A Grandfather's Tale, Ch 8, MERCHANT MATURED
A GRANDFATHER'S TALE: LIVERPOOL SLAVE MERCHANT WILLIAM BOLDEN 1730-1800
Chapter Eight: MERCHANT MATURED
King's Dock, Liverpool
The new dock is quiet in winter. The sleet is coming in at such a steep angle from the Irish Sea that it speaks of a storm out there. The lad will have a rough trip of it for his first voyage across the Atlantic. It will do him no harm. He has plenty of growing up to do. The sooner he starts out in the world on his own account the better.
My step-son, Christopher Raincock. Male child of my wife by her first marriage. And for whose safety she holds grave fears. I promised to see him off. This promise did little to allay her concerns, but I gave my word and I must keep it, no matter the weather.
My second wife, widow of the Right Reverend William Raincock, late rector of Ousby in Cumbria. Which is to say that my new wife was the respectable but penniless relict of an over-educated Idler. The parson was a man of his type. Too many books and precious little Industry.
It irritates me that the children of that match take after their father in the manners of making money. They look to me to fund their great expectations in life, rather than shift for themselves.
Those who lack Application to do well are an encumbrance on those who strive. These useless souls act as a Drug on the energies of active men, a burden on those who go forth and make the nation's wealth. Grasping onto the coat-tails of commercial men, they seek advancement without labour. Receiving the scraps from a rich man's table but resenting his prosperity. Wasting their tender energies on schemes of double-Grandeur and Will-o-the-Wisp, they blame their improvidence on ill-luck, or ill-usage. They Earn their insolvency. England is over-full of young fools who have not been brought up to do anything useful.
The Boy calls them Girl-men.
Not for their soft white complexions,
That flush into pink,
But their pretty blue eyes,
That sparkle with greed.
I have persuaded Mrs Bolden that an Apprenticeship with John Lawrence in Virginia is an Opportunity for her son to make something of himself. She is not altogether convinced that this will prove the case. I suspect she knows the hollowness of his backbone and this is the real cause of her anxiety. Not the dangers of passage to America, but the prospect of Christopher becoming dissipated and dissolute. Just another colonial wastrel, far from Home and lost in Drink.
This would undoubtedly become true if I was to send him to our Suffolk branch. George Sparling is often unwell, but even in health he is seldom energetic. He has been an exasperation to the firm, failing utterly to show Initiative in trade. Despite our written urging for Lawrence to intervene and correct bad practice, our senior manager is reluctant to take authority over a Sparling, however junior.
This mistake must not be repeated with young master Raincock. I have made my instructions clear to Lawrence in a confidential letter. There will be no playing favorites under this bond of apprenticeship.
The lad is to serve his full seven years. If during the term of the Bond he turns to no account, he is to be instantly dismissed and sent on his way. If he becomes discontent and desires to leave, he is likewise to be immediately let go. Without letters of reference. Under no circumstances whatever is he to be 'lent' money to buy his passage back to England. He must not be given any assistance to return, where he will almost certainly become a financial burden on his mother, and myself.
The firm is only obligated to provide an opportunity to make good. It bears no responsibility beyond that. Young Raincock must make his own bed. And lie in it.
The Middling-class occupies that moving and uncertain ground that lies between Court and Spade. An enterprising man is thus less motivated by his dreams of a Palace, than he is pursued by the memories of the Hovel. His Hunger for the security of wealth is neither born nor bred, but Learned from the continuous anxiety of slipping back into the muck and mud.
A privileged man aspires to be Prince.
A practical man strives not to be Poor.
The wind has eased, the sleet is become rain. The wharf is awash yet there is movement of crew on the Betsey's deck. The captain makes ready for departure I think. They will tow her out stern-first through the gates. There are so many vessels laid up in off-season that there is no room in the dock to turn her about before she reaches the outer basin. Once the ship is past the piers and gains some sea-room she can put her bow forrard. The oarsmen will
earn their pay today. The estuary is all foul brown chop, flecked with yellow foam.
The maid Hannah is with child. My wife is enraged and has dismissed her. Christopher is sheepish, but a Minister's son can do no wrong in his mother's eyes. The girl must pay the full price of their tumbling and she alone is condemned as the Seducer. She would have left Duke-street yesterday evening in tears. Thankfully I was away from the house when this unpleasantness took place, but I have no difficulty in imagining the scene.
