The Letters of William Freeman, London Merchant, 1678-1685. Originally published by London, 2002.
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On May 23, 1678, William Freeman, London merchant, sat down in his City counting house, cracked the spine of a new copy-book of business letters, and penned a brief missive to a Chester and Liverpool sugar baker, Anthony Henthorne. He wrote to clarify certain aspects of the shipment of some sugars that Isaac Legay, a St. Christopher planter, had consigned to Freeman and Freeman shipped to Henthorne for refining and resale in the West of England. Freeman insisted that Henthorne pay the freight and all other charges incurred in the voyage. Freeman also tried to untangle a mess about the payment of two bills of exchange. In addition, he wrote to arrange future shipments, proposing, among other things, that a ship he was expecting from Nevis would be sent back to Henthorne if the merchant should prevail with the master (it being a hired ship) and the refiner should guarantee the price he had proffered the previous year. Then Freeman cut his letter short, as he was leaving to 'spend a litell time in the cantrey'.
Freeman's letter to Henthorne opens a copy-book of some 686 letters written between 1678 and 1685 by the Londoner to partners, agents, employees, correspondents and customers in his native Leeward Islands, Africa, Madeira, Portugal, France, Ireland, Scotland and the West of England. The book (fn. 1) is a rare source of information about late-seventeenth-century trans-Atlantic enterprise and London business. It was written by a certain type of Londoner – a sugar planter and slave trader who had moved from the Caribbean islands to the metropolis to combine these pursuits with the work of a general commission merchant trading to the English West Indies. As all three occupations were – for the English – in their infancy in the 1670s, and, since few contemporary documents about them survive, these letters are especially illuminating. Only the gossipy letters of Christopher Jeaffreson, a jejune St. Christopher planter, and the unrevealing correspondence of Nevis absentee John Pinney provide published contemporaneous first-hand accounts of sugar planting. (fn. 2) And no series of letters from slave agents to their partners, or from commission merchants to their correspondents survives for this region in this period. Destruction through war (especially the Blitz of London during the Second World War) and neglect and 'house-cleaning' by descendants have left the historian with very few business records. (fn. 3) Freeman's detailed and informative letters are an invaluable source that sheds light not only on the excitable passion and personality of one merchant, but also on the nature, conduct and scale of business in an expansive commercial era.
THE HISTORICAL AND HISTORIOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT
Captain William Freeman's Atlantic 'world of business' was created in a developmentally critical period – the 1670s and 1680s – a time of economic, political, and social opportunity. Historians regard the emergence of Britain as a major Atlantic and world power as one of the principal world-historical events to be explained when studying the eighteenth century. Their analysis has consistently highlighted the contested organization and content of economic, political and social life at the end of the seventeenth century as critical to such an explanation. This disturbed world generated opportunities that William Freeman's life, activities and attitudes reflect. In taking advantage of the propitious conditions that emerged from the agitation and excitement, he also created and shaped them. So it is appropriate to ask how his behaviour and the behaviour of men like him laid the foundations for Britain's new commercial empire, a structure that arose between the passage of the first Navigation ordinance in 1651 and the outbreak of the War for America in 1775.
Historians consider the last four decades of the seventeenth century an age of revolution, at once commercial, financial and political. The outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 temporarily cut the American colonies' supply lines to the mother country, and the American colonists used their freedom from oversight to establish commercial relations with the Dutch and French. At the end of that war, in 1649, Cromwell and his successors sought to reassert English control over the trade with English America, eradicate the influence of the Dutch, and channel enterprise through Britain by passing a series of laws between 1651 and 1696 that came to be known as the 'Navigation Acts'. The purpose of this legislation was to harness 'commerce and colonial empire to the needs of national defence and state administration'. (fn. 4) These statutes constituted the culmination of seventeenth-century English mercantilist thought that advocated an exclusionary imperial system, restricted to English and colonial traders, with the benefits of the trade directed to the mother country. They 'were carefully drawn with urgent needs of the state in view' – that is, to develop English maritime sinews and customs revenues. These laws 'provided the backbone of policy in the Atlantic empire'. (fn. 5)
At the same time, in a practical day-to-day way, the Acts established England as 'the entrepot through which colonial goods had to pass to the Continent'. As D.W. Jones has noted, these laws created a 'huge "sterling" trade area'. Overseas trade grew in scale and scope, the emergence of which is reflected in commercial statistics, and the overseas commercial community grew in number and power. Between 1640 and 1701, for instance, England's time-honoured staple export, woollen cloth, fell from 90 per cent of all English exports to 47 per cent. The development was the result of a growth in re-exports, 'mainly in American or Eastern products', to some 30 per cent of total exports by 1700. This shift reflected the enormous growth in American and Eastern imports; 'English trade as a whole now depended to a great extent upon the extra-European world'. Not surprisingly, this was a period in which 'the rate of new investment in commerce generally and overseas commerce specifically (in contrast to industry) was 'abnormally high'. If ever England experienced 'a revolution in trade' (Ralph Davis pithily observed) it did so in the four decades after the Restoration. (fn. 6)
A remarkably enhanced commerce with the world – India, the Levant, the Mediterranean countries, the Wine Islands, Caribbean and North America, the Baltic States and Russia – set the stage for a 'financial revolution' at home. As P.G.M. Dickson has sketched it, that transformation was grounded in a government borrowing programme without precedent, the state borrowing from capital-rich creditors (often merchants who had made good in overseas trade) to finance England's nearly continuous wars with France. Although private investment in public debt largely followed the fall of James II in 1688, it had its origins in small experiments before that year. (fn. 7) Such investment fitted neatly into the panoply of commercial improvements available to moneyed men like Freeman, particularly the rise of financial intermediaries (brokers) and corporate organizations (not just joint-stock companies but other complicated institutions) at the expense of traditional goldsmiths, and the acceleration in the accumulation of capital (as witnessed by the rise in the market for property loans, the development of the stock market, and the founding of 'public' and private banks). (fn. 8)
Equally far-reaching was the transformation in political life. The 'Glorious' Revolution of 1688 was, according to the traditional Whig view, 'a principled victory of Protestant parliamentary government over absolutism'. (fn. 9) Like the change in financial life, that transformation was decades in the making and gradually produced a programme around which the overseas trading community could rally. As party organization evolved in the 1670s and 1680s, members of the 'older City companies with royal associations', like the Levant Company, became Tory, whereas those in 'the newer institutions of the financial revolution' became Whig. At least after 1688, active Whigs were predominantly (some 60 per cent) active merchants, traders and financiers. The aforementioned 'momentous commercial and financial developments' of the late Stuart period contributed to this 'fracturing of London's political life' and the creation of a commercial Whig identity. Furthermore, that orientation affected activities overseas. The Whigs were more enthusiastic for war against France than were the Tories. The Whigs were less single-minded about overseas empire: they detested the East India Company, and its buildup on the subcontinent, yet they supported a presence in the Caribbean and North America. (fn. 10)
Recent scholarship has focused less attention on 'the three revolutions' and more on the 'long' eighteenth century that opened with the Revolution of 1688. In 1989, John Brewer advanced the argument that the key to the growth of the state and the empire is found in the 1700s and in money and taxes. An increase in taxation (customs, excise and land taxes) and the more efficient collection of those taxes led to larger and increasingly regular government revenue, growth in the national debt based on the ability to repay from those taxes, and an expansion of public administration, especially in fiscal and military affairs, both at home and abroad. For Linda Colley, the key to the growth of the empire was not money and taxes but, she implied, a spirit of nationalism. At bottom, she argued in her 1992 account of the construction of British identity, Protestantism was 'the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible', and accordingly she emphasized the religious and military reasons why Protestant Englishmen were loyal to the Hanoverians and fearful of the Catholic French. Trade relations with overseas regions, too, contributed to the distinction between Britons and foreigners. The tensions revealed by overseas trade and the warfare that arose over it forced Britons 'to rethink who they were'. Most recently, in 1996, Huw Bowen explicitly extended Colley's argument to the origins and directions of imperial expansion. Bowen looked at political, financial and mercantile elites as the architects and builders of the empire. These groups were 'drawn together by the ownership of property, be it land, capital or paper investments', and their 'close working contact' 'served to redefine their ideas about what was, and what was not, in their own interest and the national interest'. (fn. 11)
Rich as our understanding of the eighteenth-century state has become, there is still a substantial gap in our explanations of the emergence of Britain as a major Atlantic and world power. Britain's scholars have focused almost exclusively on post-1688 events and on affairs at home in England. This is as true of the modern 'long eighteenth century' scholars as it is of their 'revolutions' forebears. Brewer's financial and organizational development is the result of interested parties (ministers, politicians, bureaucrats, officers and merchants) at work in the metropolis, even if they continually manoeuvre to reap the most profit from the periphery. Similarly, Colley's patriotism, as potent a force as it is, is a love and devotion gained and interpreted at home; only the core's idea of the periphery counts in her account. And although Bowen's study is far less Anglocentric in orientation, his elites, for all of their activity on the margins, are focused on the centre and its metropolis. As Bowen's work exemplifies, when historians attempt to incorporate overseas affairs and interests into their explanations, they do so with a Britain-centred model of influence in mind. Unfortunately, the scholars of Britain's colonies have not stepped in to fill the breach. Although their focus is on the New World or India, most often they too write as if relations with the metropolis were one-directional – in migration patterns, in governance, and in organizational and cultural ideas. (fn. 12) British identity, at home and in the colonies, incorporated and amalgamated peripheral identities. Colonials' perceptions of the core were part of its ongoing redefinition. Existing analyses do not trace what Colley herself dubs the 'mutual dependence' between core and periphery; future analyses should do so to understand the period as fully as possible.
