The Welshpool Gold Cup Case Study: Thomas Davies and West Africa

Thomas Davies and West Africa

The best-documented period of Thomas Davies’s life is the time he spent working in West Africa between apparently settling in Barbados in the 1650s and writing his will there in 1664. E. Alfred Jones found no record of Thomas Davies in Africa because he looked in the wrong place. It is the records not of the Royal African Company but of the East India Company that illuminate his career in West Africa.[1]

By the 1660s Europeans – first the Portuguese (who founded Elmina fort in 1482), followed by the Dutch then the English, French and other European nations – had become familiar with and named much of the West African coast. The English became a significant force in the early seventeenth century, pioneering the trade for African redwood as well as hides, gum Arabic and wax, but paying little attention to gold. In 1618 the Guinea Company (the Company of Adventurers of London Trading to the Ports of Africa) was founded by London merchants and began looking for gold, reaching the Gold Coast by 1628 and establishing factories at Cormantine (also known as Fort Amsterdam) and elsewhere. In 1644 control of this trade passed to Parliamentarian sympathisers like Maurice Thompson (1604-1676), who was prominent in the East India Company, prompting regular harrying by Royalist raiders such as Prince Rupert (1619-1682) as well as Dutch rivals. In 1657 the Guinea Company leased its rights in West Africa to the East India Company for £1,300, putting the latter in control of the English trading posts. These were not colonies, as the land was not suited to plantations and the economic imperative was to satisfy the strong demand for African products, gold and slaves in particular.[2]

The East India Company’s West African headquarters was at Fort Cormantine in modern-day Ghana. Its priority was trading for gold, needed to sustain the Company’s factories in India. Ivory was less valuable and on 14 September 1660 the Company made it clear to its employees that the Company was not to trade in slaves:

Wee have ordered our Agent, to forbeare the buying and selling of any Negroes, being it hath proued very much to our preiudice formerly and will so continue, if it shall be practized  Wee therefore require you not only to forbeare it your selfe, but endeavour to prevent it in all others, and to improve your time, and abiliteis for the glory of God, and the proffitt of our trade.[3]

Thomas Davies was appointed factor by the Court of the East India Company on 8 November 1661, at a salary of £30 per annum, with Peter Watson, John Allen and Richard Davis providing the required bond of £500.[4] Because the Company held from the Crown a monopoly for trade with Asia and West Africa, it controlled travel to the Guinea coast. The many for whom the lure of this potentially lucrative opportunity outweighed the substantial and often fatal risks all had to obtain permission from the Company and most likely to be employed by it, typically being required to deposit a surety of £500 and to enter into a covenant undertaking to perform a particular service. The wording of the Court Minute, which begins ‘Upon the peticion of Thomas Davis’, reflects this relationship.

We don’t know how Davies gained his introduction to the East India Company, but it may have been with the help of acquaintances in Barbados or in Wales. His family’s Welsh connections could have included the Herberts of Powis Castle, whose relative the Puritan-sympathiser Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke (1584-1650), became a member of the East India Company in 1614; and SirThomasMyddelton (c1550-1631) of Chirk, an original shareholder of the Company.[5] More likely, though, he would have relied on the influential patronage of members of London’s professional and mercantile elite, among whom Welsh gentry and entrepreneurs were well represented.[6]The Richard Davis who offered security for Thomas Davies may have been such a man, and is likely to have been the ‘Richard Davies, of the Temple, gent.’, mentioned in Davies’s will and identified by Jones as the son of John Davies of London, admitted to the Inner Temple 20 May 1647 and called to the Bar in 1654.[7]

Davies’s role would entail responsibility for overseeing the warehouse system at trading posts so that Company ships could exchange required trade goods on arrival without having to wait for deals to be made with local merchants.[8] He no doubt also had the standard expectations of personal enrichment from the opportunities for unofficial trading on his own account. He sailed on 10 November 1661 on the Coronation, bound for Guinea and Madras under Captain Roger Milner, and arrived in Fort Cormantine on 25 January 1661/62.[9]

