The South Sea Company

The South Sea Company, chartered in 1711, was deeply involved with the British government, which invested in the Spanish trade in the hope that profits would pay off the national debt. The first governor of the company was Robert Harley, Chancellor of the Exchequer; when he fell from power in 1714, he was succeeded at first by the prince of Wales, and then by King George I himself. The trade consisted primarily of slaves; by contract, forty-eight hundred each year were shipped from Africa to the Spanish West Indies. Although this business was not a great success, shares of the company kept soaring in price until, in 1720, the bubble collapsed — the greatest stock-market crash in English history up to that time. Much of the British elite lost large sums of money. The shareholders included such leading authors as Swift, Defoe, Pope, Gay, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. By luck and good management of the crisis, Robert Walpole took control of the government; his dominance would last for more than twenty years.

Hubble Bubble; all is smoke,
Hubble Bubble; all is broke,
Farewell your Houses, Lands and Flocks
For all you have is now in Stocks.

— Anonymous pamphlet

[Click on image to enlarge] The South Sea Scheme (1724), William Hogarth's first surviving print, satirizes the City of London as a vast demonic casino and amusement park. In the center, investors ride the financial merry-go-round; at the left, the Devil throws haunches of Fortune to the crowd; at the bottom, Self-Interest tortures Honesty on the Wheel; in the darkness at the bottom right, a female Trade lies languishing.

© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page