The Company of Merchants Trading to Africa: Transnational and Cross-Cultural Politics

–Todd Burst

In 1750, An Act for extending and improving the Trade to Africa, incorporated the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa as an experimental non-profit regulated company to replace the bankrupt Royal African Company.[1]  The CMTA was designed to “facilitate Britain’s African trade” by governing and maintaining a series of trading establishments on the African coast. The purpose of the company was to protect free trade, a role the state would later adopt.   According to historian Christopher Brown, in “The British Government and the Slave Trade: Early Parliamentary Enquiries, 1713-83,” the 1750 Act “aimed to resolve the long-standing tension between a joint stock corporation that had long since lost its commercial standing [the Royal African Company] and the individual traders who conducted the commerce, but had no institutional recognition.”[2] The CMTA was an attempt to synthesize corporatism with free trade. Contemporary debates involving the company reveal insight into the changing roles and relationships between the state, corporations, and private merchants during Britain’s transformation into a dominant commercial Empire. Missing from these debates and subsequent scholarship, however, is the role African communities played in shaping political, economic, and constitutional discourses.

CMTA archives, at the National Archives in Kew, provide scholars with indispensable information on a breadth of topics ranging from trade regulation and informal empire to relations between company employees and African communities on the coast.[3] These relations have been the main subject of recent writings. [4]   For instance, historians, such as Randy Sparks, Ty M. Reese, Simon Newman and others emphasize the company’s subservient status to local African communities. Historian Eveline Martin’s “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” published in the 1920s, not only provides a detailed study of the CMTA, but also offers an indispensable finding aid for works relating to the company.[5] More recently, Ty M. Reese focuses specifically on coastal politics between the company and the Fante. With the exception of Brown’s “Parliamentary Enquiries” and Martin’s “English Establishments,” few scholars have focused on connections between cross-cultural, transnational, and domestic political aspects of the company. In other words, Gold Coast and English political history during the height of the slave trade remain two distinct fields with little overlap.

This gap in knowledge leads to questions, such as: how did coastal relations effect domestic politics? Historian William Pettigrew’s research project on “the Global Determinants for the English Constitution” opens a dialogue for historians to answer these and other questions about the part of non-Europeans in shaping modern political and economic thought. For instance, he asks “What were the relationships between England’s remarkable commercial expansion overseas in the 17th century and the profound changes to her government that define England’s domestic history in the 17th century?” He is currently leading a team of researchers to investigate the archives of trading corporations to gain insight into connections between England’s external expansion and “domestic governance.” He approaches this topic through the use of archives from several trading corporations. Trading companies he argues, not only altered how contemporaries thought and practiced government, but also “served as structures that assisted the reciprocal interactions between Europeans and non-Europeans around the world.” Companies were on the frontline of expansion. Employees interacted with “non-European cultures of governance,” and they translated, then accommodated, and then fed these ideas back to the mother country.” Pettigrew’s research situates English political history in a global context. Although his interest lies in the 17th century, his questions are applicable to the CMTA.


The CMTA was unique in that it was not a joint-stock company, instead, it was a non-profit regulated company, designed with the hope that the company would not compete with private merchants. Regulated companies differed from joint-stock companies in that members of regulated companies did not participate communally to enhance the price and thus wealth of stockholders.[6] The company did not sell shares, nor cold coastal employees partake in the slave trade for their own personal gain. For instance, “It shall not be lawful for the Company established by this Act, to trade to or from Africa in their corporate or joint Capacity, or to have any joint or transferrable Stock, or to borrow or take up any Sum or Sums of Money on their Common Seal.”⁠13  Section XXIV reads, “no Officer or any other Persons to be employed by the said Committee… at any Time hereafter, in any Manner, or on any Pretence, obstruct or hinder any of his Majesty’s Subjects in Trading and that the Forts.”⁠14  Section XXVI and XXVII state that the Warehouses, and Buildings, already erected, or which shall hereafter be erected, by the said Company, shall be applied and appropriated wholly to the Maintenance, support, and Improvement of the Forts and Settlements already” and that the forts and other buildings “shall be free and open to all his Majesty’s Subjects.”⁠15  The Act prohibited officers from trading for profit or hindering the trade of British merchants and stated that the forts were to be kept open for private merchants. Officers, however, violated each of these measures.

According to Martin, the An Act for extending and improving the Trade to Africa was meant “to leave trade with Africa open to all who might wish to share in it, and at the same time provide for the upkeep of the forts.” Although the government granted the company money for its operations, “the organization and management of the forts was to be entrusted to the merchants engaged in the trade, whose personal interest and knowledge should have qualified them for the work.”[7] At the time, commerce and the state were seen as two distinct spheres that required special knowledge. According to this view, the state did not know about commerce and merchants did not know about how to run the state. Martin claims “the constitution [of the company] was neither Company government nor State government, neither State enterprise nor private venture, but a composite erection, making a combined State and Traders’ organization for the management of these valued possessions [the trading establishments].”[8]

The company consisted of a governing committee, in England, and council of governors on the coast lead by the Governor of Cape Coast Castle. Nine men oversaw the committee; three men were elected from each of England’s main slave port cities—Bristol, Liverpool, and London. Their main function, Martin argues, was to obtain the annual stipend from Parliament. They used the stipend to supply the coastal staff.

