Figure 1: Seal of the Royal African Company showing the motto of the business: Regio floret patricionio cium, commercioque regum [By Royal patronage trade flourishes, by trade the realm]


This research article is an examination of the Royal African Company (RAC) and the role of Edward Colston (b. 1636 d. 1721) within the organisation as both an investor and executive. It is unsurprising that this history has not been previously collated in this form as Colston still retains a popular status amongst sections of Bristol’s population as a philanthropist and ‘city father’, his memory protected by powerful civic organisations. Although the depiction of Colston as a ‘merchant prince’ and ‘moral saint’ particularly through memorialisation in the Victorian period[1] may have lessened, ritual celebrations and commemorations still continue in the city. There have been notable exceptions to this local hegemony, particularly the efforts of Reverend H. J. Wilkins of Westbury-on-Trym in the 1920s whose work in the archives began to expose Colston’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This article extensively uses Wilkins’s chronology of Edward Colston’s life and it is encouraging to see that there has been a revival of interest in this progressive Churchman who had the courage to speak against the prevailing orthodoxy.[2]

The reluctance to face up to the dark history of Edward Colston has led some commentators in Bristol to denigrate or even ignore his involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is notable that where there has been a focus on this history, Colston is often portrayed as merely an investor, a beneficent share-holder, distant from both the organisations that ran the trade and its horrors. Other major public figures in Bristol have mistakenly implied that the history of his involvement is mere speculation.[3] These rosy perceptions have to be challenged and this piece aims to correct this view on an evidential basis.

This article is the second of a series unpicking the myths around Colston. The first documented the huge numbers of enslaved African men, women and children, purchased, branded, transported and killed under the management of the RAC during Colston’s involvement in the company (1680-1692).

RAC: Powers, structure and composition

In 1680 Edward Colston became a member of the Royal African Company. The RAC was the premier slave trading organisation in the emerging British Empire, having a complete ‘legal’ monopoly over the transportation of human cargo from West Africa in the late seventeenth century. The company had been re-established in 1672 after a previous entity, the Company of Royal Adventurers had ground to a halt due to the effects of war with the Dutch, crippling debts and defaults on payments to subscribers.[4]

The RAC was established under a new Royal charter with a considerable range of powers and privileges, as Scott explains:

Under the charter of 1672 the usual privileges of incorporation are granted as well as “the whole entire and only trade” from Sallee to the Cape of Good Hope and the adjacent islands.[5] The company had the right of acquiring lands within these limits (provided such lands were not owned by any Christian prince) “to have and to hold for 1,000 years, subject to the payment of two elephants’ teeth,” when any member of the royal family landed in Africa. Powers were also given to the company to make peace and war with any non-Christian nation. Amongst other miscellaneous privileges the right of Mine Royal[6] was conveyed to the company on condition that the Crown might claim two-thirds of the gold won, on paying two-thirds of the expenses, the company retaining the remaining third.[7]

The charter also defined the right to buy and sell enslaved Africans, gave locations on the West African coast for their purchase and included projections for where the trade might be expanded. It concludes by claiming an economic justification for this trade in humans:

The Slaves they purchas[e]d are sent, for a Supply of Servants, to all His Ma[jes]tie’s American Plantations which cannot subsist without them.[8]

Alongside these sweeping powers the RAC was organised into the management structure shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Organisational structure of RAC after the Royal Charter of 1672

From its founding in 1672, to 1688, the Governor of the RAC was James, Duke of York, latterly James II when he became king of England in 1685. Of all the royal connections with trading monopolies in the period, that between James and the RAC was the closest. James was the largest shareholder in the RAC and also Lord High Admiral, a position through which he could exercise direct punitive power over those who dared to challenge the monopoly of the RAC. In this period, although James did not attend any meetings of the RAC he effectively operated as the Company’s ‘fixer’ and ‘enforcer’ at a national level. He was backed up in the RAC by a cabal of royalist Tory politicians and London aldermen who were shareholders and managers in the company.[9] Edward Colston fitted this particular profile perfectly, coming from prosperous ‘mere merchant’[10] family in Bristol whose head had held high office in the city and who were staunch Tory royalists with connections to the monarchy.[11] After James fled abroad in 1688 as a result of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, the position of Governor of the RAC became effectively an honorary position. This was despite the incumbent William of Orange being elected to the role and becoming a share-holder in the company.

