`A Pack of Knaves’: The Royal African Company, the Development of the Jamaican Plantation Economy and the Benefits of Monopoly, 1672-1708

`Special Issue: European Imperialism in the early Eighteenth century’ Journal of Colonialism
and Colonial History forthcoming, 2021
This article is the first article in a special issue on the nature of European imperialism in the
first half of the eighteenth century in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, edited by myself.
It contains essays in addition by Christine Walker on gender in Jamaica, Phil Stern on the
East India Company and Marie Houllemare on law and the first French empire. My article
examines the end of the monopoly held by the Royal African Company with specific regard
to late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Jamaica. The ending of the monopoly of the
Royal African Company is an often discussed topic, usually looked at within the context of
the politics of England and Britain following the Glorious Revolution.
Because the major role of the Royal African Company was to provide Africans to the
colonies, it is a hard institution to defend. But this applies the values of today to a time where
everyone in Britain supported the British state’s advancement of slavery in the empire. What
was contested was who would be in control of the vitally important slave trade – a state
monopoly or free traders. The result of the decade long battle over the future of the Royal
African Company was to allow `separate traders,’ most of whom were large London
merchants to dominate the slave trade.

This decision had considerable effects in Jamaica. It greatly increased the supply of Africans
to work on plantations. In this way the change was successful. But what is just as important is
that it was a political coup enacted by key stakeholders in London. It was intended to benefit
themselves and their Jamaican supporters who from the 1690s had taken control of politics in
Jamaica. It also indirectly benefited another group of merchants, those African merchants
selling captives to Europeans.
I examine how Africans were sold in the 1680s when the Royal African Company was at its
height and compare this to the structure of slave sales in the mid eighteenth century. The
changes were dramatic and very much to their disadvantage of poorer and more ordinary
Jamaican slave owners, who were increasingly excluded from the market in slaves.
The Royal African Company was a much-maligned institution, maligned most by people who
stood to gain most from its demise. Their vision for the British American plantations was one
that emphasized inequality, the rule of the rich over the poor and an especially oppressive and
brutal slave regime where enslaved people lived miserable lives working themselves to death
in the harsh regime of sugar. Their victory foreclosed another option for Jamaica – a society
full of small farms rather than large plantations – and slavery that was perhaps less
traumatizing than what in fact developed by the first decades of the eighteenth century.
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