I spoke to a large group at the Guildhall Library a few weeks ago about the history of the Royal African Company. There was a little consternation in the audience about the connections I proposed between the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, the corporation, and the blossoming charitable impulse in London in the early eighteenth century.
Let me dwell on a couple of these.
1 -Political supporters of the slave trade often justified themselves in philanthropic terms. The author of Considerations Upon the Trade to Guinea (London, 1708) asserted:
‘For my own part, I cannot but think it a charitable and commendable, as wel as a lawful Undertaking, to buy a Slave in Guinea, where the Severity of the Government has subjected him to a Discipline, that Flesh and Blood can scarce go thro; and to transport him to one of our Plantations, where he retains the Name of a Slave, but performs only the Work and Business of a Servant’.
So far, so familiarly perverse.
2 – The way in which the great corporate charitable endeavours of the eighteenth century engaged with the slave trade (and its abolition) is less frequently highlighted, however. The early modern corporation continued to exhibit its medieval spirit – that is, social, communitarian, moral – well into the eighteenth century (making ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ something of an historical misnomer) and corporate organisation often underpinned famous artistic and charitable projects of that century (including opera societies and Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital). From the 1730s, the Royal African Company began to chime in with these trends (and this history) by developing an argument to limit the brutality of the slave trade (having been one of the largest human trafficking organisations in human history) once it had lost much of its trade to independent slave traders. Supporters of the company celebrated its corporate structure as a means to rein in the inhumanity of deregulated trade. Early corporate suspicion of slave trading (from the 1730s onwards) began to work alongside the other charitable organisations designed to stimulate the growth of the English population (Coram’s Foundling Hospital especially). Former African Company director, Malachy Postlethwayt proposed (in his entry ‘The English African Company’ in his Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, 1766) that the descendants of Coram’s Foundlings would grow up to substitute for emancipated African labour. So charity could be the prop for evil on an unprecedented scale as well as the epitome of modern corporate utilitarianism. The early modern corporation shows us that the expectation that charity ought to be disinterested is a rather recent invention