“No nation in Europe . . . has . . . plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain.”
William Pitt the Younger, in the House of Commons, April 1792
IN 1713, THE TREATY OF UTRECHT, a Dutch name for a Latin peace, presented several gifts to Britain: two places from which to command the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and Minorca; Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, two deserts of ice, as Voltaire would later describe Canada; and, the greatest prize, the El Dorado of commerce, as it then seemed, the endlessly sought-after contract (asiento) to import slaves, and a few other goods, to the Spanish Indies. No knowledge of the financial failure of earlier contractors dimmed the satisfaction now felt in Britain.
The architect of this British triumph was Lord Lexington, the British ambassador in Madrid, on the advice of a commercial expert, a friend of the Jacobite Bolingbroke, Manuel Manasses Gilligan, who was, henceforth, to receive 7.5 percent of the profits, almost certainly for the benefit of his patron. Lexington, who was also a Jacobite, would no doubt have played a part in a new Stuart regime had one succeeded in 1714.
The government in Britain sold the new privilege, as expected, for seven and a half million pounds to the South Sea Company, an enterprise which had been formed only two years before, as a Tory reply to the Whiggish Bank of England, precisely to export merchandise in perpetuity to the Spanish empire. The “South Sea” of the title signified generally the Pacific but also the Atlantic face of South America. Robert Harley, then chancellor of the Exchequer, in effect prime minister, was the new company’s first governor. South Sea House was eventually established in the heart of the City of London, at the corner of Threadneedle Street and Bishopsgate. The hope was that the national debt would be wiped out by the abundant Spanish trade; thus nine million pounds’ worth of unfunded government securities were compulsorily exchanged for shares in the South Sea Company.1
The genius behind this company, “the earl of Oxford’s masterpiece,” was a financial adventurer, John Blunt, son of a Baptist shoemaker from Rochester, who had made a fortune from manufacturing sword blades, conveniently married a daughter of a director of the RAC, Richard Crad-docke, and was said to live with his prayer book in his left hand and a company prospectus in his right, without letting either know what the other held. Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful pamphlet in favor of setting up the company. “There has not been in our memory an undertaking of such consequence,” he said, though he did not mention the main purpose of the enterprise once in his forty pages. (It has been suggested that the idea of the company originated in his brain.)2
A torchlight procession through London greeted the news of the grant. Happy days had, it seemed, come again! The moment had been foreshadowed in Queen Anne’s speech to Parliament of June 6, 1712: “I have insisted and obtained that the asiento or contract for furnishing the Spanish West Indies with negroes shall be made with us for thirty years.”3
The occasion was a special triumph for London, with its hundred joint-stock companies, its stockjobbers, its two hundred coffee houses, its five thousand or so traders, with their handsome counting houses, its large foreign communities (Huguenots, Dutchmen, Germans, and Scotchmen), its eighteen newspapers, its unnumerable pamphleteers, its inventiveness, and its curious disposition to catch speculative fever.
The South Sea Company had the same kind of obligations which had been assumed by other asentistas: in addition to its requirement to carry 4,800 slaves annually for thirty years, it had to pay the Spanish king thirty-three and a half pesos in silver for each captive delivered safe and sound, and also to pay him an advance of 200,000 pesos. All the ports of the Spanish Indies made available to France in 1701 were to be open to the company’s ships. In addition to taking slaves, the company was to be allowed to send one “permission ship,” of five to six hundred tons, every year to Portobelo, Cartagena, and Buenos Aires, carrying British goods. But the slaves constituted the most important item of the planned commerce.
Spain ensured that she did well out of the affair: officials in Madrid, such as the president of the Council of the Indies and the five members of the Junta de Negros, all received handsome fees. King Philip V was allocated 28 percent of the stock in the company, and Queen Anne in England 22.5 percent but, as in the arrangement made ten years before with the French Guinea Company, the company would lend the king of Spain one million pesos with which to buy his shares.
The scheme was not universally popular in England; and the planters of Jamaica opposed it, since they thought it likely to ruin their thriving illegal trade to the Spanish empire (before 1713, Jamaica had provided the Spaniards, as even Robert Harley admitted, “one year with another, with three or four thousand negroes, in return for which, and for flower [sic], woollen and other goods, there has been received of them in gold and silver and the produce of New Spain 200,000 or 250,000 pounds yearly”). The youthful but skillful new British envoy in Madrid, George Bubb, thought the same: “I have perused the Asiento treaty,” he wrote to the secretary of state, “and I do think it one of the worst that I ever saw and the most calculated for captiousness and chicane.”4 (This individual, who, when he inherited money from an uncle, took the name of Dodington, later became known as the most unctuous English place-hunter of the mid-eighteenth century.) The merchants of Bristol were also far from pleased by what they thought of as a confirmation of London merchants’ privileges.
But the plan went ahead. The South Sea Company agreed to buy in Africa the slaves required from the old RAC; take them to Jamaica, where the weakest, the “refuse” slaves, would be eliminated (left to die uncared for on the dock, in many cases); and then carry the prime slaves to Spanish markets. A second contract specified how the RAC would provide the 4,800 slaves. In the event, these rules were not observed: a third of the company’s ships would go to Loango Bay, a quarter to the Gold Coast, a little less to Dahomey, and the rest mostly set off for Senegambia. Some ships went as far as Mozambique and even Madagascar.
The new South Sea Company established factories at Barbados (directed by Dudley Woodbridge) and at Port Royal, Jamaica (controlled by John Merewether), for the shipment of slaves onwards to the Spaniards; slaves for Buenos Aires (now, for the first time, a port to reckon with) were carried direct across the South Atlantic in a trade amounting to two or three ships a year. In the entrepôts of Barbados and Jamaica, the slaves would be “refreshed” and made to look healthy after their Atlantic voyage. The company would hire sloops or packet boats locally in Jamaica or Barbados for the short onward journey to the Spanish ports. The enterprise also had agencies in Cartagena de Indias, Panama, Veracruz, Buenos Aires, Havana, Santiago de Cuba and, after 1735, Caracas. Each of the factors in these places was free with his presents to Spanish officials. Instructions to the one in Havana, for example (this was Richard O’Farrill, whose parents hailed from Longford, in Ireland, though they had established themselves in Montserrat), included the provision that he was “to take special care of what Negroes come to your hands for the Company’s account. . . . You are to sell for ready money as much as possible. But, where you are under an absolute necessity of trusting, you are to make strict enquiry after the ability and honesty of the parties, taking such security as you think will be punctually performed and to be very cautious and circumspect that the Company may not Sustain any losses thereby. . . . You are to keep a regular and exact account of what negroes come by each ship, how many Men Women Boys and Girls and their ages and how they are disposed of to whom and at what price. . . .”5
With this contract, a long-standing British ambition was fulfilled, although, as is often the case, no sooner was one aim achieved than another took shape. On December 15, 1713, at a meeting in the Board of Trade, London, Colonel Cleland, that body’s agent for Barbados, suggested to the Lords Commissioner of Plantations (in effect the administrators of the colonial empire) that “we should endeavour to exclude all other nations from the negro trade etc on the coast of Africa. . . . Mr Kent replied that [that] . . . would be of extraordinary benefit, were it to be practicable. . . .” There was some discussion about the desirability of supplying Brazil, but “these gentlemen all agreed that our carrying negroes to the Brazils would be prejudicial to the British plantations in America.”6 The Portuguese trade was, of course, as they all knew, a considerable undertaking, for, in those days, the slave-powered mines at Minas Gerais were exporting a larger quantity of gold than anywhere else in the world.I
Apart from the mysterious Manasses Gilligan (for whom read, surely, Bolingbroke), among those who stood to gain by all these arrangements was, first and foremost, Queen Anne, with her substantial portfolio. When that monarch died in 1714, her successor, King George I, took over her shares, and bought more, as did his heir, the prince of Wales, who became governor in 1715, after Harley’s impeachment. After a family dispute, the king made himself governor in 1718: “You remember how the South Sea was said to be Lord Oxford’s brat,” the duchess of Ormonde wrote to Swift, who was also a shareholder, “now the King has adopted it and called it his beloved child.”7 (Swift’s “most prudent investment,” his biographer says, was £500 in South Sea stock.) In 1720, an imaginative scheme was also devised whereby the king’s two illegitimate daughters by his German mistress, Melusina, the duchess of Kendal (known as “the Maypole” because of her spare frame), would be allowed £120 for every point the stock increased.
