Richard Oswald (merchant)

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Treaty of Paris, by Benjamin West (1783), shows the American commissioners who negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Temple Franklin is on the right. Left of him are Henry Laurens, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. The British commissioners did not pose for West, and the picture was never finished.

Richard Oswald of Auchincruive (1705 – 6 November 1784) was a Scottish merchant, slave trader, and advisor to the British government on trade regulations and the conduct of the American War of Independence. He is best known as the British peace commissioner who in 1782 negotiated the Peace of Paris.

Early life[edit]

Oswald was born to the Reverend George Oswald of Dunnet, and his wife Margaret Murray. At age 20 he was apprenticed to cousins who were merchants in Glasgow, the brothers Richard Oswald (1687–1763) of Scotstoun and Alexander Oswald (1694–1766), sons of the Rev. James Oswald (1654–1698). As a young man he worked for them as a factor, travelling in America and the Caribbean. In 1741 he became a partner in the Glasgow firm.[1][2]


Doing good business during the War of the Austrian Succession, Oswald in 1746 established himself in mercantile business in London.[1] He leased a counting-house at 17 Philpot Lane, where he initially devoted most of his time to the shipping and trading of tobacco.[3] He took on a forage contract for the British Army, having in 1756 the merchant James Buchanan (1696–1758) as guarantor.[4] He prospered also as a contractor during the Seven Years' War, particularly in the supply of bread in the German theatre, and was praised by Ferdinand of Brunswick.[5]

Oswald bought the Cavens estate in Kirkcudbrightshire, and the Auchincruive estate in Ayrshire, in 1759.[6] He made large additions of land to both estates, in the following decades.[1] In British North America he had large land holdings and owned slaves in East Florida, and held estates in both Georgia and Virginia. He ran down these holdings during the American War of Independence. He also owned plantations in the Caribbean.[1][7]


Oswald was instrumental in directing English businessmen to promising locales in America for growing rice and indigo. Oswald directed English planter Francis Levett, who formerly worked for the Levant Company, to locations in British East Florida for his plantations, and urged East Florida's Governor James Grant to make generous land grants to Levett, whom Oswald called his "worthy friend" to whom he owed "particular obligations."[8]

Oswald put together deals with investors who had good connections, raising his own social standing. In his petitions to the Board of Trade and Plantations for the settlement of Nova Scotia plantations, for instance, he demonstrated an ability to bring together groups acceptable to the King. Those he put forward for Nova Scotia included: a former governor (Thomas Pownall); the cartographer John Mitchell; Member of Parliament Robert Jackson; MP and Paymaster for the Marines John Tucker; and a judge of the Marshalsea Court, and cousin of adventurer Sir Michael Herries, Levett Blackborne, who was himself stepbrother to Thomas Blackborne Thoroton, brother-in-law of the Marquess of Granby. This formula of connecting power-brokers was a key to his success.[9][10]

Slave trader[edit]

In 1748, a consortium of Alexander Grant and Oswald, with Augustus Boyd (1679–1765) and his son John Boyd, John Mill (1710–1771), and John Sargent (1714–1791), purchased Bance Island, on the Sierra Leone River.[11][12] The Royal African Company had erected a fort there. Oswald and his associates gained control of other small islands through treaties, and established on Bance Island a trading station for factors in the trafficking of African people.[13]

Oswald's extensive network of business connections served him well in building his slave-trading empire.[14] The Company of Merchants Trading to Africa formed at this time had some close links to the Bance Island consortium, for example through Robert Scott and then George Aufrere.[15]


Oswald had a cadre of young merchants whom he trained. Among these was John Levett, brother of planter Francis, who was in Oswald's employ as a young man. Levett (1725–1807) was born in Turkey to an English merchant father, and later settled in India, where he became a free merchant and invested in shipping, as well as becoming the Mayor of Calcutta. As a former trader in the Levant, Levett was ready to help Indian silk merchants supplant the former Mediterranean silk trade, which had fallen off. The English merchants were sensitive to the vagaries of fashion. Each year merchant Richard Oswald sent wigs to Levett in Calcutta, for instance. At the same time, Oswald associates like John Levett in Calcutta kept an eye on local trends, and adjusted their schemes to fit them. Levett, for instance, who had previously managed some German bread interests for Oswald, now planted cornfields in Bengal.