Executive power in the RAC actually lay in the positions of the sub-governor, deputy-governor and the twenty-four assistants who were elected annually by the stock-holders. In the original RAC charter of 1672 it was stipulated that:

…individuals had one vote for each £100 share, but to be elected Assistant, a shareholder had to hold £400 of shares.[12] This regulation required those who wished to direct the company to show some financial commitment to the company.[13]

By 1714 the qualification for an assistant had risen to £2,000 and a minimum of £500 of stock commanded one vote up to a maximum of five votes.[14]

Technically, the ruling body of the RAC was the General Court which was made up of all the share-holders and met once a year to elect the assistants. However, in practice, it was the weekly meeting of the full Court of Assistants that actually held power in the company.[15] The quorum at this meeting was seven, of whom either the sub-governor or deputy-governor must be one. The Assistants also sat on various committees that managed specific aspects of the company’s affairs. There were four core bodies dealing with accounts, correspondence, purchase of goods and provision of shipping and preventing private trade.[16] Membership of these committees was capped at three years after which a shareholder had to withdraw for a minimum of a year. An Assistant who was elected to be Deputy Governor or Sub-Governor could serve another two years at each level of the hierarchy.[17] However, these rules could be flouted and some important figures in the RAC moved seamlessly between the Assistant and Governor positions for many years.[18]

The word Assistant is somewhat of a misnomer suggesting the role of operative or subordinate; in practice these men were company executives. The entire burden of decision-making in the huge organisation that was the RAC was carried out by the Assistants and their committees that met multiple times a week. This day-to-day commitment to running the company’s business tied its managers to living in London or its environs.[19] The Assistants, twenty-four of the wealthiest investors, effectively ran the company, decided its policies and direction and, of course, resourced, organised and managed its substantial slave trading arm.

In March 1680 Edward Colston purchased a £500 share and became member of the RAC.[20] The RAC although a relatively recently formed company was nothing new to Colston or his family. Colston’s father William, a merchant and ship-owner, had major trading contracts with the company selling more than £3,000 of textiles to the RAC in 1674 alone. He was also a significant investor in the 1670s, holding £400 in shares in the RAC. [21] In the same period his brother Thomas supplied goods to the RAC specifically for the purchase of enslaved Africans.[22] William Colston died in 1681  and it may have been his increasing age that spurred Edward to replace his father in the RAC. As we shall see, being a shareholder in the company and particularly holding an elected position was of great financial advantage for ship-owners and particularly mere merchants trading in the Mediterranean and Levant regions. Edward Colston’s familial connections with the RAC, his political affiliations and pedigree in the London trading fraternity set him in good stead for a rapid rise through the company’s hierarchy.

It thus comes as no surprise that less than a year after joining the RAC as a share-holder Edward Colston was elected as an Assistant, serving on the Court and on the committees for purchasing goods and providing shipping. He was a regular attendee at the executive decision making bodies of the company over the years 1681-3, before apparently taking his statutory break from direct management during the year 1684. From January 1685 he was present at the Court of Assistants, organising trade and dealing with disputes and was re-elected as a full Assistant in January 1686 regularly attending the Court and working in the committees for accounts and shipping.[23]

From this point on Colston’s already significant role in the management of the RAC expanded and extended. By 1687 he was a member of three committees: shipping and new bodies dealing with inspection[24] and trade in the northern parts of West Africa. A year later he had added a fourth, the committee for buying goods, to his increasing repertoire. With his fingers in almost all the pies of the management structure it was inevitable that in January 1689 he took the oath of Deputy Governor of the RAC with the remit to sit on all the committees of the company. His power and prestige within the British ruling class were actively demonstrated a week or so before his appointment when in order to find favour for the RAC with the new monarchical line he sold £1,000 of his stock in the company to the soon to be King, William of Orange.[25]

Edward Colston’s meteoric rise to the head of one of the most powerful British trading companies of the period was further enhanced in June 1689 when he was given the task of leading negotiations between the RAC and the Spanish over the “Assiento for Negroes”.[26] The Asiento was effectively the contract endorsed by the Spanish government for supplying enslaved Africans to the Spanish ‘New World’ colonies. The RAC had previously dabbled in selling slaves to agents of the Asiento from 1680-87 and the formal monopoly in slave-trading to the New World was greatly sought after.[27] Colston would have been an ideal candidate for negotiating this treaty with his recent knowledge of managing and directing the African trade, previous mercantile experience in the Iberian Peninsula, and, we might suppose, command of the Spanish language.[28] It is unclear from the evidence what became of these discussions with the Spanish government, but the Asiento would become be an important feature of Colston’s later life through his dealings in the South Sea Company.[29]

Colston served out his two year stint as Deputy Governor of the RAC regularly attending the meetings of the Court of Assistants and by implication overseeing the numerous committees running the company. In January 1691 he relinquished the post but stayed on for few months as an Assistant on the committees of accounts, inspection and trade in the northern parts of West Africa. This was unusual as typically the sitting Deputy Governor went on to serve a two year term as Sub-Governor, the leading active role in the RAC. The last entries in minutes of executive meetings suggest that Colston ceased to be active in the management structure in January 1692.[30]