The directors of the South Sea Company who would gain substantially included John Blunt, the instigator of the whole enterprise, politicians such as Bolingbroke, and later, the duke of Argyll and Edward Gibbon, grandfather of the historian. Another director was the fascinating Sir John Lambert, a Huguenot exile financier who traveled between England and France with apparent ease, and who had interests in the slave trade from Nantes as well as that from London. Shareholders with over ten thousand pounds’ worth of stock included the earl of Halifax, the founder of the Bank of England; the politician James Craggs; the master of the rolls, Sir Joseph Jekyll—and, after 1719, the duke of Chandos, a scandalous financier but a good administrator, who had organized the supplies for the army in Marlborough’s wars. Smaller stockholders included Swift, Defoe, Sir Godfrey Kneller (the portraitist of all his fellow investors), and Sir Isaac Newton.8
The South Sea Company was not as great a success as had been hoped. First, its capacity as “a shield for illicit trade”—in the words of Bolingbroke—was exaggerated. The executive directors of the company were always interested in that side of the matter. Ships of the company regularly did arrive at Cartagena and at Buenos Aires with not only slaves but goods of all sorts, for which, instead of paying duties, the captain paid a present to the governors. A Frenchman living in London, the androgynousmalouinGuillaume Eon, the king of Spain’s representative on the board of directors of the company, was paid a thousand pounds, plus an eight-hundred-pound pension, to ensure that he avoided seeing such irregularities. The viceroy in Mexico also expected to receive similar agreeable douceurs. But the “permission ships,” the annual authorized vessels with English goods, encountered many difficulties, since they were only entitled to go to the New World when a fair was held at one of the two main points of reception of slaves, Mexico and Portobelo (for transit to Lima); and these fairs were held irregularly, nothing like so often as once a year.
Another trouble arose because the Jamaican Assembly, a more independent body than foreigners could believe, imposed a local tax of one pound on every slave exported from Jamaica, that to include even those intended to be transshipped to the Spanish world. The Council of Trade and Plantations in London tried to pronounce against any duty on slaves merely landed for “refreshment.” But the Jamaican Assembly maintained its opposition, since its members thought that they were being robbed of the profits from their old illegal trading to Spanish ports. The company had begun to consider trading direct to the Spanish empire without the much-needed stop in the British West Indies.
The company was also imprudently slow in replying to the numerous requests from private traders for special licenses: Neil Bothwell, for example, who wished to export English-carried slaves from Santo Domingo; William Lea, who hoped to do the same in Guatemala; a certain Durepaire, who desired a similar trade to Puerto Rico; and Antonio Francisco de Coulange, who wanted to sell a mere twenty slaves a year bought in Danish Saint Thomas.
Another difficulty still was that private, independent and, even by English law, illegal trade continued. Naval officers indulged themselves in this business, and the company confessed, in 1723, that they could do nothing about the matter: “As to what you write concerning our men of war protecting and carrying on the private trade,” the directors wrote to their man in Portobelo, “we are not insensible, [for], however beneficial it may be to the nation in general, it is a great damage to the Company in particular, but it is not in our province to complain of it.” Between 1738 and 1745, even sailors made complaints: for example, “This deponent, at his arrival at Anamabo [on the Gold Coast] in February . . . on board [H.M.S.] Spence, saw there negro slaves of both sexes to the number of seventy and upwards at one time, together with diverse sorts of trading goods, lying on deck and in the captain’s cabin, that were, as this dependent verily believes, bought on the said coast in order for trade.”9
All the old contractors—the Dutch, Portuguese, and French—also continued, where and when they could, to carry slaves to the Spaniards. Thus Captain Goldsborough, who took a company ship to Buenos Aires in 1731, complained that, because of Portuguese interlopers, it was “impossible to sell fifty negroes in six months.” The company’s agents did seize many illegally introduced slaves, as it was in their power to do: 231 at Portobelo in the three years 1716 to 1719. But those agents were often too fearful to act, and some of them were also interested in the illegal traffic.
The main suppliers to the South Sea Company, the RAC was also troubled by the old problem of independent traders. In 1714, Gerrard Gore, the company’s man in Cape Coast, reported, “The English interlopers continue to infest that Coast. . . . Anamabo is Seldom without Five or Six of them, and Shidoe constantly frequented by them. . . .”10 These ships were mostly from Bristol, whose merchants much resented the monopoly companies, dominated as they were by London investors. Their costs were, of course, less than those of the company, for they did not contribute to the upkeep of the forts, though they believed themselves to be more sensitive to the desires of the African monarchs than the RAC’s men were.
Then there were pirates—among whom the worst was a Spaniard, Miguel Enriquez, who made his headquarters in Puerto Rico and who preyed on both English and French shipping, with “the greatest cruelty,” often marooning the crews of slave ships on uninhabited islands, to die of thirst and hunger while he stole the slaves.
War again interrupted trading in 1718, and the asiento was closed till 1721. The company’s property was seized in the Indies. When peace came again, the contract was revived (to the fury of the Spanish prime minister, Cardinal Alberoni, who hated the Treaty of Utrecht), and the confiscated property restored, though Spaniards made new difficulties for the South Sea Company, stipulating now that all the slaves imported had to come direct from Africa; otherwise they would be tainted with heresy. In 1727, another short war with Spain again interrupted the trade, and again the company’s properties were seized for two years.
Finally, as a correction to any swift triumph in the history of the new slave-trading company, there was the speculation in shares of 1720. Change Alley, the center of London’s gambling for stocks, saw its wildest days. For the historian of the slave trade, the affair is chiefly interesting for the fact that the list of shareholders for the so-called Third Money Subscription in 1720 reads like a directory of contemporary Britain. Most of the House of Commons (462 members) and a hundred members of the House of Lords (out of its total of two hundred) were included. So were Alexander Pope, Sir John Vanbrugh, John Gay, and all the royal family, including the bastards. The speaker of the House of Commons, Black Rod in the House of Lords, and the Lord Chancellor were all on the list; and some distinguished names from France were introduced by the sophisticated Sir John Lambert. The Swiss canton of Berne had a large holding of South Sea stock—an unusual investment of that people in the slave traffic. So had King’s College, Cambridge, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Whether all these shareholders realized that the main purpose of the South Sea Company was to carry slaves to the Spanish empire is far from obvious. But all would still have thought, had they considered the matter, with Kings Charles II and James II, that it was better for black slaves to be given work by Christians in the Americas than by godless princes in Africa.
Several investors made money before the collapse of the company. One of these was the king’s mistress, the duchess of Kendal; and another was the bookseller and philanthropist Thomas Guy who, in 1720, had as much as £45,000 of the original stock. When the price of shares rose to £300, Guy began to sell, and he sold his last share at £600. With the fortune so accumulated, Guy was able to leave money for his hospital for “the poorest and sickest of the poor.”
But most people were less fortunate, for the price of a share rose to £1,000 in June 1720 and fell to £180 in September. Banks, directors, great insurance companies, statesmen, noblemen saw their imagined fortunes collapse. Some of the most powerful men in the country were ruined; at their head, the duke of Portland, son of William Ill’s favorite, who was afterwards forced to seek a colonial governorship. His move to Jamaica, the main South Sea slave entrepôt, seemed a suitable dénouement to this affair. Britain’s other main slaving center, Barbados, equally appropriately, went to another lord who had lost a fortune: Lord Bellhaven who lost his life, too, when the South Sea ship the Royal Anne, taking him to his new office, sank off the Scilly Islands. Sir Isaac Newton lost £20,000 and, it is said, could not bear to hear the words “South Sea” for the rest of his distinguished life. The playwright John Gay and the fashionable portraitist Kneller were also hard hit. Given the connection between the company and the national debt, as well as the royal implication in the business, the country itself would have faced bankruptcy had it not been for the cool head of the new first minister, Sir Robert Walpole, the intelligence of his banker Robert Jacombe, and the admirable new governor of the Bank of England, who rejoiced in the forbidding name of John Hanger.
