A Grandfather's Tale, Chapter 4, MERCHANT TRADER
A GRANDFATHER'S TALE: LIVERPOOL SLAVE TRADER WILLIAM BOLDEN, 1730-1800
Chapter Four: MERCHANT TRADER
The Black Prince rides low in the water off the Old Fort land. Beyond her, the Hampton Roads are busy enough with vessels waiting on the customs officer to board. But Thomas Newton's ship is anchored close off-shore. Deliberately so. To build his own slaver and name it Black Prince is all part of Newton's little joke. At my expense. Mooring her just off the end of Main-street with a bellyful of slaves is his way of mulching additional laughter from his tavern cronies. But he who laughs last...
I think young Thomas has been a tad too clever in his jest this time. The auction of his "120 Windward Coast Negroes" will follow hard on the heels of the Apollo and the Bassra -- two cargoes of 200 Pieces each that Lawrence and I have just sold to strong demand in these last weeks. With the needs of the Southside planters so recently satisfied, Newton will find prices much less bouyant for his own lots.
My mind is towards attending Bermuda Hundred on his sale day. Chances are I will be able to pinch a handful of his Black Gold. Cheaply. My profit on their re-sale may yet mock his Comedy.
I have learnt to curb my tongue with brash Colonials. Any attempt to pass on the wisdom of experience is wasted on that Breed. Warning them against hasty, ill-considered action, serves only to goad them further. They must prove the older head wrong. It is better to hold my counsel, and drink little, when in their company. This strategy is doubly sound if entering into Commerce with them.
I still consider my advice to Newton was sensible. The American desire to import Negroes has become a panic, lest they miss out on profit. In these frenzied days, many expensive mistakes have been made. Foolhardy adventurers are punished in the Africa Trade, as they are in any enterprise that is not thoroughly prepared. The principle of economy is the same. Only the scale of loss is greater.
Newton scoffs at my caution, but the lessons of Captain Creevey's Black Prince in 1755 are too recent in memory to be easily set aside. Inexperience is costly. Nearly two years at Sea under that Master, and all the Owner's profit eroded by his incompetence.
Some thought him unlucky. They said that he had completed all three passages of the voyage; that he had delivered 260 slaves to Jamaica; that he had returned to Liverpool with ship and crew intact. Maybe so. But his next venture exposed him. Same ship, same trade, same part of the Coast. In 1758 at Malemba Bay, the captain dithered, was surprised by the French, and his Black Prince driven onto the shore and burnt.
Newton and his back-slapping friends reject this hard won lesson. It is material only for their humour. And, to show me up as an over-starched Englishman, here now is a new Black Prince, under a new captain, carrying a new cargo of slaves direct from Guinea. Not that Captain Charles Thomas is entirely new, I suppose. He is well known hereabouts as a smuggler of contraband from the Carolinas. But new enough to slaving.
I sense the Boy behind me.
This is not unusual..
For ten years I have felt his silent presence.
Wherever I am, there too is the Boy.
Waiting on my words.
Listening to my thoughts.
My constant companion.
One who has never betrayed me.
He has fulfilled his part of the contract.
So must I.
There is no place for him in England.
I must let him go in Virginia.
Let him make his own way in the New World.
"Where will you go?"
I ask this without taking my eyes off the Black Prince.
"Da Hundred, Boss."
The site of the slave-market. A strange choice, but made without hesitation.
And there are sundry freed slaves in that vicinity, making their living by portage.
Norfolk has most the Air of a Town of any in the Colony. It is not just a settlement of Ordinaries and Publick Houses like most others in this country. The inhabitants consist of merchants, keen men of business, ship carpenters and other useful artisans, and sailors enough to manage the Navigation. It has also the advantage of Situation, suitable for trade and shipping from all the plantations and government warehouses that occupy the James and its Subsidiaries.
The Town is built on a level length of ground against the Elizabeth River, the banks of which are neither so high as to make the landing of goods troublesome, or so low as to be in danger of overflowing. From Market Square there is a broad street that runs down to the waterside from Market Square. There is secure harbour here for a good number of ships of any burthen. Along the foreshore of the Eastern Branch there are many private warehouses, with wharves of long pine logs that reach out to the edge of the channel. The Town is so near the Sea that vessels may sail in and out in a few hours.
It is a fact that more money is to be made out of men with meagre means. Planters with large estates have too high an opinion of themselves. They consign their crop to London and act as their own merchant. But the smaller man exchanges his produce at the Landing-store, where there is profit to be made by us on both British manufactures and Virginian tobacco.
Sparling travels the Rolling-mills on the Upper James, buying up Transfer-notes for light hogsheads and diverse parcels and bags of same. I receive the barrels of tar and containers of turpentine that sneak in from the South-side, where settlers near the Blackwater River and Dismal Swamp make bold with lumber on the King's land.