William Freeman's letters, written in the dynamic and prosperous decades of the post-Restoration period, suggest an alternative perspective that stresses the interplay between metropolitan and colonial forces. Their study gives rise to a more thorough-going, persuasive 'Atlanticist' explanation of the buildup of the first British empire. Freeman's activities and approaches, as shared by a cadre of vigorous commercially-oriented entrepreneurs, set the nation on the road to imperial domination and moved it further along. Freeman's generation participated in the first large-scale cultivation of plantation sugar in the Caribbean Leeward Islands, and in the first sizeable introduction of African slaves into English America, and these two commodities would define the economics of the first Anglo-American empire until its demise. Moreover, his generation was the first to apply factorage or commission principles and techniques to the burgeoning Atlantic trades, and their system would order commercial affairs for the next 150 years, as long as sugar and slaves dominated the economies.
The behaviour of Freeman's generation, in other words, was foundational. First, it defined the business strategies and career trajectories of successful overseas merchants who normally focused on one or two activities, but grafted onto them complementary opportunistic business pursuits. As the following century waxed, these endeavours came to include the extension of capital (cash, bills, loans, and credit) and a speculation in land (both at home and abroad). Secondly, it increased the importance of commercial intermediation, and established a pattern of mixing public service, quasi-public service, public trade, and private trade that was to become central to profitable everyday economic life in the Hanoverian 'Golden Age'. Lastly, it inculcated an increasing gentility among, and gradually an increasing acceptance of, commercial men in polite society. One sees these imperatives at work, as well as the problems and possibilities they raised, in Freeman's life and his work in London as both principal and agent.
'WILLIAM FREEMAN, ESQ'.
Captain William Freeman was the son of Colonel William Freeman, one of the earliest white settlers of the West Indian colony of St. Kitts (St. Christopher). (fn. 13) Whether Colonel William Freeman was part of the Englishman Thomas Warner's original 1624 founding party or a subsequent reinforcement expedition is unclear. The colonel was granted approximately 500 acres on the island's northwest side – between the now-dry Jenson (or Johnson) River to the north and the Goudouin River to the south, from the sea to the peak of the volcano Mt. Misery, part of a tract known as the Lordship (or Manor) of Goudouin – by the Earl of Carlisle in April 1628. Within two years he was fully occupied in clearing the land that, as the island was developed, would lie just west of the main road, three miles northwest of Old Road Town, and nine miles northwest of Basseterre. (fn. 14)
Little is known of Colonel William's early life. Perhaps he came from Suffolk; (fn. 15) perhaps he worked in Ireland while a young man. (fn. 16) What we do know is that he acquired his St. Kitts plantation in 1628 and that, by 1645, he had married, for in that year his first son William (the writer of these letters) was born. Seven more children followed – two sons and five daughters – in the succeeding twenty years. (fn. 17) [Appendices la and lb] He had prospered, developing estates in both St. Kitts and neighbouring Nevis. By 1666, when an inventory of his St. Kitts estate was recorded, he could boast a large dwelling house, two substantial sugar houses, refineries, mills, furnaces, coolers, 260 sugar moulds, several vinegar houses, and three indigo vats, in addition to at least twenty slaves (sixteen black slaves and four Indian 'savages') and various livestock (eight horses, two goats, eighteen cattle, two sows with their pigs, one boar, sixty sheep with their ewes and lambs, and some poultry). With these assets, the colonel produced sugar, as well as indigo and vinegar, for export; in addition, he raised mangoes and pimentos for home consumption. This principal sugar estate reaped about £800 sterling in profits each year. (fn. 18)
The prosperity of Freeman's St. Kitts plantation, as well as of the island's small English community, ground to a halt when the French invaded in 1666. (fn. 19) The colonel and his family were dispossessed. During the attack, his plantation suffered serious fire damage; according to one report, not a plant was left standing. After the sack, the French intendant Auné De Chambré, agent general of the French West India Company, forced Freeman to sell the ravaged sugar estate at a ridiculously low price. Freeman took a receipt, and, with all but his eldest son, who had already settled in Nevis, left for Jamaica to join a brother, with whom they lived until 1669 when they returned to the Leewards. (fn. 20)
Activities in the Leewards
Colonel William's eldest son Captain William, the writer of the letters published in this volume, remained behind on Nevis – the one island in the Leewards that in the 1660s remained relatively unscathed by French and Carib attacks. The son first appears in the surviving island records in 1664, two years before the invasion of St. Kitts, when he is described as a merchant who owned a lot and wharf along Bath Bay on the southern edge of Charlestown. In the same year, as an elected member of Nevis's assembly, he detailed the commercially adverse affects the new Navigation Acts were having on the island's tobacco farmers. (fn. 21) A year after the invasion, he was appointed captain of a Company of Foot in an expedition against the French, Dutch, Indians, and other 'Enemyes to the Crowne of England'. (fn. 22) In 1670, the Lord Commissioners for Trade and Plantations in London put his name forward to the King as one of four Englishmen to sit on the Commission for the Resettling of St. Kitts, but he failed to secure the post. (fn. 23)
At the same time, at the age of 25, William Freeman moved into sugar planting. In 1670, the Captain and a friend John Bramley jointly received a patent to some land in neighbouring Montserrat, an island 33 miles south of Nevis. In that year, the newly appointed Deputy Governor of Montserrat William Stapleton granted Freeman and Bramley a patent on several hundred acres in St. Peter's, a northwestern parish dominated by a dozen substantial sugar planters. The tract lay about a mile and a quarter north of Stapletown (present-day Old Town). According to an unusually revealing contemporary map of the island, it was bounded on the north by Norrishe's River (presentday Runaway Ghaut), on the south by what is now known as Nantes River, on the west by the sea, and on the east by the Centre Hills; it was bisected by what was then known as Freeman's River, which emptied into the sea at Freeman's Beach, and it bordered Stapleton's 573-acre 'Waterworks' estate to the southeast. (fn. 24)
The following year, 1671, Freeman and Bramley signed Articles of Copartnership, agreeing to act as joint partners for ten years, to lay up competent stores of plantation supplies, and to render accounts every six months, as well as proffering to one another individual bonds of warranty. When Bramley found himself unable to provide half of the stock and supplies, Freeman agreed to make up the difference; in exchange, they lengthened the life of the partnership to thirty years, and decided that neither party would contract a plantation debt greater than 1,000 lb. sugar. Resident in Nevis, Freeman managed the concern through Bramley, who lived in the plantation's dwelling house. Like many new estate owners, the partners preoccupied themselves with the buildup of productive infrastructure in its first ten years, delegating the day-to-day execution of their numerous directives on planting, building, and accounting to a handful of overseers and attorneys who sometimes lived on the plantation with Bramley. (fn. 25) Two years into the venture, the plantation boasted a dwelling house, five ancillary buildings, one of the island's three water-mills, one of its two cattle-mills, and at least 23 slaves (4 per cent of the island's slave population). Five years later, the old dwelling house had been expanded by two rooms and the slave force had been more than doubled to at least 51 slaves (2 per cent), at a time when only 3 per cent of households owned 20 or more slaves. By 1681, the owners had built a new dwelling house and still house and, by 1683, they had added a quay on Freeman's Beach and replaced a dilapidated cattle-mill with a wind-mill. (fn. 26)
By 1674, Freeman was beginning to establish himself as a substantial figure in the islands. He had married Elizabeth Baxter. The actual date of their marriage is unknown, although circumstantial evidence suggests it took place in the late 1660s. With the tie he acquired not only a not insubstantial annuity but also (and perhaps more importantly) connections to reliable, valuable trading partners and correspondents in the West Indies, Southern Europe, and London: Elizabeth was the daughter of John Baxter, a St. Kitts and Nevis planter who had died in 1662, the niece of William Baxter, a Lisbon merchant, and the sister of another William Baxter, a London merchant. (fn. 27)
By 1674, Freeman had also secured a position with the Royal African Company as one of its two agents in the Leeward Islands. (fn. 28) The relationship had actually been forged soon after the monopoly's 1672 reorganization brought into the Court of Assistants several of Freeman's friends, like Thomas Crispe and Benjamin Skutt, and provided opportunities for ambitious enterprisers like himself. From December 1672, Freeman ran the agency with Henry Carpenter, a fellow Nevitian merchant, but, after Freeman decided to leave for London, they joined forces with fellow merchant and planter Robert Helme, his wife's sister's husband. Although their earliest activities are shrouded in uncertainty, they appear to be pushing the work of the factory with vigour in 1674 when, for the first time, they wrote to the RAC's London-based Court of Assistants about the market for slaves in Nevis and St. Kitts. (fn. 29)
The factors received annual salaries of 6,000 lb. of sugar per agent, but they earned most of their profits by sharing the proceeds of slave sales with the Company. The RAC acquired 'commission negroes' for its own account, and consigned them to their agents in the Leewards, who got a commission upon their sale. In addition, for a fee, the Company allowed individuals or syndicates to collect 'contract negroes' in Africa and sell them in America. Freeman and his partners occasionally managed some business from the sale of such slaves for the contractors, but such transactions were not part of their business with the Company and were less common in the Leewards during the period of their contract than they were in Virginia. More lucrative for their purposes were 'cargo' or 'freight negroes' – slaves that ship-owners became entitled to in exchange for provisioning slaving vessels. The agents earned 1.5 per cent on commission negroes. The factors also gained the right to purchase and sell cargo or freight negroes on their own account, in exchange for providing shipping to the Company – on which they earned a principal's share, net of expenses. (fn. 30) Finally, on 'all disbursements [of goods] in the Leeward Islands', as well as on 'all returns to England, whether goods or bills', the factors earned a commission of 7 per cent. The factory divided its profits in equal portions – first in halves, later in thirds. (fn. 31)
