Slave trade, gold, and sugar: The Elector of Brandenburg as entrepreneur

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In cooperation with London Coin Galleries, auction house Künker presents a part of the former Preussag collection at its auction on 30 October 2015. Some of the objects provide unique insights into how noble metals were mined and traded. A medal, minted on behalf of the great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg himself, remembers the means that were devised to fuel the realm’s economy. The regent of Prussia ordered the founding of a trading colony for the purpose of acquiring slaves, ivory, and gold.

Frederick William, engraving dating from 1626.

While the Thirty Years’ War was devastating the German Empire, the Elector of Brandenburg transferred his little son Frederick William to the safe court of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. It was the Netherlands’ Golden Age at the time. Trading profits from the Dutch East India Company were being invested in fantastic paintings, expensive spices and international luxury goods. No wonder the prince from poor Brandenburg began to wonder how his electorate might also profit from this wealth. After his accession, he married the daughter of Frederick Henry of Orange. With her, she brought a Dutch merchant to court, who immediately presented plans for the founding of a trading company to the elector.

Frederick William and Louise Henriette, painting by Gerrit von Honthorst, ca. 1647.

Still, repeated attempts to enter into the lucrative spice trade with East India failed. It would take until 1681 for the first project to succeed long-term, and it would not be in East India but in West Africa. In the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France granted Brandenburg the privilege to trade freely in its ports. That was not quite what Frederick William had expected. He had instructed his diplomats to obtain the monopoly of supplying the French colonies in the Caribbean with slaves. That would have been a lucrative business. But Louis XIV was not interested. It was speculated in insider circles that one did not trust small Brandenburg with such a major trade enterprise. So the electorate had to prove its economic potential to the Sun King. 

The Brandenburg navy on the open sea, painting by Lieve Verschuier, 1684.

Benjamin Raule, who made this wonder happen, was from the Netherlands. He convinced the Elector of Brandenburg to let him sail two privately financed frigates under the Brandenburg flag, but at the command of Dutch captains, to Guinea. 

Frederick William agreed and ordered that the delegation should engage in trade, but avoid all places where other trading posts had already been set up. In the case of attack, armed defence was allowed if absolutely necessary. For himself, he ordered a few exotic animals such as monkeys or parrots as well as half a dozen young slaves aged 14 to 16. Additionally, the elector issued a patent in December 1680, which expressly gave his subjects permission to buy gold, ivory, and slaves in Guinea. 

Slaves being transported, 19th-century engraving.

At the beginning of the year 1681, the small expedition reached the Guinean coast. They were welcomed by native tradesmen with great friendliness. This was due to the fact that the lucrative slave trade was strictly separated into two different businesses: Native traders took captives in the mainland and sold them to Western tradesmen, who in turn took responsibility for the transport over the Atlantic, on the coast. Accordingly, it was in the interest of those native traders that as many different buyers as possible were in competition with each other and thus kept up the prices. Against this background, Brandenburg was nothing but a new customer and welcomed with open arms. 

Of course the competition, the Dutch trading company, showed a very different reaction. An aggressive exchange of letters between the company and the elector ensued, in which the Dutch insisted that trade with Guinea remain their sole right. And when the elector argued with that, they did not hesitate long but captured one of the two ships sailing along the Guinean coast under the Brandenburg flag. 

View of Groß-Friedrichsburg from 1686, the dwellings of the Africans located outside.

The other ship was more fortunate. It returned home with 100 pounds of gold and 10,000 pounds of ivory as well as a contract with three local rulers on board. The contract obliged Brandenburg to build a fort as a trading post. The locals were willing to support the construction and asked for a Brandenburg flag to show off their alliance visible for other traders. This treaty led to the founding of Fort Groß Friedrichsburg and of the Brandenburg African Company.

The gold medal from 1681, worth 25 ducats, can be acquired under lot number 227. It is the only remaining specimen from this historically fascinating coinage. The medal is estimated at 75,000,- GBP.

The gold that the expedition had brought back was minted into medals on behalf of Frederick William. Their obverse shows a ship – probably the returned Morian – accompanied by a Latin circumscription (in translation): Under the guidance of God and the auspices of his Highness the Elector of Brandenburg. The reverse is dedicated to the real matter of the expedition: We see a slave against a coastal landscape, offering grains of gold and ivory tusks on a large platter. Several trade ships are visible in the background. The circumscription reads (in translation): The voyage to the coasts of Guinea fortunately embarked on in the year 1681. 

On behalf of the elector, the medal continued to be minted in Emden, the home port of the Brandenburg African Company, later on. And the Deo Duce – under the guidance of God – is also repeated on the later Guinea ducats, minted at the Berlin mint.

Medal and Guinea ducats are fantastic examples which illustrate what an important role the elector’s active involvement in long-distance trading played in the staging of his self-portrayal. Frederick William probably distributed such gold medals among all his allies as objects of admiration. It would be interesting to know whether he also sent one to Louis XIV to convince him of Brandenburg’s economic power. 

Although the medal casts a very positive light on the enterprise, it was, in fact, an economic disaster. The company went bankrupt in 1692 already. A newly founded follow-up company survived for another 18 years before it was transferred – without any resistance – into state-ownership and slowly but surely liquidated over the next two decades by the Prussian King Frederick I.

“Slave dungeon” in Fort Groß Friedrichsburg. Photograph: Obruni /

23,538 people were abducted on ships sailing under the Brandenburg flag as slaves. That is considerably less than the comparable number of other slave-trading nations. Nevertheless, it remains true that every single human being abducted was exactly one too many. 

Please find the auction at which the mentioned medal is currently being offered here.

And please read the auction’s preview published in CoinsWeekly here

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