England’s First Slave-Trading Company

The Guinea Company was originally founded in London in the early 17th century to trade with Africa. It evolved into England’s first slave-trading company.

There were many dangers in operating a sailing ship in past times, including storms, wars and piracy. Marine insurance was still in its infancy so a vessel was usually owned by a syndicate of four, eight, sixteen or thirty-two investors, one of whom was normally the vessel’s captain, who shared the risk and reward. The risk, and potential reward, became even greater from the 15th century when English sailors, financed by investors and merchants, began exploring the world, seeking new trade routes. Long distance voyages were both expensive and dangerous when sending ships to unknown places without modern vessels or navigation aids. A voyage could last for months, and sometimes years, so capital was tied up for lengthy periods. Furthermore, trading arrangements had to be agreed in distant and foreign lands, and often trading posts were to be established. In the 16th century the most prominent English merchants dealing in overseas trade pooled the risk and obligations by creating joint-stock companies of which a group of investors each took a share.

It was within the gift of English monarchs to grant a monopolistic patent and it soon became an instrument for them and their courtiers to profit, either by selling the rights or by taking a share of profits. In return the companies were granted a monopoly on a particular geographical area for a specified number of years, usually in defiance of monopolies conferred to traders by other nations. One of the earliest examples is the Muscovy Company, which in 1555 was granted by Queen Mary a monopoly on trade with Russia. The East India Company, which was chartered in 1600 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, became the largest and most successful English example. Others involved in long-distance overseas trade were the Levant and the Hudson’s Bay companies.

In the 17th century there was a great deal of attention from some European powers, most notably the Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Danes and Swedes, in the West Coast of Africa, or ‘the Guinea trade’ as it was called. Trading rights in the region from Cape Verde to Angola were highly contested. Unlike the Americas, the interest was to do business rather than to gain territory. In part that was because African tropical diseases were so deadly to Europeans but also because there was little chance of conquest. The Portuguese had long been trading in the region, for both merchandise and also to obtain enslaved labourers to send to their colonies and those of the Spanish. They had been jealously guarding their monopoly against other European nations for 150 years but in the early part of the 17th century the Dutch broke into the West African business. In 1612 the Dutch built Fort Nassau on the African coast and in 1617 purchased the island of Gorée at Cape Verde from which to trade. They no doubt understood that colonies in the Americas relied on enslaved labour for their success and when the (Dutch) West India Company was formed in 1621 its charter gave it a monopoly to trade in both the Americas and Africa. By the middle of the century the Dutch were the greatest European power in Africa. Yet, with the Portuguese monopoly broken, others took an interest.

What London’s overseas merchants sought from Africa was ivory, redwood, wax, hides, malaguetta and gold, but particularly the latter. A charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth in 1588 to a group of eight investors of London and Exeter known as the Senegal Adventurers, providing an English monopoly in trade between the Senegal and Gambia rivers for a period of ten years. That patent did not prevent trading with other areas of the African coast and two other voyages were made to Benin in 1588 and 1590. Queen Elizabeth also granted in 1592 a patent to certain merchants to trade in specified parts of Africa but little long-term business seems to have developed.

In 1618 the Company of Adventurers of London Trading to the Ports of Africa, but commonly known as the Guinea Company, received letters patent from King James I. The 37 members of the Guinea Company, some associated with the Virginia Company, were granted a monopoly on trading with “Gynney and Bynney”, and with the power to arrest any unauthorised vessels. The leading name was Sir Robert Rich (who would become the 2nd Earl of Warwick the following year). Another was the former privateer Sir Richard Hawkins, son of the early slave-trader Sir John Hawkins and grandson of William Hawkins who was the first English seafarer to sail to Guinea. The founders included aristocrats who were favourites at the royal court, as well as prominent naval men, yet some were known for their corrupt practices, which reflected on the company’s reputation and deterred other potential investors. There was also nepotism and factionalism within the membership that hampered decision-making.

