A Grandfather's Tale: Chapter 3, THE VIRGINIA TRADE
A GRANDFATHER'S TALE: LIVERPOOL SLAVE TRADER, WILLIAM BOLDEN 1730-1800
Chapter Three: THE VIRGINIA TRADE
The Virginia trade of the firm Sparling and Bolden began sometime in the middle of the 1750s. It continued, subject to the interruption of the American War of Independence, for the next 40 years. The verifiable, core, years of the partner's joint residency in the Chesapeake are 1759 to 1764. However, Sparling seems to have arrived earlier in the first decade and Bolden did not depart until later in the second.
This period saw the establishing and growth of a commercial concern that exceeded the initial two-man combination. By the end of the 1760s, Sparling and Bolden was a trading business with three active branches under local, co-investing, managers. Each branch was strategically located throughout the southern part of Tidewater Virginia and operated through their own warehouse-stores.
The foundation of the Virginian 'merchant-house' was a number of interlocking trades. Sparling and Bolden shipped in manufactured goods from England, including salt, cloth, rope, ceramic bowls and dishes, and metal utensils and tools. They then returned those ships loaded with plantation produce (tobacco) and raw materials (forest products, or 'naval stores', -- tar, pitch, turpentine). Their commerce was about bringing in the sort of supplies that colonists found necessary to carry on with their daily lives, and then taking out the fruits of the colonists' labour to meet the demands of British markets.
It was in most instances a straight-forward exchange of one type of goods for another. The settlers brought their produce from the farms and forests into Sparling and Boldens' warehouse-stores along the James River. They went home again with the practical and personal items they required to produce their next 'harvest'. The firm's role, simply put, was to provide a convenient centre for the transaction of one sort of goods for another.
From the partners' point of view, it was also about collecting profit by 'balancing' the relative values of those goods as they passed through their hands. They bought English manufactures for less than they 'sold' them to the colonists. They 'paid' less for the colonists' produce than they expected to sell them for on the British market. They 'charged' freight costs for each leg of the trade and they quietly claimed the various government subsidies available for the carriage of those goods particularly desired by the British Navy. They also acted as agents for other goods consignors, often arranging the resale of third party cargoes in return for a percentage commission. It was the 'marginal' differences between the debit and credit 'prices' entered into Sparling and Boldens' account books which eventually stuck to the lining of the partners' pockets.
Of course, the movement of goods at nominal 'prices' cannot have always been in their favour. The risks of shipwreck, piracy, price crashes following oversupply, the problem of distant markets and delayed 'market intelligence', bad weather and storm damaged goods, the outbreak of war, all complicated their world. These variables had to be factored in to their price estimates at each stage, particularly the lack of up-to-date market information. At times the partners' decisions must have come down to little more than speculation and expensive mistakes could easily be made.
However, one way to compensate for higher risk is to 'price-in' larger margins for error. Another is to pay careful attention to those details over which it is possible to exercise control. Between shrewdly self-interested marketing decisions, meticulous management of shipping operations, and a requisite portion of good luck, the firm of Sparling and Bolden apparently prospered. The partners reaped sufficient financial reward during their formative years in Virginia Colony to able to return to Liverpool as moderately wealthy men, (each purchasing substantial brick homes in Duke Street and separate counting-houses in nearby Henry Street in 1769).
Geography of Profit
The sea-level coastal region of the oldest colonies of British North America, called the Tidewater, is an area extending from Delaware and Pennsylvania, south through Maryland and Virginia, to Albermarle Sound in North Carolina. The Tidewater region's central geographical feature is Chesapeake Bay, a massive inland waterway formed by the Atlantic Ocean's 'drowning' of a number of ancient river valleys.
Running into the Bay, these original 'flooded' streams (like the James and the York) are consequently broad and tidal. These qualities provided safe inland navigation, from the relatively sheltered waters of the Bay in the east, to the western barrier known as the Falls-line. This escarpment or fault line, the water-falls-line, was a natural boundary between the low-lying Tidewater and the more elevated Piedmont country beyond.
Easy access from the sea, and suitable soil and climate, led to the Tidewater being cultivated by the first tobacco planters in the seventeenth century. The earliest plantations were alongside the broad tidal rivers, with each having their own 'landings' for loading and unloading vessels. These included the smaller ocean-going sailing ships of the period, which was the basis of a marriage of opportunity made in mercantilist heaven -- English goods in, Virginian produce out, and no double-handling.
However, the economic advantages of Tidewater topography had some soon-to-be-felt limitations. Intensive and consecutive cultivation of tobacco exhausted the soil. Fresh land further up river and into the Piedmont was required. By the eighteenth century the Tidewater had lost its pre-eminence in the production of prime tobacco leaf and many of the old riverside landings fell into disuse. more important now was getting the crop past Fall-line depots, like Petersburg on the Appomattox and Richmond on the Upper James.