Mrs Bolden has long established her Answer to scandal. Screaming tantrums of Righteousness and Wrath, followed by a sanctimonious washing of hands that shifts the taint of sin onto the weaker party. A kinder God than hers has at least spared me from her latest outburst of wounded rectitude.
The Boy stands behind me in the shelter of the warehouse archway.
"Christopher's girl, the maid Hannah. Has she left?"
The Boy shares my dislike of the Mistress when she adopts one of her high-handed scenes of moral outrage.
"Where has the girl gone?"
"Niggers' Inn, boss."
Ah, the Black Jack on Water-street. It could be worse. The line between wiping tables and bed-warming can be faint in such places. But I seem to remember that this publican keeps a halfway decent house for midshipmen and the like. Perhaps the girl will survive. In any event, I must fulfil my part. The unmentionable behaviour happened under my roof, whoever might be at fault.
"I will give you some money, Boy. Take it to her in the morning. Make sure you give it to her Privately. Tell her to keep it safe from prying eyes. It is meant for the child."
The Betsey is an American ship. Theirs have now so great an advantage over ours. The American government charges duties of 50 cents per ton on freight in British hulls, but only six cents if it is carried in theirs.
She brought in tar and barrel-staves for Sparling Lawrence and Co. Both sold well, but the tar barrels were somewhat light. She ships out with salt and 100 crates of earthenware.
A letter goes with her requesting a return cargo of turpentine. This stuff has taken a start again and is much enquired after. Especially that which comes from the state of Virginia, which is currently preferred over any other.
The last barrels of tar and turpentine from Suffolk were the lightest we ever knew of any. George's consignments continue to be very short gauge. Tar only 29 gallons instead of 31 and a half -- turpentine under two hundredweight per cask. Any tobacco from him has been such sad, mean stuff that we have forbidden him to send another hogshead to this country on his own account.
George is a Rare prize, "Indisposed with the Gout", which we are sorry to hear he is so very frequently afflicted. Surely the air of Virginia must be productive of infection, for so many Englishmen become idle drunkards after they go and reside thereabouts. If George could but rise early in the morning, then keep sober all day, he would surely learn the Art of dealing with tar-burners, even those rogues from the Dismal Swamp. But perhaps he is by now so addicted to hard liquor that he cannot rouse himself, even if he wanted to.
I do not suppose that he has been very hurried of business in recent times, for if he had, the account sales that Lawrence has copied would be altogether more pleasing. As it is, it might be better if the store on Nansemond River stayed shut.
Dear George is a devil for breaking up bales, to sell a trifling quantity at retail, and granting credit for same. Even if the profits were ever so little, we would prefer them sold in the wholesale way. We rather the packages remain unopened and lying on hand, than broken and ruined for a piddling sale. Except such of the coarse woolens that may be in danger of being moth-eaten by keeping them for any length of time.
And as for credit. It can never do to open accounts with so many people for mere oddments of goods. If such trade has not the money or some kind of prime produce to exchange for their petty purchases, then good sense should tell him to send them elsewhere.
I despair of the man. At July 20th he had 1,400 Pounds sterling in dry goods to sell, but 260 accounts open for 5,700 Pounds in debts outstanding. If he were still in England, the bailiffs would be set on him for insolvent trading. But we are helpless to intervene. Lawrence must act in our place. After all, the distance between Norfolk and Suffolk is but a few hours ride.
I am vexed by the Attitude of our American managers. They show no Initiative in disposing of Dead stock from their Inventories. Which is strange as we have taken pains to ensure each has a value of equity in their store. An eager trader would surely try to barter slow selling goods off for anything he could get to advantage. Or if that cannot be done, export 'em out of the country to some place or other where there's more chance of them being disposed of.
As for payment in tar or tobacco, by all means accept it. It is far better than extending credit. But then exert yourselves to re-sell all you receive on the best terms you can get in your own country, or gather a cargo together and freight a vessel on good terms for yourselves to Amsterdam or London. Anything but sit and wait in the warehouse while leakage and rats take their toll on the worth of the firm's goods.
The rain has stopped. There is shouting and grinding of gears as the lumpers wind open the dock-gates and let in the rising tide. The Betsey's lines are slipped and her bow begins to edge away from the wharf-side.
