- Museum number
Earthenware medallion transfer printed in black on a white ground with the arms of the African Steam Ship Company: a scene of Britannia drawing back a curtain to reveal a coastline with palm trees; a kneeling African woman offers elephant tusks and fruits, the curtain bears the motto 'SPERO MELIORA' (I hope for better things), and round the edge AFRICAN STEAM SHIP COMPANY INCORPORATED BY ROYAL CHARTER.
- Production date
- 1852 (circa)
Diameter: 65 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- The African Steam Ship Company was founded in 1852 by Macgregor Laird (1808-61), shipbuilder and explorer, after the award of a ten year government mail contract to maintain a regular mail service between London and the west coast of Africa. By 1860, the company was well established, operating seven steamships carrying mail, cargo and passengers from Liverpool (to which it moved from London in 1856), calling at the main ports where British traders were present between Freetown and Fernando Po. Small traders, including Africans, began to ship goods and compete with the larger firms. In 1864 the company was taken over by Fletcher & Parr, and in 1891 by Elder Dempster & Co. It finally withdrew from deep sea ship owning in 1989 (information from National Maritime Museum website and DNB).
The image of Britannia as saviour embodies Laird's wish to improve Africa's economy via trade in commodities such as palm oil, to end the trade in slaves still practised by other countries after its abolition by Britain in 1833. An ardent evangelical protestant and opponent of the slave trade, he shared the view that Africa could be 'civilized' through the beneficient alliance of Christan missionary activity and 'legitimate commerce' replacing trade in human beings. He founded the African Steamship Company for this purpose using iron ships built by his brother, John, at the latter's Birkenhead shipyard.
The arms of the Company as they appear on this medallion are recorded by Richard F. Burton, in ‘Wanderings in West Africa from Liverpool to Fernando Po’, London 1863 (the following quote taken from the New York 1991 reprint, pp. 7-8). The quotation marks suggest that Burton is quoting from the Company’s charter:
‘The African Steam Ship line was established in January, 1852, mainly by the energy of the late Macgregor Laird, the second pioneer of Niger exploration, and to the end of his days the most enthusiastic, if not the most fortunate, of African improvers……The Company binds itself to convey mails (and passengers) once every month between England and the West Coast of Africa ……Including arrival at and departure from England, twenty-two ports are to be visited. Its mileage is a grand total of 10,024 nautical miles, viz., 9434, and 590 of international line. The average rate is to be eight knots an hour, and the return subsidy is fixed at a sum which justifies the African Steam Ship Company’s motto “spero meliora”. Its device, I may observe, is a negress agenouillé, who presents to Britannia of the bare leg a little heap of (typical) “small potatoes”, and “some pumkins”.’........ ‘The line has already been beneficial to the West Coast of Africa, and will be more so by encouraging the “tin-pot trader”, which in Oil-River slang means the merchant who has no ship of his own. It may fairly be recommended to the public as one of the great civilising agents of the Benighted continent.’
The Macgregor Laird papers are held by the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool, as part of the Anti-Slavery collection. They include letters from Laird and Minutes of the African Steamship Company (see web listing by Adam Matthew Publications: www.adam-matthew-publications.co.uk).
For Laird, see DNB entry by John Flint, with further bibl: M. Laird, ‘Steam communication with west Africa’, letter to Earl Grey, 25 March 1851 [repr. in C. W. Newbury, British policy towards west Africa: select documents, 1786–1874 (1965), p.114]; P. N. Davies, ‘The African Steamship Company’, Liverpool and Merseyside: essays in the economic and social history of the port and its hinterland, ed. J. R. Harris (1969); K. O. Dike, Trade and politics in the Niger delta, 1830–1885 (1956); H. S. Goldsmith, ‘MacGregor [sic] Laird and the Niger’, Journal of the African Society, 31 (Oct 1932); C. Howard and J. H. Plumb, West African explorers (1951), 388.
For a group of Steamship ceramic tablewares, including a Davenport bowl with the same African Steamship Company medallion in the centre, see Woolley & Wallis, 24 September 2013, lot 46. Other examples of African Steamship Ceramics were made by Minton & Co, eg. with 'key pattern' border and ASC medallion in centre printed in blue, with design registration mark for 1868 (drawn to our attention as a result of Collections Online feedback in 2017).
- On display (G1/fc14)
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Purchased from the British Museum Friends Modern Collection Running Fund
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number