When Oswald needed Chinese labourers, for his own estates, he approached John Levett in Calcutta, who employed Chinese labourers in his Bengal operations growing arrack for his distilleries. The relationships between the various associates in Oswald's extended trading empire grew: John Levett was corresponding with Oswald about the marble chimney-piece sculptures that his brother Francis Levett was purchasing on Oswald's behalf in Livorno, Italy, where Francis was then living as an English merchant.[16] Oswald was particularly close to the Levett and Thoroton families, as well as to the Duke of Rutland.[17]

In letters to British General and East Florida Governor James Grant, Oswald confided that at one dinner of investors in East Florida and Nova Scotia that "Oswald had been dining at the Duke's with Lord Granby, Mr. Thoroton, and others where jokes passed round the table about the many settlements that would be needed to satisfy Mr. Thoroton's nine children." (The humor was explained by the relationships between the various families).[18]

Peace Commissioner[edit]

In 1782, Oswald was selected by Lord Shelburne to open informal negotiations with the Americans, to be held in Paris. Because of his prior experience living in America and his knowledge of its geography and trade, he had been consulted frequently by the British Ministry about matters concerning the war. Lord Shelburne chose Oswald because he thought his selection would appeal to Benjamin Franklin. Oswald shared Franklin's free trade commercial views; he possessed a "philosophic disposition"; and he had previously had a limited correspondence with Franklin.[19] Franklin was impressed with Oswald's negotiating skills and described him as a man with an "Air of great Simplicity and Honesty."[20]

Treaty of Paris[edit]

Signature page of the Treaty of Paris.

On 25 July 1782, official negotiations began. The preliminary articles were signed by Oswald for Great Britain, and John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens for the United States on 30 November 1782. With almost no alterations, these articles were made into a treaty on 3 September 1783. Oswald was criticised in Britain for giving the Americans too much. The Duke of Richmond urged the recall of Oswald, charging that he "plead only the Cause of America, not of Britain."[21] Oswald resigned his cabinet post and returned to his estate of Auchincruive in Ayrshire where he died on 6 November 1784.

Oswald was related to American soldier and journalist Eleazer Oswald.[22]

After his death, his nephews and fellow slave traders John and Alexander Anderson, also with interests on Bance Island, were appointed executors of his estate.[23]:612 [24]

Works and legacy[edit]

Oswald's papers were among those relating to the peace negotiations acquired by William L. Clements, and then by the library of the University of Michigan.[25]

Robert Scott Davis has identified Richard Oswald as "An American", the anonymous author of the encyclopaedic two volume American Husbandry (London, 1775).[26]


Mary Oswald, portrait by Johann Zoffany

Oswald married in 1750 Mary Ramsay (1719–1788), daughter of the merchant Alexander Ramsay (died 1738).[1] She brought a dowry including property in Jamaica and British North America. She died in London, and her funeral cortege took her body for burial in Ayrshire, having the effect of depriving Robert Burns of his lodgings. He wrote a hostile poem on the event, published in 1789.[27]