Despite having high-ranking men amongst its founders the company was managed in its early days by the merchants John Davies and Humphrey Slaney, although not always harmoniously. Both had previously been involved in African trade, Davies dealing in redwood. When the company gained a monopoly, and thus excluded independent merchants from that business, it was natural that Davies and Slaney would want to be part of it.

Four voyages were made to the ‘River of Gambra’ (Gambia River) between 1618 and 1621, the estuary of which is the largest natural harbour on the African continent. It was an important trading centre on the African coast because sea-going vessels could penetrate 25 miles into the interior. The first Guinea Company ship sent out was lost when it was attacked, probably by Portuguese, and the crew killed. A second ship returned with gold and hides but little profit was made from the voyage. A third expedition returned with hides, ivory and wax but failed to make a profit. In 1621 the accumulated loss was £5,600. To keep the company afloat a loan was made by Lady Elizabeth Craven, the widow of a former Lord Mayor of London. In return for promising the company to personally repay the loan, Davies took over the redwood business in a personal capacity. This effectively left the company paralysed: it was bankrupt and could not attract new investors, yet no others were legally free to trade with West Africa, except Davies. When Slaney attempted to send out his own ship it was confiscated in Guinea by Davies’ factors. Slaney took the matter to the Privy Council, whose verdict was that Slaney must be free to trade in Africa. Davies died in 1626, never having fully repaid the loan to Lady Craven.

In the second half of the 1620s Slaney attracted some new blood into the company from among his circle of London merchants, who brought experience and finance, and each of whom would henceforth have significant involvement. William Cloberry was Slaney’s son-in-law and former apprentice, who by then dealt in overseas trade; the wealthy brothers Nicholas and Samuel Crispe had experience in the Spanish and East India trades; and John Wood had been Slaney’s apprentice. King Charles inherited the throne from his father James in 1625 and the Privy Council wrote to Slaney, Captain Crispe, Cloberry and Wood that year with “things desired from Guinea” for the King, a list of novelties that included “an elephant’s head with the teeth very large”.

Nicholas Crispe was wealthy and well-connected in the City and knighted by Charles I. During the 1620s and 1630s he had a varied portfolio of business interests, including the Brazilian sugar trade. By the time he joined the Guinea Company he was already known as one of the leading West Africa merchants, so he must have been acting as an interloper, perhaps in conjunction with Humphrey Slaney. In 1628 Crispe invested heavily in the company, becoming the largest shareholder and taking a dominant role. He paid £1,600 for the company’s factories and stock on the African coast and sent out his own agent to oversee the operation.

John Wood began his career as an apprentice to Humphrey Slaney in the 1620s, acting as a factor on the Sierra Leone River, which was an important source of redwood. During that time he developed a network of contacts in the area that would later serve him as a successful London-based Africa trader.

The Guinea Company lacked strong governance. Its royal patent simply acted as a protection from competition, behind which its merchant members, Davies, Slaney and the Crispe brothers, could carry out their own private business. It must have been clear that the first Guinea Company had failed in every respect but Humphrey Slaney and Nicholas Crispe probably had to continue to cover their losses. Thus, in 1631 the company was dissolved and a new amended patent was granted by King Charles. They were given a 31-year monopoly along a much longer coast of Africa, stretching from Capo Blanco, on what is now the border between Mauritania and Western Sahara, to the Cape of Good Hope. The main intention was to bring gold to England and to establish a base on the African coast to assist in that mission. Crispe was this time the major shareholder and he also had ownership of the company’s former property in Africa. Slaney, Crispe and Cloberry were joined by Samuel Crispe and John Wood and these five men became the core members of the management during the 1630s.

The main threat to the company’s ships on the African coast came from the Portuguese and Dutch, so Crispe sought to create a fortified base, which he personally financed. The first expedition of four ships left England in May 1632. The vessels arrived three months later and agreement was then made with the King of Kommenda to establish a trading lodge. Word reached them that Ambro, the king of the Fante people, was also interested in a trading post. A fort was therefore created at Kormantin, which would remain the only English fort on the Gold Coast for the next 30 years. Two months after the arrival of the first voyage a ship was sent back with gold. With the agreement of the Fante king two additional trading posts were established at Anamabo and Egya, and later another at Wiampa with agreement from the ruler of Agona. As well as gold, ships returned to London with ivory and pepper, and sugar produced on the Portuguese island of São Tomé. Company vessels also ventured along the coast to Benin.

