Towner Fellows’ Lounge
“Terra Firma: The Disappearance of the Royal George and the Solid Grounds of the South Sea Company”
Farid Azfar, Swarthmore College
The suspension of the Royal George,the annual ship which was set to sail for Carthagena and Porto Bello in 1718, has long been used to mark the origins of the South Sea Bubble and to underscore the essentially financial purpose of the South Sea Company. In this chapter, I tell a markedly different story, focusing on the years 1718-1722, from the time the ship was suspended to its sensational release in the winter of 1721-22. The age of suspension was, I argue, also an age of acceleration. Far from stagnant or motionless, the Royal George was hauled into the King’s docks, aggressively surveyed for the wealth in its holds, and transformed - if the Customs Officers are to be believed - into a floating island for contraband trade in East India goods. At the same time, the figure of the rotting goods was repurposed by the South Sea Company into the infinitely recyclable raw material of moral capital. The failed assurances of the suspended ship produced aterra firmaof secure volatility, one that explains how the South Sea Company emerged from the age of the South Sea Bubble more powerful than ever before. I pay special attention to the formation, in this period, of the London Assurance Corporation, and endthe chapter with an account of the release of theRoyal George,insured against the license that produced it, and accompanied by the Assiento slave ship,into a volatile world of contrary winds and sailors rebellions. By looking at the ship during this period, not only do we revise our understanding of the South Sea Company’s imperial power, so do we more clearly see the licentious assurances which produced the sensational underpinnings of British imperial ideology.
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