By Nigel Pocock and Victoria Cook
Last updated 2011-02-17
Slave trader, merchant and diplomat
Richard Oswald was the son of a Presbyterian minister. He was apprenticed to his cousins in Glasgow who had a successful trade in tobacco and he travelled to the Caribbean and the southern colonies of British North America on their behalf. In 1746 he moved to London and began his own business, initially supplying the army and Royal Navy as well as trading tobacco, but moving quickly into slaves and sugar. He augmented his business interests by marrying Mary Ramsay, the daughter of a wealthy Jamaican merchant. In 1747, he and several associates bought Bance (also Bunce or Bence) Island in the Sierra Leone river, one of the most active slave trading posts on the West African coast. Oswald built a golf course there for the benefit of white slave traders.
Oswald also acquired shares in slave ships, and plantations in the Caribbean, Florida and South Carolina. His ships could then carry slaves from Bance Island to plantations in the Americas and return to England with cargoes of sugar and tobacco. He was part of a group of Scottish merchants based in London who assisted each other financially, sharing their investments to spread the risk and ensure more reliable and consistent profits. Capital gained from investments in slavery financed investments in related products, such as tobacco and sugar production.
Most of the slaves Oswald traded were shipped to the southern colonies of British North America. One of his most important business associates there was the South Carolina planter and slave owner Henry Laurens. In 1781, Oswald lobbied successfully for Laurens' release after he was captured by the Royal Navy when he was returning from negotiating Dutch support for the American War of Independence. The following year, Oswald became an adviser to the British prime minister, Lord Shelburne. His knowledge of North America resulted in his appointment as one of the British negotiators at the 1783 Paris peace conference with the American colonies. Laurens was on the American team. The two sides agreed that the British should not take 'Negroes or other Property' from Americans when they withdrew from the American colonies.
Oswald's London base was at Philpot Lane in the City of London, but his vast fortune enabled him to buy Auchincruive - an estate in Scotland where the Adam brothers built him a large house - as well as an extensive library and art collection.
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