Colston – Cronyism & Capitalism (Part 3)

After the ushering in of William III in 1688 and more importantly the introduction of the Bill of Rights, there was a noticeable power shift between joint-stock companies and merchants in England. At the beginning of the century, companies had been a means for the crown and those close to the crown to hold a monopoly on profitable trade with England’s colonies; such as trade with Africa through the Royal Africa Company (RAC), in which Edward Colston played an increasingly major role. However as the century progressed and the merchants became richer, those holding shares in such companies began to think less about promoting the interests of the crown and more about holding onto and increasing their own profits. Through parliament these merchants began to shape the rules around joint-stock companies to favor the shareholders rather than the coffers of the crown. This included selling shares to merchants not so loyal to the crown who were instead loyal to the making of profit. Some of these new merchants were young men, supporters of the Whig party as opposed to the more royalist Tory. This was dangerous for the crown as it further shifted the focus and profits away from its hands. Ultimately the crown sought to disrupt this accumulation of power and money by merchants by effectively halting parliament for nearly a decade. In this time parliament was reshuffled and publicly elected members of parliament were replaced so that parliament was loyal to the crown. This was seen as a gross act against democracy by many and merchants became worried that their accumulated wealth and influence was at risk and rightly so.

It was this “Loyal Parliament” that James II inherited upon his fathers death in 1685. At this time James II, previously the Duke of York, had been the governor of the Royal Africa Company for 16 years and had strong ties with the merchants of London. He had been acting as fixer and enforcer for the company, protecting it’s interests and it’s profits for the shareholders, leaving the running of the company to assistants like Edward Colston. These assistants had been greatly enriching themselves before the restrictions imposed by James II’s father but now that their governor had become king they presumed a return to normality. However after his ascension to the throne, instead of relaxing the laws James II maintained his fathers constriction of corporate power, tipping his previously loyal base towards finding other means of wrestling back power and more importantly profit. 

Throughout all of this there was an undercurrent of religious unease. England in the 1600’s was staunchly Anglican, following the Church of England originally created by Henry VIII. James’ father King Charles II had long been rumored to have been Roman Catholic but preached a code of religious tolerance, however James himself was outright Catholic, seeking to curb Anglican practice in England during his reign. This further alienated him from the merchants and people of England, however his lack of a male heir was seen as a sign that there was nothing to worry about. Without a male heir James’ daughter Mary, who had been raised to be Anglican, was set to take the throne and it was she who was married to a certain Dutch William of Orange. However in June of 1688 James II had a son. The son would be raised a Catholic and just because he was male, take the throne instead of Mary. 

Together, the affront on mercantile interests and profit and the prospect of a Catholic dynasty caused members of England’s upper classes to reach out to Mary and her husband William of Orange. They were offered the English throne in return for signing a bill that would curb the powers of the crown and hand more power to the people through parliament, especially when it came to colonial interests. Royal revenue even became public revenue, which looked like a financial gain for the public as they could take back control of their own taxes through a more powerful parliament. But while looking like a win for the people of England and their Anglican religion, the bill in fact handed more power to those already at the top of England’s upper class who had already been enriching themselves through royal companies. This new bill gave them greater protections when it came to property and profit and made it easier for individuals to amass wealth and power using public funds to do so. Now, instead of the crown running the monopolies, parliament and the people, the merchants who elected the MPs would have the power.

The change in attitude to property is most easily seen through two lawsuits that occurred just four years apart, highlighted by Steven Pincus in his book 1688: The First Modern Revolution. 

In 1685 the East India Company accused Thomas Sandys of trading in their territory without a license. Seen as a sovereign entity, the East India Company was an arm of the crown and trading without a license in its jurisdiction was seen as stealing from the crown itself. Sandys’ defence was that

 “the king cannot by his patent letters take away the subject’s property, and I do not know a greater property than freedom of trade and labour”

Arguing that it was his right to earn a living and what he earned through that was his to keep.

The Court rejected this liberal definition of property and sided with the East India Company. However just four years later in 1689 after the ascension of William and Mary, Nightingale v. Bridges saw merchants whose vessels had been seized by the Royal Africa Company for trading in their territory receive compensation for their seized goods. The merchants argued that the ships and cargoes were their property and only an act of parliament could alter the conditions of what property was or is. They said that because the act of trading in those waters was legal before a royal charter was granted to the Royal Africa Company, “the king cannot by any prerogative whatsoever, create either a new cause or a new mode of seizure” as it was never actually ratified by parliament. 

With the Bill of Rights, parliament now had the power to overrule the crown, especially when it came to the rights of the individual merchant and their profits against the previously “sovereign powers”.

The signing of the bill of rights and the increased powers of parliament now heralded a new nationalism within the English people. The public, with the view that through an elected parliament with little influence from the crown taxes would be spent more wisely and end the playing of favorites, became happier to pay higher rates of tax. Unfortunately this just gave the merchants of London more revenue to play with and they didn’t hesitate to do so. On the back of this public revenue long term loans were made and borrowing increased, safe in the knowledge that because “parliament had a longer time horizon than any individual king” and was not subject to regime change it would be able to pay back any debts in the future, no matter how far ahead. Previously borrowing had either been from individual private lenders or from the crown, meaning that sums usually had to be paid back within a lifetime in case of death or a change in monarchy. But now debt could be drawn from the public and as long as there were taxes, there would be revenue. 

This revenue was used to back the merchants’ chase for profit and increasingly unstable business practices became the norm. While enriching the merchants these practices drew unnecessarily on the new funds available to them and pushed the public’s debt upwards. At the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 England’s national debt was around £1 million. By 1714 it had risen to £48 million. At the end of 2020 it stands at £1,876.8 billion. The changes made in 1688 ripple through to us today in the form of an ever increasing national debt.

While it has allowed the UK to surpass other countries in military might (borrowing was arguably the only reason Nelson beat Napoleon at Waterloo) and given monetary injection in difficult times, the overall outcome is quite unsettling. In 1694 the Bank of England was created to preside over this rising national debt and provide the funding for it. 

Over this time slavery had remained one of the largest profit-making businesses but now that parliament and the merchants of England could trade even more freely, the trade boomed. The British-controlled island of Jamaica was long seen as a possible supply point of black slaves to the Spanish plantations around the Carribean. Being a profitable market, the crown had wanted to monopolise on this but before they could appoint a governor to the island, a small group of elite merchants on the island got together to create a contract with the Spanish. They sold slaves at a 35% mark up to the Spanish, £40 instead of £17, seeing the selling of humans as a far easier way to make money than selling other products. As one merchant was quoted as saying, “35 per cent trade is a much easier way of making money than making sugar”.

Further deals with the Spanish had been made, mainly through the RAC, which were profitable. But now the new private merchants were starting to encroach on the declining joint stock companies, backed by parliament. In June 1689 as head of the Royal Africa Company Edward Colston was charged with making a deal with the Spanish government, formalised through the “Assiento for Negroes”. No doubt aided by his previous experience in trading human lives and his connections with Iberian merchants from his trade with southern Spain, Colston was able to almost single-handedly set up trade between England, the West Coast of Africa and the Spanish Colonies in the Caribbean, swapping stolen human souls for Spanish gold. By this time in the 18th century however Colston had relinquished his grip on the RAC, bringing it’s most profitable and active time period to a close. By the end of the 1600’s he had begun to move away from the crown-created RAC, investing more in the line of private business that was now more profitable through the new powers of government. There is substantial evidence to show that at the time of his retirement to Mortlake, Edward Colston had set himself up as a prominent merchant banker. Providing finance to new venture and old trades, including the continued slavery of Africans under the guise of “Christian charity”.

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