Stock, dividends and profits

In the time that Colston was involved in the RAC (1680-91) one historian stated:

During this period the company elevated the scale of English slaving activity to an unprecedented level.[31]

As we have seen, prior to the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9 the RAC enjoyed major political support for its activities, exercised ultimately through royal power, which allowed it to successfully protect its monopoly from external traders.[32] Alongside measures introduced by the company in this period to deal with internal corruption by its own employees and operatives[33] the tightening up of the monopoly increased the RAC’s real market share towards the theoretical 100%. The 1670s and 80s were thus the most profitable period of its existence, as Scott outlines:

…in the thirteen years from 1680 to 1692 eight dividends were paid and apparently a substantial reserve fund was formed…There is reason to believe that the company had accumulated a considerable reserve out of profits over and above the 10 or 20 guineas per cent paid annually as dividend. The assistants in speaking of these early years mention “the great and extraordinary success with which the trade had been carried on.” Houghton, too, stated in 1682 that “the Guinea Company was as safe as the East India Company.”[34]

In the period when Edward Colston was an active member of the Company (1680-91) he received at least seven of these dividends amounting to 70 guineas or just over £75 per £100 share.[35] From the recorded dividends paid to Colston it is possible to back calculate his stock holdings in the RAC. These amounts are shown in Table 1. The dividends alone were very significant, being worth in total somewhere between £2.5 million (per capita GDP) and £26.5 million (as a share of GDP) in 2016. Table 1 also demonstrates that Colston’s investment in the RAC grew over the years to the sum of £1600, in today’s terms around £5 million pounds (per capita GDP) or £50 million (as a share of GDP).[36]

Table 1: Dividends and calculated stock holdings of Edward Colston in the RAC (1680-1691)

The overall distribution and size of stock holdings in the RAC are outlined by Davies:

Until the quadrupling of the capital in 1691 a majority of all shareholders [in the RAC] held £400 of stock or less, and the bulk of the capital was owned by men and women whose individual holdings were under £1,000. In 1675 only fourteen out of more than two hundred owned more than £1,000 and in 1688 only four held more than £2,000.[37]

So Colston’s stock holdings (£1,600) in the RAC through the 1680s were very significant relative to other investors, putting him in the ‘premier league’ of financial interests in the company. This privileged position would have generated further power and influence both within the organisation and without.

It is now worth turning to examine how these large investments in the RAC performed. Evidence for RAC share prices is patchy for the 1670s-90s but some figures exist and are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: RAC share prices for selected years 1672-99.[38]

It is clear that by the end of the 1680s the company share price was at one of the highest points in its history. The unit price was £191 in January 1689, coincidentally when Edward Colston became Deputy Governor of the RAC. Scott explains that in 1691 the finances, particularly the capital base, were looking relatively good for the company (at least on paper) when:

by order of a General Court held on July 30th it was resolved to give a bonus in stock of 300 per cent to each stock-holder. The wording of the resolution for the bonus addition of capital confirms this view of the company’s finances at the time. It is expressed in the following terms: “voted, by reason of the great improvements that have been made on the Company’s Stock of £111,000 that every £100 adventured be made £400 and that the members have credit given them accordingly.”[39]

This bonanza which effectively gave three bonus shares for each one that was held by an investor led to a huge spike in transactions.[40] Although the prices of the shares immediately fell as a reflection of this offer (this is shown in Table 2) their combined value for an existing investor stayed fairly stable until the following year when they began their inexorable decline to the end of the century.

This decline was due to a series of factors the relative effect of which has been debated by historians. Most would agree on three main problem areas. First, structural issues within the RAC, such as the cost of buying and maintaining expensive forts on the West African coast stymied the business from the outset.[41] Each year the company required an average of £40,000 of cash to buy goods to trade in West Africa, and in the prosperous years of the 1680s, often nearly double that figure.[42] When the business started in 1672, after paying off debts for the previous enterprise and purchasing forts, more money was spent on purchasing goods each year than the capital held by the RAC. Finally, payments by plantation owners for enslaved Africans were often deferred, building up debts to the company. As a result of these cash-flow problems the RAC began borrowing money three years after it was launched. The annual debt charges grew inexorably, particularly in the late 1680s.[43]

Second, the RAC relied on protecting its markets and suppliers from interloping merchants and internal corruption. As already noted in the 1670s and 80s with James (Duke of York) acting as an enforcer for the RAC with Royal prerogative on his side the company was successful at maintaining its market share. However, with the coming of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the diminishment of monarchical power in favour of the rising mercantile class, this protection evaporated and with it, the RAC market share. Lastly, the Dutch ‘invasion’ in 1688-89 of Britain and the victory of William of Orange helped initiate the ‘nine years’ war’ with France which began to severely affect RAC trade in the early 1690s.

