James Phipps: Governor of an African “Slave Castle”

Various earlier posts concerned the Phipps family members who were connected in one way or another with cloth-related trades, especially in the Westbury, Wiltshire area of England, but also in London and Essex. It appears to have been out of this context that James Phipps arose as governor of Cape Coast Castle on the coast of Africa in what is today Ghana.

This James appears to have been a son of Thomas Phipps, who was born about 1648 in Westbury in Wiltshire. Thomas was christened 3 December 1648 and died in 1715 in Wiltshire, according to credible but secondary sources.

Thomas was a member of Parliament but only briefly. He worked in London, and became involved in trading to East India, West Africa, and New England. One has to wonder whether there was any connection between this family in Wiltshire and the family in Bristol, not that far away, from which William Phips sprang who became not the first governor of Massachusetts, but rather the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In keeping with the tradition of working in cloth-related trades, Thomas Phipps was referred to in one record (the christening of his son Peter in 1695 in London) as a “linendraper.” He testified before the House of Commons in 1712, supplying information in the defense of the Royal African Company, of which his son James was involved at Cape Coast Castle.

Thomas was the second son of Thomas Phipps (Phipp in one secondary source), who was a clothier of Westbury Leigh. His wife Eleanor was a daughter of James Hayes.

The younger Thomas was married 20 January 1674 in London to Bridget Short. An 1886 published abstract of the 1674 marriage allegation of Thomas Phipps to Bridget Short appears below.

This was published in Joseph Lemuel Chester and Geo. J. Armytage, eds., Allegations for Marriage Licences Issued by the Dean and Chapter of Westminister 1558 to 1699; Also, for Those Issued by the Vicar-General of the Archbishop of Canterbury, 1660 to 1679 (London: The Harleian Society, 1886), p. 224, under “Marriage Allegations in the Registry of the Vicar-General of the Archbishop of Canterbury” and under 1673-4:

Jan. 19

Thomas Phipps, of St. Christopher’s London, Citizen & Mercer, Bachr., abt. 24, & Mrs. Bridget Short, of All Hallows in the Wall, London, Spr. [“spinster,” simply meaning unmarried], about 20; consent of father Mr. Peter Short, of same, Citizen & Merchant Taylor; at All Hallows in the Wall, St. Alphage, or St. James, Clerkenwell.

Note that this record calls Peter Short, father in law of Thomas Phipps, a “Merchant Taylor,” and that Thomas Phipps is described as a “Mercer.” A mercer was someone who dealt in textile fabrics.

James Phipps, the son of Thomas and Bridget (Short) Phipps, first arrived at Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana in the latter part of 1703. There he began work as a writer, but became governor-general or what has been called “chief factor” at Cape Coast Castle. He would work for the Royal African Company there until 1722.

As has been the case with so many Phips or Phipps family members in high places, controversy eventually surrounded him, and his work became the subject of criticism. He left the “castle” in 1722 when he was dismissed from the Royal African Company.

While at Cape Coast Castle, James Phipps entered into what has been termed a “country marriage” with one of the native women. In this case, she was actually a mulatto daughter of a Dutch soldier at Elmina. Phipps and this woman are said to have had a son and four daughters.

James Phipps appears to have attempted to lead his wife into British culture, but largely unsuccessfully. He did manage to talk her into attending church with him, but she never abandoned native religion and native dress.

In fact, James was criticized for wearing fetishes on his wrists and ankles, a practice which he evidently picked up from her. He was also criticized by one period source who complained that he “dotes on this Woman.” James Phipps eventually returned to England without her, since she insisted that she could never fit into British society.

Cape Coast Castle, over which Phipps presided, was one of a number of so-called “slave castles” on the Gold Coast of Africa in what is now Ghana. These were substantial commercial forts. Cape Coast Castle was first restored in the 1920s and can be still seen today. President Obama visited there in 2009.

Although James Phipps appears to have situated himself right in the middle of the slave trade, other prominent Phipps family members were opposed to slavery, as noted in previous posts. The “castle” is said to have housed as many as a thousand male and 500 female slaves at a time, shackled in dark dungeons.

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