Richard Oswald had illegitimate children before his marriage, but no children with his wife. His Auchincruive estate passed to his nephew the tobacco merchant George Oswald, son of James Oswald (1703–1793), his elder brother, known as a minister and writer.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Hancock, David. "Oswald, Richard". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20924. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Scott, Hew (1928). "Fasti ecclesiae scoticanae; the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the reformation". Internet Archive. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd. p. 139. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  3. ^ Hancock, David (13 September 1997). Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735–1785. Cambridge University Press. p. 63. ISBN 9780521629423. Retrieved 21 July 2017.
  4. ^ Price, Jacob M. "Buchanan, James". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/49747. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^ Page, Anthony (12 December 2014). Britain and the Seventy Years War, 1744–1815: Enlightenment, Revolution and Empire. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 76–7. ISBN 9781137474438. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  6. ^ "University of Edinburgh Archive and Manuscript Collections, Special Collections, Correspondence of the Oswald family of Auchincruive, including Richard Oswald". Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  7. ^ J. Leitch Wright Jr., Blacks in British East Florida, The Florida Historical Quarterly Vol. 54, No. 4, The Floridas in the Revolutionary Era: Bicentennial Issue (Apr. 1976), pp. 425–442 at p. 428. Published by: Florida Historical Society. JSTOR 30147360
  8. ^ "English Plantations on the St. Johns River".
  9. ^ Hancock, David (13 September 1997). Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735–1785. Cambridge University Press. p. 154. ISBN 9780521629423. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  10. ^ Representations to the Lords of Trade to the King, June 5, 1764,
  11. ^ Hancock, David. "Sergeant, John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/49963. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. ^ Society, Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies; Library, John Carter Brown (2001). Nation and Province in the First British Empire: Scotland and the Americas, 1600–1800. Bucknell University Press. p. 85. ISBN 9780838754887. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  13. ^ Oswald, Richard; Robinson, Walter Stitt (1953). Memorandum on the Folly of Invading Virginia: The Strategic Importance of Portsmouth and the Need for Civilian Control of the Military. University of Virginia Press for the Tracy W. Mcgregor Library. p. 36.
  14. ^ Hancock, David (13 September 1997). Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735–1785. Cambridge University Press. p. 151. ISBN 9780521629423. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  15. ^ Society, Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies; Library, John Carter Brown (2001). Nation and Province in the First British Empire: Scotland and the Americas, 1600–1800. Bucknell University Press. p. 81. ISBN 9780838754887. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
  16. ^ Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735–1785, David Hancock, Cambridge University Press, 1995, ISBN 9780521629423
  17. ^ Landers, Jane; Landers, Jane L. (21 September 2000). "Colonial Plantations and Economy in Florida". University Press of Florida – via Google Books.
  18. ^ George C. Rogers, Jr. (April 1976). "The East Florida Society of London, 1766–1767". The Florida Historical Quarterly. 54 (4, The Floridas in the Revolutionary Era: Bicentennial Issue): 487. The central figure in the Granby-Rutland family group was Thomas Thoroton who had married an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Rutland and served him as his principal agent. Although Thoroton received no order in council for land in East Florida, he was a member of the East Florida Society and also of the Nova Scotia Society of London as well. Thoroton was the link between the East Florida and Nova Scotia speculators, particularly after Richard Oswald and James Grant decided to give up their Nova Scotia interests and concentrate on Florida.
  19. ^ Robinson, Folly of Invading Virginia, 39.
  20. ^ Robinson, Folly of Invading Virginia, 40.
  21. ^ Robinson, Folly of Invading Virginia, 42.
  22. ^ Boatner, Mark M. III (1994). Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-0578-1.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link), 820
  23. ^ Laurens, Henry; Chesnutt, David R. (2003). The Papers of Henry Laurens: September 1, 1782 – December 17, 1792. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.
  24. ^ Will of Richard Oswald <Glasgow Commissary Court, “Testament Testamentar and Inventory CC9/7/72 dated 01 June 1785: [1]in online database ScotlandsPeople (purchase required), accessed 31 October 2011
  25. ^ The University of Michigan, an Encyclopedic Survey. Wilfred B. Shaw, editor. University of Michigan Press. 1956. pp. 1405–.
  26. ^ Robert Scott Davis, Richard Oswald as "An American": How a Frontier South Carolina Plantation Identifies the Anonymous Author of American Husbandry and a Forgotten Founding Father of the United States, Journal of Backcountry Studies Volume 8, Number 1 (Spring 2014)
  27. ^ Burns, Robert (2014). The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns. Oxford University Press. pp. 392 note 223. ISBN 9780199603176. Retrieved 19 July 2017.

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