There was also a need for a larger port, a break-of-bulk point, with easy ocean access. The Town Borough of Norfolk was well situated to become a central entrepot for this trade. It occupied a deep and sheltered anchorage on the southern shore of the Chesapeake and was close the Atlantic entrance to the Bay. Norfolk on the Elizabeth River had long been recognized as a "land and water crossroads". (1)
In 1673 a military fort was constructed at the end of its narrow peninsular, overlooking what was soon known as Hampton Roads. It had a warehouse and wharf as early as 1680. It became the site of an official tobacco inspection warehouse in 1730 and in 1736 it was granted a self-governing borough charter with its own elected council, mayor, and aldermen. By 1755 the settlement, "with a population of about 6,000, had become Virginia's busiest port and largest city". (2)
William Bolden and John Sparling made this active intersection of maritime interests the base of their trading operations in Virginia. In conjunction with Samuel Shaw in Liverpool, they "started out by running stores on the Lower James". (3) From the perspective of their Liverpool connection, they began "importing tar, turpentine and tobacco, and exporting salt, woollen goods and hardware". (4)
During the core period of their residency in Virginia (1759-1765), Sparling and Bolden were involved in at least nine vessels doing the Liverpool to Norfolk run. In 1759, as merchants of Norfolk, they registered the 100 ton brig Hannah in shares with Samuel Shaw merchant of Liverpool. In 1761, 1762 and 1763, they registered four vessels as sole owners in Virginia (90 tons, 120 tons, 100 tons, and 120 tons). In 1764 they registered the 140 ton Hannah, again in shares with Shaw. In 1765 they registered the 100 ton Hope, with Bolden still resident in Virginia but Sparling having returned to Liverpool. In 1766, when both Sparling and Bolden were back in Liverpool, they registered the Pearl in shares with their Norfolk managing partner John Lawrence. And in 1767 they registered the 100 ton Fanny as sole owners of Liverpool. (5)
By the time both partners had resumed living in Liverpool they had established three branches to the Virginian business, each of which were managed by new junior partners. The Norfolk branch traded as Bolden, Lawrence & Co., with American John Lawrence as manager and holding a third share. A second branch was strategically placed at Suffolk on the Nansemond River, to collect 'naval stores' from the vast reserves of pine forest south of the James. Trading as Sparling, Lawrence & Co., its manager was George Sparling, brother of senior partner John, with a quarter share.
The third branch was located at Petersburg on the Fall-line of the Appomattox River, a souther tributory of the James, and drawing trade from the new tobacco plantations in the Piedmont. It traded as John Holloway and Company, with the American Holloway as manager and owning a quarter share in the business. It should be noted that while Sparling and Holloway operated as local managers, they were also, in theory, subject to the general oversight of Lawrence in Norfolk. This arrangement did not always work well in practice because Lawrence was reluctant to interfere in the affairs of either men. (6)
A reasonable inference from this company structure, and the particular positioning of each of the three warehouse-stores, is that the growth of Sparling and Boldens' business in Virginia was a flexible and responsive process. The pattern reflects the opportunities that were recognised by them as newcomers in an already crowded marketplace.
The premium tobacco trade was dominated by major players from Glasgow (the Scottish 'tobacco lords') as well as the large clearing-houses and auction rooms of London. From their initial base in Norfolk, any expansion of the partners' commerce had to be in response to what was realistically still available to them as relatively minor, 'fringe' players.
Along the southern banks of the James River and down its tributaries like the Nansemond and the Appomattox, ownership of land and plantation agriculture was more fragmented than along the established York and Rappahannock Rivers. The interior south to the Carolinas, including the huge 'wasteland' of the Great Dismal Swamp, also held considerable potential.
Smallholders and new planters required supplies from merchant stores just as much as established planters. In return, Sparling and Bolden accepted the settlers' few barrels of tar filched from the neighbouring forest, or one or two hogsheads of their Oronico tobacco. These small consignments gradually accumulated in the firm's warehouses, until a full shipment could be gathered in Norfolk and sent back over the Atlantic.
From the vantage point of modern America it is easy to overlook the dearth of commodities available to early settlers. The Thirteen Colonies had very limited industrial capacity right to the end of the eighteenth century. Colonists relied on British manufactured goods for the most basic means of their survival on the frontier. Maurice Schofield describes this fundamental dependence from its beginning in the 1600s:
The primitive settler in the wilderness was likely to build his wooden house with British axe and saw, breaking up the soil with British hoe and spade and plough, defending himself and his family from animals, Indians, Frenchmen and Spaniards with British gun and munitions. (7)What is perhaps more unexpected is the extent to which this reliance continued in the latter part of the 1700s; that is, both before and after the War of Independence (1776-1783). Post-Revolutionary Americans seem to have picked up their import trade just as they had left it, demanding the same British products and brands, and in even greater volumes.
