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The year 1720 is memorable in the history of England, as seeing the abnormal growth and consequent explosion of the greatest swindle of comparatively modern times, and one of the most colossal frauds of any time, the South Sea Scheme, which has been best known since as the South Sea Bubble. Its story has been told so often, and in so many ways, that it is hardly necessary to dwell upon it here; but as, though nearly every one has heard of the scheme, there are but few who know anything about it, we may as well give once again a short rksumk of its business operations. It was started by Harley in 1711, with the view of paying off the floating national debt, which at that time amounted to about ^10,000,000. A contemporary writer says : "This debt was taken up by a number of eminent merchants, to whom the Government agreed to guarantee for a certain period the annual payment of ,£600,000 (being six per cent, interest), a sum which was to be obtained by rendering permanent a number of import duties. The monopoly of the trade to the South Seas was also secured to these merchants, who were accordingly incorporated as the 'South Sea Company,' and at once rose to a high position in the mercantile world. The wondrously extravagant ideas then current respecting the riches of the South American continent were carefully fostered and encouraged by the Company, who also took care to spread the belief that Spain was prepared, on certain liberal conditions, to admit them to a considerable share of its South American trade; and as a necessary consequence, a general avidity to partake in the profits of this most lucrative speculation sprang up in the public mind. It may be well to remark in this place, that the Company's trading projects had no other result than a single voyage of one ship in 1717, and that its prominence in British history is due entirely to its existence as a purely monetary corporation. Notwithstanding the absence of any symptoms of its carrying out its great trading scheme, the Company had obtained a firm hold on popular favour, and its shares rose day by day; and even when the outbreak of war with Spain in 1718 deprived the most sanguine of the slightest hope of sharing in the treasures of the South Seas, the Company continued to flourish. Far from being alarmed at the expected and impending failure of a similar project—the Mississippi Scheme—the South Sea Company believed sincerely in the feasibility of Law's Scheme, and resolved to avoid what they considered as his errors. Trusting to the possibility of pushing credit to its utmost extent without danger, they proposed, in the spring of 1720, to take upon themselves the whole national debt (at that time ^30,981,712) on being guaranteed 5 per cent, per annum for seven and a half years, at the end of which time the debt might be redeemed if the Government chose, and the interest reduced to 4 per cent. The directors of the Bank of England, jealous of the prospective benefit and influence which would thus accrue to the South Sea Company, submitted to Government a counter-proposal; but the more dazzling nature of their rival's offer secured its acceptance by Parliament—in the Commons by 172 to 55, and (April 7) in the Lords by 83 to 17; Sir Robert Walpole in the former, and Lords North and Grey, the Duke of Wharton and Earl Cowper in the latter, in vain protesting against it as involving inevitable ruin. During the passing of their bill, the Company's stock rose steadily to 330 on April 7,* falling to 290 on the following day.
* On January I, 1720, the Daily Courant, and other papers, quote South Sea Stock at 127I, I28f, to 128. Bank 150J. India 200, 2oo|, to 200. The quotation for Thursday, April 7 (in Daily Post, Friday, April 8), is, " Yesterday South Sea Stock was 314, 310, 31T, 309, 309J, to 310. Bank 145. India 223." On the 27th May it was 555, and Bank was 205 (Post Boy, May 28). It then fell a little, but in the Daily Courant of June 2 it is quoted at 610 to 760, Bank 210 to 220, India 290 to 300. The Daily Post of Wednesday, June 8, contains the following puff for the scheme: "'Tis said that the South Sea Company being willing to have all the Annuities subscribed to their Up till this date the scheme had been honestly promoted; but now, seeing before them the prospect of speedily amassing abundant wealth, the directors threw aside all scruples, and made use of every effective means at their command, honest or dishonest, to keep up the factitious value of the stock. Their zealous endeavours were crowned with success; the shares were quoted at 550 on May 28, and 890 on June 1. A general impression having by this time gained ground that the stock had reached its maximum, so many holders rushed to realise that the price fell to 630 on June 3. As this decline did not suit the personal interests of the directors, they sent agents to buy up eagerly; and on the evening of June 3, 750 was the quoted price. This and similar artifices were employed as required, and had the effect of ultimately raising the shares to 1000 in the beginning of August, when the chairman of the Company and some of the principal directors sold out. On this becoming known, a widespread uneasiness seized the holders of stock; every one was eager to part with his shares, and on September 12 they fell to 400, in spite of all the attempts of the directors to bolster up the Company's credit The consternation of those who had been either unable or unwilling to part with their scrip was now extreme; many capitalists absconded, either to avoid
Stock, now offer forty-five years' purchase for those which have not yet been bought in." And again : " The Annuities which have been subscribed into the South Sea Stock are risen to a very great height, so that what would formerly sell but for,£1500, is now worth ^8000." In the Post Boy of June 23-25, we find this: "Yesterday South Sea Stock was for the opening of the Book 1100. 1st Subscr. 565, 2d Subscr. 610, 3rd Subscr. 200. Bank 265. East India 440." On Friday, June 24, the Daily Post says, "We hear that South Sea Stock was sold yesterday at 1000 per cent., and great wagers are laid that it will be currently sold before the opening of the Books at 1200 per cent, exclusive of the Dividend." It is several times after this quoted at 1100, but never over. These compilations show that a higher rale was attained by the stock than is given in the article quoted above, or is generally believed.