When Edward Colston became Deputy Governor of the RAC in 1689 he had served on most of the important committees of the company for the best part of a decade. He would have been well placed by that time to understand all three of these issues; the deep structural-financial problems of the RAC, its difficulties in protecting its markets and now the effect on trade of war with France which had begun just before he took office. The former of these factors had been offset by the successful trading period of the 1680s when Colston had been active in running the company as an Assistant. However, it would not have required much intelligence during his term as Deputy-Governor to recognise that the RAC was in a precarious, and worsening, position. This ‘insider’ knowledge may explain his behaviour after he had completed his tenure, which despite the possibility of becoming the Sub-Governor of the RAC, appears to have been a withdrawal of financial interest with concurrent political and managerial disengagement.

According to Table 1 Edward Colston appears to have purchased the majority of his shares in the early 1680s and sold them by the 1690s. As noted previously one of his major transactions was to sell £1,000 of stock to William of Orange in January 1689. This was the point at which the share price reached £191, the highest value in the company’s history.[44] So although the sale was considered to be a symbolic ‘political deal’ to include the future King in the RAC business, it was also a shrewd financial transaction. Assuming conservatively that the purchase price Colston paid for this fraction of stock prior to 1685 was £150 per share; his deal with the King would have liberated a profit of (191/150), or £270, not an inconsiderable sum.[45] In 1691, after relinquishing his deputy Governorship, Colston began to transfer the rest of his RAC stock to other investors and within a year had apparently exited the company.[46]

Other sources of profit in the RAC

It would be somewhat naïve to assume that the only mechanism for accumulating wealth through involvement in the RAC was by investing in stock and claiming dividends. Although Edward Colston’s investments (and dividends) were relatively large and did generate significant profits in themselves, they functioned on a separate level in gaining him insider access to the various business arms of the RAC in England. Two areas of particular interest to merchants in the RAC were the supply of goods and provision of ships to the company. Davies notes that:

Patronage, economic and otherwise, in the eighteenth-century… was a powerful incentive to the purchase of stock and the acceptance of office…It is likely that some at least of the London merchants who accepted election as Assistants of the company [RAC] did so in the hope of doing profitable business with it.[47]

Davies’s analysis of the composition of shareholders in the RAC suggests that the penetration of the company by native manufacturers was minimal, however, it was a different story with regard to traders in ‘foreign goods’:

Throughout the first thirty years of its existence, the goods of foreign origin for dispatch to Africa were obtained chiefly from importers who were also [RAC] shareholders. In particular, supplies of commodities from Eastern Europe, iron, copper, textiles and amber…were provided by merchants who were not only shareholders and Assistants, but often members of the Committee of Goods which distributed the company’s contracts.[48]

Davies is at pains to point out that these practices were not considered to be dishonest, quite the contrary:

London merchants engaged in foreign trade were well represented in the company [RAC] and had special knowledge which could be useful to it.

Consequently there was little or no attempt to halt this ‘insider trading’. In 1683 the Committee of Goods was merely encouraged by the Court of Assistants to “ensure that the company paid no more for goods bought from members [of the RAC] than from others”, a classic case of self-regulation by the self-interested. It wasn’t until 1690 that purchases from merchants who were members of the Committee of Goods were required to gain permission from the Court of Assistants.[49]

Edward Colston was an ideal candidate for profiting from these practices. Coming from a family of mere merchants exporting textiles and importing wines and oils amongst other goods from the Mediterranean and the Levant, Colston’s trading experience and management role in the RAC would have enabled him to exploit this opportunity to the full. Analysis of his trading activities prior to joining the RAC in the 1670s shows that he was moving cargoes of specific textiles required for trading in West Africa, such as perpetuanas, serges, bays and other English woollens.[50] These were often in great demand in particular slave trading areas of the West African coast and could be a key commodity in securing significant purchases of enslaved Africans.[51] From the perspective of profiteering, the selling of commodities such as these to the RAC was not of minor financial importance. For example, the value of perpetuanas purchased by the RAC in the twelve years of Edward Colston’s involvement was in excess of £60,000.[52] As the ‘conventional price’ of an enslaved person on the West African coast was about £3, sales of this single commodity can be equated to the ‘purchase’ of 20,000 human beings.[53]

It might be assumed that large maritime trading companies such as the RAC would have owned a considerable fleet of merchant vessels. However, Davies states that between the years 1680 and 1685, of the 165 RAC ships leaving England for West Africa, around 75% were hired vessels.[54] Freight charges were calculated either on tonnage of goods carried on the return trip to London or in the case of cargoes of enslaved Africans, on the numbers that were disembarked alive at their destination. Davies notes:

The obvious merit of this arrangement from the company’s point of view was to give the owners (of whom the captain would normally be one) a direct incentive to keep the slaves alive. It may, however, have had the reverse effect of promoting overcrowding and consequent mortality.

