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In many writings on the life of the Quaker William Penn much is made of his close relationship with James, Duke of York (later King James II) and how this relationship was advantageous to Penn being able to establish his ‘Holy Experiment’ of Pennsylvania.

It is therefore pertinent to take a look at Penn’s royal friend to gain an understanding of both William Penn himself and the times through which he lived.

The Duke of York was the main shareholder in and the director of the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading in Africa; established at the time of the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. The shareholders in this Company were a combination of the Stuart Royal family along with a number of wealthy London merchants. The Company established London’s monopoly of the English slave trade. It created slave ports on the West coast of Africa where British-produced goods were exchanged for Africans who were then transported as slaves to colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas.

In 1664, the Duke of York, as Admiral of the Navy, annexed the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (it was then renamed New York in his honour). When the Duke took over New York one of the first actions of the new authority was to grant the colony port privileges and the right to use warehouses to ships engaged in the slave trade (1) ~ i.e. ships owned by the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading in Africa in which the Duke was the largest shareholder.

Previously, under the Dutch West India Company, the African slaves of New Amsterdam had lived in what was known as ‘half-freedom’; that is to say under the Dutch they had some rights and some, limited, independence. However, once under Stuart, British rule they became chattel slaves (i.e perceived as personal property of the slave owners in a way that was different from previous slave-systems. It was slavery used as labour under an emerging and consolidating capitalism). Though it is worth noting that these urban slaves of New York never accepted the complete servitude endured by their rural counterparts.

Royal African Company

In 1672 the Duke of York led the merger of the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading in Africa with the Gambia Merchant’s Company. This new Company, the Royal African Company, established further forts on the west coast of Africa as centres of slavery and for trade in British-manufactured goods. Between 1672 and 1689 the Royal African Company was responsible for the transportation of 90,000-100,000 Africans. Many of the slaves who survived the ‘middle passage’ were destined for the American colonies of New York, the Jerseys , Delaware and Pennsylvania where Penn and other many other Quakers had mercantile, land and financial interests.

Numerous slaves transported by the Royal Africa Company were branded with  the letters ‘DY’, signifying they were property of Penn’s friend the Duke of York, others were branded on their chests with the company’s initials, ‘RAC’.

None of this involvement with profiteering from human trafficking ever seemed to affect Quaker William Penn’s friendship with the Duke. And, 20 years later, Quakers were extremely populous in the slave-based colony of New York. As its Governor Dongon reported:

‘Here bee not many of the Church of England, (and) few Roman catholicks, [but] abundance of Quakers – preachers men and women, especially – singing Quakers, ranting Quakers, Sabbartarians, Anti sabbatarians, some Anabaptists, some Independents, some Jews; in short, all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part none at all.’

(1) This last point is from Alan Singer’s book, New York and Slavery ~ time to teach the truth