ruinous bankruptcy, or to secure their ill-gotten gains, and the Government became seriously alarmed at the excited state of public feeling. Attempts were made to prevail on the Bank to come to the rescue by circulating some millions of Company's bonds; but as the shares still declined, and the Company's chief cashiers, the Sword Blade Company, now stopped payment, the Bank refused to entertain the proposal. The country was now wound up to a most alarming pitch of excitement; the punishment of the fraudulent directors was clamorously demanded, and Parliament was hastily summoned (December 8) to deliberate on the best means of mitigating this great calamity. Both Houses proved, however, to be in as impetuous a mood as the public; and in spite of the moderate counsels of Walpole, it was resolved (December 9) to punish the authors of the national distresses, though hitherto no fraudulent acts had been proved against them. An examination of the proceedings of the Company was at once commenced; and on Walpole's proposal nine millions of South Sea bonds were taken up by the Bank, and a similar amount by the East India Company. The officials of the Company were forbidden to leave the kingdom for twelve months, or to dispose of any of their property or effects. Ultimately various schemes, involving the deepest fraud and villany, were discovered to have been secretly concocted and carried out by the directors; and it was proved that the Earl of Sunderland, the Duchess of Kendal, the Countess Platen and her two nieces, MrCraggs, M.P., the Company's secretary, Mr Charles Stanhope, a secretary of the Treasury, and the Sword Blade Company, had been bribed to promote the Company's bill in Parliament by a present of ^170,000 of South Sea stock. The total amount of fictitious stock created for this and similar purposes was ^1,260,000, nearly one-half of which had been disposed of. Equally flagrant iniquity in the allocation of shares was discovered, in which, among others, Mr Aislabie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was implicated. Of these offenders, Mr Stanhope and the Earl of Sunderland were acquitted through the unworthy partiality of the Parliament; but Mr Aislabie, and the other directors who were members of the House of Commons, were expelled; most of the directors were discovered, and all of them suffered confiscation of their possessions. The chairman was allowed to retain only ^5000 out of £183,000, and others in proportion to their share in the fraudulent transactions of the Company. At the end of 1720, it being found that £13,300,000 of real stock belonged to the Company, ,£8,000,000 of this was taken and divided among the losers, giving them a dividend of 33J per cent.; and by other schemes of adjustment the pressure was so fairly and wisely distributed, that the excitement gradually subsided." It will thus be seen that the South Sea Bubble was, after all, not more disastrous in its effects than many modern and comparatively unknown speculations.
It is singular that the South Sea Bubble led to little— almost nothing—in the way of advertisements. When we think of the columns which now herald the advent of any new company, or for the matter of that, any new idea of an old company, or any fresh specific or article of clothing, it seems strange that at a time when the art of advertising was fast becoming fashionable, no invitations to subscribe were published in any of the daily or weekly papers that then existed. Just before the consent of Parliament was obtained we find one or two stray advertisements certainly, but they have no official status, as may be judged by this, which is from the Post Boy, April 2-5, 1720 :—
Some Calculations relating to the Proposals made by the South Sea Company and the Bank of England, to the House of Commons; Showing the loss to the New Subscribers, at the several Rates in the said Computations mention'd; and the Gain which will thereby accrue to the Proprietors of the Old South Sea Stock. By a Member of the House of Commons. Sold by J. Morphew near Stationers Hall.