Home Class Politics The Royal African Company Was The Largest Slaver And Yet, But....

The Royal African Company Was The Largest Slaver And Yet, But….



Well, yes:

whose orchestra was led by Handel, were invested in the Royal African Company, which shipped more Africans into bondage than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade.

True, but:

Historian William Pettigrew has stated that this company “shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade”,

Yes, well, but:

Between 1662 and 1731, the Company transported approximately 212,000 slaves, of whom 44,000 died en route, around 3,000 per year. By that time, they also transported slaves to English colonies in North America

A fairly small portion of the 11 million transported as slaves.

A lot of weight is being put upon that word “company”. Or, if you prefer, “institution” and not in that Southern sense of “Our Peculiar Institution”.

This is a useful example of Coase on the Theory of the Firm in fact. Why do firms exist? Because sometimes it is more efficient, overall, to carry the burdens and costs of having a central organisation which directs, through planning, the activities to be undertaken. At other times – or possibly for other activities – it is more efficient to operate as a network of individual contractors who only come together to perform the task the once. If repetition is needed then another set of linkages are created within that network to perform the task again. Or even, mildly differently, from a different port, carrying a different cargo to Africa and so on.

Certain ports most certainly carried more slaves than the Royal African Company. No single ship did, no single captain did. But it’s entirely possible – I’d have to go look it up and can’t be bothered to – that one or other of the slaving financiers, say one of the Ladino Portuguese shipping to Brazil as a likely candidate, or Tippu Tip over in East Africa, shipped more than 200,000 over the ocean. But they did so as a part of an ever changing wider network, not as the one institution or company.

This definition of the RAC as the “major” or “largest” slave trader is depending, heavily, on it being one of the few companies or institutions which so traded. Most of the traffic was done by those reforming networks, coalescing around the one voyage then rinsing and repeating.



  1. This language seems curious, or perhaps more accurately, misleading: ” shipped more Africans into bondage”. Shipped “into bondage”? No, ‘fraid that’s not right. They were already in bondage, they had been made slaves, before they set foot on those ships.

    Transporting slaves helped enable and expand the ghastly business of slavery, so it’s a horrible thing to have engaged in, but let’s stick to the facts please.

    • I do agree Esteban. There seems to be a sort of unspoken assumption that the Africans only became slaves when sold to the whites. This was simply not true.


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