Colston (Pt. II)– The Emergence of Englishmen & Economy

The Royal African Company’s coat of arms.

Despite the royal English charter granting trade in East Africa, England still found itself plagued by foreign ships in her own waters. The Dutch, having the most powerful navy of the time, had harassed British ships for decades by disrupting trade and were generally considered to be the leading European trading power. Control of Europe’s waters meant control of the bountiful trade routes that passed through them and this had been a priority for Cromwell as well as Charles II.

Cromwell had begun to expand Britain’s navy in hopes of better protecting Britain’s overseas colonies in the middle of the century, tightening up it’s ranks and building purpose-made warships that could hold their own against other European countries. The Dutch had actually started selling off their well-armed navy after their grueling wars against the Spanish Habsburgs on the European mainland which had vastly reduced their national funds as well as their naval might.

More importantly in England, the introduction of a series of Trade & Navigation Acts between 1651 and 1696 made it increasingly difficult for European countries to bypass Britain and her taxes on the way to the colonised lands of the New World. Strict “English Only” rules were imposed on any ships trading with British colonies meaning that the ship’s owners, over three quarters of a ship’s crew, and even the ships themselves had to be made in England. The introduction – but more importantly the strict enforcement of these laws – heralded the beginning of the British Empire’s power monopoly on trade as well as providing a key source of revenue. No one could do business with Britain or her expanding colonies without bureaucratic approval or the necessary bonds, both of which would cost you.

These Navigation Acts unsurprisingly did not sit well with the Dutch Republic. But faced with an increasingly powerful British navy and a succession of revolts by their Spanish subjects, the trading power of the Dutch began to dwindle. Over a series of three wars, spanning from 1652 to 1674, the British defeated the Dutch republic and captured important new-world colonies like New Amsterdam, better known by its re-branded British name of New York.

A scene from the first Anglo-Dutch War.
The Battle of Scheveningen, 10 August 1653, Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten.

Bolstered by the notion of commonwealth introduced in the first half of the century and the increasing power it had over other European countries, Britain’s national conscience in the years following the restoration in 1660 had become more orientated toward a sense of national wealth and colonial commerce. With this came an increased demand for the riches of Britain’s colonies, for which manpower was needed.  Colston family friend Prince Rupert’s newly discovered trade links in the Gambia had yielded not just gold and ivory, but cheap manpower too. With the Dutch recently defeated at sea, the path for exploiting this new highly profitable trade was wide open.

However, the Company of Royal Adventurers was not always a success. It’s failings and accrued debts eventually led to its absorption into the newly chartered Royal African Company (RAC) in 1672. That year also saw royal finances in such a dire condition that Charles II halted all repayments of crown owed-debt, leaving many London financiers who had sunk their money into Royally-backed companies destitute and angry.

With the RAC looking for new funding outside of the crown, the reliance fell heavily on private investors, not just for cash but for direction. In 1672 buying £400 worth of shares in the RAC could mean your appointment as a “company assistant”. While sounding meagre, these assistants were in effect company executives. They sat on boards to decide how the company was run, what it traded and how much it would pay for goods. The ruinous events of 1672 removed many of these assistants from the RAC as their fortunes disappeared over night, whisked away into the bowels of crown debt never to be repaid. This opened up new opportunities for assistants wanting to gain more sway within the company or new investors altogether (perhaps from the recently failed Company of Royal Adventurers) as more shares became available and new directions were set. With profitability high on merchants agendas, it comes as no coincidence that the year 1672 saw the RAC granted a legal monopoly on specifically the West African slave trade, with executive powers being granted to ensure its security.

