in London. Using his secret information, he also speculated financially based on war news such as General John Burgoyne's defeat and the start of the peace negotiations. The British government terminated Bancroft's services as a spy in 1784, ignoring his pleas that he could still be useful.
Bancroft lived a complicated double life. A successful doctor and scientist, he was elected to the Royal Society on Franklin's recommendation in 1773. As an inventor he made important discoveries in the field of textile dyes. His Experimental Researches Concerning the Philosophy of Permanent Colours was published in 1794. Yet, despite these accomplishments, Bancroft seemed compelled to intrigue. His treachery did not come to light until seventy years after his death on 8 September 1821. When a descendant, the British general William C. Bancroft, learned the truth, he burned all his grandfather's papers.
revised by Michael Bellesiles