The CMTA had three objectives. Failure to meet these objectives resulted in public debates and eventually undermined the company’s reputation. The company’s first responsibility was to assist private merchants procure slaves to help expedite slaving voyages. Company officers were supposed to hold the slaves in the out ports, forts, and other trading establishment until English merchants bought the slaves. Secondly, the forts acted as important signs of possession to deter European rivals from establishing trade on the coast. This meant that officers were to maintain the forts, keep the armaments in working order, and fly the national flag in hopes of deterring European rivals. Chiefs were also supposed to raise the British flag to help as a deterrent. Thirdly, company officers were to maintain open and hospitable relationships with the local African communities. Britain’s Gold Coast slave trade depended, in large part, on how well they followed cultural norms on the coast.[9] This involved paying rent, giving presents (dashees), participating in local courts (palavars), and complying with other Fante demands. In 1751, when the CMTA first arrived on the coast, according to historian Ty M. Reese, “they quickly understood that successful interaction and trade… occurred because coastal structures, both old and new, demarcated interaction and defined the company’s subservient tenant-patron position.”[10]

The governing committee’s method of procuring slaves for private merchants plus the mismanagement of paying their employees lead to competition between merchants and company—a situation which the company was supposedly designed to avoid.[11] CMTA officers were supposed to purchase slaves from local African merchants and store the slaves in trading establishments, outpost, and forts, until English merchants purchased the slaves. Ideally, this was supposed to expedite slaving voyages by shortening the amount of time slave ships coasted the shore in search of purchasing enough slaves to fulfill their quotas. Coasting was expensive because captain had to continuously purchases stores for the ships. If the trading posts had enough slaves to sell to fill a captain’s quota, it would help reduce the coast of slaving voyages.[12]

The Gold Coast was an exchange economy, where Europeans traded goods—and sometimes gold—for slaves. The committee provided company officers with tradable goods to purchase slaves to store in one of the many trading establishment for private merchants, the committee also used the same method for paying its employees. The types of merchandise used to barter was wholly contingent upon Africans’ demand, but there was a lag between when the committee ordered goods, when they were purchased, and shipped, during which time Fante demand often changed, making the tradable goods—untradeable. Employees were not only unable to purchase slaves for the forts, but their salaries became useless. Slaves, however, were always in demand. Officers found ways of purchasing slaves and selling them to ship captains to subsidize their own salaries. Sometimes they used company stores, which were originally intended for procuring slaves for English merchants. Although some officers greatly benefited—such as Richard Brew—others traded merely to survive—Philip Quaque.  Either way, officers spent much of their time trading for their own sustenance or profit, which lead to competition with private merchants. This became the major complaint of merchants against the company.[13]

The company’s second duty stemmed from fear that European rivals—France– would encroach on the Gold Coast slave trade. This meant that company officers were supposed to physically maintain the forts, keep the forts well-armed, and fly the nation’s flag as a deterrent, but this was easier said than done. Flying the British flag also depended on coastal norms. Britons gave flags to the Fante for the Fante to use as a show of their loyalty to Britain, but the Fante used the flags to “eat from the company,” e.g. earn a living from the CMTA. For instance, a British captain gave the Fante at Anomabu a British “flag to fly to keep the French away” several years later, the CMTA expressed interest in building a fort at Anomabu, but the Fante told the company “that the flag was dry,” meaning that the company had not allowed the Fante to “eat.”[14]

The company’s third duty follows from their other duties, that is, they were supposed to maintain friendly relationships with the Fante, which involved following coastal norms. Some of the other duties the company performed to maintain these relationships involved hiring local laborers for repairs to trading posts and for building the forts at Anamabu and Appolonia. The Company followed the tradition of pawnship, where local merchants would give the company pawns to hold as credit and the company was to make sure that the pawns were not sold into slavery. Reese and other historians, go into detail about the power relations and the Fante’s expectations of the company. It was important for the company to abide by Fante rule or else they could be forced off the coast.

The company faced complaints from both separate traders and joint-stock advocates. Separate traders accused company officers of forming an illegal joint-stock on the coast, which they believed caused prices to rise. Joint-stock advocates complained that the company was incapable of defending against the French. Former Royal African Company governor, John Roberts, was an outspoken joint-stock advocate who regularly complained that the forts were in poor shape and that the CMTA failed to flex it muscles and force the Fante to open roads leading to the interior, where he believed slaves were more abundant and cheaper. Both the complaints of private merchants and Roberts reveal a general misunderstanding and misrepresentation of coastal relations between the company and the Fante. These debates raised questions about who and how to govern and protect the Empire’s trade–joint-stock companies?  Regulated companies?  The state?   In other words, a transnational study of the CMTA from 1750 to 1777 should provide insight about how cross-cultural interactions affected English politics.