By this time the Colston family, being traditionally royalist, had been trading with the RAC for some time and had been both well connected and fortunate enough to not lose any fortunes in their vested royal interests. This was a time before banking and most scrupulous merchants would be investing their fortunes themselves. Edward’s father had been selling goods to the RAC for a profit, recorded in 1674 as earning £3,000 for the sale of cloth to be used in the purchase of enslaved Africans. Edward’s brother Thomas as previously mentioned sold glass beads to the RAC, beads that by this time were solely used in the purchase of Africans from other West African tribes. In the late 1670’s Edward himself is reported to have sold in excess of £60,000 worth of textiles requested by West African tribes to the RAC for the procurement of human slaves. At the “conventional price” in the 1670’s of £3 a slave, that is enough to promote the removal of over 20,000 Africans from their homeland. This large-scale dealing was a normality for Edward Colston, who by the 1680’s had been elected to Bristol’s prestigious Society of Merchant Venturers after his father’s passing in 1681.

At this time Colston is described as a “mere merchant”, a term that held the opposite connotation of today being used for “large-scale dealers in overseas commerce”. The scale of his operations and fortunes only increased after his father’s death, with Edward and his brother receiving 40 ships in their fathers will as well as large estates. Furthermore the sudden illness and subsequent death of his brother left Edward as the sole male heir to the Colston fortune and the new 40-strong fleet which he soon put it to work.

In the 1680s Edward sat as a shareholding assistant on the RAC’s committee for shipping, where he encouraged the renting of ships by the company rather than the outright procurement of a its own fleet. As the new owner of 40 ships, this proved incredibly profitable for Colston. Freight charges alone could amass over £1,000 per ship, with a live slave fetching £5 at the end of the voyage. The only limit to your ambition as a merchant in human lives was how many of them you were willing to cram into the hull of a ship. It led to horrifically cramped conditions, with any slaves that died or suffered injuries being cast overboard into the churning waves of the Atlantic ocean, worthless to merchants like Edward Colston.

An example of how slaves were stored on ships like Edward Colston’s. Piled onto numerous shelves in order to make use of the space, many of the slaves had less than 3 feet between themselves and the shelf above. These cramped conditions led to the rapid spread of disease and bold, hungry rats would have no problem taking advantage of the immobile slaves.

By the 1680’s the Royal African Company had ceased to be Royal in all but name. While senior positions were held by royals, the running of the company fell to the businessmen such as Colston. With limited interference from the crown it had become a vehicle for the company’s assistants to enrich themselves by introducing restrictions on trade and concocting levies that consolidated their power and filled their pockets. Along with Colston, a shrinking number of London merchants involved in the core management of the RAC were able to promote practices similar to ship-hire-over-procurement that enabled them to make personal profits much higher than the profits obtained by the company.

According to historian Nuala Zahedieh the actions of those in power at the RAC in the late 1600’s “reflected pragmatism and splintered interests rather than any ideological commitment to free trade”, an approach described as “far from positive for growth”. A sentiment as applicable today as it was nearly 300 years ago.

In 1675, 7% of the RAC’s investors held over half of the 200 available stock options each. At £100 a share (equivalent to £11,445 in 2017) this was a sizable amount of control by a small number of  influencers. By 1688 this had been consolidated into upwards of £2,000 worth of shares held by just 2% of shareholders. This level of business-savvy – or a Machiavellian approach to business depending on how you see it – is not something we necessarily associate with people of the 1600’s, instead this is the type of thinking only modern businessmen and corporations partake in. In reality vast sums of money were changing hands all the time and those that found themselves in positions of power generally tried to enrich themselves while they were there. The table below goes some way to showing how much money was flowing through London at this time, with less than 1% of merchants trading over £217,000 worth of goods. In today’s money that equates to nearly £25 million.

Census of London Merchants and their trades. Note the 13 merchants of Britain and the 2 in North America that are bringing in huge portions of the total trade for the region. These highly valued cargoes are most likely black Africans from the West Coast of the continent, a trade worth millions in today’s money.
Source “Making Mercantilism Work: London Merchants and Atlantic Trade in the Seventeenth Century” – Nuala Zahedieh

The likelihood is that these high value trade items were black Africans, especially as they were traded with the plantations of the West Indies. The monetary figures in the table above represent just a fraction of the 74,085 human lives documented as tradable commodities by the RAC, earmarked for the West Indies. As Britain expanded her colonies, the demand for slaves increased and with this so did the fortunes of those involved. But with the financially liberating laws following the civil war being overturned after the restoration of king Charles II, these wealthy merchants needed a new way to protect their wealth from royal taxes and other leeches.