In the Leewards, the factors reaped their rewards by serving as the eyes, ears and arms of the Company, supervising its operations in St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat and Antigua. They kept the Company informed as to who needed slaves, where and when, and they suggested an appropriate number of commission slaves. The factors accepted the cargo at their dock on Morton's Bay, on the northwestern shore of Nevis. They boarded the vessel on its arrival, counted the slaves, checked their health, and auctioned them off to the planters whose carts or sloops had come to line the beach and carry the slaves away. Thereafter, the factors collected the payments, whether bills, goods, or cash, and dunned defaulting purchasers. (fn. 32) Collecting the payment for slaves was usually the most time-consuming task they performed. As Robert Helme described the process to the Assistants in 1681, a planter who did not pay in sugar generally paid on credit, usually six or nine months from receipt of the slaves, and proffered a bill of exchange or bond to that effect. The factors generally preferred to obtain bills and bonds without any specification of repayment date, for then they could claim payment at their convenience; but the planters normally would not agree to this arrangement. If at the end of the period the planter had not paid, the factors would 'place the bill or bond in suit' and 'run' it 'up to a Judgment', by which means the planter's land might 'be extended and their goods and chattels sold'. (fn. 33) The factors also negotiated freight rates for London-bound ships, and shipped the payments for the slaves (generally island sugar and rum, although on some occasions bills of exchange or cash) on the vessels they had procured. (fn. 34) In much the same manner, they distributed contract slaves to contractors' representatives on the islands and secured freight from the captains of slaving vessels. Thus, the factors were both scrutineers of Company officials' behaviour on board the ships and salesmen of Company and non-Company slaves, human checks against both distributors and buyers. (fn. 35)
In 1674, Freeman also added several plantations to his portfolio. He acquired the rights to and began to cultivate a moiety of another plantation in Montserrat which he rented out to the brother of his wife's brother-in-law for about £125 each year. (fn. 36) And on the eve of his departure for London, he joined with his brother-in-law Robert Helme to buy the leases to two nearly adjacent sugar estates in Nevis which were to be held in undivided moiety: a relatively large 189-acre sugar plantation known as 'Proctor's', on the west side of the island, two miles north-east of Charlestown, in St. Thomas Lowland Parish; (fn. 37) and a much smaller but more productive 40-acre sugar estate known as 'Mountain' (or as it was sometimes known 'West Mountain'), several miles east of Charlestown, in St. John Figtree Parish. (fn. 38)
Also by 1674, Freeman's stature in the islands, as well as his nomination (albeit failed) to the Island Land Commission, had brought him to the attention of his sister's brother-in-law, William Stapleton, 'an Irish-born, French-trained, English-court-connected soldier of extraordinary wit and wisdom' or (as one contemporary put it) 'a gentleman of known valour and integrity' with a deepseated Irish understanding of how 'to govern his countrymen' (many of whom lived in Montserrat) who had been appointed Deputy Governor of Montserrat in 1669. It was ostensibly to serve his relative as personal agent – for he frequently stated that Stapleton's 'great kindness' and patronage deserved repayment – that Freeman moved to London in late 1674 or early 1675. (fn. 39)
On arriving in the metropolis, William Freeman set up shop with his brother-in-law William Baxter in a counting-house that they leased on Crosby Square, off Bishopsgate Street, in the City. He and Elizabeth made their home to the west in Tooks Court, off Castle Yard, between Chancery Lane and Holborn, in a neighbourhood tucked between Staple Inn to the west and Barnard's Inn to the east. (fn. 40) At roughly the same time, he purchased a lease to Somersbury Manor, an estate lying in Ewhurst Parish, Surrey, along its southern boundary with Sussex, a place to which he and his wife could retreat and 'spend a litell time in the cantrey'. (fn. 41) But his interests, at the outset at least, were primarily business – he had, he was fond of writing his correspondents and friends, 'a world of business to do'. (fn. 42)
Why, at age thirty, Freeman decided to leave the land of his birthplace, where he was a prominent planter, slaver and merchant, and settle in the metropolis, will remain undetermined, unless new, more confessional correspondence comes to light. From hindsight, though, business opportunities played a role. (fn. 43) His stated purpose was to help his relative William Stapleton manage his confused personal affairs; but he also came to protect his own planting and slaving interests in a time of volatile international rivalry and alarmingly declining profitability and, with his brother-in-law, to seize the seemingly myriad trans-Atlantic business opportunities that had been proliferating since the Restoration. Whatever his motives, once he resettled, he pursued three areas of trans-Atlantic business: commission merchandising, absentee planting, and monopoly slaving as the London partner of the African Company's two resident Leeward factors.
Freeman had been employed by William Stapleton 'to transmit, solicit, and do such business as there was a necessity for in respect of ... his affairs'. (fn. 44) That work ran the gamut of expected and unexpected requests. Freeman's first recorded activity in the City – on August 25, 1675 – was to hire a minister for the inhabitants of the Leewards. (fn. 45) But the bulk of Freeman's work for the General involved Stapleton's fiscal-military affairs. Part of the job involved pleading with Crown ministers. That December, for instance, Freeman appeared before the Lord Commissioners for Trade and Plantations to describe the deplorable conditions that Stapleton, his officers and troops were forced to endure for want of pay and ammunition; several months later, he appeared before them again to suggest viable ways to secure the Leewards. (fn. 46) In these early years, Freeman focused almost exclusively on the arrears. In July 1676, to support Stapleton's soldiers, he withdrew £1,500 from the account of Robert Helme, his fellow Nevis planter and slave agent, and bought supplies for the two companies of foot on St. Kitts. When the Government paid the next instalment of the arrears, Freeman repaid the 'loan' from Helme, and shipped the supplies and the cash that remained in pieces of eight to the General in Nevis. In the same month, he received £2,278 from the Exchequer to cover the troops' back pay for 1672 and 1673, as well as £700 to cover the General's salary. (fn. 47)
In essence, Freeman served as 'full-service banker' to the General and his troops. Early in February 1676, he paid Lieutenant Daniel Greatbach for services Greatbach rendered in obtaining the Privy Seal in matters relating to Stapleton's military affairs; in June, he paid himself for collecting and shipping a parcel of goods; in July, he credited himself for charges he incurred in Stapleton's pay procurement work at the Exchequer; and in September, he paid for the fees and presents connected with petitioning various ministers and offices. (fn. 48) For nearly six years, the relationship worked to the advantage of both principal and agent. Only when the last of the arrears was nearing collection in 1680 did relations break down. Increasingly, Stapleton found himself annoyed at the 'extraordinary charges' that he found in Freeman's accounts. The separation was helped along by an Irishman from Montserrat, Patrick Trant, who, 'having a mind to get into the employment of soliciting and managing' Sir William's affairs, insinuated himself into the General's good graces and took over the last phase of the arrears' collection. Freeman declined any further involvement in matters pertaining to military pay. (fn. 49)
In the course of representing the needs of William Stapleton and Stapleton's island governments, Freeman, as one 'concerned in the plantation and trade of those islands', became an adviser to the Lord Commissioners for Trade and Plantations. He was a frequent visitor to their Chamber in Whitehall. 1676 and 1677 were typical years. When the Lords felt that 'good ministers' should 'be sent over' to the Islands in early 1676, for instance, they asked Freeman for nominations, and he complied by recommending a close family friend for Nevis – John Hufflum – and a brother-in-law – John Milward – for St. Kitts. (fn. 50) At about the same time, he testified on the state of defences in Statia, Saba and Tortola, three islands taken by the Dutch in the previous war. (fn. 51) In May 1677, Freeman was asked to tender an account of all moneys spent on St. Kitts, as well as what was collected by that government, like the duties on wine and beer. Later the same month, he was asked to clarify certain points in a report the Lords were drafting and to advise Treasurer Danby. (fn. 52)
Freeman's expertise was especially valued when it came to assessing the commercial effect of colonial laws. In 1682, for instance, he was asked to give his opinion on an Act touching the concerns of 'all merchants that are trading to Antigua'. Nor did Freeman always wait to be asked to share his expertise. In Autumn 1683, he was not above petitioning for himself and fellow merchants and planters: Freeman and 33 other Londoners trading with the Leewards protested against a law passed recently at St. Kitts which gave a debtor absolute liberty to choose whether to pay his debt. Freeman's service as trade expert persisted, regardless of the extent of his involvement in the trade. As late as October and November 1684, for instance, Freeman was invited to come to the Lord Commissioners and comment on two new statutes passed by the Nevis and Montserrat assemblies. Nearly a dozen times each year, he was called in to comment on matters and questions relating to the Leewards, their overseas trade and the like. (fn. 53) At the same time that he worked for Stapleton, the island governments, and the central ministries concerned with the American colonies, he enlarged his practice by selling the produce of Leeward planters and satisfying their demands. This business primarily involved shipping and handling Caribbean sugar imported into England (receipt, payment of duties, storage, sale, and related accounting), and procuring military pay and the supplies of English manufactures and European foodstuffs for the inhabitants of the Caribbean plantation colonies. In essence, Freeman was an import/export merchant, and seldom appeared in the re-export market. On average, he sent eight ships overseas to Caribbean waters every year. On occasion, they stopped en route at the island of Madeira, a fort in Africa or a port in New England. Mostly, they shuttled between London and the Leewards, and only took on a more complex multilateral character when they were sailing within certain Caribbean waters. This conventional Caribbean trade was the foundation of Freeman's merchandising: he specialized both by area and commodity. This Londoner did not spread his risks by handling a variety of goods and involving himself in a variety of schemes, as a London general merchant might well have done a hundred years later, in large measure because he did not know many people in other places. The conventional Caribbean trade remained a constant throughout his career.
What William Freeman did for William Stapleton was as easily and more profitably done for others as well, at least in a time of falling prices for sugar. If, as the historian K.G. Davies avers, the first commission merchants appeared in the early 1650s, Freeman was among the first in Britain to apply the principles of commission merchandising to the work of the West India trade, handling the import and sale of eastern Caribbean planters' produce and the export of plantation supplies to their estates, managing their accounting and financing, and the like. (fn. 54) In short, Freeman did the combined work of a seller, shipper, buyer, governor, marriage counsellor, teacher, caretaker, wine steward, outfitter, accountant, banker, funds-manager, and money-lender – for Stapleton, for the governments and inhabitants of the Islands, and for other sugar planters. (fn. 55)
By 1680, Freeman and Baxter were the principal commission merchants for the Leeward Island plantocracy, in much the same way that his friend John Bawden had come to dominate the trade of Barbados and the Heathcotes the commerce of Jamaica. The institution, while still in its infancy, was flourishing not only in Barbados (as Davies partially demonstrates) but also in the Leewards (which he ignores). (fn. 56) Freeman and Baxter could count at least 95 correspondents in all: 50 Leeward planters and merchants among those who regularly consigned their sugars to their firm in the metropolis, and 45 others serving them – 34 Atlantic suppliers in Ireland, Scotland, France, and Portugal, and eleven sea captains [Table 1].