By our diligence and careful accounting, Liverpool ships are emptied at good prices and returned with full holds of produce purchased at prudent rates. Both outward and inward journeys make Adequate gain. Our reputation for steady dealing and sound business practice grows.
The Virginia trade of Sparling and Bolden is built on Regular margins from numerous transactions. It is a model of Commerce that is too tedious for grander men. But the True measure of our Substance is seen in Pounds, Shillings, and Pence.
The manner of Colonials is too casual, too confident. Carelessness towards debt is common. The burden of funds owed does not trouble the planter. When the quantity of his Specie is insufficient to meet cultivation expenses, it is Normal for him to reach for credit on the proceeds of the next harvest. The sale moneys are delayed and seldom enough to pay the previous year's borrowings. His debt accumulates, accruing interest all the while. I fear that in many instances it will never be repaid.
The hidden cost of doing business here is credit. The Appollo and Bassra cargoes received high prices. The owners, Chas. Cooke and Co. of Liverpool, had good sales. But the agents, Bolden, Lawrence and Co. of Norfolk, must then look to payment on goods sold. In my opinion, the auctioneer on both occasions was too eager to accept bids from buyers with unsure provenance.
Top price may be paid on one or two Pieces. This may Set the rest of the sale. But it means little in practical terms after the buyers depart into the Piedmont with Their property. The agents are no longer in possession of the said articles. They now hold nothing more than a name scribbled on a sale docket. This piece of paper may be honoured. It may not.
The real expense of doing business in a rude and unruly colony is the collection of bad debt. Recourse to the Oyer Court is only partial remedy. The Feeing of lawyers, the worry of default for another year, another harvest, is borne by the agent alone. All sense of obligation is treated lightly here, as if of no consequence. No Habits of fiduciary trust have been established in the minds of colonists. A surer foundation of trade must soon be found, or this place will sink further into insolvency and chaos.
A late afternoon breeze is whipping up whitecaps out on the Bay.
I turn away from the Black Prince and hold out his Letter of Manumission.
He takes the document.
He does not try to read it.
Instead he folds it carefully. Twice.
From inside his shirt he draws out a small wallet of sailcloth that hangs around his neck on a loop of twine.
He unwraps his purse and places the letter carefully within its folds.
He rolls up his precious package and makes it secure with the ends of the twine. Tied twice.
The wallet disappears inside his shirt.
Only now does he raise his head and look at me directly.
His eyes meet mine for an instant, before he drops his head again.
He turns back toward the Town and walks away.
He does not look back.
The Fort Land is grown wild, rank with weeds and stunted bushes. There is no sign of the old log fort now. The publick warehouse is gone too, swept away by the hurricane of '49. Nothing has happened here since but the wind and waves.
"The Fort Land is daily wasting away by the washing of the river." So pronounced the Borough's aldermen some years ago. They appointed 17 Trustees and invited 33 Investors to restore the ground to commercial use. Each of these worthies pledged 50 Pounds, and promised dividends to themselves, from the building of a new wharf and storehouses. A neat confluence of civic duty with family and friends. Newtons, Hutchings, Boushes, Calverts, Tuckers and Taylors. All joined together in matrimony and mortgage. And bluster, for nothing has happened here since...
Politicking is a dark and subtle Art.
This year the Lodge Grand Master must have his turn at Mayor.
Aldermen meet in the County Court House, the "Town Hall".
Freemasons meet in the Royal Exchange Inn, the "Masons' Hall".
It is a nimble mind that discerns which meeting is more important.
The prevailing sentiment in Norfolk is Disobedience. It is a rare merchant who does not join the Borough's smugglers and innkeepers in bending to this breeze. In March this year, full 56 sons of this Town declared themselves to be henceforth the Sons of Liberty, in protest at the Stamp Act. Presiding over this society of loud-mouthed fools was none other than our incumbent Vicar, the Right Reverend Samuel Davis.
At their meeting, Loyalty to King George was proclaimed in the same breath as their determination to "Defend their privileges as British Subjects". Inflaming the hottest heads was a belief in two newly discovered Rights. The first is "being Taxed only by Representatives of their own choosing". The second is "being Tryed by none but a Jury of their peers".
In May following, when came the news of the King repealing the Act, these same Sons of Liberty held a Thanksgiving Service in the Parish Church. This celebration was visited by another sermon from the Reverend Mister Davis. By my reckoning of the the signatures to this Loyalist farce, there were present 2 Newtons, 3 Hutchings, 2 Taylors, 4 Calverts, 2Tuckers, &c. In other words, the leading men of business here.
TREASON, the sleeping serpent, is quick to strike when stirred, quick to spit its venom of righteous Liberty, and as quick to lie back down, as if in deep slumber.
The Sons of Liberty are a Mob, like any lawless crowd that parades their disaffection in the street. They are a dangerous Rabble, infected with the power of disorder, blown every-which-way by the impulse of recklessness.