The charges paid to the ship owners in the 1670s and 1680s per African delivered alive were around £5.[55] So, the freight charges for a single voyage carrying a cargo of several hundred enslaved people could be worth more than £1,000, which was a similar order of magnitude to the cost of purchasing the vessel in the first place.[56] So large profits could be made from this branch of the RAC’s business and it is no surprise that Davies points out:

Ship-owning at this date was seldom a specialised occupation but rather a form of investment favoured by merchants of most kinds and classes. The shipping interest was not distinct from, but co-extensive (or almost so) with, the mercantile interest. It is not therefore surprising that many of the owners of hired ships were shareholders or employees of the company [RAC].[57]

According to several sources Edward Colston and his younger brother Thomas (b.1640 d.1684) inherited a fleet of ships from their father when he passed in 1681. One of these sources claims that this was made up of 40 vessels; the other that they were “slave trading ships” and were sold by Edward in 1689.[58] Further research may demonstrate that Edward and his brother (before his death) made large profits from freight charges derived from renting these vessels to the RAC to carry enslaved West Africans in the most lucrative period of the company’s history. It may also explain Edward’s keen interest as an RAC Assistant in sitting on the Committee for Shipping in the 1680s.

Any significant study of the Reverend H. J. Wilkins chronology of Edward Colston leads the reader towards the realisation that as Colston amassed his fortune as a trader he began to increasingly engage in money lending to multiply his wealth. After his involvement in the RAC had ended abruptly in 1692 it appears being a ‘merchant banker’ was his sole occupation until he was elected as an M.P. in 1710. The first signs of this particular fiscal activity appear in the 1680s during his time in the RAC and appear to bear some relation to the problems the company had in raising liquid funds. Davies notes:

By 1682 and 1683 the yearly totals of new debts [in the RAC] had reached £48,565 and £50,947. Periodic efforts were made to curtail borrowing, but with little success. Much of the money thus borrowed was provided by shareholders….Later on, the debt to outsiders increased, but until the revolution [1688-89] about half the total sums taken up were from persons already financially concerned in the company.[59]

In 1686 Wilkins records that Edward Colston lent the RAC three sums amounting to £2,500 at 5% interest. The following year the RAC borrowed a similar sum and then a further £4,500 in 1688 at a higher rate of interest. In the same year he received an interest payment of £237 10s, suggesting a base sum in the region of £5,000. Colston continued to lend the RAC large amounts of money, equivalent today to tens of millions of pounds and in the process earning millions of pounds in interest.[60]


The evidence provided in this article demonstrates that Edward Colston was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade in the late seventeenth century. A number of historians and commentators have bemoaned or even hidden behind the lack of written sources, accounts or ledgers concerning Colston’s financial dealings. This has led, by default, to a defence of his position as the ‘great Bristol philanthropist’ whilst ignoring the immense human suffering he and others of his class propagated for profit. Furthermore the focus on his financial affairs, in particular his charitable work, combined with a lack of incisive research has acted as a convenient smoke screen, concealing the fact that for more than ten years he was a major shareholder and managing director on the board of the company that ran the English slave trade. In that time (1680-1692) at least 84,500 enslaved African men, women and children were purchased, branded and forced onto RAC ships. Of these, nearly 19,300 died on the transatlantic crossing with the survivors and their future generations facing a life of enforced displacement and hard labour in British plantations.[61]

This article provides enough direct and circumstantial evidence to propose that, along with many other major merchants, Edward Colston exploited his powerful position within the RAC to significantly increase his wealth through a number of means. Following in the footsteps of his father and brother and employing the tactics of the ‘insider dealer’ within the RAC committees, he was able to sell commodities to the company most of which were specifically required for the West African slave trade. It is reasonable to assume, and ongoing research is likely to prove this, that another financial stream came from extracting freight charges for providing vessels for moving both goods and enslaved Africans. As Colston’s capital base increased in the 1680s principally though these trading activities, he began to act as a money lender to the RAC, Bristol Corporation and private individuals, multiplying his wealth and buying political and economic favours in the process.[62]

By the end of the 1680s Colston’s fortune had been made. After two years as Deputy Governor of the company and consequently armed with insider knowledge of the financial precariousness of the RAC, in 1692 he was able to step off the carousel at the critical moment. Taking his riches with him he never looked back, whilst internal and external, economic and geo-political forces sent the RAC spinning into terminal decline.