While the details of Sparling and Bolden's Virginia trade in the pre-war years are not preserved, the partners' Letter Book for the period 1788 to 1799 has survived. It is arguable that the patterns of trade in these post-war documents are, to some degree, reflective of the firm's accounts in the earlier period. But if nothing else, the range of what they supplied to the Virginians at the end of the 1700s is useful to demonstrate the wider application of Schofield's point.
After the American Revolution the Liverpool merchant partners...resumed their trade with Virginia, begun long ago when they were residents there...From Liverpool, after 1788, Sparling and Bolden shipped woollens from Yorkshire, the Lake District and Wales; rugs, spotted blue and white, from Rochdale; flannels, white and red, from Colne; buttons and twist from Stockport; checks and handkerchiefs from Manchester; ribbons from Congleton; sailcloth from Kirkham; and cordage and rope from Lancaster. Lancashire firms in Warrington, Billinge, and Ashton-in-Makerfield supplied hardware, including locks and hinges, nails and pins, and iron pots. Odd items were tobacco pipes, perhaps from Rainford near St Helen's, earthenware [crockery] from prescot, and gunpowder, perhaps from the Furness district of North Lancashire. The firm also arranged shipments from London of calicoes, chintz, printed cotton and silk, which seem to be East Indian goods, and various sorts of linen which seem European in origin, 'much cheaper in London than elsewhere'. There are also from London, in small quantities, starch, pepper, tea, powder and shot, and 'half-minute' glasses. But the bulk of the Sparling and Bolden goods were sent from Liverpool. (8)These are scarcely luxury items to tempt the prosperous planter. It is interesting that there was a preponderance of Kendall Cottons (in both whites and colours), and Wakefield Durants ("half thicks, fine and pressed clothes" and "blankets, striped and rose"), among the woollen goods sent to Virginia during this period. (9) These were hard-wearing materials which proved enduringly popular in the colonies.
The adjectives "cheap" and "coarse" were commonly used by British merchants to promote their wares. In 1742 Francis Jerdone, a Scottish factor and storekeeper in Hanover County, reported the following to his superiors 'at home': "Nothing so contributed towards a cheap purchase [of tobacco] as good Ozens ['osnaburgs', German linen cloth], Cottons ['Kendal Cottons', Yorkshire woollen garments], and other coarse goods". (10)
Cheap 'Kerseys' from Keswick and 'Cottons' from Kendal were know as "Negro Cottons" in Virginia, where they were used as winter clothing for slaves. Coarse unbleached linens woven from flax, such as white and brown German 'osnaburgs', or their British imitations from Glasgow, Dundee, Wigan and Leyland, were used to make slaves' summer clothing. For many of Sparling and Bolden's smallholder clients, eking out an uncertain living on half cleared farms on the edges of the pine forest, and affording only family labour, the terms "cheap" and "coarse" were no doubt equally attractive for their own needs. (11)
There was another common component of 'inbound' cargo which is worth mentioning in this context. A standard 'ballast' loading for Liverpool ships to Virginia was salt. Large quantities were required in the colonies as this was often the only way to preserve food that was subject to seasonal oversupply followed by shortage. This particularly applied to high-value foodstuffs like meat. Beef and pork, by example, needed to be laid down in barrels at the time of the autumn slaughter in order to provide continuity of supply through winter.
Cheap rock salt, mined in Cheshire and refined in Liverpool, formed a large part of Sparling and Bolden's consignments to Virginia. Bolts of hessian were included, to be sewn into sacks by the sailors during the voyage, in readiness for unloading along the James. The salt, once stowed, would then be packed around with the dry goods that made up the rest of the cargo, the textiles, hardware and other 'manufactures'.
When Sparling and Bolden arrived in Virginia in the 1750s, the primary economic position of tobacco was well established. From Philip Rolfe's first cultivation of the Spanish Orinoco variety at Bermuda Hundred in 1612, the granting of a British monopoly to Virginia and Maryland's planters in 1625, and statutory attempts to guarantee leaf quality through inspection warehouses ("rolling houses") in 1680, 1713, and 1730, the production of tobacco had grown to become the principal export crop of mainland North America.
