Attacking the Royal African Company’s hold on the slave trade

The African Companies Considerations on the Late Act of Parliament for Settling the Trade to AFRICA, Answer’d Paragraph by Paragraph. [London, ca. 1708.]
Letterpress broadside on laid paper, printed area 18”h x 12 1/2”w on a 20”h x 16”w sheet, title in two lines above two columns of text; docketed in type on verso. Some mends and restorations to wear along folds, affecting tiny portions of a few letters, minor discoloration. Very good overall.

An exceptionally rare broadside, ca. 1708-1709, refuting arguments put forward by the Royal African Company for the restoration of its monopoly on the African slave trade. With substantial reference to the central role of slavery to the economy of Britain’s American “plantations.”

Chartered by Charles II in 1672 and headed by his brother the Duke of York (later James II), for more than two decades the Royal African Company held a monopoly of trade with Africa. In the reign of King William III, however, Parliament passed the Trade with Africa Act (IX Will III c.26, 1797-98)[1] terminating the Company’s monopoly and allowing “separate traders” to enter the market. The law was to remain in effect for 13 years but softened the blow to the Company by requiring the separate traders to pay it 10% of the value of the goods they exported to Africa.

Soon enough the separate traders came to resent the levy, and in March 1707 they unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament for its abolition. As the termination date of the 1698 law approached, the Company petitioned for the reinstatement of its monopoly, arguing that the expense of maintaining on its own its network of coastal forts was ruinous, even as they benefited its competitors. It also argued that the presence of rival traders in the coastal areas was driving down the price of trade goods while inflating the price of slaves. The separate traders, their numbers strengthened by Scottish merchants following the 1707 Act of Union, of course fought to maintain the open market.

The parties to the dispute conducted an extensive and sustained propaganda campaign in support of their case, in an attempt to influence stakeholders both in Great Britain and its overseas colonies.  In 1708 Thomas Pindar, a merchant with interests in the Leeward Islands and, from 1703-10, Deputy Governor of the Company (Pettigrew, p. 130), produced “several pamphlets to be written, printed, and circulated throughout London, the provinces, and the colonies… as part of the company’s attempts to compete with the separate traders’ transatlantic propaganda machine and prevent them from increasing their foothold in the colonies.” (ibid., p. 132) According to Pettigrew, “thirty of each were printed for Barbados, twenty for Antigua, ten for Montserrat, twenty for Nevis, ten for Saint Christopher, twenty to Jamaica, and thirty for Virginia.” (ibid., p. 133 note 23).

The broadside
We recently acquired a group of three broadsides, all directly related to Pindar’s polemics on behalf of the Royal African Company. Two are either original printings of Pindar’s works or contemporary re-printings thereof, bearing the titles The British Interest on the Coast of Africa Consider’d and Some Considerations on the Late Act of Parliament, for Setling the Trade to Africa (It is worth noting however that neither ESTC nor OCLC record any examples of these two texts in pamphlet form.) Offered here is the third of the group, being the separate traders’ counterblast to the latter of Pindar’s works.

This point-by-point response presents the assertions of the Royal African Company in a column on the left, with its refutation in a column on the right. It begins by countering that Pindar’s opening observation in Some Considerations that “It is agreed by all persons, That the English West-India Plantations are of vast Advantage to this Kingdom” and “it is also acknowledged that the said plantations cannot subsist without a large supply of negroes from the coast of Africa:” This, the separate traders argue, is in fact “a strong Argument against putting the Trade to Africa in the Power of a company exclusive of all others.”

The rivals go on to suggest that the Royal African Company has essentially offered a series of misrepresentations of the situation. The forts which, according to the Royal African Company, are “absolutely necessary to carry on that Useful Trade” are not, according to the rival traders, so necessary “as the African Company would, and almost had induced the Parliament to believe.” Moreover, “the natives of the country are not so Treacherous and False as represented.” Further, the usefulness of forts in providing “the Convenience of having always upon the Place a Stock of English Manufactures and other Goods to supply the continued Occasions of the Natives” in fact “can have no great Advantage to the Trade in general, if well consider’d.”

In response to the Company’s gripe regarding the extraordinary cost of maintaining their forts, the rival trader’s note that it is a natural outcome of their “carrying on their Trade by Force” and the mismanagement of funds. While the Company maintains that when they had a monopoly “the Plantations Encreased and Flourished,” the rivals argue that “the Plantations were not sufficiently supplied with Negroes, and the few they sent were but indifferent, and to some Plantations they sent few or none.”

The rivals answer a number of additional assertions, the most important of which, perhaps, has to do with the prices paid for English goods and the prices for slaves. The African Company argues that:

“by Means of many Ships coming together to the Places where the Company have Forts,…the Blacks, who are a Subtle People, taking Advantage thereof, have not only lowered the Prizes of our own Commodities, but advanced the Price of Negroes from Three Pound per Head to Ten, Eleven and Twelve Pounds per Head…and hereby it comes to pass, that the Planters are necessitated to pay a much higher Price for their Negroes than formerly.”

In response, the rival trader’s again take the Company to task for the use of force and bad faith, noting:

“… so that if the Price of Negroeshave been advanced from 3l. To 10 l. per Head, which is not so in any other Part of the Coasts than where the Company have Forts, is a plain Proof that this is occasioned by the Companies Factors, who first quarrel with the Natives, who will not Trade, and then the Instructions given by the Company (as we are inform’d) to Outdo and Undersel any separate Traders. This, tho’ it is a Mischief… yet it is no Loss to the Nation ; for Dearer every thing is purchased abroad, the more Goods must be Exported to Purchase, which is chiefly Woollen, an other Manufactures of this Kingdom.”

In the end, the Royal African Company’s monopoly was confirmed in 1714, “due mainly to the West Indian planters who switched their support from the separate traders to the Royal African company” (Inikori, p. 626). Presumably polemics such as Pindar’s played a significant role in this change of allegiance.  Ultimately, however, it was all for naught, as Parliament abolished the monopoly once and for all in 1726. By the time the Company was dissolved in 1750, it had been responsible for shipping hundreds of thousands of slaves to British plantations in North America and the Caribbean.

As of June 2019 ESTC T12374 records copies at the British Library, the Guildhall Library, and Columbia. OCLC 794011126 records the copies at the British Library and Columbia.

Background on the West Africa Company from Monsieur Joseph Inikori, “The Volume of the British Slave Trade, 1655-1807.” Cahiers d’études africaines, vol. 32 no. 128 (1992), pp. 646-47. History of Pindar’s polemical pamphlets from William A. Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).[1]

Offered in partnership with James Arsenault & Company of Arrowsic, Maine.