Most of Freeman's planter-clients were permanent correspondents. Customers, partners and employees received the bulk of his correspondence – nearly three-quarters. Nearly all clients shipped plantation produce each year, and Freeman corresponded with them at a rate of three letters per year. The list remained cohesive in the years when Freeman handled the sales; after Freeman began to pull back in 1683, their concerns were handled directly by Baxter, and they dropped out of Freeman's letterbook, although not out of the firm's accounts.
To more modern minds, the pace was slow. In 1678–1682, Freeman owned or partially or totally freighted eight ships per year that went out from England to the Leewards. That number dropped to an average of 3.5 ships in 1683–1684. When it came to their correspondence, the partners appear to have worked at an even more leisurely pace, at least when compared to Baltic and Levant traders of the period: Freeman's letterbook averages 8.1 letters per month, and 97.4 letters per year. Of course, these numbers can mislead. Baxter would also have maintained a correspondence, and there may have been separate 'firm' letterbooks. The numbers presented here may well be conservative; even if not, to their mind the work could be busy, even consuming. Certain years were busier (1679, 1680 and 1682); likewise, certain months (July-October and December-March). The summer was the busiest (that is, above average) time of the year (all above 11 letters per month). (fn. 57)
Table 1 Correspondents
- William Calhoun
- Thomas Hill
- Francis Kerne
- Colonel Abednego Mathew
- Charles Mathew
- William Meade
- James Phipps
- Captain John Pogson
- William Robinson
- John Vickers
- Conrad Allers
- John Bedingfield
- William Berwick
- John Bramley
- Otto Curtius
- William Fox
- George Liddell
- Daniel Magher
- Captain Nicholas Meade
- Thomas Nugent
- Colonel Roger Osborne
- Edward Read
- Colonel Edmund Stapleton
- Sir William Stapleton
- William Baker
- Henry Carpenter
- John Combes
- John Eddy
- Philip Edwards
- William Hearne
- Robert Helme
- William Helme
- Lucas Jacobson
- James Jenyns
- Joseph Martin
- Mrs. Peterson
- Edward Smith
- Michael Smith
- James Walker
- Richard Watts
- Thomas Westcott
- Alexander Whitney
- Alice Whitney
- Thomas Belchamber
- Richard Cary
- Edward Dendy
- John Spreene
- Colonel Philip Warner
- Samuel Winthrop
Throughout all his work as an agent to Leewarders, Freeman exhibited an aggressive, inventive approach to the task at hand. Most of what he did was wholly legal – but not all. One of the seemingly aberrant but, from hindsight, wholly consistent aspects of his full-service commission merchandising – an operation that combined public and private profits – was his occasional participation in smuggling. In an age of increasingly restrictive trade laws and of growing fears of trade encroachment from the French, Freeman had a healthy appreciation of the flexible interpretation of commercial law. (fn. 58) This attitude can be seen at work on three separate occasions, in 1678, 1679 and 1680. In all three adventures, French brandy and cloth were at stake, in contravention of a recent parliamentary Act of Prohibition banning French brandies and linens. On the recommendation of Freeman's friend Benjamin Skutt and Andrew Slirty, Jr., he approached Abraham Duport of St. Martin's, near La Rochelle, in Autumn 1678 and requested Duport place 80 hogsheads of 'the very best St. Martin's brandy' on board Freeman's ship. Then the Londoner ordered the captain of the Batchellor, a ship Freeman and Baxter owned in halves, to go to St. Martin's and lade the brandy and some salt. The vessel was to sail to Waterford, unload the salt, and load some beef and pipe staves; thereupon, it was to head for Nevis. Freeman and Baxter chose the Master, William Clayton, with care, as one who would 'prove trusty & diligent', hire such men 'as he can confide in' and control them from wandering away from the ship, knowing full well the behaviour of seamen 'when they get into punch-houses amongst their comrades'. Keeping the men in line would be the Captain's most difficult task. To this end, he was to be very careful 'to keep his men from conversing with any other seamen whatever, and to keep them constantly on board his vessel until she is discharged'. Since the men were the only ones who knew that the ship had been laden in France, keeping them ignorant and isolated was 'the best method' Freeman could devise. Moreover, the Master was to use artifice. He was to procure a cocket from London, for as many tuns of brandy as would be laden in France and, by using 'a little art in making a small alteration', change the place of lading from St. Martin's to London. To further complicate understanding, he was to tell the people at Waterford that the ship was bound for Tangiers. At Nevis, the Master was to state that he had come from Ireland directly, and to unload the beef first and then the brandy, so as not to create suspicion; and he was to discharge the vessel and return to London as soon as possible. 'Always be ready with your vessel', Freeman warned, 'to slip and run out of the road upon the least notice from Helme [in Nevis], if any such occasion should happen'. (fn. 59)
The success of the voyage of the Batchellor exceeded Freeman's hopes, and he and Baxter set about repeating it the following year. Given the decrepitude of the ship, they purchased a new ocean-going pink, the Adventure, and put Clayton in charge again; 'to make him that more diligent', they persuaded him to purchase an eighth share of its ownership. On the first voyage, they sent him to the firm of Nicholas Lee in Nantes, not only for 25 or 30 tuns of Nantes brandy but also for a large quantity of dowles, black alamodes, lutestrings, kentings, German linens, codebegg hats, canvas, paper, cherry-wood hoops and staves, avignons in a rainbow of colours – carnation, pink, lemon, sky, green, philemon and mixed, as well as white and black – and 40 reams of rolled letterwriting paper, 40 reams of foolscap, 20 reams of post-paper, and 40 dozen scented kid gloves from Paris, both coloured and white. (fn. 60) On the Adventure's second voyage, the ship was to unload at Montserrat as if coming from London directly, but not at Nevis, 'because we judge it will not be so safe for her to go' there. Robert Helme was to sail to Montserrat, supervise the unloading, and carry Freeman's French dry goods to Nevis; should anyone make subsequent discovery, no one 'should be able to prove them to be the same goods'. With each trip, it seems, the owners became cannier. On this second adventure, they shipped English casks made in London into which the French would pour French brandy. The cockets, however, would state 'English aquavitae' and be destroyed as soon as the ship left for London. After Robert Helme delivered the goods in Nevis, his brother was to unpack them in secret. If William Stapleton should inquire about the cargo, Helme was to tell him that it was 'laden with dry goods & some liquors from London, as beer, etc'. (fn. 61)
Fulfilling General Stapleton's personal commissions and the demands of Leeward inhabitants and governments and on occasion furtively evading the restrictive Navigation Acts would never have made the merchant seriously wealthy, but Freeman also managed metropolitan matters for his own plantations' affairs. In London, he added a fifth estate to his portfolio – the 500-acre Manor of Goudouin on St. Kitts previously owned by his father. Given the treatment his family had experienced since the 1666 French invasion, Freeman was loth 'to trust a St. Christopher estate'. After the death of his father in 1682, he quickly wrested control over at least one-half of the plantation from Auné De Chambré's tenants, and assumed responsibility for much of its management (appointing attorneys, finding tenants, reviewing accounts, and supervising sales and supplies), the estate having passed to William's younger brother Henry, who did not return from the fleshpots of Paris until 1685 and who remained relatively innocent of planting ways. After Henry's death in 1690, the property became his own, and, despite the uncertainty of the title, which had been unclear since 1667 and deadlocked in litigation since 1672, and the effort validation required, he began to implement a more vigorous planting scheme. He eventually (by 1700) secured re-confirmation of the Freemans' legal title and 'expended several thousand pounds into the improvement' of the sugar-works. (fn. 62)
During his years of residence in the City, the Montserrat and Nevis estates provided a continuous stream of income. Absentee arrangements 'seldom worked well', historians of the Caribbean tell us, and absentee planters often lost money. But scattered references to plantation proceeds and profits – no full plantation accounts have survived – suggest Freeman's profits were substantial, even if he never missed an opportunity to describe his profits as far less than he thought they should be. The moiety of the plantation he leased to George Liddell annually brought him 32,000 lb. sugar in rent, which at various times Freeman valued at 28 hogsheads or £250; in 1682, in offering to sell Liddell the moiety, he valued it at £2,000, even though Liddell had previously offered to sell a quarter for £625. In 1682, Freeman offered to rent Bramley's half of his other Montserrat plantation for 50,000 lb. sugar, or buy the same for £2,000; in 1693, he noted that it was capable of producing 10,000 lb. sugar each year. Blessed with soils of stiff clay studded with volcanic boulders, average temperatures between 65° and 79° Fahrenheit, low humidity and no real rainy season, the two Nevis estates consistently produced. Proctor's plantation, the estate he rented with Robert Helme in Nevis, earned clear profits of £1,000 in 1680; in appraising the estate in preparation for a sale, it was valued at 543,842 lb. sugar in 1683; and over a decade later Helme's sister-in-law rented it for 12,000 lb. sugar per year. No value for the smaller Mountain plantation in Nevis was ever stated during the period of the letterbook, but in 1706 that estate produced for William Helme's children at least 28,000 lb. sugar. Lastly, Goudouin estate had annually produced 140,000 lb. sugar before 1666, and had been rented by De Chambré to others at 40,000 lb. sugar; in the first seven months of 1681, it produced nearly 49,000 lb. After his retirement from the City, Goudouin estate and its 'stock of canes' of 'very great value', together with the two Montserrat plantations, provided the bulk of Freeman's income and marked him as prosperous. (fn. 63)
In London, Freeman promoted his Nevis slave factory. He relayed factory correspondence to the Company, and Company decisions or rumours to the factors; he handled the factory's bills; and he pressed the factors' claims before the Assistants (as when the factors felt that it needed a more vigorous prosecution of private interlopers' importations contrary to the monopoly of the Company). He pushed for the passage of favourable policies and the selection of friendly officers, handled the import and sale of the sugar that the partners received in payment for commission and cargo slaves, arranged shipping to the Africa and Nevis stations, and monitored the work of his partners in America, especially their prosecution of debtors and their remittances to London. (fn. 64)
The imports Freeman and his partners managed were substantial. According to the most recent estimates constructed by David Eltis, summarized in Appendices 2a and 2b, the three Nevis factors introduced roughly 9,200 (perhaps as many as 12,800) slaves into the Leewards between 1674 and 1685. The figures given by Freeman do not agree entirely with Eltis' sums. When Freeman's is higher, his sum probably reflects the factors' cargo slaves, which would not ordinarily be accounted for by the RAC. But the figures are generally close enough to detect a trend: the volume of their business grew each year, until it reached a peak in 1681, when it began to decline upon Helme's return to England. Furthermore, the transactions of the factors were profitable, although never as profitable as they had hoped. Only one of thirty-two slaving vessels they were involved with was lost at sea (the Astrea in 1679), while only one other ship lost a substantial portion of its cargo (the Dragon, captained by Helme's cousin William Morecock, in 1680). Their commissions of 1.5 per cent on sales of over 8,000 commission and contract slaves apparently earned the factors respectable sums, which they divided three ways, to which they added their share as principal of cargo and other contract slaves. (fn. 65)
Freeman remained a formal partner in the Nevis slave factory through the early 1680s. Technically, in 1679, his name drops out of the addresses and salutations in the letters sent and received by the factors to and from the Company; perhaps not coincidentally 1679 was the year in which he first expressed a desire to withdraw 'from all further trade'. He was tired of the aggravations of City business and the generally failing outcome of ancillary provisioning (both his dry-goods and his wine stores in Nevis and St. Kitts failed, largely because his potential customers had their own London agents); more importantly, he and his partners finally realized that the profits on commission and contract negroes were dwindling, given the rise of interloping. Conversely, he had concluded his other income sources were sufficient and the time had come to secure his family by stabilizing his gains. But the content of the letters in his letterbook suggests active involvement persisted through 1681; he found he could not easily extricate himself from security commitments to the factory, for instance, or quickly call in planter debts, and he could not trust another to do that for him. (fn. 66)
In 1683, William Freeman more or less withdrew from London society. He was 38. He had suffered from 'rumes' in his eyes for several years which left him 'almost blind' at times and 'much indisposed in body'. He had bought a large estate on the Thames 30 miles from London and built a large house there. (fn. 67) He closed his letterbook in 1685 and as he did so drifted once again into relative obscurity.