Until the French and Indian War of 1754-1763, when Virginia began to print its own money, the colonial currency was tobacco. Up to that point everything that was transacted in the colony, land, labour, and merchandise, was valued in terms of an equivalent weight in tobacco. For example, the original surveyed site for Norfolk was 50 acres bought in 1682. It was described at that time as, "on Nicholas Wise his land on the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River at the entrance of the branch...Price 10,000 lbs. tobacco and cask". (12)
A clear, contemporary, account of the Chesapeake tobacco economy is related in Mair's Book-keeping Modernised, published in 1784. This book describes "Matters...as they were before the independence of America was established"; in effect, the period between Governor Sir William Gooch's Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 and the beginning of the Revolution in 1775. Mair begins by summarising the scale of the trade:
...the chief and staple commodity, both of Virginia and Maryland, is tobacco...from these two colonies have been imported yearly to Britain about 80,000 hogsheads...value of this to the planters may be computed at 5 Pounds sterling per hogshead...yearly income for this article 400,000 Pounds; and allowing the tobacco, when exported from Britain to France, Holland, Norway, Hamburg, the Baltic...or Ireland, to be sold at 9 Pounds sterling per hogshead, the returns will amount to 720,000 Pounds. (13)Mair goes on to describe the particular role played by British merchants in this business:
...British merchants who carry on the tobacco trade find it in their interest to employ factors or supercargoes of their own, who go over to Virginia and Maryland, and usually settle for some years in the country...These carry with them, and are supplied from time to time by their employers with large quantities of all kinds of European and India goods, which they expose to sale in shops or houses, which go under the name of stores. These merchants or storekeepers generally sell their goods on trust, or time; and receive payment, not in cash but in tobacco, as the planters can get it ready. (14)In conclusion, Mair explains the way that the Virginian planters delivered their product. This is an important reference for the case of Sparling and Bolden, because it indicates two possible methods of payment, based on the volume supplied.
The greatest part of the tobacco is put up or prized into hogsheads by the planters themselves, before it can be carried to the warehouses...[and is] called crop...Each hogshead, by act of assembly, must be 950 lbs or upwards...the heavier they are, the merchants like them better; because four hogsheads, whatever their weight may be, by long custom, is esteemed a ton, and pays the same freight...[Alternatively] small quantities tobacco in light hogsheads, in bags, or in loose parcels...are called transfer and the inspectors deliver the planter a transfer-note...when a merchant comes to be possessed of as many transfer-notes as will make up a hogshead, he delivers the notes to the inspectors, who prize the tobacco into a hogshead and issue a crop-note. (15)When taken together, these aspects of Mair's description give illuminating insights into the route chosen by Sparling and Bolden to enter an already crowded 'premium' market. Firstly, the two partners were prepared to go to Virginia with their manufactured goods and open stores in places where potential customers actually lived and worked. Secondly, they were prepared to deal with "middling planters", those who supplied "small quantities tobacco". By accepting numerous "transfer-notes" in payment for their merchandise, they were able to amalgamate these into "crop-notes", or whole hogsheads, which in turn multiplied into a complete shipload to be sent back to Liverpool.
The competitive mechanism of trade employed by Sparling and Bolden became possible for two historical reasons. The first was Gooch's Inspection Act. This ruled that no tobacco leaf could be exported without an endorsed crop-note. The second stemmed from the larger planters' lust for credit. Their preferred method of sale was to ship their own hogsheads direct to London for sale, at their own expense. These planters paid 10% sales commission and warehousing to the brokers' auction-rooms, found an estimated 6% extra for freight and insurance, and received their net proceeds in Bills of Exchange.
At first glimpse, this method of direct shipment might seem to be an expression of market power and independence by the most prosperous planters. In reality, however, the whole charade was funded by debt. Big planters were usually a year behind in their accounts. Their planting, prizing, and shipping of Crop A was financed by the same large auction-houses to whom they consigned their tobacco for direct sale.
Before Crop A was actually sold, and the proceeds due could be remitted back to the colonist, funds were already necessary to meet the same production expenses for Crop B. Rather than enjoying independent market power, the planters were conscripted into a never ending cycle of debt. Crop B paid for Crop A, plus interest accrued, Crop C paid for Crop B, plus interest accrued, and so on.
The high indebtedness of most large scale planters locked them into perpetually dependent client relationships with well-capitalised London firms. After the Revolutionary War (during which time no debts were honoured), British merchants claimed that the true extent of Virginian debts owed to them was 2,305,408 Pounds. This was the American deficit after all the moneys owing to Virginians for their tobacco had been deducted. (It has been suggested by more than one historian that the American Revolution was not so much prompted by political ideals, as it was the result of many large Virginian tobacco planters wishing to evade their debtor obligations to London). (16)
The 1730s and 1740s had been decades of strong growth in plantation tobacco trading. Equally, they were years of growing financial entanglement between established American planters and established British merchants. Large commercial 'houses' in England provided the credit to large American plantations, consolidating their control over most of the tobacco market. This presented a barrier to trading 'minnows' like Sparling and Bolden who now sought entry into the market in the 1750s and 1760s.
