9758 AN EXTREMELY RARE GEORGE I MAHOGANY MARITIME BUREAU CABINET English. Circa 1725. Measurements: Height: 94 1/2″ (240 cm) Width: 45 3/4″ (116 cm) Depth: 28 3/4″ (73 cm)
Of mahogany with brass mounts. The blind upper section with a folding pair of cross banded doors enclosing a fully fitted system of pigeon holes each inscribed with the name of a foreign port. The integral cornice with cupid bow molded corners. The bureau section fitted with three banks of four drawers each mounted with plain brass drop handles. The oversized fall opening to reveal pigeon holes and a central cupboard with further inscriptions of foreign ports. The sides mounted with brass lifting handles, the whole raised on bracket feet.
The compartments to the bureau section each with original inscribed label:
Porto bello and Panama La Vera Cruz Windward Coast &c.
Havana and St. lago de Cuba Jamaica and Barbadoes
Buenos Ayres Prince Frederick
Secretary of State Treasurer
Board of Trade Store Ships
Spanish Director Trustees
France Port Letters Reprisalia Anno. 1727
Holland and Germany ????
Madrid Iunta Memorialls.&C
Sold by Phillips & Harris, London 1979.
Private Collection, Philadelphia.
The present cabinet is an extremely rare early 18th century commission, owing to its unusual form and special characteristics in type of wood and method of manufacture, and would have belonged to a high-ranking maritime official. Although designed with utility in mind, the cabinet also has very refined detailing. For instance, a fine indented molding runs in an unbroken line all the way from the cornice to the original bracket feet. The over-scaled fall front is also a notable feature designed to accommodate maps and charts, as is the use of bi-fold shutter doors to the bureau section, which is also of great rarity. Very unusually, the cabinet is entirely constructed of mahogany including the drawer linings, backboards etc., which are otherwise usually made of oak or deal. Being totally built of solid mahogany, the cabinet is estimated to weigh some 600 lbs. The designer again has been mindful of this obstacle, and outfitted the cabinet with original heavy-duty wheels for ease of movement.
Not only is the present cabinet exceptional as a piece of furniture, it serves as a snapshot from a specific and frenetic period in English, and in fact global, maritime history. The interior of the upper section is fitted with pigeonholes, bearing the original ink labels, for substantial mercantile correspondence. They are divided into three sections, which are roughly grouped into colonial American localities, government officials, and European countries. In the early 18th century, the various appellations denoted here were connected to each other through trade agreements, particularly relating to the transatlantic slave trade between Europe, Africa and the American colonies.
The Spanish had dominated trade in the West Indies from the late 15th century, but by the end of the 16th century, Britain, France and Holland were exercising interest in colonial possessions. At the beginning of the 18th century several events transpired which allowed Britain to enter the trading scheme in a larger role. In 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht following the war of the Spanish Succession, Britain was granted the Asiento from Spain, meaning they alone held the contract to supply Spanish territories in the Americas with African slaves. The terms specified that the British would provide 4,800 slaves, as well as one ship of 500 tons of good for trade, per year for thirty years. The vessel carrying these goods was called the annual ship and the first one was sent in 1717. The privilege of executing the Asiento was assigned to the newly formed South Sea Company (established in 1711), which was given a monopoly on trade with the colonial Americas in exchange for absorbing the English national debt. This monopoly, however, was largely an illusion, as the Asiento severely limited Britain’s trade options. Therefore, many of the goods sold in the Americas during this period were contraband. The English also delivered foreign goods that they acquired from France and Holland, and felt would sell well in the colonies.
The South Sea Company established offices in Buenos Aires, Cartagena, Panama and Portobelo in South America, Vera Cruz in New Spain, Havana and Santiago in Cuba, Jamaica, and Barbados. The main exports from these regions included sugar, silver, tobacco, and the Spanish required slave labor to work on plantations. With the exception of Cartagena, all of these places are listed on the present cabinet. “The asientio trade was monitored in America by governors and royal officials at various ports of entry, in England by a Spanish official… and in Spain by a junta del asiento de negros…which advised the king on all petitions or disputes concerning the slave trade and the annual ships.”1 This is almost certainly to whom the correspondence in the slot labeled Iunta Memorialls.&C refers.
By 1718 Anglo-Spanish relations had deteriorated, as each side accused the other of seizing ships and cargo, and ultimately war was declared. At its outbreak, Spanish officials in the Americas were instructed to seize all effects belonging to the South Sea Company and British subjects—including ships, unsold goods and slaves, account books, food and furniture—amounting to the first represalia. Reprisals were the forcible seizure of a foreign subject or their goods as an act of retaliation. Confiscated properties were sold by Spanish royal officials in the Americas or remitted to Spain and sold there. After two years peace negotiations began in 1720 and led temporarily to the resumption of trade, but a further series of trade disputes and fear over potential alliances resulted in the Anglo-Spanish war, which commenced in 1727. Fearing Spain would pursue an alliance with Austria, the British attempted to seize or block Spanish treasure fleets at Portobelo (in present-day Panama), written as Porto Bello on the cabinet, from departing for Spain and delivering the goods on which its metropolis depended. In retaliation a second represalia was enacted. Documentation from this period is designated on the present cabinet under the heading Reprisalia Anno. 1727.
A further compartment on the cabinet is dedicated to the Prince Frederick, an annual ship employed after the first represalia was terminated, which departed London for Vera Cruz in August of 1725. The 40-gun, 170 men vessel sailed under Captain Wittington Williams, and arrived on October 22. It was still at Vera Cruz in 1727 when the second reprisal was enacted and was seized by the Spanish on July 9th. They renamed the ship the San Filipe and outfitted it as part of the treasure fleet, to be sent to Havana to meet the galleons for their return voyage to Spain.2 When the war was over the ship became a bargaining chip between the Spanish and the British. Most of the Prince Frederick’s cargo had not been sold since its arrival, but the Spanish did not know this. Therefore, when the British did not request it sent as part of the convoy back to England, so that its contents might still be traded, the Spanish instead viewed it as a concession. The Prince Frederick was ultimately repatriated in April of 1730.
The remaining niches of the cabinet appear to be reserved for correspondence with important government and Company officials. The Secretary of State, at this time Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, largely oversaw foreign policy and managed trade and subsequent disputes with Spain. The Board of Trade liaised between the Secretary of State and colonial officials. The niche for the Spanish Director likely pertained to the Chevalier d’Eon, a French diplomat who served as Spanish Director of the South Sea Company for the king of Spain during this period. Finally, pigeonholes are also reserved for the Company’s treasurer, trustees, and store ships, which supplied military support and provisions. The compartments on the right hand side are dedicated to European countries and bodies of governance involved in trade operations, including France, Holland, Germany, the Spanish city of Madrid and, as mentioned previously, the Junta. Additionally there is a section for port letters.
In maintaining correspondence with such numerous European, colonial and governmental powers, there is no doubt that that the present cabinet must have once belonged to an important consular official, almost certainly associated with the South Sea Company, during the second quarter of the 18th century.
1. Sorsby, Victoria Gardner. British Trade with Spanish America Under the Asiento 1713-1740. Thesis, Department of History, University College, London. November 1975. 14.
2. Ibid., 145.