Retiring with his handsome profits from the RAC to a life of genteel, idle luxury in Mortlake in the 1690s, Edward Colston was able to operate as a ‘merchant banker’ from a position of significant financial strength.[63] He balanced this devotion to mammon with exercising his authoritarian brand of ‘Christian charity’ to both enhance his public persona in Bristol and London, and appease his pious conscience. But, as we shall see in a future article in this series, Colston couldn’t keep his fingers out of the slave trade ‘pie’ for very long…


The author would like to thank Mark Steeds and Madge Dresser for help with the sources.


Ball, R. Edward Colston Research Paper #1: Calculating the number of enslaved Africans transported by the Royal African Company during Edward Colston’s involvement (1680-92) Bristol Radical History Group , 2017. Retrieved from

Buchholdt, M. “The Wider Family of Colston.” The Bristol Templar (1992).

Carlos, A. M., Key, J. and Dupree, J. L. “Learning and the Creation of Stock-Market Institutions: Evidence from the Royal African and Hudson’s Bay Companies, 1670-1700.” The Journal of Economic History 58, no. 2 (1998).

Carlos, A. M. and Kruse, J. B. “The decline of the Royal African Company: fringe firms and the role of the charter.” Economic History Review, XLIX, no. 2 (1996)

Coates, R. Wilkins of Westbury & Redland: the life and writings of Rev Dr Henry John Wilkins (1865-1941). Bristol: ALHA Books No. 24, 2017.

Colli, A. Dynamics of International Business: Comparative perspectives of firms, markets and entrepreneurship. Oxford: Routledge, 2016.

Davies, K. G. The Royal African Company. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1957.

Davies, K. G. “Joint-Stock Investment in the Later Seventeenth Century.” The Economic History Review New Series 4, no. 3 (1952).

Freeman, M., Pearson, R. & Taylor J. “Law, politics and the governance of English and Scottish joint-stock companies, 1600–1850.” Business History, 55, no. 4 (2013).

Hanham, A. A. “COLSTON, Edward II (1636-1721), of Mortlake, Surr.” History of Parliament. (2002). Retrieved from:

Jordan, S. R. “The development and implementation of authority in a regional capital: A study of Bristol’s elites 1835-1939.” PhD thesis, University of West of England, 1999.

Morgan, K. Edward Colston and Bristol. Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Local History Pamphlets No. 96, 1999.

Pettigrew, W. A. “Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3, 64 no. 1 (2007).

Scott, W. R. “The Constitution and Finance of the Royal African Company of England from Its Foundation Till 1720.” The American Historical Review 8, no. 2 (1903).

The Royal African Company Trades for Commodities Along the West African Coast [Transcript] (1672) The National Archives CO 268/1, ff. 5-6. Retrieved from:

Wilkins, H. J. Edward Colston [1636-1721 A.D.] A chronological account of his life and work. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1920.

Wilkins, H. J. Edward Colston [1636-1721 A.D.] Supplement to a chronological account of his life and work. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1925.