Still, the South Sea Company survived and, between 1715 and 1731, sold altogether about 64,000 slaves: Portobelo-Panama receiving most, with about 20,000; Buenos Aires rather surprisingly coming next; while the old great port of the trade in the Spanish world, Cartagena de Indias, was third, with about 10,000 slaves. Most of these slaves came through Jamaica. A Spanish captain, Antonio de Cortayre, wrecked off that island in 1718, was obliged to live there for nearly a year, and saw over 200 small ships leaving Port Royal, most of them going to the Spanish empire, carrying from 30 to 50 slaves, as well as, to be sure, other, illegal, goods.
• • •
Britain and France had, in these early years of the golden eighteenth century, comparable experiences. Whereas the former lost her head over the South Sea Company, the latter did so with respect to the Mississippi Company. It is hard not to think that the two countries were affected by the same virus of self-deception. In both instances, too, the slave trade was an unacknowledged actor in the crisis.
In 1708, the financier, Antoine Crozat, had obtained a monopoly of commerce in the huge French dominion of Louisiana, a territory which then stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to what is now Illinois. That concession allowed him to bring in a cargo of blacks from Africa every year—which seemed quite an adventure, since, when he began to trade, there were apparently only ten slaves in the province. But Crozat, who had taken the precaution of going to India and the Middle East though not the Antilles, lost 1.2 million livres on his investment and gave up his interest to John Law’s Mississippi Company—formally the Company of the West, though the old name remained.II John Law was a brilliant Scottish adventurer. He had fled to the continent from London to avoid the consquences of a conviction for killing a certain Beau Wilson in a duel in Bloomsbury Square. In Amsterdam, he acquired a knowledge of finance as well as a fortune from gambling. Having impressed the Regent Orléans, he was permitted to found a bank which transformed the French economy by offering loans at a low rate of interest; he also issued paper money, which greatly prospered in contrast to the old French metallic currency. In 1718, Law, established magnificently in the Place Louis-le-Grand (the Place Vendôme), bought the privileges of the Company of Sénégal (formed in 1709 from the ashes of the company of the same name of 1696), to which he added, in 1719, the French East India Company, the China Company, and the Company of Africa trading into Barbary. These, together with the Company of the West, were combined into a “New Company of the Indies [Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes],” which was floated as “a mighty salvation” for the French people. As a consequence, Louisiana enjoyed a short reputation as being a new El Dorado, the site of fabulous riches, and the company was, formally at least, in possession of an empire—though only five hundred slaves were introduced into the vast colony in 1719. In the Rue Quincampoix, the French equivalent of Change Alley, multitudes seethed in an orgy of speculation, much as they had in London. All Frenchmen of foresight wished to make themselves “Mississippians”: “I must say,” wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “I saw nothing in France that delighted me so much as to see an Englishman (or, at least a Briton) absolute in Paris: I mean Mr Law, who treats their Dukes and Peers extremely de haut en bas.”11
In 1720, Law added to his conglomerate the Company of Saint-Domingue and also the Guinea Company. The Nouvelle Compagnie des Indes was by then the largest commercial organization which the world had yet seen, and even now must be seen as one of the largest undertakings of all time. At one moment in 1720, Law’s company had sixty-two ships at sea, as well as a monopoly of coining money, and it also managed the French national debt. Shares issued at five hundred livres reached ten thousand and, as in London, great fortunes were made overnight. Law was allowed to introduce a complete reform of the fiscal system of the country. The Royal Bank was even merged with the company. But as soon as people began to wish to realize their gains, Law’s paper money collapsed in value, and Law himself fled to Brussels, passing from being the hero of France to the villain in a matter of days.
For a time, Law’s extraordinary mergers seem to have galvanized the French slave trade. Though the founder had fled, the company remained. A monopoly of trading Guinea-coast slaves was granted to it. It was required to deliver thirty thousand slaves in the next twenty-five years, on each of whom it would receive a bounty of 143 livres from the Crown.
Law’s company, though it had its headquarters in the new city of Lorient, also had close ties with Nantes. The private traders of the latter city, in theory opposed to monopoly, in practice gained from it, for they obtained licenses from the privileged company. The new multiheaded company was still sending four slave ships to Africa in 1740, mostly large: about three hundred tons on average.
• • •
Despite the disappointments caused by the South Sea Company, the British slave trade grew immeasurably in the early eighteenth century. In 1720, nearly 150 ships were engaged, mostly from Bristol and London, but a few also set out from Liverpool, Whitehaven, and lesser ports, such as Lancaster, Chester, and even Glasgow.III Even the fortunes of the old RAC revived, thanks to the interest of the duke of Chandos, struggling to recover his wealth after losing heavily in the South Sea Bubble. This nobleman, who received his title in 1719, was a patron of Handel, and the builder of a colossal house, Canons, at Edgware. Swift said of him, “All he got by fraud was lost by stocks. . . .”12,IV
At a committee meeting of the RAC in 1728—attended by the duke and the subgovernor, Edward Acton—Sir Robert Davers, the new government agent for Barbados, and himself an independent trader to Africa, “agreed . . . that he should be furnished with sixty adult negroes from 14 to 30 years of age, half men and half women; as also 30 boys and girls, or as many more as his agent shall desire to have, from 10 to 14 years of age and this to be done between December and July . . . that they be Negroes of Cape Coast, Whydah or Jaquin,V that they be delivered to Sir Robert Davers’s agent at Barbados out of the first three ships of the company’s which shall arrive . . . all merchantable negroes to be approv’d of by his agent . . . that the sums to be paid for each Negroe be in sterling money . . . for each Man £23, for each Woman £22, for each boy and girl £21. . . .” A later report of the RAC, on the state of the slave trade, included the unusual recommendation “that all endeavours be used to teach the Negroes to read and write. . . .”13
The consequence of all this activity was that, in the ten years between 1721 and 1730, the British carried well over 100,000 slaves to the Americas, much the same number as in the previous decade: of these, nearly 40,000 went to Jamaica, over 20,000 to Barbados (many were taken thence to Cuba and elsewhere in the Spanish empire), about 10,000 to mainland colonies such as South Carolina, and nearly 50,000 to British Caribbean colonies. Among shippers, London was still ahead: an average of about 56 ships a year left between 1723 and 1727, while Bristol sent 34 ships and Liverpool 11.
The prince of London slave merchants in these days was Humphrey Morice, of Mincing Lane, member of Parliament, and governor of the Bank of England between 1727 and 1728. Morice had been an effective spokesman for the independent traders in the complaints against the Royal Africa Company. In 1720, he had eight ships in the trade, all named after his wife or daughters, often loading gunpowder and spirits in Rotterdam. He seems to have preferred to sell the slaves whom he bought on the Gold Coast to the Portuguese on that same continent, rather than send his ships across the Atlantic: “You may take Brazil tobacco in payment,” he told Captain William Clinch in 1721.14 But sometimes his captains took their cargoes of captives to Virginia or Maryland (almost all the slaves imported there in the early eighteenth century were brought in London ships), or Jamaica. Morice was a pioneer in medical treatment of both crews and slaves: he usually had a surgeon on board his ships and, for reasons of health, captains also had to buy limes before the Middle Passage across the Atlantic—long before Dr. James Lind published his famous recommendation on the benefits of the regular use of that fruit, in his Treatise on the Scurvy in 1754.
The 1730s saw Bristol overtaking London as Britain’s main slave port (though London continued a center for marine insurance, as for finding the right cargoes, and some merchants of the city maintained ships in the slave trade until the 1790s). Bristol was sending nearly fifty ships a year to Africa between 1728 and 1732, carrying well over a hundred thousand slaves on them. In comparison, London and Liverpool, a rising star in slave commerce, sent in the same years forty and forty-four ships respectively. Merchants from Bristol were also pioneers in the business of carrying slaves to Virginia, and in moving slaves from one North American colony to another.