Nevertheless, with the exhaustion of Tidewater soils and the cultivation of the Piedmont, a new, more diverse, group of suppliers had begun to emerge. There was an increase in a more frugal 'breed' of middling-planters, more 'pay-as-you-go' operators, who did not demand the same degree of carry-on' finance as the 'old-style' or 'gentlemen' plantation owners. In other words, the opportunities for smaller British firms were growing too. With their astutely situated warehouse-stores along the southern James, and their willingness to accept transfer-notes, Sparling and Bolden were able to occupy the more fragmented, less premium-end of the tobacco trade.
While tobacco remained the prestige Virginian trade, by mid-century (as we have seen) it was not necessarily the most profitable. And, if the situation of Sparling and Bolden warehouses to the south of the great transport artery of the James is a reliable guide, then the firm's trade in 'naval stores' was probably a more significant part of their business.
The term 'naval stores' refers to the range of forest products used to waterproof and maintain wooden sailing ships. Tar and pitch were needed to caulk and seal timbers in the construction of hulls and decking. Hemp rope and flax sailcloth likewise required protection and preservation against exposure to wet and windy conditions. Without supplies of pine-tar, pitch, resin, and turpentine, ships would leak and rigging would rot.
The consumption of naval stores by the British and merchant navies in the eighteenth century was consequently enormous. The trading wealth of the Empire and the power of its ocean-going Fleet matters of critical national importance. The colonies in New England and the Carolinas were therefore granted subsidies to extract these vital resources from their wilderness of pine forests under the Bounty Act of 1705. "Parliament's Act for Encouraging the Importation of Naval Stores from America" (renewed in 1758) slashed the freight cost to Britain from 8 Pounds per ton to 4 Pounds for tar and pitch and 3 Pounds for rosin and turpentine spirits. (17)
It is no coincidence that all three Sparling and Bolden branches were located on rivers that drained southern Virginia, reaching down into the vast reserves of longleaf pines that once covered 90 million acres of southeast America. Norfolk on the Elizabeth River and Suffolk on the Nansemond River were both readily accessible to the Great Dismal Swamp, originally one million acres of densely timbered wilderness. (18)
One measure of this extractive industry's 'success' is contained in a botanic survey of southern Virginia conducted in 2005: "Not a single longleaf pine remains within the watersheds of the Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers today and not a single tree remains in the former longleaf counties of Norfolk and Princess Ann. The only evidence remaining in the three counties east of the Nansemond River are a few remnant tar kilns and a handful of isolated trees in Suffolk". (19)
The historical process of 'harvesting' timber products was both parasitic and destructive.
Crude turpentine was just the fresh gum [sap] exuded from the tree when a section of bark was removed. Spirits of turpentine was the aromatic fraction produced by distilling crude gum, and rosin was the dense waxy residue left over from distillation. These materials were produced from the living tree. Tar was the product of distillation of dead lightwood. The resin-rich heartwood from old stumps, or gathered from partly decayed trunks on the forest floor and distilled in tar kilns. The black, much thicker pitch was simply tar that had been burned down in iron 'pitch kettles' to about one third its original volume. (20)Naval stores were seasonal 'crops'. Pine sap only dripped from March to October, when small farmers were busy with other produce, so the production of turpentine lagged behind tar and pitch. Tar kilns could be fired in winter when more time was available for non-agricultural activities. Tar was also produced from dead trees, using up pines felled to clear land for cultivation. It was an 'off-season' crop that fitted neatly into the farming year and it earned income when it was most needed.