John Wood briefly moved to Kormantin, located on the Gold Coast in modern-day Ghana, as head factor in 1638 where he negotiated with the local Fante rulers. Business generally proceeded well, although there was strong competition from the Dutch, who had been trading over a larger area for a longer period, with a greater number of trading stations and ships.

Humphrey Slaney, one of the original members of the Guinea Company sold his shares in the company to Samuel Crispe in around 1638 and two years later long-term shareholder William Cloberry died. At some point in the 1640s Rowland Wilson Snr. and Rowland Wilson Jnr. joined the company, while John Wood returned to London to manage the business.

Trade with the new English American colonies was initially monopolised by the Virginia Company, formed in London in 1606. Those merchants found the business to be lacking in quick profit and diverted their investments elsewhere, allowing London’s independent merchants such as Maurice Thomson and William Pennoyer to enter and take over the tobacco trade. As early as 1626 Thomson is known to have made a slave-trading voyage. He and a business partner sent out three vessels, which carried about 60 slaves to St. Kitts where they were sold to a tobacco planter. The ships returned to London with tobacco. In 1638 Thomson and his fellow London merchant Samuel Vassall were prevented from sending their ship the Star to “Guinea and Binney”. The Star would later be used for the first slaving voyage of the Guinea Company.

In 1625 an English ship transporting tobacco from a Dutch colony in South America chanced upon an uninhabited island in the Caribbean, which was named Barbados, and it became an English colony. The settlers attempted to grow tobacco but with little success.

In the early years of the 1640s the overall Guinea Company trade with sub-Saharan Africa was still most likely of a minor nature but the knowledge and trading relations had been laid for the English slave trade. The demand for African slaves was no doubt clear to John Wood. He was by then the Guinea Company’s governor, one of the most experienced English traders with Africa where he had forged business relationships with local traders. Captains of Guinea Company ships would certainly have known how and where to acquire slaves from African merchants. From 1641 the company began supplying African enforced labourers to plantations in Barbados, with the first known cargo of ‘divers negroes’ aboard the Star, then owned by Maurice Thomson, Sir Nicholas and Samuel Crispe, John Wood and former interloper Samuel Wilson.

The colonists of Barbados struggled to survive until in 1640 James Drax, one of the plantation owners, learnt from the Dutch in South America how to cultivate sugarcane and from it produce sugar. Very quickly Barbados was completely given over to growing the crop and sugar became a valuable commodity on the London market. It was tough work to produce the commodity and Drax learnt from the Dutch that it was only viable by using enslaved African labour.

The Guinea Company faced increasing competition from interlopers such as William Pennoyer and Samuel Vassall, as well as foreign merchants. Maurice Thomson had also been an interloper in the African business and had traded in slaves, yet by the early 1640s he was partnering with the company in voyages. It was most likely the increasing competition in the African trade that persuaded Maurice Thomson to join the company in around 1647, adding his considerable experience of trans-Atlantic trade to that of John Wood’s knowledge of African business.

The initial success of the English sugar trade took place during the Interregnum, when England was without a monarch. In April 1651 the Council of State decided to grant a new patent that extended the Guinea Company’s monopoly for a further 14 years. However, it was henceforth restricted to a territory of 20 leagues – slightly over 100km – north of its African headquarters at Kormantin in Guinea to 20 leagues south of the company’s fort in Sierra Leone, the part of the coast where they had created bases and were actively trading. All other English merchants were thereafter free to trade along the remainder of the African coast, bringing to an end the company’s exclusive rights to the entire coast of West Africa. What was of great importance to the government was that the Guinea Company’s forts on the African coast should be maintained so that the business of securing gold could be protected against the Dutch and Portuguese.