Much about Freeman remains a mystery. His principal passion appears to have been business. He seems to have had very few connections to political or religious radicals, unlike many merchants of the generation before his. Of his religion we know very little, apart from the fact that he was not a Catholic, that he recited general platitudes of Christian behaviour and 'common morality' (like 'Do as you would be done by' and 'Do not plead to Christianity but act like' a Christian), and that he was buried in a Church of England graveyard. He was no zealot, whatever his faith. Of his politics we know less. Throughout the period of the letterbook, he remains relatively quiet. Probably, he was flexibly conservative. During the years in which he wrote the letters, he appears to have been a supporter of Charles II and the Duke of York. Yet, during the early 1680s, he was named Deputy Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire by the 2nd earl of Bridgewater, a Whig and a strong opponent of Dissenters, and in 1688 he opened his house to William of Orange. (fn. 68)
But obscurity should not be confused with inactivity. In August 1686, at Epsom, Surrey, Freeman wounded and killed 'upon a slight occasion' a gentleman bearing his own surname. In the course of the duel, he too was wounded. For this act, he was tried at the Southwark Assizes and found guilty of manslaughter, but was ultimately pardoned by the king. (fn. 69) During retirement, Freeman was not able to shirk the responsibilities associated with sizeable landowning, and throughout the 1680s and 1690s he served on the Commission of the Peace for Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, as well as being Deputy Lieutenant for Buckinghamshire, and he sat on that county's sessions of Oyer and Terminer. (fn. 70) On occasion, he dabbled in more than just local service, as when in 1690 he agreed to carry freight-free two months of soldiers' provisions to the Leewards for use by royal forces sent there in the wake of yet another French invasion of St. Kitts. (fn. 71)
For the most part, though, Freeman extricated himself from his commitments in sugar trading, slaving, and commission merchandising. The dispatch of this business was slow and not always under his control. From 1687 to 1691, for instance, he was forced to manage the claims of his wife's sister, Sarah, the widow of fellow factor Robert Helme, in a lawsuit brought by the RAC. Years before, Freeman had bound himself to secure Helme and Carpenter's debts; accordingly, he was summoned by the Company to answer for their nonpayment of 387,087 lb. of sugar owed by Edward Dendy of Antigua, a subfactor appointed by Helme, who had received a cargo of slaves but never sent the proceeds of their sale. Although Freeman was 'an absolute stranger' to Dendy's appointment and business, he prevailed upon the Company to delay prosecution until he made enquiries. Henry Carpenter and Sarah Helme had shipped 24 hogsheads of sugar in July 1686 to extinguish Dendy's debt, he learned, but the Company had never received the lot. Not sure whom to believe or trust, Freeman demanded a new payment from them in November 1687, urging them to sell the plantations and slaves which Dendy had used as security and to apply the proceeds to the debt. At this they balked, although they eventually agreed to assign the plantations and slaves to Freeman, who in turn would pay the Company. Owing to a technical legal flaw in their assignment, Freeman could not fully extinguish the debt until 1691. (fn. 72)
One of Freeman's last recorded public services was performed at his private country house, Fawley Court. In early November 1688, the Prince of Orange, the future William III, landed at Torbay and made his way to London to occupy the capital. When the party arrived at Henley two days before Christmas, they could not find suitable lodgings in the town. Accordingly, they repaired to Fawley Court, a mile north of Henley. At Fawley, William III ate with Lords Pembroke, Weymouth and Culpepper and the bishops of Ely and St. Asaph, listened to various peers and representatives from the City – it was here that he learned of James II being imprisoned – and slept. The next day, William of Orange's party left for Windsor. (fn. 73)
In many significant ways, acting as host to the future king fittingly represents the overall trajectory of Freeman's life and work. Fawley Court was not Freeman's first country house. In moving to London, he had leased a manor house and park in southern Surrey, and took some preliminary steps towards refurbishing it, creating what would serve as a welcome weekend retreat from the grind of City business. (fn. 74) But that house was too small and insufficiently grand for the man of affairs Freeman was becoming. He began to search for a more suitable property within a few years, and found the perfect social vehicle for articulating his achievements and aspirations in a property – Fawley Court – that the heir of Bulstrode Whitelocke put up for lease in 1679. (fn. 75)
Fawley Court is situated in Fawley Parish at the southwestern tip of Buckinghamshire. (fn. 76) What exactly William Freeman acquired, apart from a rundown house and an extensive park, is unclear. Local and architectural historians have suggested that the house was neglected following the devastation of 1642, that a second house was built on its ruins in 1654 under the direction of Christopher Wren, and that it was named 'Fawley Court'. (fn. 77) Other historians have pushed forward the date of rebuilding, arguing that Freeman pulled down a pile in 1684 and built it to a Wren or Wren-like design. (fn. 78) No contemporary drawings or plans have survived. One later pencil sketch of Fawley Court, dated 1826, and a slightly later engraving, remind us of what the property might have looked like at Freeman's death. (fn. 79)
The letters copied into Freeman's book provide a little additional information. The merchant renewed his lease for a further 25 years in early 1683 at a cost he considered 'too dear'. He bought it 'in order to the settlinge of myselfe, being resolved to withdraw from London, having left all other concerns'. As early as September 1683, he was 'abuilding' there, planning large-scale refurbishment, and ordering construction materials, mainly timber (such as cedar, locust and sandalwood for wainscoting) from correspondents in Nevis and Montserrat. By August 1684, the house was somewhat habitable, and he was apparently living there for weeks at a time. (fn. 80)
Freeman makes no mention of a designer, architect or builder. As a result, some uncertainty persists about their identities. The historian Thomas Langley first named Christopher Wren as the designer in 1797, in his History of the Hundred of Desborough; and his attribution to Wren has been more or less accepted by subsequent commentators. But the attribution is questionable. Geoffrey Tyack argues that Wren was not the architect: he had, as the Surveyor of the King's Works, little time in the 1680s for private projects of this sort, and he had no known acquaintance or connection with Freeman. Rather, Tyack suggests, the house was the work of an extremely gifted builder-contractor or amateur gentleman-architect. (fn. 81)
At first glance, the house does bear a resemblance to Wren designs. As finished in the 1680s and 1690s, it was just one among many houses redesigned or rebuilt by Wren and occupied by absentee Caribbean planters and merchants, such as Sir William Stapleton's Grey's Court in Oxfordshire and Sir Francis Syke's Basildon in Berkshire. Fawley Court as reduced and constructed by Freeman unabashedly encapsulates the classical style of country-house architecture made famous by Inigo Jones and the followers of the High Italian Renaissance style that was popularized by Christopher Wren.