The most prominent merchants in Africans in Bristol were Isaac Hob-house, who undertook forty-four slave voyages between 1722 and 1747; James Day, with fifty-six voyages between 1711 and 1742; Richard Henvill, who began slaving in 1709; and later James Laroche, of Huguenot origin, from Bordeaux, whose father had come to England in the train of Prince George of Denmark about 1705, and who was far the biggest slave trader of the city, sending out 132 slave voyages between 1728 and 1769.15
In the Caribbean, there were similar changes. Jamaica had by now overtaken Barbados as the prize colony of the English. Being—as settlers there noticed, with a taste for accurate mathematics not always evident in their returns—twenty-six times bigger than Barbados, it seemed to have a chance of becoming richer than all other British islands. About the turn of the eighteenth century, the European population there stood at seven thousand, that of slaves at forty-five thousand. In 1712, her production of sugar already exceeded that of Barbados. The richest planter of the island, Peter Beckford, was also the most powerful: at his death in 1735, he owned nine sugar plantations and was part owner of seven more. His son, William, returned to London, would become an MP and the most powerful businessman in the City of London, of which he would be twice lord mayor, becoming one of the few close friends of the elder William Pitt. But he always maintained his twenty-two thousand acres of sugar land in Jamaica, and the pride of his family, Drax Hall, in the central parish of Saint Ann, had both a windmill and a water mill.
These were, of course, great days for British trade and manufacturing. The commercial prospects of the colonies in both North America and the West Indies seemed limitless. Nearly all the increase in British exports of commodities which occurred in the sixty years after the Act of Union in 1707 went to markets outside Europe. Continental European customers for British goods also grew, if more slowly, and, about 1750, half the goods exported to Africa (cloths, iron bars, brandy) constituted re-exports from the continent of Europe.
In the 1730s, British ships carried perhaps 170,000 slaves in all—for the first time, probably, more in ten years than the Portuguese carried to Brazil. Perhaps 40,000 slaves went to the southern mainland colonies in North America (Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas; Georgia formally held out against employing slaves till 1750). This was four times the total of the previous ten years. Forty-two thousand probably went to Jamaica, a little under 30,000 to Barbados, and 60,000 to other places. Probably one-third of the British slaves taken to the Americas were still intended, via Jamaica, for the Spanish empire.16
The contraband traffic sponsored by the South Sea Company, as much in manufactured goods as in slaves, had by the late 1730s reached such a scale that Spain’s imperial economy was beginning to suffer. In 1737, the Casa de Contratación told the king that the merchants of Seville could not sell any of their clothing in the empire, because of the quantity of smuggled English goods available. The Spanish government did what it could to limit the damage. In 1733, the viceroy of Peru was even ordered not to take gold or silver to ports where the company’s ships might dock. A small fleet of coast-guard sloops was also established, off Cartagena and Havana. The War of Jenkins’s Ear of 1739 was inspired by one of these coast guards’ alleged treatment of Robert Jenkins, captain of the brig Rebecca, off Cuba. In 1739, the British and Spanish governments, in an attempt to preserve peace, called an end to all such search-and-seize operations. But the South Sea Company refused a Spanish request for an examination of its books and, instead, demanded handsome compensation for the impounded property. War followed in November, and the company never recovered its position afterwards.
Bristol’s pre-eminence in the slave trade lasted barely twenty years. Just as London, with the relative decline of the RAC, had given way to Bristol, so now Bristol gave way to Liverpool.
The rise of Liverpool is a remarkable history, in which the slave trade played an important, perhaps even a decisive, part. That was certainly the claim of General Bonastre Tarleton, an M.P. who came from a slave-trading family, in a speech of 1806 defending the commerce, in which he described how the place had thereby risen from being a fishing hamlet, “to become the second place in wealth and population in the British Empire.” The city’s maritime business had begun with the Irish trade and, by 1670, she was already trading in a small way to North America and to the West Indies, as well as Madeira and the Canary Islands. Liverpool’s merchants were at first all interlopers, men operating on a small scale and without much attention to accurate returns. Already by that time, the city had many local industries which led easily to good exports: linen, glass, leather, various metal goods, as well as shipbuilding.
During the French wars of the first years of the eighteenth century, Liverpool already seemed a prosperous port, with fine streets and many grand houses of stone, in which the richer merchants lived. The leaders of the corporation were generally supporters of the Protestant succession, the merchants being mostly Anglicans and Whigs, but many of the seamen were dissenters. Defoe in 1726 rightly called Liverpool “the Bristol of this part of England.”17 Its new wet dock, the first in England outside London, opened in 1715.
Liverpool’s entry into the slave trade occurred in the 1690s, though the first slave ship of which there is record was the Liverpool Merchant of 1700: it carried 220 slaves to Barbados. From the beginning, as in other ports, the trade interested the city’s powerful men: Sir Thomas Johnson, the architect of the new wet dock, member of Parliament, and mayor, had a 50-percent interest in the Blessing, the second Liverpool slave ship of which anything is known. Whereas Bristol carried many slaves for Jamaica to be sold to the Spanish merchants who regularly visited that island, Liverpool specialized, in the years after 1713, in a direct and illegal slave trade to the Spanish empire, especially to Havana and Cartagena de Indias.
By 1740, Liverpool was sending thirty-three ships a year to Africa, and every year the total grew. The reasons were various. Thus, Liverpool was better placed for the Atlantic trade than London, and was less exposed in time of war to the French than was Bristol. By often landing their goods on the homeward voyage on the Isle of Man, “a vast warehouse of smuggled goods,” Liverpool captains were able to evade duty on the returning cargo. Liverpool traders also found cargoes for the slave trade in that island, such as brass, arms, and gunpowder. In addition, Liverpool traders could avoid the risk of meeting marauders by sending their ships round the north of Ireland and into the Atlantic by that route. Liverpool captains and crews seem also to have been treated more austerely by their owners than Bristol and London ones: “The generality of their captains were at annual salaries,” a historian of Liverpool would comment, “or, if at monthly pay, four pounds were thought great wages . . . , no cabin privileges were allowed, primage [bounties] was unknown among them and, as to port allowances, not a single shilling was given.”18 Liverpool merchants, themselves often ex-captains or seamen, would pay crews less well than those in Bristol: one reason why the former were able to sell their cargoes for 12 percent less than the rest of the kingdom, and return with an equal profit. In Africa, Bristol merchants tended to remain faithful to safe old anchorages in the Gold Coast and Angola, while their Liverpool confrères struck out anew to seek Africans in Sierra Leone, Gabon, and the Cameroons.
In 1753, four families had private carriages in Liverpool. Three were owned by slave merchants. The outstanding man among these was Foster Cunliffe, who had come to Liverpool from the Lancashire countryside. He associated with a merchant, Richard Norris, who turned to slaving about 1720. Cunliffe made a fortune and was mayor three times. Most years in the 1730s, he would send four or more ships to Africa. We are told that he was “stern and obstinate,” but also philanthropic, being president of the Liverpool Infirmary, and a sponsor of the Blue Coat school. In a chapel of Saint Peter’s Church, Liverpool, Cunliffe is described as “a merchant whose sagacity, honesty and diligence procured wealth and credit to himself and his country; a magistrate who administered justice with discernment, candour and impartiality; a Christian devout and exemplary. . . .”19 Before he died he secured his son’s election to Parliament, in a contest in which the candidate is said to have been “helped by his father’s popularity.” The Cunliffes also had excellent commercial representation in North America, with a headquarters at Oxford, on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay, as well as a large store at New Town (the modern Chestertown, Maryland). His chief representative there was for many years Robert Morris, father of the financier of the American Revolution.VI
Ellis’s fellow MP for Liverpool, Charles Pole, was a slave merchant too, as was his predecessor, John Hardman (“the great Hardman”), and also his successor, Richard Pennant, later father of the Welsh slate trade, who owned properties in Jamaica, with all of whose leading families, such as the Beckfords, he was connected by blood (he became Lord Penrhyn in 1780).
Liverpool was in no way shy about the benefits brought her by the slave trade. The façade of the Exchange carried reliefs of Africans’ heads, with elephants, in a frieze, and one street was commonly known as “Negro Row.”VII
Bristol did not produce lasting dynasties among slave traders: her most astringent historian sharply comments that five of the leading twenty-six Bristol slavers died bachelors and a further ten died without male heirs.20 But several Liverpool slave merchants founded great families, many of whom continued rich and influential after the trade in slaves had ended (for example, the Leylands, the Cunliffes, the Bolds, and the Kennions). The fortunes of several important Liverpool slave merchants became the basis of banks and new manufacturies, such as those of the Leylands, the Hanlys, and the Ingrams.
