Freedom's Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752

Freedom's Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752

Freedom's Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752

Freedom's Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752

Synopsis

In the years following the Glorious Revolution, independent slave traders challenged the charter of the Royal African Company by asserting their natural rights as Britons to trade freely in enslaved Africans. In this comprehensive history of the rise and fall of the RAC, William A. Pettigrew grounds the transatlantic slave trade in politics, not economic forces, analyzing the ideological arguments of the RAC and its opponents in Parliament and in public debate. Ultimately, Pettigrew powerfully reasons that freedom became the rallying cry for those who wished to participate in the slave trade and therefore bolstered the expansion of the largest intercontinental forced migration in history.

Unlike previous histories of the RAC, Pettigrew's study pursues the Company's story beyond the trade's complete deregulation in 1712 to its demise in 1752. Opening the trade led to its escalation, which provided a reliable supply of enslaved Africans to the mainland American colonies, thus playing a critical part in entrenching African slavery as the colonies' preferred solution to the American problem of labor supply.

Excerpt

The Royal African Company of England shipped more enslaved African women, men, and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade. From its foundation in 1672 to the early 1720s, the African Company transported close to 150,000 enslaved Africans, mostly to the British Caribbean. It played a central role in establishing England’s transatlantic slave trade, stealing market share from the Dutch and French slave trades, and in Africanizing the populations of England’s Caribbean plantations. In 1673, soon after the company’s foundation, the English had a 33 percent share in the transatlantic slave trade. By 1683, that share had increased to 74 percent.

Nevertheless, from the mid-1670s forward the company’s monopolistic restrictions precipitated complaints from many American colonists and transatlantic English merchants. Independent slave traders, known from 1698 as the “separate traders to Africa,” mounted a campaign to satisfy the demand for slaves. In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, they were able to carry on a political movement that transformed the contours and capacity of Britain’s slave trade. The annual average peacetime capacity of the trade when the African Company’s monopoly came closest to being enforceable, from 1673 to 1688, was twenty-three voyages. An equivalent period of peace after deregulation, from 1714 to 1729, saw free trade produce an average of seventy-seven voyages annually. Between 1687 and 1720, the company’s market share reduced from 97 percent to 4 percent. Despite the remarkable scale of human trafficking conducted by the company, its maximum capacity could not match that of the deregulated trade. Even if the African Company had endured the changing political climate of the 1690s, England’s contribution to

1. See The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (Voyages Data Set), “Estimates” spreadsheet (2010), http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/database/download.faces#extended. All statistics relating to slave-trade numbers are drawn from this invaluable source, unless otherwise stated. For the data on which Figures 1–3 are based, see Appendix 1, below.

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