The decision to continue the Guinea Company’s patent ended Vassall’s own ambitions of trading with Africa. He decided to join the Guinea Company, succeeding Wood as governor, and thus, in 1651 the leading members of the Guinea Company were Wood, Thomson, Vassall, and Wilson father and son, all devout Protestant non-conformists, or ‘godly’ men as they styled themselves. Vassall became the new governor, although Wood continued as an active member. The leading two former interlopers within the company should have put it in a strong position to dominate the African and slave-trading business.

Despite a united membership of Thomson, Vassall, John Wood and Rowland Wilson, the Guinea Company struggled. It faced hostility on the African coast from Dutch slave-traders, and seizure of its ships by English royalists. The main slave market was then the Bight of Biafra, an island off the coast of modern Camaroon, as well as Senegambia to the north, both outside of the company’s monopoly area. This limitation allowed independent merchants to compete by acquiring captives on other parts of the coast to supply the growing market in Barbados, which the company was unable to prevent.

In December 1657 there was an influx of Barbados plantation owners and West India merchants elected to the East India Company. The 26 members to the new board included Maurice Thomson as the new Governor. Thomson immediately negotiated for the EIC to lease the Guinea Company’s monopoly on the African coast. That allowed the EIC to use the African coast for victualling on voyages to the Far East, as well as collecting gold on outward journeys to be used to trade for goods in Asia. The EIC did not involve itself in the trans-Atlantic slave trade but its directors most likely undertook their own private slave-trading operations.

The new Restoration government of Charles II considered the Guinea Company’s patent of 1651 null and void because it had been granted by the Commonwealth government during the Interregnum. Instead, they continued to recognise the earlier royal patent of 1631 from Charles I that was due to expire in 1662. Ignoring requests by the East India Company to grant an extension to their Guinea Company patent, in December 1660 Charles granted the exclusive right to trade along the African coast from Cape Blanco to the Cape of Good Hope to the newly-formed Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa. It was the first direct involvement in overseas trading by the English monarchy. The Royal Adventurers thereafter continued in much the same way as the Guinea Company had previously operated, supplying enslaved labourers to the colonies, despite no mention of that trade in its founding charter.

The Guinea Company struggled during the first two decades of its existence of trading with Africa. From the 1640s the demand from Barbados and other new colonies of the West Indies for enslaved labour provided a new source of income. Yet there were many obstacles and challenges, including harassment from Dutch ships on the African coast and competition from interlopers. Many of the plantation owners of the colonies also required that captives be supplied on credit, whereby slaves were provided in one year, to be paid in the form of sugar the following year. That led to an increasing debt burden for the company. The decision by the Council of State of the Parliamentary government to restrict the company’s monopoly on the African coast was an open invitation for independent traders to take over the slave trade. The Guinea Company came to an end at the Restoration, when the monopoly on the African business, and thus the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was given to the Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa, headed by James, Duke of York, the brother of Charles II.

Sources include:

  • J.M. Svalastog ‘Mastering the Worst of Trades : England’s early Africa companies and their traders, 1618-1672’ (University of Leiden)
  • Michael D. Bennett ‘Merchant Capital and the Origins of the Barbados Sugar Boom, 1627-1672’
  • K.G. Davies ‘The Royal African Company’
  • R. Porter ‘The Crispe Family and the African Trade in the 17th Century’
  • L.H. Roper ‘Advancing Empire’
  • Robert Brenner ‘Merchants and Revolution’
  • Makepeace, Margaret. “English Traders on the Guinea Coast, 1657-1668: An Analysis of the East India Company Archive.” History in Africa, vol. 16, Cambridge University Press
  • Richard S. Dunn ‘Sugar & Slaves’
  • Russell R. Menard ‘Sweet Negotiations’

Stay Connected

Be the first to hear when new content is added by joining my email newsletter.

I won't share your details and you can easily opt-out any time. Learn more in my Privacy Policy