Bristol Radical History Group

Countering Colston

BBC News

History of Parliament

Measuring Worth

The National Archives



  1. [1]Jordan, S. R. “The development and implementation of authority in a regional capital: A study of Bristol’s elites 1835-1939.” (PhD thesis, University of West of England, 1999), p. 323.
  2. [2] A study of Wilkins was published recently. Coates, R. Wilkins of Westbury & Redland: the life and writings of Rev Dr Henry John Wilkins (1865-1941) (Bristol: ALHA Books No. 24, 2017).
  3. [3] For example, in 2014 at the Merchant Venturers Charter Day service at the Bristol cathedral Bishop Michael Hill stated that Edward Colston had “lived a life of significance… [and there]… may be still some speculation on some of the circumstances around his business roots right here”. Bristol bishop says slave trader remarks ‘misinterpreted’ BBC Bristol 12 November 2014.
  4. [4]Davies, K. G. The Royal African Company (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1957), p. 57.
  5. [5]Sallee or in the more modern form, Salé is a city in north-western Morocco, on the right bank of the Bou Regreg river, opposite the national capital Rabat. The charter thus gave exclusive trading rights (and more) to the RAC for the whole of the West African coast.
  6. [6]The right of ‘Mines Royal’ gave the monarchy (and its agents) monopoly rights over the extraction and sale of base metals in Britain. However, in this case it related to the extraction of gold from the West African coast.
  7. [7] Scott, W. R. “The Constitution and Finance of the Royal African Company of England from Its Foundation Till 1720.” The American Historical Review 8, no. 2 (1903), pp. 244-5.
  8. [8]The Royal African Company Trades for Commodities Along the West African Coast [Transcript] (1672) The National Archives CO 268/1, ff. 5-6.
  9. [9]The RAC stock-holders as a whole were a select group, numbering around 200 persons in the late seventeenth century. Davies, K. G. The Royal African Company, pp. 103-4 and “Joint-Stock Investment in the Later Seventeenth Century,” The Economic History Review New Series, 4, no. 3 (1952), p. 296.
  10. [10]‘Mere merchants’ were large-scale dealers in overseas commerce that operated monopolies through elite organisations (such as the Society of Merchant Venturers in Bristol) in order to exclude smaller traders.
  11. [11]Edward Colston’s father William (b. 1608 d. 1681) was a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, an active member of the Church of England and held office in the Corporation as an alderman and sheriff of Bristol. William Colston had helped run Bristol during the Royalist occupation of the city by Prince Rupert during the English Civil War. Several members of Edward Colston’s family were involved in the RAC prior to his joining in 1680. Morgan, K. Edward Colston and Bristol (Bristol: Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Local History Pamphlets No. 96, 1999), pp. 1-2.
  12. [12]Two methods for gauging relative worth of historic sums of money are employed in this article. The first considers how ‘affordable’ a particular sum would be to the average person and is calculated from data based upon the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, that is the GDP divided by the population. As we are dealing with a class of people (merchants, bankers and Royalty) who controlled most of the wealth in the seventeenth century, the second measure considers how economically powerful these figures were relative to today. This is achieved by calculating how big their wealth is compared to the economy they lived; their share of GDP. In 1672 the minimum of £100 to acquire a vote in the RAC was equivalent to about £353,000 (per capita GDP) and £3.55 million (as a share of GDP) in 2016. So in order to become eligible to be elected as an RAC ‘assistant’ required an investment of at least £1.4 million in today’s terms. Taken from Choosing the Best Indicator to Measure Relative Worth
  13. [13]Carlos, A. M., Key, J. and Dupree, J. L. “Learning and the Creation of Stock-Market Institutions: Evidence from the Royal African and Hudson’s Bay Companies, 1670-1700,” The Journal of Economic History 58, no. 2 (1998), p. 329.
  14. [14]Scott, W. R. “The Constitution and Finance of the Royal African Company,” p. 245.
  15. [15]Colli, A. Dynamics of International Business: Comparative perspectives of firms, markets and entrepreneurship (Oxford: Routledge, 2016), Box 2.1.
  16. [16]Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 158.
  17. [17]Carlos, A. M. et al. “Learning and the Creation of Stock-Market Institutions,” p. 328.
  18. [18]Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 157.
  19. [19]This may have been one of the reasons Edward Colston spent hardly any time in Bristol in the 1680s; a trip there and back to London by carriage took at least six days in good weather. In 1689 Colston made London his permanent residence by purchasing a mansion in Mortlake in Surrey. Wilkins, H. J. Edward Colston [1636-1721 A.D.] A chronological account of his life and work (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1920), p. 25 n. 1 and p. 37.
  20. [20]In 2016 this initial investment was equivalent to approximately £1.5 million (per capita GDP) and £15 million (as a share of GDP). It gave Colston five votes in the General Court and the right to be elected to the Court of Assistants.
  21. [21]These textiles included large shipments of Sletias (a cloth from Silesia), particularly sought after on the West African coast by slave traders. Wilkins, Edward Colston, p. 21 n. 1.
  22. [22]These included a payment of £600 by the RAC to Thomas Colston for a shipment of beads. Ibid.
  23. [23]Ibid. pp. 20-34.