Liverpool was also the main outlet for Manchester’s new products. The latter’s cotton goods early in the eighteenth century dominated the West India market, and were also much sought after by Spanish buyers. Costs of transport between Liverpool and Manchester, already low, were transformed by the opening of the Bridgewater Canal after 1772 (the price of transport changed from forty shillings a ton by road to six shillings by canal).
The consequence was remarkable: Manchester’s export trade was negligible in 1739, standing at £14,000 a year. Twenty years later, it had increased to over £100,000 and, by 1779, it stood at over £300,000. A third of this business went to Africa, principally items exchanged for slaves, and half either to the West Indies or the North American colonies. The favorites were cotton goods, especially the coarse striped annabasses copied from India. English dyeing, like French dyeing, was poor, and could not at first achieve the bright colors of the Indians. Manchester, however, was clever in marketing its cotton checks (“Guinea cloths”), which enjoyed every year a greater success in Africa.VIII Every year too more and more (nearly three-quarters by 1750) of the goods traded by British slave merchants to Africa were manufactured in England.
The outstanding manufacturer of cotton checks was Samuel Touchett, who was also an occasional slave merchant. The son of a pin-maker in Warrington, he was one of the three first patrons of Lewis Paul’s unsuccessful spinning machine. He was an insurer, too, on a large scale. He helped to equip the British expedition which captured the settlements on the river Sénégal from the French in 1758, and subsequently sought unsuccessfully for a monopoly of trading there. He next went to London as the representative of the family firm, becoming “the prime mover in parliamentary agitations” and the man who presented Manchester’s many petitions to the government. He became a member of Parliament in the interest of the duke of Newcastle, and a friend of the corrupt but charming paymaster-general, Henry Fox. He had a partnership in West Indian business, through which he sent ships with slaves to Havana when the British captured it in 1762. After the British occupation of Florida in 1763, he bought land there. Finally, he advised Charles Townshend, the chancellor of the Exchequer, to introduce the taxes which led to the American rebellion (his advice was listened to, since it was supposed that he knew everything about America as well as finance). His career was so various that it might have been he, instead of his chancellor, whom Edmund Burke compared to “a tesselated pavement without cement.”
In both Liverpool and Bristol, the success of the slave trade was naturally a fillip to shipbuilding; and, by the end of the century, the leading Liverpool firm of shipbuilders, Baker and Dawson, had become the largest slavers, with a special license to sell to the Spanish colonies.
This new trade by British captains and merchants meant, in the absence of any laws to the contrary, that Africans were now being sold in Britain on a small scale. Many advertisements were to be seen for black boys “fit to wait on a gentleman” or for, for instance, “a healthy negro girl aged about fifteen years, speaks good English, works at her needle, washes well, does household work, and has had the smallpox.”21 In Liverpool, these slaves were frequently advertised for sale on the steps of Silvester Moorecroft’s new red-brick Custom House, the assumption being that what prevailed in the West Indies should prevail at home. Lord Chesterfield had a slave boy at the Hague in 1728, when he was British ambassador, as did Charles, the radical, and tolerant, third duke of Richmond. Black boys were often treated as toys by duchesses. When they grew old, they were usually sent to the West Indies. Newspapers often advertised for runaway slaves. In 1690, Williamson’s Advertiser spoke about “a negro named Will, aged about 22, he had a grey suit, and speaks English well. Whoever secures him, and gives notice to Mr Lloyd [the founder of Lloyd’s insurers] at his coffee house in Tower Street shall have a guinea reward.” Most slaves were, of course, recaptured, for their black color caused them to stand out. But some humane people assisted the runaways, and the act of escape was looked on as a civil offense, not a crime.IX
• • •
Meantime, the failure of France to gain the asiento in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 had had a remarkable effect on the French slave traffic. A sense of realism seized French commercial policymakers after the collapse of Law’s great schemes. The old Guinea and Sénégal companies were abolished, and though Law’s company survived, trade to Africa was opened to all French merchants who wished to go there, provided admittedly that they derived from one of five privileged ports: Rouen, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Saint-Malo—and, above all, “fortunate” Nantes, the “eye of Brittany.”22 It is true that, thereafter, each merchant had to pay a tax of thirty livres on each slave taken to Saint-Domingue, and fifteen livres on those carried to Martinique and Guadeloupe. The possibility of raising money through taxation of slaves was, indeed, the justification of the Crown’s limitation to five ports (other cities were, naturally, angry with the limitation). The money gathered by taxation was to be spent on forts and trading posts in Africa. But alongside these taxes, the arrangements encouraged the French slave trade by helpful concessions: all French manufactured goods, for example, as well as all imported East Indian goods used for buying slaves, were declared exempt from export duties; and “sugars and other types of merchandise from the islands, purchased from the sale of slaves,” would receive a reduction of 50 percent of the tax concerned on entry into France. These imports would not be taxed at all if re-exported to, among others, Holland or Germany.
The two nerve centers of the French slave trade in the eighteenth century were Saint-Domingue and Nantes. The former was, of course, the territory on the west of Hispaniola, which had been officially ceded to France by Spain at the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. Thereafter, it experienced an extraordinary rise in its fortunes as a plantation colony, producing sugar principally, to serve the coffee, chocolate, and tea houses of eighteenth-century Europe. In the early eighteenth century, it expected slave ships every other month; by 1750, once a week was more likely. Its success dazzled Paris, whose merchants, bankers, and officials believed that they had not discovered, but created, a real El Dorado.
The merchants of Nantes were Saint-Domingue’s complement in the home country, for it was they who provided most of its labor. Nantes, neither entirely Breton nor Angevin, nor even part of Poitou, had been, because of its position in the estuary of the Loire, with numerous islands nearby, a promising port for many generations. Set fifty miles from the sea, at a point where the Loire is joined by the Erdre (soon to be canalized in its urban section), the Loire linked Nantes with a valuable hinterland, even with Paris, through the Orléans Canal. But until the mid-seventeenth century, Nantes had limited its commerce to the French coast, with occasional excursions to Newfoundland for fish. Now Nantes entered the international trade with a vengeance. The Compagnie de Sénégal had used that port as the main one for the sale of its goods, and the place soon gained an advantage over other harbors because of its specialization in importing Indian goods, which could then be taken to Africa (especially cottons). In the late seventeenth century, a few slave ships probably left for Africa. One certainly did in 1707. Afterwards, between 1715 and the revolution, Nantes sent out about eight hundred slave ships. Already in the 1720s, it was the main French port for the commerce, being responsible for half the annual French expeditions.
The family of Montaudoin, headed by the brothers Jacques and René, were the greatest names in this trade in Nantes. They were responsible for half of it from the city for the first few years after 1713.X When some Poor Clares visited René to seek charity, he might open a chest full of gold and say: “Plunge in your hands.”23 The Montaudoins equipped 357 ships between 1694 and 1791. Closest to them in the African trade were the de Luynes, with 182 ships; the Boutelhiers, with 171 ships; and then the Bertrands, the Drouins, the Grous, the Michels, and the Richards. Most mercantile enterprises in these days in Nantes, however, had, as in Bristol or Liverpool, about twelve shareholders.
Among the interesting leaders of this business was Antoine Walsh, an Irish Catholic immigrant, but one of the most powerful figures of the French slave trade. Altogether he sent fifty-seven expeditions to Africa. He married Marie, a daughter of Luc Shiell, another major slave trader of the early eighteenth century, also of Irish origin (a sister of hers married another famous merchant of Nantes, a Grou). Haughty towards bureaucrats, contemptuous of small sums, Walsh was a romantic Jacobite, as well as a man of commercial vision. His father had carried King James II of England from London to France on one of his ships; and, in 1745, he himself accompanied Prince Charles Edward to the Highlands on another, the Du Teillay. After the ‘45, he saw the great opportunities presented by buying slaves from the African coast then known as Angola—really, the coast of Loango—and, with the help of Parisian bankers (Tourton and Baur, and Paris de Montmartel), he established a company, with a capital of two million livres, to send ten ships in 1749, whose purpose was to carry two thousand slaves to the colony of Saint-Domingue and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Walsh had a reputation for choosing poor crews and for losing many slaves en route, but perhaps that cannot be attributed personally to him.