A rare, contemporary account, written in 1784, puts this 'cottage' industry in revealing social context:
The industry was carried on by poor men who built their kilns unassisted by servants or slaves, and considered a few dozen barrels a year an excellent output. The tar-burner first laid down a circular floor of clay. Upon this he piled pine logs, covered them with a coat of earth and ignited them through a small opening left for that purpose. This was then closed and the fire left to smoulder. As the tar trickled down upon the clay floor, it was drained off into barrels by an inclined wooden pipe. If the burner decided to convert his tar into pitch, he boiled it in large kettles, or burned it in holes made in the clay...The tar-burner usually established himself upon a navigable stream or inlet, within easy reach of Norfolk. When he had accumulated a fair supply, he rolled his barrels onto a flat-bottomed boat or a shallop...Before sundown his tar, or pitch, or turpentine was reposing on one of Norfolk's wharves. (21)The economic potential of the industry was recognised by the Virginia Assembly in 1722 and 1748, when they legislated to regulate the size of pitch and tar barrels, and added a further 16 shillings a ton to the British Parliament's bounty of 4 Pounds. Production of naval stores increased in volume and one-family operations were thereby encouraged to expand by employing a servant or purchasing a slave. The range of extractive capacity also increased, with the gradual settlement and opening up of North Carolina to the south. (22)
In the absence of Sparling and Bolden's account books for the pre-Revolutionary period, it is difficult to quantify their trade in naval stores. However, a sense of the relative composition of their colonial inventories can be gained from the following report of a cargo leaving the Lower James in 1745. On 12 April of that year a customs official noted: "Cleared at Hampton, the snow William and Mary, Thomas Bradley, for Liverpool, with 100 hhd [hogsheads] tobacco, 500 bbl [barrels] tar, 60 walnut stocks and 5,600 staves [for barrel making]". (23)
A more relevant indication of the industry's importance to Sparling and Bolden is found in their claims for compensation for war damage sustained at their Norfolk and Suffolk branches. On New Years Day 1776, British ships under the command of Lord Dunmore opened fire on Norfolk, burning most of the town buildings to the ground. In mid-May 1779, another British force re-captured Norfolk and Portsmouth on the opposite banks of the Elizabeth River and destroyed the Gosport Naval Yard. They then sailed up the Nansemond River and captured Suffolk, where "the naval stores were totally destroyed in a dramatic confraglation when thousands of barrels of turpentine and pitch caught fire in warehouses along the river". (24)
On 9 and 10 November 1785, John Sparling gave verbal and documentary evidence to the Commissioners for Compensation at their hearings in London following the American War of Independence. For the Norfolk branch of* Sparling and Bolden he claimed "goods, a share of a warehouse, and a sloop worth 250 Pounds in Virginian currency, were destroyed [in Lord Dunmore's bombardment], the whole being worth in sterling 1,036 P, 9 s, 2 d." (25)
More interesting are "the losses at Suffolk [which] were incurred on 13 May 1779, when British ships burnt the town". The claim of loss for this branch of the pre-Revolutionary business was for George Sparling's house, 720 Pounds; their warehouse on the wharf containing 1,400 barrels of turpentine and 1,200 of tar, 1,650 Pounds; and a negro "taken and carried away", 115 Pounds. (The total of 2,160 Pounds sterling was later reduced to 1,800 Pounds after over-calculation of the value of tar and turpentine in Virginian currency was conceded). (26)
There was no mention of tobacco in this claim, but a lot of naval stores. Sparling's evidence suggests that the partners' priorities in their Virginia trading were overwhelmingly towards the latter.
The Suffolk claim is also interesting for the approximate volume equivalence between turpentine and tar by 1776-9. There appears to have been a growing sophistication in the extraction, and refinement, of naval stores from the longleaf pine forests of southern Virginia and North Carolina. Tar-burners are reported taking on some slave labour to expand their production into the summer months of highest resin flow. As early as 1737 there is an account of this trend: "The Planters make their Servants or Negroes cut large Cavities on each side of the Pitch-Pine Tree (which they term the Boxing of the Tree) where in the Turpentine runs, and the Negroes with Ladles take it out and put it into Barrels". (27)
By 1760, the number of African slaves in Virginia was 140,470. Over the previous 100 years, some 84,247 had been directly transported into the Colony, with 'natural increase' accounting for the rest. (28)
Originally the Tidewater destinations of the York River and the Rappahannock were as important as the James when importing slaves. With the increasing exhaustion of soils for tobacco growing, the emphasis swung south. The major off-loading point for slaves became the Upper James, particularly Bermuda Hundred at its junction with the Appomattox River, a point immediately downstream of the Fall-line centres of Richmond and Petersburg.
Between 1760 and 1764, nearly two thirds (62%) of all slaves entering Virginia arrived via Bermuda Hundred, their 'gateway' to North America. (29) British merchants shipped in mainly Igbo and Kongo captives to this market. That is, approximately half were brought from the Niger Delta and the Bight of Biafra, and another quarter from West Central Africa, which was known then as the "Angola Coast". (30)
In the 1760s, Liverpool slave traders delegated the selling of their slave shipments to 'reliable' local agents. Before this slaves were sold by some of the larger plantation owners, the elite 'gentry' planters, who were paid 10% commission and required to make good any unhonoured debts on the sales. This system had largely lapsed by mid-century. Marketing of human cargoes was performed by merchant traders in tobacco and naval stores, like Sparling and Bolden.