[1] 23 Geo. II. c. 31.; See: Donnan, Elizabeth. Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. The Eighteenth Century Volume II Volume II. 1931, 474ff. For more on the CMTA, see: Eveline C. Martin, “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5 (January 1, 1922): 167–208; Ty M. Reese, “Facilitating the Slave Trade: Company Slaves at Cape Coast Castle, 1750-1807,” Slavery & Abolition 31, no. 3 (September 2010): 363.   The forts and other settlements under the companies jurisdiction lied “between the Port of Sallee in South Barbary, and the Cape of Good Hope,” see: Geo. II. c. 31.

[2] Christopher Leslie Brown, “The British Government and the Slave Trade: Early Parliamentary Enquiries, 1713-83,” Parliamentary History 26, no. 4 (2007): 27.

[3] However, some historians, such as Randy Sparks and Rebecca Shumway, confuse the CMTA with the Royal African Company, although these were two very different companies. For an Atlantic and Africanist historians—Sparks and Shumway—or someone unfamiliar with the corporate history of Britain, this is a simple mistake. For instance, the archives for both companies are filed together under Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa and Successors. The T/ 70 treasury records provide abundant sources for further inquiries. For more information on the history of the company archives, please see: Hilary Jenkinson, “The Records of the English African Companies,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Third Series, 6 (January 1, 1912): 185–220.

[4] Culture: Ty M. Reese, “Controlling the Company: The Structures of Fante-British Relations on the Gold Coast, 1750–1821,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 1 (2013): 104–19, doi:10.1080/03086534.2013.762162; Randy J. Sparks, Where the Negroes Are Masters (Harvard University Press, 2014); Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (University Rochester Press, 2011). Labor: Simon P. Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Political: Christopher Leslie Brown, “The British Government and the Slave Trade: Early Parliamentary Enquiries, 1713-83,” Parliamentary History 26, no. 4 (2007): 27–41; Helen Julia Paul, “The Maintenance of British Slaving Forts in Africa: The Activities of Joint-Stock Companies and the Royal Navy,” 2009; Joshua D. Newton, “Slavery, Sea Power and the State: The Royal Navy and the British West African Settlements, 1748–1756,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 2 (2013): 171–93.

[5] Martin, Eveline Christiana. “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,.”5 (1922)

[6] For more on trading companies, see: Leonard W. Hein, “The British Business Company: Its Origins and Its Control,” The University of Toronto Law Journal 15, no. 1 (January 1, 1963): 144, doi:10.2307/824910; M. Schmitthoff, “The Origin of the Joint-Stock Company,” The University of Toronto Law Journal 3, no. 1 (January 1, 1939): 77, 79, 80, 81, 92, 94, 95.

[7] Eveline C. Martin, “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5 (January 1, 1922): 121, doi:10.2307/3678462.

[8] Ibid., 171.

[9] Reese, “Controlling the Company,” 105.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Martin, “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” 173.

[12] When the RAC held the forts, private merchants could not purchase provisions or slaves from the company. The CMTA was supposed to provide this service.

[13] In 1753, several merchants from Bristol addressed the Board of Trade with complaints that company merchants had formed an illegal joint stock and were preventing private merchants from trading on the coast, which caused prices to rise. Joint-stock advocate and former governor of the Royal African Company, assisted private merchants file their complaints—even though he disagreed with free trade. Roberts would later publish these accusations in a pamphlet aimed at undermining the company’s reputation during a period when King George III considered granting the company a charter for the protection of newly annexed territory in Senegal from France after the 7 years war. Company employee, John Hippisley, whose name appeared in the complaints wrote a defense of the company—one of the only defenses of the company—whereby he provides a view of coastal relationships similar to current literature on the cultural history of the Gold Coast. In 1764, the King granted the CMTA a charter for the Senegal territories, but in 1765, he revoked the chartered and placed the forts under the direct supervision of the state.

[14] Reese, “Controlling the Company,” 115. In other words, the CMTA was supposed to continuously make payments of various kinds for the Fante to continue flying the flag. The relationship between Britons and the Fante were misconstrued on part of the English. For instance, the first head governor of the CMTA, Thomas Melvil “mistakenly believed ‘that the duty of my station required me to look on myself as their [the Fante] common father and that if any man represented me otherwise he must be an enemy to quite the coast.” According to Reese, Melvil’s reactions reflected a general misunderstanding of their relationship. Later, Governor Roberts commented “that the forts were in good shape and effectively protected the people around them who remained loyal to the company,” but this is another example of how the company “viewed townspeople… as subjects.” Melvil: [60]  PRO T 70/29, 8 June 1752, TNA; Roberts: [61]  PRO T 70/32, 31 Oct. 1780, TNA.



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