In 1619, some 20 Africans arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, where they were purchased from Dutch privateers to aid in the English colony’s lucrative, labor-intensive cultivation of tobacco. As profits piled up and slavery spread through the American colonies, the British crown decided to exert control over the slave trade in the colonies (and the wealth it generated).

According to the Navigation Act of 1660, only English-owned ships could enter colonial ports. That same year, King Charles II granted a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa. Led by the king’s younger brother James, the Duke of York (later King James II), this group had a monopoly on British trade with West Africa, including gold, silver and slaves. 

Thanks to England’s war with the Netherlands, the original company collapsed under mounting debts in 1667, reemerging in 1672 with a new royal charter and a new name: the Royal African Company (RAC).

1686 guinea showing the Royal African Company logo. (Credit: Public Domain)
Public Domain
1686 guinea showing the Royal African Company logo.

RAC ships sailed from Bristol, Liverpool and London to West Africa, operating from military forts based along some 5,000 miles of coastline from Cape Sallee (in present-day Morocco) to Cape of Good Hope (in what is now South Africa). From 1680 to 1686, the company transported an average of 5,000 slaves per year, most of which were shipped to colonies in the Caribbean and Virginia. 

Thousands of slaves arrived in the New World with the company’s initials branded on their chests. Demand for slaves was still too high for one company to meet, however, and the RAC effectively lost its monopoly in 1689, after the Glorious Revolution toppled King James II in favor of William and Mary. By the end of the 17th century, England led the world in slave trading and would continue to do so throughout the 18th century. The RAC continued to engage in slave trading until 1731 when it switched to trafficking in gold dust and ivory. In 1752, Parliament dissolved the RAC and transferred all of its assets to the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa.