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The Royal African Company of England's West African Correspondence, 1681-1699*

  • Robin Law (a1)


This paper draws attention to an ambitious project in the publication of source material for the precolonial history of West Africa, which has recently been approved for inclusion in the Fontes Historiae Africanae series of the British Academy. In addition to self-promotion, however, I wish also to take the opportunity to air some of the problems of editorial strategy and choice which arise with regard to the editing and presentation of this material, in the hope of provoking some helpful feedback on these issues.

The material to be published consists of correspondence of the Royal African Company of England relating to the West African coast in the late seventeenth century. The history of the Royal African Company (hereafter RAC) is in general terms well known, especially through the pioneering (and still not superseded) study by K.G. Davies (1957). The Company was chartered in 1672 with a legal monopoly of English trade with Africa. Its headquarters in West Africa was at Cape Coast (or, in the original form of the name, Cabo Corso) Castle on the Gold Coast, and it maintained forts or factories not only on the Gold Coast itself, but also at the Gambia, in Sierra Leone, and at Offra and Whydah on the Slave Coast. It lost its monopoly of the African trade in 1698, and thereafter went into decline, effectively ceasing to operate as a trading concern in the 1720s, although it continued to manage the English possessions on the coast of West Africa until it was replaced by a regulated company (i.e., one open to all traders), the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, in 1750.



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A version of this paper was presented to the discussion panel on “Editing and Translating African Historical Sources,” sponsored by the Association for the Publication of African Historical Sources at the African Studies Association Meeting, Seattle, November 1992.



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1. Davies, K.G., The Royal African Company (London, 1957).

2. Jenkinson, Hilary, “Records of the English African Companies,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 3/6 (1912): 185220.

3. Davies, , Royal African Company, 374.

4. Law, Robin, ed., Correspondence from the Royal African Company of England's Factories at Offra and Whydah on the Slave Coast of West Africa in the Public Record Office, London, 1678-93 (Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh: 1990).

5. Ibid., no.16: John Carter, Whydah, 26 May 1684; no.23: id., 28 December 1685.

6. Ibid., no.18: John Carter, Whydah, 11 December 1684.

7. Ibid., no.19: John Carter, Whydah, 24 July 1685; no.34: John Wortley, Whydah, 23 September 1690.

8. Henige, David, “Two Sources for the History of the Guinea Coast, 1680-1722,” IJAHS 5 (1972): 271–75.

9. Law, Robin, ed., Correspondence of the Royal African Company's Chief Merchants at Cabo Corso Castle with William's Fort, Whydah, and the Little Popo Factory, 1727-1728: An Annotated Transcription of Ms. Francklin 1055/1 in the Bedfordshire County Record Office (Madison: African Studies Program, 1991).

10. The third volume of African material (C.747) also includes Minutes of the RAC Council at the Gambia for 1722-23 and 1729-30; since, however, this material has no organic connection with the rest of the corpus, it is not proposed to include it in the projected edition.

11. Davies, Royal African Company; Daaku, K.Y., Trade and Politics on the Gold Coast, 1600-1720 (Oxford, 1970).

12. Mathews, Noel and Wainwright, Doreen, A Guide to Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles Relating to Africa (London, 1971), 219; cf. also Mathews, Noel, Materials for West African History in the A rchives of the United Kingdom (London, 1973), 171.

13. Henige, David, “A New Source for English Activities on the Gold Coast, 1681-99,” THSG 13/2 (1972): 257–60; “Two Sources for the History of the Guinea Coast.”

14. Henige, David, “A Guide to Rawlinson C.745-747 (Bodleian Library, Oxford): Correspondence from the outforts to Cape Coast Castle, 1681-1699” (typescript, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1972).

15. Henige, David, “John Kabes of Komenda,” JAH 18 (1977): 119.

16. Kea, Ray A., Settlements, Trade, and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast (Baltimore, 1982).

17. Van Dantzig, Albert, “Some Late Seventeenth-Century British Views on the Slave Coast” in de Medeiros, François, ed., Peuples du Golfe du Bénin (Paris, 1984), 7185.

18. Law, Robin, The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550-1750 (Oxford, 1991).

19. Jones, Adam, ed., Brandenburg Sources for West African History, 1680-1700 (Stuttgart, 1985).

20. Hair, Paul, Jones, Adam, and Law, Robin, eds, Barbot on Guinea: The Writings of Jean Barbot on West Africa, 1678-1712 (London, 1992).

21. Rawlinson C. 745, unsigned, on board the Jacob Pink, “Abbine,” 20 July 1686.

22. For the former see Van Dantzig, Albert, The Dutch and the Guinea Coast, 1674-1742: A Collection of Documents Fom the General State Archive at The Hague (Accra, 1978); for the latter, Jones, Brandenburg Sources.

23. Relation du Sieur du Casse sur son Voyage de Guynée” in Roussier, P., ed., L'établissement d'issiny, 1687-1702 (Paris, 1935), 147; Phillips, Thomas, “Journal of a Voyage Made in the Hannibal” in Churchill, Awnsham and Churchill, John, eds., Collection of Voyages and Traveh (6 vols.: London, 1732; second ed. 1746), 6:187255; Bosnian, William, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (London, 1705).

24. Cf. Henige, , “John Kabes,” 1617.

25. C.746, Josiah Pearson, 17 April 1697.

26. It should be stressed that the microfilm copy is not an entirely adequate substitute for the original manuscript, since it is not always equally legible; in particular material close to the binding margin is sometimes obscured. Although much of the editorial work can be done from microfilm, therefore, it will be necessary also to check doubtful readings against the original.

27. Albert Van Dantzig, “Rawlinson C.745-747: A Selection of Letters and Papers From Offra and Whydah,” typescript, University of Ghana, 1976.

28. Law, Robin, ed., Further Correspondence of the Royal African Company of England relating to the ‘Slave Coast,’ 1681-1699: selected documents from Ms. Rawlinson C.745-747 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Madison: African Studies Program, 1992).

29. See, e.g., Langlois, Charles V. and Seignobos, Charles, Introduction to the Study of History, trans. Berry, G.C. (London, 1898).

30. C.745, John Lowe, Whydah, 16 March 1682.

31. But note that “kickatavoo” is given for “dead” or “killed” in the “Negrish” language in Atkins, John, A Voyage to Guinea, Brasil, and the West Indies (London, 1735), 60.

32. See Calvert, Peter, Revolution (London, 1970).

33. Phillips, , “Journal,” 226.

34. Tattersfield, Nigel, The Forgotten Trade, Comprising the Log of the Daniel and Henry of 1700 and Accounts of the Slave Trade From the Minor Ports of England, 1698-1725 (London, 1991), 71.

35. C.745, John Carter, Whydah, 19 September 1685.

36. Van Dantzig, , “Some Late Seventeenth-Century English Views,” 70; Van Dantzig also seems to me mistaken in believing that Carter meant to apply this term to himself.

* A version of this paper was presented to the discussion panel on “Editing and Translating African Historical Sources,” sponsored by the Association for the Publication of African Historical Sources at the African Studies Association Meeting, Seattle, November 1992.


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