Walsh overreached himself. He lived on the elegant Ile Feydeau, an island whch seemed to be anchored to the city of Nantes by two noble bridges; he bought a nearby great property, Serrant, for his brother François-Jacques in 1749, for the then colossal sum of 824,000 livres; and he lost money as the chairman of the Société d’Angola, partly because, in the Americas, slaves from Angola were considered inferior to those from the Gold Coast. Though it failed, Walsh’s Société d’Angola was an original enterprise in that it sought to operate by stationing three large ships permanently off Loango Bay, Cabinda, and Malemba, the purpose of which was always to have European goods available to buy slaves, and from which five vessels would set off for Saint-Domingue. TheSociétécarried, in the end, ten thousand slaves in seven years.
Dutch merchants were as numerous as Irishmen in Nantes: handling the trade with Northern Europe, they formed a “nation” to such an extent that the Abbé Expilly, in the 1760s, thought it hard to “distinguish the true character of the native population.”24 They provided the merchants of Nantes with much of their regular cargoes: iron bars from Sweden, East India cloths, as well as the always sought-after cowries from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.
The sugar brought home to Nantes from the French sugar islands was usually refined nearby. So Nantes could export much sugar: twenty-five million livres’ worth a year, above all to the Dutch, but also to Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Denmark, and even to Guinea.
Another tropical import to be processed at Nantes was cotton. There was a direct connection with Africa. For the first direct link between a slave trader in Nantes and the manufacture of cotton occurred in the late 1720s, when René Montaudoin, the great slaver, a director of the charity of La Sanitat, the Nantes general hospital, suggested that the workshop there should be geared to the manufacture of cottons—partly for use in the slave trade. Later, Montaudoin and some associates set up an annex to that hospital, which they named La Providence, specially to manufacture cotton. The printers of Nantes soon devised methods whereby they could copy on locally produced cloth the Indian designs; and these pretty “indiennes” also played an essential part in the cargoes sent to Africa. Finally, Montaudoin and his friends founded La Grande Manufacture, a factory in the modern sense of the word which made the first dyed cottons; it used indigo from the Americas as a dye. Another new firm in Nantes was the Royal Glass Manufacture, directed at first by Joseph de Wansoul, from Liège, one of whose first purposes was to make bottles for the slave and West India trade.
Many of these successful merchants in slaves, cotton, sugar, and glass, such as the Grous, bought rural properties within a day’s journey of their countinghouses which not only afforded them the illusion of calm, but enabled the development of vineyards, which were able to produce the cheap brandies needed for the Africa trade. Just so had the Jorges of Seville used their finca at Cazalla de la Sierra to make the wine which they exchanged for slaves in Cape Verde two hundred years before.
Traders from Nantes tried to obtain their slaves from the Gold Coast and Whydah on the Slave Coast, but the English and the Dutch dominated the first, and trade in the second was for a time in the doldrums after Dahomey’s seizure of it,XI so that the captains of Nantes became more and more interested in the free trade of the coast around Loango Bay. By 1740, about a third of Nantes vessels went to that region.
Bordeaux, though in the eighteenth century the premier colonial port of France, never approached the activity of Nantes in the slave trade (except in 1802, the year of the Peace of Amiens). Still, in the 1730s, it was sending one slave ship out a year, theHeureuse-Paix, the Henriette, or the Union, mostly owned by a single merchant, Jean Marchais, son of a tailor, with experience of “the islands,” interested in selling wine, as well as “ebony.” Other shipping magnates of Bordeaux began to devote attention to the slave trade after 1750, among them David Gradis, Pierre-Paul Nairac, Isaac Couturier, and Laffon de Ladébat. Most of these merchants were men who came from far afield: from Gigounet, near Castres (Tarn), like Nairac; from Portugal, like Gradis; from Ireland, like Jean Valentin Quin; or from La Rochelle, like Elie Thomas. Nearly all of them were, like their counterparts in Nantes, Catholics, but a few Protestant (Nairac) and Jewish (Gradis, Samuel Alexandre) entrepreneurs also played a part.
“Une seule passion dominait mon père,” a nobleman from Saint-Malo, wrote Chateaubriand, “celle de son nom.”25 But another interest ran that heroic passion close: making money, and particularly from the limited but all the same steady slave trade of Saint-Malo in which Chateaubriand père first served as a captain, of the Apollon, a ship owned by a friend, which carried 414 slaves from various African harbors to Saint-Domingue in 1754, and in which he subsequently engaged himself, as the owner of theRenoncule, captained by his brother, Pierre du Plessis, and the Amarante, which both set off in 1763. La Rochelle, Le Havre, Honfleur, Saint-Malo, Lorient, and Marseilles, in that order, all made contributions to the eighteenth-century French slave trade, each sending over a hundred slaving expeditions to Africa during the century.XII
As a result of all these African voyages, the number of black Africans living in France grew, as it did in England. In 1691, the Oiseau had arrived in La Rochelle with two slaves from Martinique. They were not sent back, “la liberté étant acquise par les lois du royaume par des esclaves, aussitôt qu’ils touchent la terre. . . .”26 But there was some hesitation about this judgment and, though these two slaves went free, their price (three hundred livres each) was maintained on the list of goods of the captain. A new law of 1716, hastily introduced by the Regent Orléans, enabled masters to keep in France slaves brought home from the colonies. A decree of 1738 refined the conditions in which blacks could be retained. Black slaves in France would be obliged to learn a trade. They could not stay in France more than three years; otherwise they would be confiscated by the king, which might mean that they would go to the galleys of the navy. Nor could these colonials maintain slaves in their French houses. These changes marked a step away from what had seemed France’s refusal to accept the institution of slavery inside her borders: though masters were, in theory, not allowed to sell or even to exchange them in France.
In Nantes, in consequence, there were soon innumerable black men and women: they seemed, with the children, the parrots, and sometimes the monkeys, in many cases to be part of the family. Slave merchants, living in their fine town houses, with the face of Neptune over the front doors, in the Rue de la Fosse near the docks, or on the more elegant Ile Feydeau, would give such “négrillons” or “négrittes” to members of their households as tips. In 1754, an ordonnance provided that colonials could bring into France only one black apiece. But that rule was often forgotten. At the beginning of the revolution, there were enough “nègres” in Nantes for a black battalion, les hussards de Saint-Domingue: they were a band of executioners, assassins, and pillagers who helped to make the city at that time one of the most bloody in France. Similar small populations of blacks survived in Bordeaux and La Rochelle.
Between 1721 and 1730, the French shipped fewer slaves than either the British or the Portuguese, but they still were responsible for carrying at least 85,000. During the 1730s, the French were busier. They probably shipped over 100,000 slaves. Between 1738 and 1745, Nantes alone would carry 55,000 slaves in 180 ships, the chief buyers being the nouveau riche planters of Saint-Domingue (about three-quarters of the total) and Martinique (about a fifth).27
Almost all French ports were allowed to engage in the slave trade after 1741, though this relaxation in no way affected the other Colbertian principles on which the French empire had been set up: neither slaves nor anything else could be sold to other empires.
• • •
The Netherlands scarcely seems in conventional history to have been an important Atlantic power in the eighteenth century. But that would not be quite the impression as seen by a trader in slaves. The Dutch still maintained four colonies on the north coast of South America, distant remembrances of the old days, when they had controlled half of Brazil—those on the banks of the rivers Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice, as well as the far larger Suriname. During the eighteenth century, the colony on the Essequibo received 15,000 slaves, that on the Demerara (where a serious settlement began in 1746) 11,000, the Berbice 14,000, and the Suriname about 150,000. In addition, the Dutch West India Company developed the tiny Leeward Island of Saint Eustatius as a slave mart, as an addition to and, after a while as a substitute for, their old center of Curaçao. Some slaves were also still carried to Brazil by the Dutch West India Company: perhaps 3,500 between 1715 and 1731.
Still, that West India Company lost its formal monopoly in Africa in 1734, as in the West Indies in 1738, and Dutch interlopers, now legal free traders, came into their own. Thereafter, any Dutch citizen who wanted to make money trading slaves could do so, on payment of a fee. Many independent firms took advantage of this opportunity, particularly in the late 1740s, when Holland was neutral in the War of the Austrian Succession, leading to a golden time for the Dutch trader. This was the era when merchants from Zeeland, especially Middelburg, moved into the forefront of the traffic. The most important firm there was the Middelburgische Kamerse Compagnie (Middelburg Commerce Company), which sponsored over one hundred voyages to Africa in search of slaves, carrying over thirty thousand of them. About 1750, the Dutch still had their fort at Gorée and, on the Guinea coast, others, at Elmina, Nassau, Axim, Accra, Anka, and Benda. But soon their decision to ally with the enemies of the Ashanti brought them into difficulties, for Ashanti power was every year increasing, partly at least because of the shipment of weapons to them in exchange for slaves initiated precisely by the company.