The Coronation’s cargo was typical but, valued at £16,566 15s 6d, the most valuable of the seventeen cargoes sent out to Guinea by the Company between 1658 and 1664. It included 8,060 sheets in 124 chests worth £1,544 16s 8d; 13,488 iron bars worth £4,211 17s 2d; 3,805 pieces of long cloth (128 bales) worth £6,849; four bales of striped carpets; 349 muskets in six chests; forty casks of pewter; as well as a wide range of Indian textiles such as tapseil, nicanees, Guinea stuff, gingham, bafta, and brawles (blue and white striped calico) sent as a sample.[10]

The records show that the Company traded with Africans mainly in textiles. These included wool from Britain (Hounscott say, pampilions, perpetuanas, Welsh plains); cloth from Europe (linens, Flemish and Leiden says [finely woven wool], old sheets obtained in Amsterdam which were popular with Africans as a cheap way to keep warm at night); and a huge variety of Indian textiles (a third of the total value) which were sent from India to England and re-exported. The Indian textiles included long cloth (white cotton sheeting) amounting to some seventy per cent of the fabrics shipped from India, nicanees (cheap striped calico from Madras and Surat), tapseil (cheap striped cotton cloth), Guinea stuff (colourful striped or checked cloth), blue bafta (indigo-dyed calico from Bengal), gingham (woven dyed yarns), chintz and brawles. These Indian textiles were soon to become essential to funding the slave trade, and Guinea stuffs were also commonly sent to the West Indies to clothe slaves.

V&A musket 1588

Figure 9. Musket, England, 1588. Steel; wooden stock inlaid with engraved staghorn. M. 948-1983. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Muskets were a controversial export. They were felt to cause disagreements and the Africans were often reluctant to buy them. Indeed, in October 1658 the Company’s Agent James Conget asked that no more muskets be sent out, a request to which the Court acquiesced in their reply of 23 June 1659 but then overruled in a letter of 8 November which insisted on the need ‘to reape good proffitt by them.’[11]

Davies must have been struck by the realities of his situation almost immediately. On 3 February 1661/62 the English factors were prevented from unloading the Coronation’s cargo at Cape Coast by a Dutch blockade, although the English had just secured rights to half of the castle from the powerful African merchant-ruler, John Cloice.[12]

On 23 May 1662 the Agent Edmund Young (who had arrived in December 1661) died, to be replaced by the chief factor at Cape Coast, John Puleston, who himself died on 6 January 1662/63. Meanwhile in October 1662 the East India Company had agreed to hand over its lease in West Africa to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa. This had been founded in 1660 by a group of courtiers led by James Duke of York and by Prince Rupert, already involved in the slave trade and a scourge of the Guinea Company while in exile during the Commonwealth. These Royal Adventurers were granted a thousand-year trading monopoly in West Africa. Their main shareholders were important nobles and major London merchants, and included Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). Gold and now slaves too were their priority, the latter recognised as a vital lifeline to the Caribbean economy. In 1662 they undertook to supply 3,000 slaves to Barbados. By 1700 the Royal African Company that replaced them in 1672 had become the biggest carriers of slaves on the Atlantic.[13]

This change of management and strategic trading priority dominated East India Company activity during the coming months, as they prepared to hand everything over. From 6 January 1662/63, when he was promoted by his colleagues from principal factor at Cormantine to Agent on the death of John Puleston, this task was Davies’ chief responsibility.[14] His election as Agent was independently endorsed in the Company’s written instructions to Captain Stephen Mitchell, sent out on the Castle in January 1662/63 ‘to bee Superintendent over all our Factors and Factories in those parts’ and to sort out the Company’s affairs with the aid of the most suitable factors there, ‘among whome wee doe preferr Mr Thomas Davies and Mr Gilbert Beavis wee haveing received a good Character of them.’[15]

In January 1662/63 the Royal Adventurers gained a new charter explicitly establishing the slave trade as their main objective, and setting a deadline of 25 March for the East India Company to hand over their Guinea estate. We don’t know what Davies knew or thought about this. Clearly he himself benefitted from the slave trade as a Barbados plantation owner, but as a servant of the East India Company he was forbidden to coerce Africans to leave Guinea to work elsewhere. One of his first tasks as Agent was on 26 January 1662/63 to write a letter to the Company reporting that the factors were unwilling to send twenty English-speaking African men to St Helena on the American (which had arrived from England on 20 January) because: ‘they have all wives and Children in the Countrey and will never thrive after beinge transported; and the sending of some away will cause all the rest to Run into the Countrey’.[16]