Smaller firms had the advantage of charging lower commissions at 5-7%. They were also likely to have a better understanding of the new 'mix' of slave buyers, the "middling planters" and "up-country storekeepers". Smaller planters bought one or two slaves a year and paid in tobacco. Storekeepers bought slaves in small lots for re-sale in the Piedmont and they too generally required time or terms to fund their purchases. Sparling and Bolden, with their three branches and diverse customers, were in a better position to assess the creditworthiness of prospective slave purchasers than an 'aristocrat' in his plantation house.
It therefore increasingly fell on them (and other local firms like them) to advertise the arrival of the ship, to make connections with potential buyers, to auction the slaves to the highest bidders, and to ensure that the Liverpool slavers got paid for the 'pieces' they had delivered. This did not always go to plan, as the following sequence of newspaper advertisements indicate.
On June 21, 1766, Bolden, Lawrence and Co advertised a consignment from Chas Cooke and Co of Liverpool in the Virginia Gazette:
Just arrived in James River, From Africa, the ship Apollo, Capt. Elias Glover, with about two hundred choice healthy Windward and Gold Coast slaves; the sale of which will begin at Bermuda Hundred on Monday the 7th of July next, and continue until all are sold.On August 1, 1776, Bolden, Lawrence and Co lodged a similar advertisement for the same consignor:
Just arrived in James, from Africa, THE ship BASSA, Captain Richard CLEGG, with a cargo of fine and healthy Windward and Gold Coast slaves; the sale of which will begin at Bermuda Hundred on Tuesday the 12th of August next, and continue until all are sold.The third and final advertisement in this series from William Bolden and John Lawrence was published in the Virginia Gazette on November 26, 1767, a year or so after the first two:
ALL persons indebted to the subscribers for Negroes purchased out of the Ships Apollo and Bassa in the year 1766 are requested to make payment immediately. Those who fail doing it before, or at the ensuing December Oyer [assize] court, may expect their accounts will be put into a lawyer's hand.Despite their advantage of local knowledge, Bolden, Lawrence and Co were still occasionally confronted with the problem of bad debts. (31)
The risks of colonial debt collection do not appear to have outweighed the profit on commissions from the firm's slave auctions, at least not in the long term. Several years later, after both Sparling and Bolden had returned to Liverpool, their Norfolk partner John Lawrence was still in the trade on their behalf. Indeed, the consecutive nature of the dates for the following two advertisements suggest the old firm was still very active at Bermuda Hundred. Although, it should be noted, with some added qualifications to ensure prompt payment.
Sept. 6, 1770, Virginia Gazette. 'Just arrived from AFRICA, the ship MARTHA, JOHN BISBROWN commander, with about two hundred choice healthy SLAVES, THE sale of which will begin at Bermuda Hundred, on Thursday the 20th instant and continue until all are sold...N.B. Merchant's notes will be received in payment.'
Sept. 6, 1770, Virginia Gazette. 'Just arrived from AFRICA, 200 choice SLAVES, In the brig ASTON, John Clifton commander; the sale of which will begin at Bermuda Hundred, on Thursday the 20th of September, and continue until all are sold...N.B. Merchant's notes will be received in payment.' (32)These advertisements are explicit in their requirement of "Merchant's notes" to be used in payment. This strategy reduced the auctioneers' financial risk by offloading it onto another commercial entity, a virtual guarantor or 'referee', whose task it then became to ensure that the prospective purchaser had the means to bid in good faith. Under Lawrence's astute management in 1770, the interests of Sparling and Bolden continued to be characterised by the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and minimise financial risk.
If there was a corporate tradition to the partners' Virginia trade it might have been their desire to seem reputable. They avoided behaving rashly and as much as possible sought to conform to other's expectations of them. One last illustration of this theme is their connection with Bermuda Hundred. The firm conducted their public slave sales at the expected place and in the expected way. This maximised their chances of a successful auction, one with quick and complete clearance of the consignor's 'catalogue'.
At that time, Bermuda Hundred was the primary inland tidal port on the James River (and the James was the primary commercial and transport artery of Virginia Colony). Its major period of growth occurred after 1731, with the placing of a tobacco inspection, or 'government', warehouse there. At the head of the easily navigable part of the Lower James, the Hundred prospered as a break-of-bulk point and port of entry for Upper James settlements and plantations.
