The South Sea Company, founded in London in 1711, is directly linked to the city of Zurich as well as the slave trade. One of its remaining shares from 1729 is part of the “Sammlung historischer Wertpapiere” (Historical Securities Collection). The security was acquired in 2002 from German collector Jakob Schmitz for the collection of the Swiss Finance Museum.
In 1727, the city of Zurich acquired 120 shares in the British company, which was involved in the slave trade. It was worth 100,000 Zurich gulden to the Zurich Seckelamt to invest in the English company. For the Zurich City Council, this represented a safe and interest-bearing investment. Barely 10 years earlier, in 1719, the city of Bern invested in a much larger share with 1'300 shares. Despite the so-called "South Sea Bubble", the price collapse that went down in world economic history, Bern profited with gains. In 1739, the contract was dissolved, but the City of Zurich remained an investor in the South Sea Company.
South Sea Scheme
In this engraving, the English painter William Hogarth refers to the crisis situation in London after the South Sea bubble. "So much for mony's magick power" he writes cynically in the lines below his caricature. Speculators ruined by the collapse of the South Sea Company bustle in the square. Hands are wringed, pennies are counted, those responsible are flogged and the devil is blamed. The inscription on the dominant monument in the picture speaks for itself: "The monument was erected in memory of the destruction of this city by the south sea in 1720."
During the period of Zurich's participation, the South Sea Company shipped 36,494 enslaved people from the African continent across the Atlantic to the Spanish colonial territories. This was done because the South Sea Company entered into a contract with the Spanish Crown. This "Asiento de Negros" put the Spanish Crown in a monopoly position and was supposed to regulate the labor shortage overseas.
Current research indicates that this financial involvement of the city of Zurich in a slave trading company is the only one known. According to the latest research, about 75 of the 120 shares remained in the possession of the city of Zurich for a total of 100 years, which increased its treasury.
Baroque. Age of Contrasts
The South Sea Company share is on loan from 16.09.2022 to 15.01.2023 for the exhibition «Baroque. Age of Contrasts" in the Landesmuseum. The section 'Global Trade and Colonization' shows their inglorious role in the global slave trade, colonization and speculation. In the exhibition text, Landesmuseum points out that the State of Bern owned shares in the South Sea Company in the first half of the 18th century.
To be continued...
The South Sea Company is not the only sea trading company that was active during the transatlantic triangular trade and financed by Swiss money. Our latest addition to the collection, a share of the Compagnie des Indes orientales, also shows concrete ties to a Zurich banking institution. Read more about it in the third and last blog of the series.