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An 18th Century Voyage of Discovery
British ships had been involved in the trade for slaves since the 1550s. London was for many years the major port for slave-trading voyages before being overtaken by Bristol in the early 18th century. Bristol itself was later eclipsed by the port of Liverpool, which dominated slave-trading activities until the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807. At the time of the Woodes Rogers voyage in 1708, Bristol was emerging out of London’s shadow to become the country’s major slave trading port. The ending of the Royal African Company’s monopoly in the trade for slaves in 1698 had accelerated Bristol’s involvement in the Slave Trade. Bristol was also well placed to provide all the necessary manufactured goods needed to trade in Africa for slaves, for example brass, iron, wool and glass. After the slaves obtained in Africa had been sold for goods including sugar, rum and tobacco, the slave-produced sugar was refined in Bristol’s many sugarhouses and the slave-produced tobacco stimulated growth in the pipe-making industries. Bristol’s population grew from 20,000 in 1700 to 64,000 in 1801. Another legacy of Bristol’s involvement in the Slave Trade was a small but significant Black population.
Was Woodes Rogers’s voyage from 1708 to 1711 a slaving voyage?
In the strict sense of the word, it was not. The intention of the voyage was to harass the enemies of Britain, namely the French and Spanish, who had been fighting them in the War of Spanish Succession since 1702. Harassment meant the plunder of as many ships as possible on the high seas. Sometimes, as the raid at Guayaquil shows, it also included pillaging towns to gain ‘prizes’. This booty and any other captured ‘prizes’ were then sold on return to England and any captured ships condemned. The Admiralty gave permission for these voyages through the issue of letters of marque and reprisal, which were issued at the highest level by the Lord High Admiral. At the time of the Woodes Rogers voyage, the Lord High Admiral was Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne’s husband. Money from the voyage was also made by HM Customs on the return of the ships.
On the other side, the merchant backers of these voyages, after payment of the crews and other associated costs, stood to make a huge profit from a successful privateering voyage. Thomas Goldney II, the principal backer of the voyage of Woodes Rogers, had invested in 36 shares at £3,726. His returns were £6,826 1s, a huge profit for its day, although at the time he believed there was more profit to be made.
There is another side to the voyage, however, that is often obscured by the other dramatic events: the fact that a large amount of ‘Negro’ slaves had been captured by the privateers on Woodes Rogers’ voyage and other privateering ventures. Rogers’s account of his voyage in, A Cruising Voyage round the World, first to the South Seas, thence to the East Indies, and homeward by the Cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708 and finish’d in 1711, published in 1712, is full of references to ‘Negroes’. When the Ascension was captured on the 2 April 1709, there were 72 ‘Negroes’ on board.
When the Havre de Grace was captured on the 15 April 1709, there were 74 ‘Negroes’ on board.
Account books with recordings of all the transactions have been preserved in the Chancery Masters’ exhibits at The National Archives. These records were kept as part of the owners’ agreements and later used in the court case brought against Woodes Rogers, known as Creagh v Rogers. The records and accounts clearly show that ‘Negro’ slaves were sold as the voyage progressed whilst others given away to local dignitaries as gifts as well as to crew as prizes. In the committee books of the Duke and Dutchess, there is an entry dated 29 August 1709; ‘In consideration of the great risqué that Captain Edward Cooke and Captain Robert Frye ran in attacking the Marquis when in the hands of the Spaniards we do in behalf of the owners agree to give Captain Cooke the Black boy Dublin and Captain Frye the Black boy Emauel of Martineco as a free gift.’ Rogers’ journal reveals that a number of these slaves ran away, others died on the voyage while some were even used as makeshift marines when the ships were in danger of being attacked.
It is clear from both Woodes Rogers’ accounts and the Chancery Masters exhibits that slaves were captured and sold in large numbers on the voyage. The profits that were made from this voyage, therefore, were due in part to slave trading even though this may not have been the intention of the owners or crew at the outset. Most intriguing of all is the question of whether any of these slaves arrived back in Britain. What happened, for example, to Dublin and Emauel? Here, the records are less clear; however, in one of the papers relating to accounts there is mention of sundry payments to a John Ivey ‘for keeping Negroes’. Was this in England? In the same set of accounts is one dated 1 April 1713, which mentions ‘Money oweing for several Negroes sold in England’.
1714, reveals ‘John Walker a Negro made his claim which was afterwards allowed 3 November 1714’.
Here is evidence which suggests that slaves who had come to Britain as
servants, sailors or runaways sometimes invested in slave voyages themselves
whether voluntary or otherwise and invested in Woodes Rogers’ voyage
in the hope of making some profit.
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