On This Day: 10 September 1711

On this day in 1711, Thomas Bowrey was deeply involved in his scheme for a settlement in the South Seas. At the British Library, there are a number of proposal signed by Bowrey dated 10 September 1711 plus his account of the places which ye Duke and Duchess anchor’d at in ye South Seas. These documents connect Bowrey to Daniel Defoe, Robert Harley (1st Earl of Oxford and, at this time, Chancellor of the Exchequer) and William Dampier.

The voyage of the privateers, the Duke and the Duchess, in 1708 was the brainchild of William Dampier, the pirate who had visited Bowrey at Aceh many years earlier. It was during this voyage that Alexander Selkirk (said to be the model for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) was rescued. However, Dampier did not arrive back in London on the Duke until 14 October 1711. How Bowrey wrote his description and sent it to the Harley four weeks before Dampier returned home is unexplained.

Defoe and Bowrey are known to have met in March 1708 but it is not known what they discussed. The agreement for the voyage of the Duke and Duchess was signed in January that year and the voyage started in August. Defoe, who was indebted to and worked for Harley, also had an interest in a settlement in the South Seas. His proposals put forward to Harley were similar to but less detailed than Bowrey’s.

Harley, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer had inherited a massive Government debt, set up a new joint stock company linked to opening up trade with Spanish America. This South Sea Company was, in name, to be similar to the East India Company having the monopoly of British trade in the South Seas. In reality, the Government’s debt was to be repaid by giving its unsecured creditors the equivalent value in shares in the Company in return for paying them 6% interest. The Company was set up by a Bill which received royal assent in June 1711.

The passing of the Bill was the starting signal for the many projectors who had worked for years on schemes for settlements in the South Seas to make their submissions to Harley – Bowrey among them. Despite the efforts of Bowrey, Defoe and others, no attempts was ever made by the South Sea Company to set up settlements in South America. Less than a decade later, the South Sea Bubble started. After the Bubble had burst, a contemporary observer commented the project was a gross, palpable illusion.

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