In this hard-nosed and brutal trading environment, we cannot know whether Davies was showing a sense of humanity or simply being realistic. At this time relationships with Africans were generally good, other Europeans being the main source of problems. Typically, there would be an African trading settlement in close proximity to each European trading post. The East India Company was keen to keep the local population happy, eager to get as much gold as they could before they had to leave.

This was a time of change, however, and in early 1662/63 the Royal Adventurers sent out their own factors. Davies was moved on 4 March to describe the problems this occasioned, reminding the Court of ‘our civill entertainement given to the Royall Company Factors and theire Goods; which according to the present scarcity of provisions; Encreaseth our charge very much.’ He added: ‘since the arrivall of the Royall Company Factors our troubles (like soe many Hidras heads[)] have sprunge in the neck of each other, Nott that wee Impute anythinge to the Factors But the declareinge a devided Interest’.[17]

On 2 March 1662/63 ‘an open warre’ broke out when an African shot an English corporal attending ‘the dancing day att Cormantyne Towne’ (in itself an indication of positive relations). On 4 March Davies had to report in his letter that the corporal had died and ‘This being the first English man slayne since the first settlement here Itt behoveth vs to take Rigorous Revenge for the security of the Nation for the Future as allso for owne particuler Honours.’[18]

The reference to ‘the Future’ certainly suggests Royal Adventurer pressure to act in this way. Whether it was Davies’s initiative or not, the town was razed to the ground when the murderer was not produced.

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[1]The primary sources are the correspondence between the Court of Directors of the East India Company and the Company’s Agents and factors on the Guinea cost, transcribed in Margaret Makepeace (ed.), Trade on the Guinea Coast, 1657-1666: the correspondence of the English East India Company (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1991); and the minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors, published with some omissions in Ethel Bruce Sainsbury (ed.), A Calendar of the Court minutes etc of the East India Company, 1635-1679, 11 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907-38). This material is analysed in Margaret Makepeace, ‘English Traders on the Guinea Coast, 1657-1668: An Analysis of the East India Company Archive’, History in Africa, 16 (1989), pp. 237-284.

[2]For a useful overview, see P. E. H. Hair & Robin Law, ‘The English in Western Africa to 1700’ in Canny (ed.), Oxford History of the British Empire, pp. 241-263.

[3]British Library, India Office Records (IOR):E/3/85 f.168, East India Company in London to Edmond Child at Fort Cormantine, 14 September 1660, transcribed in Makepeace, Trade on the Guinea Coast, p. 78.

[4] IOR:B/26/423. For comparison, in February 1662 Samuel Pepys was paying the composer and music teacher Mr Berchenshaw £5 a month, and in March that year agreed with his servant Jane a salary of £3 per annum. On 30 October 1664 he spent £17 on ‘a dear and noble suit’ and a ‘cloak lined with plush’.

[5]David L. Smith, ‘Herbert, Philip, first earl of Montgomery and fourth earl of Pembroke (1584–1650)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2013 (, accessed 11 June 2014); Charles Welch, ‘Myddelton , Sir Thomas (1549×56–1631)’, rev. Trevor Dickie, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 (, accessed 11 June 2014).

[6]Andrew Mackillop, ‘A ‘reticent’ people?’.

[7]Jones, ‘Gold Chalice of Welshpool’.

[8] Philip Lawson, The East India Company – A History (London: Longman, 1993), pp. 25-26.

[9]Makepeace, ‘English Traders’, pp. 268-269.


[11]Makepeace, Trade on the Guinea Coast, p. 39 & 43.

[12]Ibid., pp. 114-116.

[13]Canny, Oxford History of the British Empire, pp. 255-259.

[14]Makepeace, Trade on the Guinea Coast, p. 135.

[15]Ibid., p. 133.

[16]Ibid., p. 136.

[17]Ibid., p. 137.