I intend to walk around the dock, out onto the northern pier, and watch her make her way down the Mersey. I am interested to know if Christopher keeps his position on the open deck once he feels the swell beneath him. If he can ignore it and stay observant of all that is going on around him, then maybe there is hope for the lad yet.
My oilskin is heavy. it flaps wetly against my legs.
I have not been in the best of health this past year. Lethargy hangs heavy on me and it takes more effort to do the things I am accustomed to. My limbs lack their former strength. I do not sleep well. My bowels are troubled. My gut is cramped and sore.
The Physician counsels rest and thinks too much attention to business is the cause.
The Apothecary recommends his physic, a wondrous tonic that cures all ills.
The Surgeon cannot decide where to cut and so says nothing.
They are vultures all. More interested in their Fee than my ailments. But my wife is easily flattered by their attendance, so they are forever at the door with their recipes.
I admit that I am increasingly worried by the deceit of others in our trade. The conduct of commerce is not as honorable as it was in my early years of business. In those days a merchant's word was enough. His word said was a pledge made, a promise kept. The gift of employment was returned with honest service. Moneys entrusted to captains and agents were returned with full dividend. Work was done in the Owner's interest, with respect for his profit. The obligation for fair dealing was understood without being stated. Mariners and merchants from that time were a different set of men, with better character.
I fear Holloway at Petersburg is crooked. His letters to us are few, with scarcely any news. What little he does write is never enough to be sure of how much business he is doing on our behalf, or with what success. The Accounts we receive from that quarter pass through Lawrence at Norfolk, and but for his notations, we would be none the wiser about the monies really owed to us before the war. In Lawrence's opinion, the trading debts at the commencing of the Rebellion are now nearly all bad. But surely they were still good then!
Holloway claims that most of his former clients had their farming sorely interrupted by the occupying armies of both sides during the war. The skirmishing and scavenging of the soldiers was so severe and continuous that the settlers were forced to flee their holdings and seek refuge in the West. Or so he would have us believe. But that is nonsense. It defies reason that all those who owed John Holloway and Company have left the Petersburg district and can no longer be found. Is the place suddenly become a Desert?
Holloway is getting paid all right. Of that I am certain. He is just pocketing our money for himself. I never liked the man. Shifty looking. And his associates even worse.
Soul-drivers in greasy buck-skins. Their only asset the coils of a bull-whip slung insolently from their shoulder. Rough, full-bearded, and filthy. Swaggering in Frontier style, but lazy men at heart. Content to make easy profit from the least effort.
Too idle to clean up their handful of shackled Negroes and present them for sale to their best advantage.
Relying on far-flung settlers down on the Blackwater who know no better than to pay the asking price for Refuse slaves.
Colonial dregs who Walk the auction-seconds without care or pity.
Or who hang around the Rolling-sheds for water damaged hogsheads to dry and repack as Prime tobacco.
Or some such other Scheme that requires their cunning, but nothing more.
We have been badly used on the Appomattox.
Our money is not lost to the war.
It is stole by Holloway and his unholy accomplices.
Fearless, unprincipled villains and vagabonds.
Safe in their Lawless country.
Thieves in a Nation of Thieves.
I take the part of Shylock in this.
A bargain is a bargain made.
It is not unmade until every last shilling is paid.
Lest all becomes Anarchy.
Debt does not vanish. It remains.
In Ledgers and Account Books, in columns of numbers, written in Ink.
It survives Lives and Kings. It continues to gather Interest.
Every Merchant is Bound to take his Pound of Flesh.
Or everywhere commerce will fail. Law and Government will fail.
Chaos and misrule. Betrayal. Betrayal. Betrayal.
The Boy is grasping my shoulder and shaking me.
"Easy, boss. Easy".
The stem of my pizzle-whip hangs broken and limp where I have been hitting it against the the edge of the pier.
"It is finished now, boss. Throw it away".
I let the useless thing fall into the Mersey murk.
"Home now, boss. I'll take you home".
I lift my head, in time to see the stern of the Betsey disappear into an offshore squall. The rain is like a dense grey curtain that closes behind her.
It's strange, but I swear I heard the Boy say "th" instead of "d". How long has been able to say it properly? I must have missed the moment his tongue broke free.
I feel very tired.
"Yes, Boy. Take me home".