A guest post by Rebecca Rideal.
In April 1664, a House of Commons committee was set up in Westminster to investigate the nation’s declining cloth industry. It didn’t take long, however, for committee members to widen their focus to the deterioration of English trade more generally. Over the previous few years, mercantile tensions between the England and the Dutch Republic had grown steadily (erupting into the First Anglo-Dutch War, 1652–1654) and much of the blame for this perceived deterioration in trade was levelled at the Dutch. Throughout committee meetings, influential London merchants were encouraged to voice their grievances. With their companies venturing further afield for mastery of trade in gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, silks and spices, key complainants were the Levant Company, the East India Company, and the Royal Adventurers for Trade in Africa, whose headquarters and boards were all based within the capital and whose ships docked and delivered along the Thames. They complained that the Dutch had taken possession of all the former Portuguese territories, especially along the West African coast where they had severely inhibited England’s ability to trade.
In fact, that same year, a forty-three-year-old Irish-born sea captain named Robert Holmes had been sent by the London-based benefactors of the newly-formed (and state-backed) Company of Royal Adventurers to facilitate the company’s expansion. Founded by the Duke of York and Prince Rupert of the Rhine on the belief that there were rich gold fields along the Gambia river, the company regularly came into conflict with Dutch trading bases along the West African coast. As the small fleet set off from the Thames, its primary goal was the acquisition of gold but Holmes also had explicit orders, for the first time, to establish a trade in slaves, with the aim of acquiring 3,000 per year to sell to the West Indies. He was instructed to ‘kill, take, sink or destroy such as shall oppose you’, but the unwritten truth was that in order to achieve these ends, he would need to take possession of Dutch trading bases.
In his forty-gun flagship, the Jersey, Holmes led a taskforce of English vessels to capture the Dutch fortress of Carolusborg, on the northern part of the Gulf of Guinea. He took with him a new spring-based pendulum watch, designed by the illustrious Dutch scientist and inventor Christiaan Huygens and refashioned by the Royal Society ready for the sea. It was hoped that the watch might enhance the accuracy of navigation. A cunning man who, by his own admission, looked ‘his enemies in the face with as much love as his friends’, Holmes was also a determined military leader and knew these waters well. With the support of his loyal crew and aided by the latest naval weaponry and navigation equipment, he seized a cluster of trading bases before setting his sights on the main prize, Carolusborg. It took Holmes eleven days of hard bombardment to capture Carolusborg, which was renamed Cape Coast Castle under English control.
His actions on behalf of Royal Adventurers for Trade in Africa far exceeded what the company’s backers had expected and Holmes found himself in the unanticipated situation of being reprimanded for capturing Dutch vessels. That said, his achievements were not unwelcome and, along with the wider grievances raised by London merchants and influential war-hungry court factions, they would trigger the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667). The Dutch eventually managed to win back many of the African trade posts Holmes had taken, but they never again had control of Cape Coast Castle; a fortress that, over the next two centuries, morphed into the rotten heart of the British Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Adapted from 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire. Rebecca Rideal is a writer, former TV producer and historian. Her first book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire is published by John Murray and out in paperback today, 23rd February.