Outside and in, Fawley bears the stamp of such design: 'symmetry, meticulous proportion, and correct use of the classical Orders'. (fn. 82) As to its facade, It is a substantial brick building of two stories and attics, with stone dressings. The original windows had mullions, transoms and lead glazing. There is a fine modillion cornice, above which is a slated roof with dormers. On the west side is an Ionic tetrastyle portico crowned by a balustrade. (fn. 83)
In plan, Fawley Court follows the design of an 'H', with two large rooms (the hall and saloon) in the centre on the ground floor, and staircases and smaller rooms, which were doubtless originally suites of rooms or 'apartments' containing bedrooms, in the wings. Upstairs, the large rooms over the saloon may well, following contemporary usage, have served as the main dining room. Houses like Fawley Court were designed to achieve the maximum comfort and privacy for their owners and guests by segregating them from the servants, who worked in the basement and slept in the attic rooms. There was a strict attention to symmetry, both internal and external. Fawley's rooms, in fact, are symmetrically disposed according to mathematical principles; the hall along the central axis and the saloon, for instance, each measures 40 ft. x 20 ft. There is a 'clear vista' through the house, and there are no awkward solecisms in the placing of doorways and windows. Each facade is arranged so as to form a satisfactory composition in itself; the west entrance front and the east front facing the Thames have five central bays recessed, while the south front, facing towards Henley, and its northern counterpart have three central bays brought forward and crowned by a pediment. (fn. 84) The inside of the house also expressed Freeman's love of the High Italian Renaissance style; its fitting-out in Wren's style consumed him for at least fifteen years. But, unlike the exterior, there is little surviving evidence to document its appearance. All that remains today of the original seventeenth-century interior are: imported sandalwood, locust and cedar wainscoting; a main staircase, with its turned wooden balusters; and a magnificent plaster-work ceiling bearing the date 1690, perhaps by Grinling Gibbons, in the first floor's main saloon.
The man who built Fawley was never a complete 'gentleman' in the late seventeenth-century sense of that term. Before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a few objective tests determined who was a gentleman. Noble birth was one obvious mark, as were high rank in the royal service and high standing in the professions – the army, clergy, or law. Freeman had none of these. (fn. 85) Possession of land served to confirm the nobleman's or civil servant's respectability. Freeman had access to land. However, the relation of land to respectability could become blurred, because the nature of the possession, the size of the holding and the relation of the holder to the land (whether he had to work the land himself) were all mitigating factors, and could lessen its value for someone like Freeman. Sensibility and manners, something he had in abundance, however, counted for little.
Few could pass the tests that existed. Even land was an uncertain prerequisite. In response, during the last decades of the seventeenth century, as the men who served in the state's burgeoning inland or overseas bureaucracies or made fortunes in overseas commerce grew in number, in importance, and in the resources at their command, a deportmental rather than a hereditary or professional definition of gentility gained currency: one was a gentleman if one looked and acted the part. William Freeman was at work in the early stages of this liberalization of the definition of gentility. He was never remarked upon for his education, his wit, his genteel dress and carriage, or his refined external behaviour. One suspects him coarse and blunt. Yet, he was not heedless of appearances and comforts, and he had the financial wherewithal to support a polished English style of living. Certainly, one area where he exhibited that style was in his house in the country: Fawley became a focus for his aspirations, and a mirror of his achievements. Even if his building the house did not usher him into the halls of the great and the good, he built with the hope that it might.
Grown comfortably prosperous on absentee planting, slaving and commission merchandising, William Freeman died two decades later on 11 October 1707, a wealthy county landowner with a 'small seate', 'brave, friendly and good', though not quite 'a compleat gentleman'. To his wife and illegitimate son, he left annuities totalling £400; to his wife, nieces, nephews, executors, and a friend he granted bequests totalling £1,620. In addition, he left the annual rental income on his 1,000-acre estate in Buckinghamshire to his wife; and he bequeathed his Montserrat and St. Kitts plantations – capable of annually producing at least 132,000 lb. sugar and valued at no less than £5,000 sterling – to his nephew John Cooke, provided he change his surname to Freeman. He does not appear to have had much liquid capital (cash, short-term loans, leases, and joint-stocks) at the time of his death, but considerable accounts receivable, especially that of 387,087 lb. sugar (worth £130,813 current) still due from Nevis debtors. (fn. 86)
THE INSTITUTIONS OF COMMISSION MERCHANDISING
William Freeman had had a talent for business, and his various entrepreneurial activities had raised him well above the ranks of the Leewarders he had left behind. One reason for the success he experienced after he moved to London was his 'triangulation': his position in London at the centre of the empire, with ties to Governor Stapleton, the RAC and the plantocracy in the colonies, and his assumption of simultaneous roles as planter, slaver and merchant allowed him to beat the odds typically confronting long-distance enterprisers. When coupled with the success of the entrepreneurs who worked alongside and followed him, Freeman's methods had done much to solidify the construction of England's emerging commercial empire.
English commission merchants trading to the West Indies flourished in the century and a half after Freeman because they solved an economic problem. That problem arose from having agriculturally productive land a long way from the mother country and its markets. To exploit the land, overseas traders in the metropolis had to finance and provision the plantations and sell their produce a very long distance from the point of production. Approximately 4,000 miles separated London, England from Charlestown, Nevis, for instance; outbound ships commonly took nine weeks to get there, and inbound ships eight weeks to get back. (fn. 87) Freeman and enterprisers like him provided the critical supply, finance and sales links. In the agricultural-commercial system they developed, colonial plantations were owned by either residents or absentees, managed in the colonies by an extremely aggressive and self-seeking group of transplants, and supported by agents resident in urban England who were themselves more often than not former colonists.
This system – the deployment of planters' agents in the metropolis, what the historian K.G. Davies dubbed the 'commission merchandising system' – was not foreordained. (fn. 88) It came to dominate because of the advantages it brought, although in doing so it created its own set of issues clamouring to be addressed. Seventeenth-century planters and merchants tried several ways of solving the problems of pursuing agriculture at a distance. One alternative was a network of arms-length purchase-and-sale relationships. The chance arrival of a ship at Caribbean settlements in the early 1600s evolved into more regularized shipping patterns whereby the owner or master of a ship filled its hold and sailed through the islands, selling English and European goods to whomever would take them, and buying colonial produce on a hit-and-miss port-to-port basis. Such one-off shipping and trading survived to the end of the eighteenth century, especially in the form of individual slave-trading, although the unpredictability of the one-off approach caused it to flag in importance after 1650. London merchants, desiring greater control, introduced agents into the islands who provided regular contacts for the planters, selling their goods and buying their crops. But island planters resented the dominance of merchants' agents and, almost as soon as sugar production took off in the eastern Caribbean colonies in the third quarter of the century, the planters established a third approach – long-term relationships with their own London-based agents. As Davies notes, 'the planter himself', in an extremely risky move, 'assumed responsibility for the marketing of his products', by 'consigning them on his own account to an agent' in England. (fn. 89)
Risky though it was, the arrangement with planters' agents in the metropolis had several advantages, though, and these are exemplified in Freeman's experiences. First, the combination was an informational system. The planter or islander had someone acting as his eyes and ears at the heart of the empire. Captain Freeman, for instance, consistently wrote to his correspondents about the prices of the various grades of sugar in London, and how those compared to the markets in Bristol, Chester, Liverpool and Dublin. He kept them apprised of the opportunities for shipping to and from the islands, and of the competition for freight and insurance rates. He told them about investment opportunities – estates for purchase, borrowers needing loans, and the like. He passed on rumours about the credit-worthiness of would-be borrowers, having not only examined numerous deeds in the hands of their lawyers but also grilled friends and enemies of the parties concerned. And he investigated the finances of planters' friends and business contacts in England, with an eye to determining their ability to repay old debts. (fn. 90)
Secondly, the arrangement was an action-oriented system. London-based agents could work quickly and decisively on behalf of the planters. Acting with the authorization of the principal in the colonies, the agent could reap financial benefits from rapidly changing events and opportunities in the City and with the Government. William Freeman, for example, sold his correspondents' sugar to particular refiners, bakers, grocers or brokers with whom he had established business relationships, depending on the competing possibilities for the greatest gains. (fn. 91)
This commission merchandising system mitigated but could not eliminate the problem of distance. The London agents served many masters, and acted as principals as well. There was always the spectre of conflict of interest. Freeman was a planter, as well as the representative of other planters who consigned him sugars that competed with his own crops in the marketplace. He was an RAC slaver who wanted to restrict planters to buying Company slaves, but who understood other planters' (and his own) needs to buy slaves more frequently and cheaply than the RAC offered. He was Stapleton's personal agent whose actions, bribes and charges may have been necessary or unwarranted, reasonable or excessive, depending on the point of view, and whose entrée into the Ministries as easily redounded to his own benefit as to that of the Governor. Not surprisingly, in an age when reputation and trust were essential components for building business and making it a success, 'great prudence' was 'necessary in the choice of' an agent. (fn. 92)
The London-based island transplant employed three mechanisms to mitigate the diachronic conflict-of-interest problem. These devices developed into three of the institutions of the mature commission merchandising system of the eighteenth century, and in that sense they are important. Yet they are doubly significant in that they remind us that, in the pioneer days of the seventeenth century, merchants and planters were just groping their way towards a solution to the problem.