  24. [24]The Committee for Inspection carried out the task of auditing the RAC’s affairs. Freeman, M., Pearson, R. & Taylor J. “Law, politics and the governance of English and Scottish joint-stock companies, 1600–1850” Business History 55, no. 4 (2013), p. 648.
  25. [25]Wilkins, Edward Colston, pp. 35-38. James II fled the country in late December 1688. William and Mary were crowned together at Westminster Abbey on 11 April 1689.
  26. [26]Ibid. p. 39.
  27. [27]Davies, The Royal African Company, pp. 329-331.
  28. [28]Several sources state that Edward Colston and his two brothers William and Richard were sent to Spain by their father, to act as ‘factors’ [business agents]. Wilkins, Edward Colston, pp. 13-14. This is disputed by Morgan, but there appears to be no evidence of Edward Colston’s whereabouts in England or Spain from 1662-1772. Morgan, Edward Colston and Bristol, p. 2.
  29. [29]See forthcoming BRHG article on Edward Colston and the South Sea Company.
  30. [30]Wilkins, Edward Colston, pp. 40-41. A forthcoming article will address some of the issues external to the RAC surrounding Colston’s unexpected and unexplained withdrawal from the company.
  31. [31]Pettigrew, W. A. “Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3, 64, no. 1 (2007), p. 11.
  32. [32]For example: ‘During the period from 1672 to 1688, when the Company’s monopoly was fully supported by the British government, five ships of the Royal Navy were sent to the coast of Africa to capture interlopers. In total they captured seven vessels’. Carlos, A. M. and Kruse, J. B. “The decline of the Royal African Company: fringe firms and the role of the charter” Economic History Review, XLIX, no. 2 (1996), p. 305.
  33. [33]Ibid., pp. 298-303.
  34. [34]Scott, “The Constitution and Finance of the Royal African Company”, p. 246 and 250.
  35. [35]The RAC calculated its guinea as 21s. 6d. Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 73 n. 1.
  36. [36]The RAC calculated its guinea as 21s. 6d. Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 73 n. 1.
  37. [37]Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 69.
  38. [38]Data in Table 1 comes from Carlos, A. M. et al. “Learning and the Creation of Stock-Market Institutions,” p. 327, Scott, W. R. “The Constitution and Finance of the Royal African Company,” p. 258 and Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 72 n. 1.
  39. [39]Scott, “The Constitution and Finance of the Royal African Company”, p. 250.
  40. [40]Carlos, A. M. et al. “Learning and the Creation of Stock-Market Institutions,” p. 327 Fig. 1.
  41. [41]Davies states that the RAC parted with almost a third of its start-up capital to obtain the forts and then spent £20,000 a year to maintain them. The forts were apparently of little advantage in the lucrative slave-trade. Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 121.
  42. [42]Ibid. p. 166. Appendix I p. 350 gives the values of RAC exports over the period 1673-1709.
  43. [43]Ibid. pp. 76-77
  44. [44]Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 72 n. 1.
  45. [45]In 2016, per capita GDP, £810,000 or as share of GDP, £8.326 million
  46. [46]Wilkins, Edward Colston, pp. 40-41.
  47. [47]Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 161.
  48. [48]Ibid.
  49. [49]Ibid.
  50. [50]Wilkins, Edward Colston, pp. 14-19.
  51. [51] Perpetuana (a hard wearing woollen cloth), for example, was in massive demand on the Cape Coast in the early 1680s. In 1683 in Whydah “3 fine sletias” (three rolls of a German textile from Silesia) could buy a person. Davies, The Royal African Company, pp. 234-6.
  52. [52]Ibid., p. 352. A full list of textiles and other goods purchased by the RAC for export is given in Appendix I. £60,000 equates per capita GDP to about £175 million or by share of GDP to £1.81 billion in 2016.
  53. [53]Ibid., p. 236.
  54. [54]Ibid., p. 195.
  55. [55]Ibid., p. 198.
  56. [56]The average number of enslaved Africans that were disembarked from ships over the period of Colston’s involvement in the RAC (1680-92) can be calculated by dividing total that survived the crossing (65,200) by the number of voyages (279). This gives an average of 233 survivors per voyage. This data is derived from Ball, R. Edward Colston Research Paper #1.
  57. [57]Davies, The Royal African Company, pp. 196-7.
  58. [58]Buchholdt, M. “The Wider Family of Colston,” The Bristol Templar (1992), p. 35 and Hanham, A. A. COLSTON, Edward II (1636-1721), of Mortlake, Surr. (2002).
  59. [59]Davies, The Royal African Company, p. 77.
  60. [60]Wilkins, Edward Colston, pp. 32-41.
  61. [61]Ball, R. Edward Colston Research Paper #1.
  62. [62]Edward Colston lent £1,800 at 5% interest to the Bristol Corporation in 1682, and increased the loan to £4,000 in 1685. The latter figure equates to, per capita GDP, £11.7 million and £121 million as a share of GDP in 2016. Wilkins, Edward Colston, pp. 25, 31. In December 1683, he was made a free burgess of the city. A week later was declared to be a ‘mere merchant’ and elected as a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers. The ‘freeman’ status gave him the right to trade in Bristol. Morgan, Edward Colston and Bristol, p. 3.
  63. [63]There is plenty of evidence of Colston’s money lending and mortgage brokering activities in the period 1685-1713. This is provided in the supplement to Wilkin’s biography of Colston and was derived from records of court cases where debtors had defaulted on interest payments or had passed away and Colston was attempting to recover the money from their estates. Although this evidence is clearly only the ‘tip of the iceberg’, it demonstrates that Colston was advancing tens of thousands of pounds (in large portions) to private individuals. Wilkins, H. J. Edward Colston [1636-1721 A.D.] Supplement to a chronological account of his life and work (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1925), pp. 9-16.

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