The example of the British in entering the slave trade on a major scale was everywhere emulated by nations that looked to them as the economic leaders of Europe. Thus the Danes were further developing their interest in the slave traffic. In 1725, their West India Company began to allow the introduction of slaves into their small islands by private traders. In 1733, they added Saint Croix to their Caribbean possessions, which already included Saint Thomas and Saint John (the latter island acquired in 1719).XIII This new colony was larger than those other holdings, and the economy there was turned over from the production of cotton to that of sugar. Though the government failed to persuade Danish colonists to emigrate (Saint Croix was colonized by English Catholics from Montserrat, led by Nicholas Tuite), it carried on a good trade in illegal slaves to the Spaniards. The sugar plantations also required their own African captives: say, nine thousand in 1755, twenty-four thousand in 1775. A substantial number of the slaves taken to Saint Croix came from elsewhere in the West Indies, instead of direct from Africa. Saint Thomas, mountainous and tiny, was a transit slave camp rather than a plantation island, for which its beautiful harbor, Charlotte Amalie, prepared it. Probably over twenty-five thousand slaves passed through the place in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Though on a small scale, Danish investors in sugar made fortunes as their counterparts did elsewhere. The Schimmelmann family, who directed the Danish economy during much of the late eighteenth century, accumulated their riches through sugar plantations in Saint Croix. (Henrik Schimmelmann would be minister of finance between 1768 and 1782, his son Ernest after 1784.)
Finally, among the innovations of these years, an Ostende Company, founded in 1723, showed that the Austrian Netherlands had no intention of being mere spectators in what they assumed was the great international bazaar of African slaves. This re-entry of a Habsburg dominion into the slave trade was not, however, without its sorrows. For example, the Moors of Algiers were continuing their slave operations; and in 1724, a boat from Ostende, bound for Africa, the Keyserinne Elizabeth, was captured at the entry into the Channel by two corsairs, and the crew of one hundred white Europeans was taken to be sold at Algiers.
• • •
Despite the activities of the English and the French, the Portuguese remained the largest shippers of slaves across the Atlantic till the 1730s. In 1724, a new Portuguese monopoly company was set up to serve Brazil; between 1721 and 1730, nearly 150,000 slaves were probably carried to the latter colony, just under 80,000 from Mina, just under 70,000 from Angola. The urgent perceived need for slaves in the gold mines in Minas Gerais largely explains this. English manufactures, as well as those brought from India by the Dutch and the English East India companies, which Brazilian gold bought in Lisbon, were ideal goods to exchange for slaves in Angola.
Only a minority of ships which slaved in Angola now had contact with Portugal: for the trade with Brazil was becoming horizontal, not triangular. As for Africa itself, most of the slaves shipped from Angola now derived from inland, far beyond the tributary kingdom of Ndongo, farther even than Matamba (the monarchy deriving from Queen Nzinga) or the once-violent Lunda in Kasanje. The other monarchies just mentioned, even Kasanje, were now mere corridors through which the slaves passed. Though the wars which marked the first hundred years of Portuguese involvement in Angola were generally over, and though the Portuguese governors were more effective in control of their large territories, there were perpetual disputes between the governors (and other officials sent out from Portugal) and the settlers in Luanda. The latter thought that the governors neglected their responsibilities in order to make fortunes quickly from the slave trade. In the end, Portuguese Angolans were able to persuade Lisbon in 1721 to place a ban on the trading of slaves by the governors in return for substantial increases of salary. Perhaps as a result of these and similar disputes so typical of colonial society in the Americas as well as in Africa, the rate of export of slaves was less in the early eighteenth century than it had been in the early seventeenth: instead of 10,000 a year, the average between 1710 and 1720 was about 6,000.
In the 1730s, Brazil still received well over 150,000 slaves, mostly (100,000 at least) from Angola, but nearly 60,000 from Guinea (Mina). Rio was still the most important slave-receiving port, taking about twice the number of those sold in Bahia. Buyers in both cities seemed, though, perpetually short of labor: the viceroy there wrote to the governor of Pernambuco, in 1742, that the trade was declining so much “that, unless we find a good means of reorganizing it, I am afraid that it may finish altogether. The consequence would be the ruin of Brazil, which cannot subsist without the service of slaves. . . . The mining people here who come and look for blacks which they need ruin themselves by paying prices both exorbitant and intolerable. The proprietors of sugar mills and the tobacco planters are in the same boat.”28
Diamonds had been mined in Brazil since the 1720s, and those jewels, like the produce of the gold mines of Minas Gerais earlier on, were generally worked by African slaves. Just as slaves hid much gold from their masters, large diamonds were often secreted by slaves in ingenious ways: and it was widely said that the Church of Santa Efigenia in Rio was built from the proceeds of gold dust washed out of their hair by slave girls who knelt at the font.
• • •
The early eighteenth century marked the end of North America’s novitiate in the traffic in slaves. In the seventeenth century, too poor or too concerned with primitive agriculture, colonists there had been slow to participate in any substantial way. A few slaves acting as servants had always been seen in all the colonies; but it was not till the owners of plantations in the Carolinas, learning in some cases from their own experience in Barbados, realized that they could make considerable profits from rice and indigo that anything like a regular trade in slaves began. Those in Virginia made a similar discovery with regard to tobacco. So from then on Africans were sought on a regular basis. Then the small independent farmer began to fail, as had happened in Barbados and elsewhere in the West Indies when those colonies had embarked on growing sugar. It was the conventional wisdom of the age that these new tobacco plantations could not be served by a few indentured servants; and that white men did not work well in the rice fields, at least not so well as blacks. Slavery seemed the only solution to the problem, as it had appeared in the West Indies and, before that, in Brazil.
Independent traders from Britain, including several from minor ports, such as Exeter or Dartmouth, began to serve these “plantation colonies” with slaves in the first ten years of the new century. All the same, there were some hesitations among the settlers of the thirteen colonies—less on moral grounds, to be sure, than on those of prudence. Would not a colony with many slaves incur rebellions, as everyone knew occurred from time to time “in the islands”? So a bill was introduced into the Assembly of South Carolina which demanded the payment of two pounds’ duty per slave. Yet the same document stated firmly that “the plantations and estates of this province cannot be well and sufficiently managed, and brought into use, without the labour and service of negroes and other slaves,” even though such people might have “barbarous, wild, savage natures, such as renders them wholly unqualified to be governed by the laws, customs and practices of this Province.”29 So Carolina had a divided mind on the matter. The same might have been said in Virginia. In poor North Carolina, the Reverend John Urmstone wrote, in 1716, to the secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel asking him to arrange for three or four Guinea slaves, three men “of middle stature about 20 years old and a girl of about 16 years. Here is no living without servants, there are none to be hired of any colour, and none of the black kind to be sold good for anything under £50 or £60.”30 (He wrote often, without success.) In his Natural History of North Carolina, published in 1737, John Brickell declared that slaves were reckoned “the greatest riches in these parts,” and that the planters “were at great pains to lay in store of gold and silver with which to purchase negroes in the West Indies and other places.” All the evidence, he insisted—rightly, as it happened—was that slaves in North America were treated far better than those in the Caribbean, where the life of a slave was rendered inhuman by conditions on sugar plantations.31
Over three and a half thousand slaves were carried to South Carolina between May 1721 and September 1726. In 1732, there were in that colony probably fourteen thousand white people, while the blacks there numbered about thirty-two thousand: the first time a black majority was registered in an English colony on the mainland. The cultivation of rice in South Carolina, which inspired these changes, had its ironies. For seed rice had been introduced from Madagascar, and slaves from both there and Senegambia were perfectly informed of how to produce it before they came to the Americas. The clearing of the cypress swamps in South Carolina and the subsequent harvesting of the new crops were thus tasks performed by experienced workers.
