Published by EH.Net (December 2023).
Matthew David Mitchell. The Prince of Slavers: Humphry Morice and the Transformation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1698-1732. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. xvii + 317 pp. $129.99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-3030338381.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Jose Rowell Corpuz, University of Warwick.
Matthew David Mitchell’s The Prince of Slavers examines the slave-trading career of Humphry Morice, which began in 1698 and ended with Morice’s death in 1731. These dates fall in between the era of the Royal African Company (RAC)’s monopoly of English trade in West Africa, which ended in the late seventeenth century, and the peak of the British slave trade in the late eighteenth century. “The path between these two better-studied phases in the chronology of the trade runs through Morice,” argues Mitchell, a historian at The University of the South who has written extensively about the transatlantic slave trade (4). Toward illuminating that path, Mitchell draws on primary sources from the Morice papers in the Bank of England Archives, supplements them with the 2018 Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, and shows how competitive Morice was relative to his rivals.
The book examines the business strategies employed by individual merchants, particularly Morice, as opposed to the strategies employed by joint-stock companies like the RAC. Why focus on Morice and not on other contemporary merchants? Chapter 1 discusses this question, and Chapter 3 provides more clarity on it. Table 3.6, for example, shows that Morice ranked first of 61 investors in the British slave trade in terms of voyages between 1698 and 1732. Morice was associated with 103 voyages during this period; the second top investor was associated with 79 voyages; 87 percent of the investors between 1698 and 1732 had five or fewer voyages (80-81). Hence, it would have been useful to have this table as early as Chapter 1. Why was Morice more successful than other merchants? Mitchell’s answer to this question focuses on the multiple-ship strategy employed by Morice. Chapter 4 discusses this strategy in further details.
Readers interested in the RAC should read Chapter 2 for its history, including the challenges the company faced in West Africa. The chapter argues that the RAC did not profit much from its dominant position in the market. Table 2.1 shows that the RAC was a dominant competitor in terms of share of the total number of slaves shipped from Africa between 1674 and 1688 (38). However, a close examination by Mitchell of the RAC’s profits from the buying and selling of slaves and gold suggests that the RAC earned only modest profits, despite being dominant in the market (45). Central to this observation are the RAC’s forts and castles on the West African coast. These buildings served as warehouses for goods as well as centres for information about goods in demand by African merchants (p. 19). But maintaining the forts and castles entailed high fixed costs. Hence, although the RAC had a “dominant” market position, their profit was “not ideal” because of the high fixed costs (37).
Morice is mentioned more often in Chapter 3. Morice was one of those who actively lobbied for the opening of the trade in West Africa to other English merchants (71). With the passage of the “Ten Percent” Act in 1698, the separate traders paid duties to the RAC in exchange for the right to trade in West Africa (51). The English slave trade became more oligopolistic (74-75). And yet, as Table 3.4 suggests, the slave trade in the period after the RAC’s legal monopoly can be characterized as “the work of only a ‘few cunning and designing Persons’” (75).
If there is one main chapter in this book, Chapter 4 must be it. In this chapter, Mitchell lays out the risks associated with the African trade, namely the risk associated with the selection of goods from England, the risk of slaves dying on the Middle Passage, and the risk associated with non-payment of debts owed by colonial slave purchasers (93). To address such risks, Mitchell argues, the multiple-ship strategy shortened the time of voyage – and the delivery of goods, slaves, and information – around Europe, Africa, and America. In a nutshell, Morice instructed his captains to work together. Consider two ships. One ship could transfer all its slaves to another ship, which effectively enabled specialization between the two ships. The first ship could specialise in bringing goods and information from Africa straight back to England, while the second ship could specialise in delivering slaves from Africa to America. From the point of view of the “triangle trade”, the first ship takes the shorter route of “Europe-Africa-Europe”. The second ship takes the longer “Europe-Africa-America-Europe” route (19). Furthermore, the “little triangle trade” – where European merchants could exchange slaves for Brazilian gold on the African coasts – eliminates the need to sell slaves in America. It reinforces the shorter trade route (108). The multiple-ship strategy therefore minimises the time necessary to complete the triangle trade per voyage, thereby maximizing the profits from it (125). Was one route more profitable than the others? Also, did the RAC think of or consider a similar strategy? If yes, why didn’t they adopt it?
The principal-agent question is addressed in Chapter 5. Morice trusted his captains with a huge amount of goods and responsibilities (148-9). How did Morice ensure that the captains would follow his instructions and act in line with his interests? The answer provided by Mitchell is a combination of “carrots” and “sticks”. For example, captains received salary and were allowed private adventures (156-7). In addition, Morice required bonds from his captains, as did the RAC and its agents (157). Mitchell shows that Morice rivalled the RAC in terms of profits from the gold trade, though not so much in terms of profits from the slave trade (162).
Yet Morice’s multiple-ship strategy eventually lost its competitive advantage after reaching its heyday in the 1720s (199). Chapter 6 provides several explanations as to why. The political situation in West Africa affected the certainty of the supply of slaves from West Africa. The growth in the Brazilian gold-extraction industry was not as robust as in the earlier periods. Perhaps most of all, as the book concludes in Chapter 7, a more cost-efficient strategy from competitors drove Morice out of the slave-trading business. In Mitchell’s words, “the rise and fall of Humphry Morice can best be explained in business terms” (225). Competitors from Bristol, for example, traded as far as the Bight of Biafra, which was farther than where most of Morice’s ships would travel to trade (222), and at the same time supplied the then growing demand for slaves, especially in Virginia, Barbados, and Jamaica (223). Chapter 7 suggests that Morice’s competitors adopted a strategy of information gathering similar to Morice’s, but at a lower cost and over a wider geographical area. One wonders about the exact details of this strategy. Did the competitors also use a multiple-ship strategy? How did the competitors trade with a lower cost, and how much lower was it than Morice’s cost?
Chapter 8, the appendix, provides an annotated list of Morice’s Africa voyages. The information is given at the ship level. It includes information on the name of the captain of the ship, Morice’s partners, Morice’s share of investment, the ship’s itinerary, the number of slaves embarked from Africa, and the number of slaves disembarked in America. There are in total 131 ships in the list. The Database assigns Morice as the owner or one of the owners to 79 of these ships. The Morice papers assign Morice as the owner or one of the owners to the other 24 ships (228).
One difficulty that some readers may encounter is Mitchell’s frequent use of direct quotes from the original scripts. Although presenting the arguments in their original form offers a fuller picture of them, readers who are not used to reading centuries-old manuscripts may find the writing style challenging, not least because of the non-standard spelling.
Mitchell presents facts and conclusions based on these facts and succeeds in making us think of questions for further research. I recommend this book to those who are interested in the transatlantic slave trade and in business history in general.
Jose Rowell Corpuz is a teaching-focused Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. His research interests include economic history and development economics.
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