Perhaps most importantly, Captain William Freeman the London merchant remained a substantial island planter after he moved to England. This kept many of his economic interests aligned with those of his correspondents, and he kept this fact visible to them. Absentee management demanded strict monitoring, supervising, and improving. Freeman peopled his plantations with Europeans (attorneys, overseers, and skilled workers) and Africans. He supplied the plantations with food and drink provisions (like Madeira wine and Irish beef and butter), building materials (such as paving stones from Poole for curing- and still-houses), production materials and equipment (such as coppers, pots, drips, stills and lime), and miscellaneous goods (like clothing for whites and blacks, ironware and nails). Furthermore, Freeman arranged financing and shipping, both outbound and return, including the ship, cargo space, and insurance, as well as sales. In short, in a classic instance of the division of labour, supply and sales were Freeman's work; planting, harvesting, building and accounting were residents' work. (fn. 93)
Of all his activities, finding and keeping labourers and managers laid the foundation for the success of his plantations. Freeman obsessed about such matters. Believing that 'land without slaves is a dead stock', Freeman made use of his connections with the RAC. Each year from 1675 to 1684, his factory supplied the Islands with roughly 1,100 Africans, and some of these he bought and placed on his own plantations. Skilled slaves posed more of a problem, though. He always preferred and requested 'able young men slaves'; but his orders were not always followed to his satisfaction, as when he ordered a slave 'to bring up to the trade of a cooper' but received one named Valentine who, because of his left-handedness, he thought, was 'not fit for the purpose'. (fn. 94)
Finding affordable European males to man and supervise his operations was an even greater challenge. Unskilled workmen were usually hard to locate. Each year he began the search anew, deploying correspondents to scour the hinterland of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and digging himself through the refuse of London's jails. What he wanted were 'as many lusty men and youth servants' as could be had. But the supply was limited, and many other proprietors were searching as well. (fn. 95) Skilled workmen were even harder to come by. In 1677 and again the following year, Freeman could not get any. 'Tradesmen are very scarce', he frequently lamented, and coopers in particular were 'hard to meet with'. So too were more ordinary workmen. The skilled white labourers he engaged before 1677 were procured only by luring them out 'on high wages'. Christopher Jeaffreson, a St. Kitts planter, described the concessions Freeman had had to make: he personally selected the workmen – a cooper, a 'lusty young carpenter', and the like – and consigned them to the care and direction of Robert Helme in Nevis, who saw to their initial placement and performance. He paid for their passages himself and added £30 to each salary at the end of their four years' service. If Freeman's letters are any indication, white servants were more difficult to come by than blacks, and he spilled much ink on their procurement. They would be 'a strengthening to the Islands', he admitted, even if they were 'rather a charge than [a] profit to the plantation'. (fn. 96)
Holding on to employees and keeping them in line proved at least as difficult as finding them. Blood ties, family connection, and personal acquaintance and indebtedness did little to offset the latitude and laxity created by the distance from London. Freeman took great pains to ensure workers' loyalty with lucrative contracts and perquisites – high pay, occasional allowances for private trade, and the like. At the same time, he required that they sign formal Articles and tender Bonds warranting good performance, which were litigable in court. He demanded frequent reports. The only problem with these reports is that they did not arrive, if the employee chose not to send them. In such cases, he hired multiple observers to visit a plantation several times a year to spy on the employees so as to not 'be overreached' and to report what was really happening on the spot. (fn. 97)
Even this method of triangulation was not always foolproof; so he put other people in positions of overlapping authority whom he had other reasons to trust and who (like relatives sensitive to their potential legacies) had other reasons to trust (or fear) him. Just such a person was Thomas Westcott, the son of a friend in London, whom Freeman had hired as an apprentice clerk for his Leeward plantations and then set up as the manager of his Nevis wine and drygoods store. Freeman's correspondence with Westcott is littered with the problems created by the inability to observe his agent, the nearly continuous allegation of fraud, and the struggle to overcome accounting and shipping problems. In reading Freeman's list of what Westcott did not do, one wonders what he actually did, as when in 1682 he did not send a list of goods remaining unsold, he did not observe Freeman's orders to sell only for ready payment, he did not frequently adjust with planter customers and take their Bills of Exchange, he did not send home Accounts of Sales, Accounts Current and Lists of Debts, and he did not apply himself sufficiently to the recovery of debts. Two years later, the grievance was shipping: in April, Westcott sent 20 tuns of Freeman's sugar, but the sugar was 'so disorderly marked, and such confusion that nobody knows what to make of it'; of these, only 16 were found, and 'neither the quantity nor the markes were right'. 'Not one number comes out right'. The sugar was 'extreame bad & many of the casks half filled with sugar canes'. 'In fine', he concluded, Westcott's work 'must be a cheat' upon him, 'a design of fraud' all around. Later that year, Freeman reckoned that, of the £4,000 principal entrusted to Westcott, only £1,500 was sent to London as returns. About the only recourse Freeman felt that he had (short of visiting the island – which he briefly contemplated in 1685 – or pulling out altogether – which he never did) was to write 'sharply', and this he did often with 'the intent ... to frighten' Westcott into 'better compliance'. (fn. 98)
As the difficulties with labourers suggest, the troubles with maintaining plantations as an absentee were not insignificant. (fn. 99) Yet, owning and managing lands in the colonies helped Freeman identify with his clients in two ways. First, it showed them that he was 'in the same boat', and that he understood the problems they confronted in their planting: supply, staff, sales, and the aforementioned challenge of having agents whose behaviour one could not always control. Often, he shipped his sugar on the same boat he shipped clients' crops and employed the same broker (John Fleet of London) he hired to sell their parcels, and he continually reminded them as much. Not only were their conditions similar, but he and his customers knew that they were similar. They were all part of a community of interests in which, by implication, he could be trusted to think as they would. Because he experienced the same conditions they did, Freeman could act for them as he did for himself. When he exerted himself in 1678 and 1679 on behalf of his correspondents William Calhoun and Abednego Mathew of St. Kitts and had London and Glasgow searched for unskilled labourers whom he could transport free of charge to work on their estates, he applied the same criteria as he did for himself. (fn. 100)
In addition to aligning himself with island planters, owning land in Montserrat and Nevis had a second, more subtle, but equally powerful effect on Freeman's relationship to the island: it made the principal/agent problem reciprocal. That is, while Freeman was an agent in London, his partners, employees, and correspondents were in effect his agents in the Caribbean. (fn. 101) This connection offered each party opportunities to exploit the other. Why would the chance to exploit each other have promoted cooperation across 4,000 miles of ocean? The answer suggested by Freeman's correspondence is that it was in both parties' interests to continue the relationship. Hence, while distance allowed exploitation, mutuality limited it. That is why Freeman allowed agents and partners in the islands some room for private trade and personal gain, for he hoped to limit it by allowing it.
A mutuality of interests, however, did not always prevail. The acrimonious
fight between Freeman and Bramley shows what happened when the suspicion
of an act of exploitation prevailed over the promise of cooperation. Freeman's
relations with Bramley, his partner in a Montserrat sugar plantation, began to
corrode several years after Freeman left the Islands. Bramley, Freeman began
to allege in the late-1670s, 'laid out & expended the greatest part of the
proceeds of the plantation in buildings ... for his own private accommodation',
expenditures that brought 'no advantage to the plantation'; worse, he shipped
plantation sugar that was often trash or wasted to London; worst, he refused for
some years to tender any account of their crops. Freeman expected Bramley
carry on our interest to our most advantage equally. Estimate a yearly supply that may be bought in London and send them jointly. Other commodities, stock or utensils, buy on any island that will afford them cheapest. Run rum or molasses to New England, Virginia or New York for a supply of provisions. ... Ship no sugar on William Freeman's account after the end of June and before the end of September. Ship to only the port specified by William Freeman. Buy no slaves or stock until you have William Freeman's approbation (excepting horses and cattle). Be spare in your disbursements as possible. Send accounts every six months.
As of September 1680, Freeman had received no accounts for three years. Bramley, who as the resident partner on the spot was to have ensured the quality of joint exports and rendered full, regular accounts, as any agent would, acted more like a sole proprietor. Freeman, at such a great distance from Montserrat, could not 'so well judge of things' and, if he 'should object', the questions 'cannot be answered here'. (fn. 102)
In desperation, Freeman sent his apprentice Richard Watts to Montserrat to examine the books and abstract accounts, but Bramley would not grant Watts access. Thus rebuffed, Freeman next set 'his mind to the law'. In the Leewards, his attorney William Berwick sought help from local officials. At first approach, both Governor General Stapleton and the Montserrat Deputy Governor refused it, believing 'continual strife' put the plantation (which neighboured Stapleton's estate) 'in danger of ruin' and 'such differences' were 'a discouragement to settlement' of the island. But eventually Montserrat's Governor relented, issuing a writ mandating joint possession and convening a special court to hear Freeman's complaints. Before the hearing, however, Bramley prevailed on Stapleton to grant an additional writ mandating full partition, and the plantation was divided. (fn. 103) In London, Freeman balked at either arrangement, even though he won by lot the better half, and in September 1683 he initiated legal proceedings against Stapleton for his part in the imbroglio, proceedings that were to turn vitriolic and drag on for over a decade. (fn. 104) By July 1694, the parties had still not reached agreement, even though the partition had been set aside, nor would they ever, for, at the time of his death, Freeman still retained his moiety yet the propriety of any partition remained unclear. The original trans-Atlantic partnership broke down irretrievably; the rift spread to ancillary relationships and left a legacy of distrust and uncertainty that was never eradicated. (fn. 105)
The second organic institution that helped commission merchandisers mitigate trans-Atlantic conflicts of interest and cope with burgeoning empire was their colonial origins and acquaintances. More than just fellow planters, they were fellow planters personally known to their correspondents. Freeman was born in St. Kitts and spent the first thirty years of his life in the Leewards. Almost as soon as he arrived in London and began representing Stapleton, he sized up the opportunities for money-making, quickly appreciating the economies of scale in representing as many colonists as possible. He began to write to prospective clients: he approached old friends, former neighbours and fellow planters in the islands about the handling of their consignments. With the passing of each year he entered more of these islanders into his accountbooks.