At a hearing before the Board of Trade, Mr. Samuel Wragg (a merchant of Carolina, who traded slaves himself, and who would be ennobled for encouraging emigrants to the colony) testified that Carolina was importing a thousand slaves a year, largely since the rice trade had increased from fifteen hundred to twenty-five thousand barrels a year, and so a “negro can make £10 clear profit for his master.”32
By 1730, we also find six thousand slaves in North Carolina—though most of them were probably not shipped, but carried in as a result of purchase in Virginia. The colonists mostly paid by barter: food, livestock, and even pitch. The colony complained that, since it had no direct deliveries—from Africa—which “the People are able to pay for,” it received “the refuse refractory and distemper’d negroes, brought from other governments.”33
Pennsylvania started to import slaves within three years of its foundation, in 1684, when 150 Africans were brought in and used to clear trees and build houses. Most of the first settlers exhausted their supply of cash in buying these captives. In the early eighteenth century, there were few further supplies but, by the 1730s, thanks to the reduction or disappearance of import duties, the commerce increased considerably. The lead was taken by a Quaker, Isaac Morris, though he mostly bought his captives in the West Indies.
What troubled the merchants involved in this trade in the eighteenth century were the duties imposed by colonial governments, taxes which were designed to reduce the number of imports for fear of rebellion. Thus 1733 saw petitions of English merchants against the “exorbitant duty” imposed on slaves imported into South Carolina. The merchants who protested included some of the most powerful men in the trade: Isaac Hobhouse, from Bristol; Ben Whitaker and Richard Acland, of London; and Charles Pole, of Liverpool.
But, though slow in the uptake, and with some hesitations, British merchants, in the eighteenth century, encouraged the trade in African captives to begin in earnest to North America. Advertisements for “prime young slaves” or “strong hearty stout negroes” were soon everywhere to be seen; there were sales of “parcels of very likely negroes,” sometimes with the enticement “of the very blackest sort”; and, often, there were combined sales of “negroes, cocoa and sugars.” In 1721, the Boston Gazette describes the sale of “several lusty negro men, arrived lately from the island of St Jago [Cape Verde Islands]”34; in 1724, an Irish-born merchant, Thomas Amory, with Portuguese and French connections, wrote, from his wharf in Boston, Massachusetts, then the largest city of the thirteen colonies and much the most important port, to a customer in North Carolina: “In the fall, we expect negroes directly from Guinea, a vessel having sailed from here and one from [Newport] Rhode Island.”35 Boston from then on experienced, every year, several sales of slaves direct from Africa. We hear of the schooner William, the brigantine Charming Betty, as well as the Charming Molly, bringing “parcels” of such cargoes to the city, though without specifying exactly whence the slaves came. On June 19, 1732, Godfrey Mallbone of Rhode Island is found selling “choice young negro Gold Coast slaves” in Boston. Ships from more northerly ports, for example, such as Salem, also in Massachusetts, were soon setting off direct for Africa, in imitation of their English rivals.
Amory’s letter, incidentally, suggests that, even at the beginning of the North American slave trade, though the shippers of slaves in British North America were as a rule from New England, the biggest customers were in the South or the Caribbean; and, within New England, the colony of Rhode Island was from the beginning pre-eminent.XIV
The success of Rhode Island in this traffic derived from the fact that it possessed excellent harbors but had little soil. The place lacked the grasslands of Connecticut or Massachusetts, and did not have easy access, as those colonies did, to the fisheries of Newfoundland. There was little to do there except to trade, build ships, and distill rum. Thus, in the eighteenth century, the tiny, barren colony had a Venetian economy, or one comparable to that of Hong Kong in the late twentieth century; the port of Newport was the center of activity; and slaving, though far from the only commerce, figured importantly.
Regular sailing for Africa seems to have begun from the harbor of Newport in 1725, when three ships set off, though sporadic sailings had occurred before, 1700 being the earliest year recorded for that port, when we also hear of three ships sailing for Africa. They were largely owned by two Barbados merchants. Newport had excellent rum distilleries and, from at least 1723, its ships carried that liquor to Africa as their special contribution to the cargoes exchanged for slaves. Another mark of this activity was that the ships concerned were smaller than the usual European ones, carrying seventy-five to a hundred slaves, which their crews loaded as quickly as they could in African ports, in order to reduce the risk of sickness or death to both themselves and their captives.
Rum was an immediate success in Africa; and North American captains were, therefore, especially sought after. The pioneers in these activities were John and William Wanton, Abraham Redwood, the benefactor of the Redwood Library, and Henry Collins, the “Lorenzo de’ Medici of Newport.” By the mid-century, Samuel and William Vernon, sons of a famous silversmith (Samuel Vernon I, with his distinctive mark of a fleur-de-lis within a heart), were pre-eminent.
So Newport became a major commercial port, and her captains were selling slaves all over the British empire, particularly to planters in the Caribbean. This trade was in many ways an extension of Rhode Island’s earlier dealings in the same places for wood and food. The commerce naturally led to Jamaica and Barbados becoming the principal suppliers of Rhode Island’s imports of molasses, which was needed in order to make rum.
Providence, Rhode Island, was also concerned in the trade, from 1736, when James Brown, a near-illiterate merchant at that time (judging from his letters), anxious for money with which to expand his spermaceti candle-making business, fitted out the first Guineaman, the Mary, to set out from that harbor, his son Obadiah serving as supercargo. But that was an isolated instance: the next slaver from Providence was the Wheel of Fortune, sent by Obadiah in his own right as a merchant, but not till 1759.36
New York was far behind the ports of New England. Only fourteen voyages to Africa for the purpose of buying slaves seem to have been made from there between 1715 and 1747, the ships traveling across the Atlantic and directly back. The merchants concerned included descendants of old Dutch families, such as the Schuylers and van Hornes, but also Anglo-Saxon or Scottish ones, such as the Livingstons and Walters: alliances of the two social groups occurred, as when Arnot Schuyler and John Walter of New York jointly invested in the Catherine, which brought back 260 slaves from Africa in the 1730s.37
Meantime, it should not be assumed that the Americas in those years constituted the only market for West African slaves. The Moroccan Sultan Mulai Ismail carefully established a large black slave army about 1700, with 180,000 soldiers, and 20,000 of them were still under arms when he died in 1727. Such figures would suggest that at least four thousand black slaves were exported from West Africa to Morocco in the first quarter of the eighteenth century; and Egypt was probably taking as many.
IThe RAC in 1721 devised a plan for selling slaves to the Portuguese. The slaves were to come from Gambia, and those not disposed of for Africa were to be delivered to a certain Playden Onely, Lisbon. Apparently 150 were so delivered; there, the duke of Chandos hazarded, “we are given to understand they’ll come to a good market.”
IICrozat’s fortune enabled his bachelor brother, Pierre, to become the most formidable art collector of the age.
IIIThe Act of Union between England and Scotland of 1707 had enabled Glasgow to participate in the “extensive and increasing trade with the West Indies and American colonies [which] has, if I am rightly informed”—the speaker was the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s brilliant creation, Rob Roy—“laid the foundation of wealth and prosperity, which, if carefully strengthened and built upon, may one day support an immense fabric.
IVHe was attacked as “Timon” by Pope, in his “Epistle to Lord Burlington,” but the poet apologized, and began talking sycophantically of “Gracious Chandos . . . beloved at sight.” The duke raised a statue to King George I in his grounds, which, according to a biographer, “helped to make Leicester Square hideous.”
VThese last were ports on the Slave Coast, for which see page 353 ff.
VISee page 272.
VIIFor blacks in England, see chapter 23.
VIIIRaw cotton came to Manchester at first from, above all, the West Indies and the Levant, then from India, later still from Brazil—and finally, of course, after the invention of the gin, from the United States.
IXSee chapter 22 for implications.
XThe Montaudoins hailed from Paris, their first known ancestor to settle in Nantes being Jean, an artisan who came in 1616.
XISee page 358.
XIILa Rochelle sent 400 (the main mercantile family being the Rasteaus, who sent about thirty négriers to Africa) and Le Havre nearly 350.
XIIIThese are now the United States Virgin Islands, bought by President Wilson, for $25 million dollars in 1917, just before he drafted the Fourteen Points.
XIVThe Rhode Island slave trade and the American slave trade were “virtually synonymous,” wrote its historian, Jay Coughtry, thereby underestimating the trade from New York, Maryland, and South Carolina.