In April, at the height of their Misrule, they near-murdered Captain Smith, a respected mariner from the other side of the river. The owners of his schooner lured him across the water on the pretence of business. Then they seized him and delivered him before a mob in Market Square. He was there accused of informing on another master to Captain Morgan of His Majesty's Sloop of War Hornet for the offence of smuggling.
The rogues bound his arms and tied him to a cart and dragged him around the town, inciting the inhabitants to hurl abuse and throw stones at him. Mayor Calvert did nothing to stop this assault, instead urging them on to further indignities. Poor Smith was then hauled down to the wharves, covered with tar and feathers, strapped into the Ducking-stool, and pelted with rotten eggs and filth. The riotous crowd, which included the principal Gentlemen of the Town, soon became tired of this sport and looked around for further Mischief. To my dismay, it was John Lawrence who urged that the captain be tied about with rope and cast headlong over the Wharf into the harbour. There he would have drowned if he was not rescued by a ship's boat sent from the Hornet.
Seven scoundrels received Indictments for their inhuman Treatment of Captain Smith. There can be no doubt of their guilt. Their crime was committed in broad daylight and in full view of the officers gathered on the deck of the Sloop of War. But none has come to trial. Nor will they. The local magistrates would not permit it.
John Lawrence, born in 1731 in Old Rappahannock County, the bastard son of Tobias Phillips, Tobacco Planter, and Peggy Lawrence, Transported Convict.
John Lawrence, Son of Liberty in the Town Borough of Norfolk; once filius nullius, son of no-one, now filius populous, son of the people.
John Lawrence, junior partner in the merchant-house of Bolden, Lawrence and Company, indicted for common assault and publick affray.
It is done now. It cannot be undone. My humiliation is complete.
The Tide is coming in. The Black Prince has swung right round her cable, her bow now towards the Ocean mouth. There are more figures moving about the deck. Getting her ready to move upriver tomorrow. Or tonight. Charles Thomas is a canny Navigator. He could find his way around any of these coasts in the dark. He is well-practiced in avoiding the shoals and shifting sandbars. He has outrun the government cutter in many duels, with Night-Blindness his greatest ally.
The American-born are a curious mixture of frankness and guile. Their fabrications are sometimes so obviously untrue as to invite mirth. They make me fear that they are utterly indifferent to Right or Wrong. Or that, in some mysterious manner, they have convinced themselves of the rightness of their lie. It is as if, what they want to be true, they already believe to be true. Virginians, eminent and poor alike, can shift from rat-cunning to offended innocence in an instant. There is a contradiction at work in their Character. One portion is over-credulous, the other over-shrewd. It is a puzzle for an Englishman to know when a Colonist is dissembling and when sincere. His artlessness is too simple, his scheming too extreme, for sensible comprehension. It is Safe only to disregard their words and watch carefully for their deeds.
Among the civilian population there is a mania for collecting military title. Everyone must be a Colonel this or a Captain that. There are layers of armed militias here -- the Borough Militia, the County Militia, the Colonial Militia -- and it seems that at each level there is vigorous competition for who can be named the grander sounding rank. Where promotion cannot be earned in mock-battle or parade-drill, they may well promote each other, or simply make one up, such is the proliferation of officers. At this pace, if these furious rates of advancement are be to kept up, the Irregular Forces of Virginia must soon exhaust their supply of ordinary Volunteer Soldiers.
It is not that there is a shortage of guns in this place. Virginians carry their guns everywhere and on all occasions. Long barrel fowling-pieces, horse pistols, the Blunderbuss, the Brown Bess musket. They bristle with firearms, as if the Enemy might surprise them in the next cove or creek, in the street or the lane. Even in Church.
There is an old Order in the Borough Register that demands all White residents to go armed to Sunday Service, or any other day on which Service is to be held. The purpose is "to prevent any invasion or insurrection". To my mind this ordinance pays too little attention to who points the weapon, or at whom. It does not sit easy with me that the Parson's pistol sits primed on the Reading Desk, beside the Open Bible. This is awkward Proximity.
There is a necessary Distinction, between Subjects going about their lawful Domestick business and the King going about His lawful Sovereign business. This is lost when it becomes everybody's business to Keep the Peace. He who enforces the Law is seen to be the Law.
The publick display of guns promotes feelings not proper in the hearts of ordinary citizens. We have seen in Norfolk over the past few months how quickly these Independent thoughts become Defiant actions. Quietness is not the way in this country. Every man is a Frontier-man in his fond imagining. He believes he must look to his own Defences.
The wind has dropped. This may not suit the captain of the Black Prince. Not if he intends to make way tonight. Smoke from the Town's evening fires hangs low over the water. There is a perfect stillness in the air as the light fades.
It is time for me to follow Sparling home. To cold wet nights and a warm coal fire, the sound of Lancashire voices, the close-packed masts in the Old Dock.