The plucky British victories in the Anglo-Dutch wars had proven Britain the ruler of the waves and opened up new colonies and supply lines. But while the British had defeated the Dutch at sea, they were still lacking their neighbour’s financial clout and intuition. Britain had been trying to get ahead of the money game for some time with the advanced workings of Italian accountants pulling the country forward, Lombardy Street being so named as it was the center of Italian financial business in London. However the swing towards nationalism and jingoism brought on by the Navigation Acts caused many to start viewing anyone other than Englishmen with suspicion.

In 1985 Charles II had passed away, leaving his brother James II to rule. Unlike his predecessor the new King was an outspoken Catholic and this had caused some consternation among the Anglican Parliament. A series of unwise decisions by the new Catholic king like the forced implementation of religious decrees and the prosecution of Anglican leaders, led to a rise in public unrest. This unrest meant the crown were unwilling to grant parliament any new powers, especially concerning money. Up until this point, interjections and intrusions from the crown had been put up with by merchants as royal companies still provided the framework for profiteering behaviour.

As the crown under James II became stricter and more of a hindrance to this “free trade” and profiteering the powerful merchants such as Edward Colston looked to remove the crown from the picture altogether.

Even if that meant looking towards a not-so-distant enemy. 

The Dutch were well-known for their financial system. Market-orientated and stable, it was good inspiration for the British merchants who wanted to base their new system around their increasing colonial trade. So, in the mid 1680’s a group of City of London merchants began to draw up a set of demands and decrees that would govern the financial state of Britain as they saw fit. However with the Catholic James II unlikely to give parliament any concessions, the merchants needed a new monarch to approach and inspiration is not all they wanted from the Dutch. 

While sounding like a general name, the City of London actually refers to the economic hub of English financial power. Today it is still the financial sector of London and is still legally separate from the rest of the city and country. It has its own laws, it’s own law enforcement and even it’s own mayor. For further information I recommend The Spider’s Web, an award winning independent film looking into the financial empire of Britain, that can be found on youtube and Netflix.

William of Orange, a protestant married to James II’s own daughter, had recently become stadtholder of the Dutch republic and had been in secret contact with merchants representing the City of London for some time. He was well aware of the growing discontent in Britain towards James II’s overly religious method of ruling and as a protestant stood in direct opposition to the increasingly forceful Catholic crown. In 1687 he penned an open letter to the British people urging against the increasingly Catholic rule of James II. Judging the public’s reaction, the merchants in London called for the Dutch stadtholder to invade Britain along with his wife Mary and in 1688, they did just that. James II – after a series of bumbling battles – vacated the British throne, leaving it open for the reign of William and Mary.

The presentation of the new Declaration of Rights by Parliament to William and Mary.
Notice how the new bill is given more prestige than the crown in the painting, being presented first.
The Lords and Commons Presenting the Crown to William and Mary in the Banqueting House 1688,
waterglass painting by Edward Mathew Ward
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2606

But before William and Mary were jointly crowned, they first were presented with the Bill of Rights which included the Declaration of Right. This provision severely limited the powers of the crown while protecting the new “joint-stock companies” being formed by leading merchants. It would now be easier for parliament – made up of members loyal to City of London merchants instead of the crown – to use taxpayer’s money and it gave new increased protections to the companies and the profits of their shareholders. This was the final rung in a ladder that stretched from the early parts of the century, cementing a number of England’s elite merchants as oligarchs, ruling in place of the crown.

Continue the story with Part III: Cronyism & Capitalism

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