Most significantly, and not least for the fate of the tens of thousands of lives that passed through here, Bermuda Hundred functioned as Virginia's principal slave market right up to the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1776. Africans were offloaded at the Water Street wharves and walked up to the tiny township's Market Square, where they were sold singly or in small lots. Ironically, that exact site is now occupied by the First Baptist Church of Bermuda Hundred, an African-American congregation that retained the building after a mixed-race one split in 1850. (33)
In summary, during their period of resident trading in Virginia, Sparling and Bolden were content to operate in a 'service' role in the American slave trade. They were essentially commission agents who managed the sale of slave cargoes put together by more established companies. Their involvement was peripheral, not because they were reluctant to be fully committed to a disreputable trade, but because they were as yet financially unable to participate at that level.
If anything, their limited experience at the tail-end of the 'business' of trafficking human beings actually quickened their interest in 'slaving'. By the late 1760s and early 1770s, when both partners had returned to Liverpool, they became deeply involved in what former slave-captain John Newton called "a game of chance". Like most Liverpool merchants, the prospect of equipping slaving voyages to the "Guinea Coast", and making a fortune, was not just 'a game' for the partners -- it was the game.
(1) RD Whichard, 1959, The History of Lower Tidewater Virginia, New York, Lewis Historical Publishing, p. 325
(2) EJ & J Salmon, 2013, 'Tobacco in Colonial Virginia', Encyclopedia Virginia, <http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org>
(3) Lorena S Walsh, 'Liverpool's Slave Trade to the Colonial Chesapeake: Slaving on the Periphery', in Richardson, Schwarz & Tibbles (eds.), 2010, Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery, Liverpool University Press, p. 106
(4) Jane Longmore, 'Cemented by the Blood of a Negro? The Impact of the Slave Trade on Eighteenth-Century Liverpool', in Richardson, Schwarz & Tibbles, 2010, p. 235
(5) Maurice M Schofield, 1964, 'The Virginia Trade of the Firm of Sparling and Bolden of Liverpool, 1788-99', Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol. 116, pp. 120-1
(6) MM Schofield 1964, pp. 122-4
(7) Maurice M Schofield, 1986, 'Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax: Eighteenth-Century Lancashire Exports to the Colonies', Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol. 135, p. 70
(8) MM Schofield 1986, p. 72
(9) MM Schofield 1964, p. 134
(10) CB Coulter, 1945, 'The Import Trade of Colonial Virginia', The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 300-3
(11) CB Coulter 1945, pp. 296-8
(12) RD Whichard 1959, p. 325
(13) Mair, 1784, Book-keeping Modernised, 3rd edition, in 'Description of Virginia Commerce: The Produce and Costume of Tobacco Colonies', The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 2, (1905), pp. 87-93, (p. 88)
(14) Mair 1784, p. 89
(15) Mair 1784, pp. 90-2
(16) WA Low, 1953, 'Merchant and Planter Operations in Post-Revolutionary Virginia, 1783-1789', The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 61, no. 3, pp. 311-3, 316-7
(17) BJ Nash, 2011, 'Economic History -- Tar and Turpentine', Region Focus, Fourth Quarter, p. 47, <https://www.richmondfed.org>
(19) Jose, Jokela & Miller (eds.), 2006, The Longleaf Pine Ecosystem: Ecology, Siviculture and Restoration, New York, Springer, p. 20
(20) Jose, Jokela and Miller 2006, p. 18
(21) TJ Wertenbaker, 1962, Norfolk: A Historic Southern Port, Duke University Press, p. 28
(22) M Williams, 1992, Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography, Cambridge University Press, p. 89
(23) Jose, Jokela & Miller 2006, p. 20
(25) MM Schofield 1964, p. 127
(26) MM Schofield 1964, p. 127
(27) BJ Nash 2011, p. 47
(28) Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia, <https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/SlaveryInVa.pdf>
(29) DH Fischer & JC Kelly, 2000, Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, ftnt. 42, p. 320
(30) Lorena S Walsh, 2003, 'The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Colonial Chesapeake Slavery', OAH Magazine of History, April, pp. 13-14
(31) The three advertisements are quoted in Elizabeth Donnan, 1935, Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade to America, Volume IV, 'The Border Colonies and the Southern Colonies', Carnegie Institution of Washington, p. 232 ('Negroes Imported into Virginia, 1727-1769')
(32) Virginia Gazette, 1736-1775 editions, transcribed by Geography of Slavery, Virginia Center for Digital History, 2004,<www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/xmldocs/slavery/documents/slave-sales.xml>
(33) 'Town of Bermuda Hundred Historic District, Chesterfield County VA', and 'Prehistoric through Historic Archaeological Resources and Architectural Resources at Bermuda Hundred', National Register of Historic Places, National Parks Service, U.S. Department of Interior, <www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/counties/...020-0064_BermudaHundredHD_2006_NR.finalpdf...020-5370_BermudaHundredMPD_2006_NR.finalpdf>