William Freeman went to London with 'a world of business to do', and his story reinforces the belief that the most critical asset a merchant could deploy in the first century of empire was acquaintance in the colonies. By 1680, Freeman and his partner Baxter had become the principal commission merchants for the Leeward Island plantocracy. They included among their 95 correspondents at least 50 Leeward planters and merchants who consigned their crops to them. Each year Freeman wrote 100 letters: nearly two-thirds of the recipients of his American correspondence were clustered in Nevis and Montserrat; St. Kitts and Antigua were the home of the other third. Freeman had known or at least met most of his planter-clients before 1675: some were relations; others were partners; still others were tenants; a few were new arrivals introduced through old friends. (fn. 106)
Freeman's personal familiarity with the islands and its people was indispensable in building a thriving London commission merchandising house, because it helped create trust between the parties separated by 4,000 miles of ocean. When a client threatened to pull his custom away from the firm or to delay his payments, Freeman smoothly reminded the planter that he himself had grown up and built a business there: he understood the crops, the unpredictable growing cycle, the difficulty of assessing matters like wastage, and the problems of recurrent indebtedness and dashed expectations better than other merchants with no first-hand knowledge of the place. When a client needed the parts for a water-mill, for instance, Freeman knew what pieces and sizes to buy, since he had built his own on Montserrat years before and continued to replace its parts after his departure for London. When it came to the repayment of debts, he also knew what he was talking about. 'By experience' on the spot, he sadly later admitted to John Bramley, he knew that 'planters' pay' was 'not soe quick'. Still, he commiserated with Philip Edwards, 'when I was there, I made good all debts for 5 per cent to those that were concerned with me and lost nothing by it', and he expected his clients to do the same. When discussing the preparations an absentee should make before leaving, Freeman drew from the 'experience' 'taught' him by leaving his own Montserrat estates and encouraged other would-be absentees to care for their plantations before they left. Again and again, Freeman deployed his own personal story in discourse as a means of capturing or cementing business. (fn. 107)
Of the three enabling institutions undergirding the commission merchandising system, the dual institution of colonial origin and personal acquaintance is the least discussed by Early American, Caribbean or Imperial historians. But a casual review of English overseas merchants' activities at the end of the seventeenth century encourages the belief that it was almost universal and certainly significant. For the years when the commission merchandising system came to dominate England's trade with the West Indies, the metropolitan agents were principally drawn from the colonists' ranks, or from those people who had spent considerable portions of their careers in the colonies. Similar backgrounds, blood connections, however distant, and personal acquaintance established more or less reliable bonds that reduced the principal/ agent problem.
Absentee planting when coupled with colonial origin and personal acquaintance went much of the way towards mitigating the problems created by the commission merchandising system that arose to serve an empire that spanned the ocean. The effects of these institutions were reinforced by the merchants' comprehensive, full-service approach to doing business with the English West Indies. Freeman's and his peers' habit of mind never separated 'professional' from 'personal' requests. One sees this phenomenon in Freeman's dealings with his most important correspondent and client – his relative General Sir William Stapleton.
Freeman appears to have spent most of his time managing General Stapleton's financial resources, both public and private. As has been noted, Freeman, Baxter and Helme initially preoccupied themselves with getting the officers and troops paid. To do this, they loaned the General money to feed and pay his troops while waiting for the Government to pay moneys already granted by Parliament, and they procured these payments; for their trouble, they earned 0.5 per cent. On the private side of Stapleton's portfolio, they paid his personal debts. Often, this 'banking' constituted honouring his bills of exchange, as it did in May 1678, when they paid a sum to Joseph Jurys who had proffered a bill of exchange from Stapleton. Alternatively, it consisted of paying cash directly to retailers from whom Stapleton had ordered goods. (fn. 108) At the same time, they bargained with lenders when Stapleton occasionally needed to borrow money, and later paid the installations on Stapleton's behalf; more often, they negotiated the extension of loans from the General to third parties, often acting only on Stapleton's rather vague injunction to keep his money 'lively', and thereafter received the interest and principal payments due on these loans. (fn. 109)
After three years in the metropolis, Freeman's work for Stapleton gradually broadened to encompass less purely monetary matters. Increasingly, the merchant sent the General a wide range of business and personal goods: London newspapers and lists of parliamentary votes, as well as new books like The Present State of England; stationery, including parchment skins and family seals with the Stapleton coat of arms emblazoned on them; supplies and tools for sugar plantations, like the three coppers purchased in July 1677 or the ironware in November 1679 and September 1680; legal documents required to prove ownership of the estates; fashionable items of personal apparel, such as shoes, velvet clothes, wigs, and one pair of diamond pendants; and costly containers for luxurious foods, like six silver porringers, one silver tankard, and two silver salts. (fn. 110) Besides procuring consumer goods and providing plantation services, Freeman acted on Stapleton's behalf in London, as when he entered a caveat in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury against the probate of the will of Lady Stapleton's first husband, and when he commissioned epitaphs from leading London poets for the tomb of Sir William's younger brother Edmund (Freeman's brother-in-law). No request, no matter how private or small, was too mundane to be handled by the London commission merchant. (fn. 111)
In short, Freeman did the combined work of a seller, shipper, buyer, governor, marriage counselor, teacher, caretaker, wine steward, outfitter, accountant, banker, funds-manager, and money-lender – for General Stapleton, for other sugar planters, and for the inhabitants of the Islands and their governments. Professional and personal relations were commingled; the London agent was a general agent. (fn. 112)
Freeman and Baxter provided a full range of services – commercial, financial and personal – to Stapleton, to Leeward governments and to Leeward planters. Educating Stapleton's and Liddell's children, for instance, was treated with the same attention and respect as selling their sugars or claiming back pay. (fn. 113) The London commission merchant did not view these tasks as mutually exclusive. Davies highlighted this 'intimate social relationship' as a characteristic of eighteenth-century commission merchandising – he did not find it typical of the seventeenth-century merchants and clients of the RAC. (fn. 114) But the Freeman letters show that it was in existence almost from the start of the system in the Caribbean. The economic incentives to offer multiple services, and to combine them with planting and slaving – that is, the economies of scope – were there from the beginning. Absentees like Freeman thus blazed a trail.
Comprehensive services made the overall economic relationship more valuable to both the planter and his agent. The planter did not have to deal with multiple providers, and worry that a request might be 'out of bounds'. At the same time, this arrangement made life richer for the agent, since increased business meant increased commissions. This fact, too, helped reduce the principal/agent problem. The more an agent did for a principal, the more he stood to lose in activity and profit if he did not provide them satisfactorily. Although comprehensiveness increased the scope for conflicts of interest, it reduced an agent's incentive to take advantage of any particular dealing. At the same time, by increasing the number of spheres in which an agent was acting for a principal, comprehensive services increased the number of people who observed the agent's performance. More spectators encouraged better behaviour.
THE LETTERBOOK, 1678–1685
William Freeman's 'Copie Book of Let.rs, Anno. 1678: to 1684' is a large book (16½" tall, 10½" wide, and 3" thick), bound in vellum. Although it is labelled a 'Copie Book' and many of the letters were written in the hands of Freeman's clerks, most were written or copied in Freeman's own hand. The book of 538 pages contains 686 letters. The volume was put up at auction by Freeman's descendants and sold in a small London auction house in 1930. It was purchased for £42 by the Institute of Jamaica, in Kingston, and sits there today, catalogued as MS. 134.
The book was purchased by the Institute on the assumption that it pertained to Jamaica's history, although there is nothing in the volume on that subject. As a result, it has sat there, well preserved but little used. The first scholars to use it as a source were Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh in their 1972 study of the early Caribbean colonies, although many of their statements, inferences and conclusions are erroneous. More recently, in his monumental study of London business in the seventeenth century, Richard Grassby notes its existence, but he does not appear to have studied the document. Nuala Zahedieh is the first historian to treat Freeman's business seriously in her study of credit and risk. The book remains a little used source. (fn. 115)
The form of the letters has been reproduced here with some modifications. The names of addressees are entered in full, even if Freeman used a familiar short-hand version, and their places of residence (information he usually omitted) are noted in brackets. Such information has been gleaned from London trade directories and governmental records. The spellings of names agree with the spellings adopted by the individuals themselves when they signed petitions to the government. Their dates are in the Old Style, although January is regarded as the beginning of the year. Thus, for example, what Freeman wrote as February 6, 1683 is here rendered as February 6, 1683/4. The place from which Freeman wrote the letters, when known, is also given in brackets; again, it is a type of information he considered insignificant, since he knew where he wrote it from. Salutations appear as Freeman wrote them. Formulaic closings and signatures have been omitted, however, except when more than one writer is noted, as when Freeman and his partner Baxter wrote jointly, or when another partner like Baxter ('W.B'.), Helme ('R.H'.) or Coode ('W.C'.) wrote alone; all other letters are to be read as being written by Freeman, whose authorship in the manuscript was usually noted simply by 'W. F'.
In the present scholarly edition, extremely loose capitalization and punctuation have been regularized in a relatively modern fashion. On the other hand, the haphazard placement of currency signs, either before or after the number, has been maintained. So too erratic spelling has been left unchanged, except for the spelling of proper names of addressees and of place names alongside the dates. Whether it was Freeman's or his clerks' misspelling is unclear; both are riddled with incorrect forms. Clerical errors have sometimes been corrected, although only to clarify the matter under discussion; the corrections are noted in the footnotes. On occasion, obvious omissions of necessary words are inserted in square brackets. The letters are printed here in the order in which they appear in the letterbook, but for the present reader's convenience, they have been separated into sections by calendar years, with appropriate running heads.
The letters copied into the book appear to comprise Freeman's entire business correspondence for the years 1678–1685. Their selection – for not all 686 letters have been reproduced here – was determined by three methods. First, I deleted entire letters and parts of letters that merely repeated information given in another letter and therefore added little new information. Since Freeman often wrote to several partners, employees and correspondents on the same day or in the same week, and the letters often repeated the same directions or requests, or transmitted the same information, many letters could be removed with little harm to the overall integrity of the book. Secondly, I restricted the letters to those to people who had some connection to the principal foci of Freeman's entrepreneurial activity – commission merchandising, slaving, and planting. Finally, certain types of letters, such as those to correspondents and customers, were conventional and at times formulaic, simply reciting the arrival of ships or the price of sugars; these were easily represented by the inclusion of only a few examples.
The challenge in choosing from the letters of a seventeenth-century merchant and planter like Freeman is that he did not deal with just one person or promote just one activity. Freeman's letters describe the metropolitan management of a wide array of global interests and actors. Freeman's firm in Nevis, for instance, was a slave importing firm as well as a sugar exporting firm. Success in each area depended on the work of the other. Moreover, Freeman's letters highlight the role of the London partner – a manoeuvring which did not respect boundaries of subject or recipient.
An earlier version of this discussion appeared in Hancock, " 'A World of Business to Do': William Freeman and the Foundations of England's Commercial Empire," William and Mary Quarterly, 57 (January 2000), 3–34.