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The Royal African Company and Empire

October 29, 2018

Although British imperialism didn’t start until the mid-nineteenth century, the Royal African Company shows how imperialist ideology was present in seventeenth century England. While the Royal African Company was primarily a trading company, it was also part of British agenda to “purchase lands along the coast of Africa and build forts and castles.”  [1] The Royal African Company was used as a tool for the English to exploit the goods and services available in Africa and profit at the expense of other nations.

 

The Royal African Company was the second attempt by the English monarchy to get involved in the African slave trade. In 1660, Charles II gave a royal charter to a group of men in New York, known as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa. Due to money problems in the late 1660s because of war with Netherlands, the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa collapsed under debt. [2] By 1672, what was once the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa became the Royal African Company, once again chartered and privately funded by Charles II for his younger brother the Duke of York. Started in 1672, the Royal African Company was a tool that allowed the English monarchy and its citizens to venture into the realm of imperialism and colonialism. The Royal African Company partook in activities that later lead to colonialism. The royal charter, given by the King of England in 1672 to the Royal African Company, gave it a monopoly to the trade on the West Coast in Africa. This monopoly was given to the company by the king, Charles II; in the charter he granted them in 1672. The Royal African Company held this monopoly until 1698, when Parliament intervened and opened up the trade to other merchants. Although the Royal African Company lost its legal monopoly in 1698, it still continued to trade slaves until 1731 and it was completely replaced by the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa in 1752.[3] However, James II’s defeat in the Glorious Revolution in 1688 marked a decline in the monopoly the Royal African Company once held. [4] In its early years, the Royal African Company was able to use the royal charter to fight against interlopers, but the royal charter lost its significance because “after 1688 the royal prerogative was rather discredited and the Company did not feel able to resist these in roads without a Parliamentary confirmation of its monopoly.”[5] The difficulties that the Royal African Company experienced reflected “the problems which faced all Europeans in Africa, and the reason why territorial empires were so slow to develop.”[6]

 

 

 

 

Between the years of 1680 to 1686, the Royal African Company supplied an average of 5,000 slaves per year to the colonies in the Caribbean and North America.[7] These slaves were branded with either the Royal African Company’s logo on their chest or the royal seal of the Duke of York on their arm.[8] A guinea from 1686 shows the Royal African logo, an elephant, which also served as a source of advertisement for the Company and shows how the Royal African Company imported seven percent of gold coined.[9] This same logo could be seen on the chests of slaves transported by the Royal African Company. It is significant that the same logo of the Royal African Company, which was also branded into the skin of slaves, was engraved into money because the guinea shows how the Royal African Company represented a valuable income to England. Although the Royal African Company held a monopoly on the Atlantic Slave trade, and was transporting several thousand slaves a year, the demand for slaves was too high for one company to sustain holding a monopoly over the trade. Thus, in 1689, the Royal African Company lost its monopoly. This year is also significant to English history because it is the same year that James II lost the crown to his protestant daughter and son-in-law in the Glorious Revolution. English politics had an affect on the success of the Royal African Company because it shows how the Company was more than a source of revenue but how it also was a representation of English authority in its overseas empire. James II, a catholic monarch on the English throne, could no longer control his country nor his monopoly on the Atlantic slave trade.

 

Despite the Royal African Company’s loss of the monopoly on the slave trade, England still dominated the slave trade and would continue to do so into the eighteenth century. The Royal African Company was the only trading company that was allowed to participate in the slave trade until the overthrow of James II to his protestant nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, and his protestant eldest daughter, Mary, in 1688. English merchants were outraged by the monopoly that the Royal African Company held, and by 1698 an act of Parliament opened the slave trade to all.[10] As a result, England was transporting nearly 20,000 slaves to the Americas a year, allowing the country to lead the world in its transportation of slaves.[11]

 

The Royal African Company provided Charles II and James II an outlet to increase their income and gain their independence from Parliament. The trading company was also influential in starting England’s interests in Africa and colonialism. The abundance of gold and slaves made the African West Coast an ideal location to exploit. Although The Royal African Company initially held a monopoly over the trade, the outrage by other explorers during the reign of William of Orange, led Parliament to pass a law that lifted the ban on trade. The loss of the monopoly created more competition for the Royal African Company but was still overall beneficial to England who was leading the world in trade. While there may seem to be a connection between the unstable transitions of power in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution, it had been argued by some historians that the Royal African Company was already losing profits by that time.[12] Were the reigns of Charles II and James II as prosperous to the Royal African Company as it is remembered in history? Perhaps the Royal African Company was already losing money and could not have withstood the competition of other traders. Nonetheless, the profitableness of the Royal African Company is less significant to the history of England than the implications of its presence in West Africa. The Royal African Company was England’s gateway into the prosperous coast of Africa. The trade and forts established during the reigns of Charles II and James II helped foster English sentiment towards imperialism. Without the Royal African Company and the English involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade, England would not have had as much knowledge about the Gold Coast nor would they have had as significant an interest in colonizing Africa. English interest and involvement in Africa in the seventeenth century allowed the English to gain a better understanding on how to successfully utilize African trade to their advantage and expand their empire to Africa.  The Royal African Company traded for gold and slaves, which were then transported to colonies in the Americas. The Royal African Company ships sailed out of London from the ports of Bristol and Liverpool and over the next two centuries, Liverpool and Bristol grew from the profits of the slave trade.[13] The Royal African Company is significant because it was a royally chartered company that helped open up Africa to the slave trade and imperialism in the later centuries. England did not establish any proper colonies, however, the English did leave private companies in Africa to run the slave trade.[14]

 

[1]Royal African Company, The Case of the Royal African Company, (The Making of The Modern World, 1709).

[2] Kenneth Gordon Davies, The Royal African Company, (London: Longmans, 1957), 17.

[3] Davies, The Royal African Company, 32.

[4] Waddell, Social and Economic Studies 7, 111.

[5] Kathleen Wilson, A new imperial history: culture, identity and modernity in Britain and the empire, 1660-1840, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 188.

[6]  David Kenneth Fieldhouse, The colonial empires: a comparative survey from the eighteenth century, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967), 129.

[7] Davies, The Royal African Company, 12.

[8] Davies, The Royal African Company, 81.

[9] Davies, The Royal African Company, 81.

[10] Davies, The Royal African Company, 46.

[11] Davies, The Royal African Company, 46.

[12]  Waddell, Social and Economic Studies 7, 112.

[13] Robin Law, The English in West Africa, 1685-1688, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 145.

[14] Fieldhouse, The colonial empires, 130.

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