expectation, upon the passage of the bill, he circulated a report that Gibraltar and Port Mahon would be exchanged for some places in Peru, by which means the English trade to the South Sea would be protected and enlarged. This rumor, diffused by his emissaries, acted like a contagion. In five days the directors opened their books for a subscription of one million. Persons of all ranks crowded to the house in such numbers that the first subscription exceeded two millions of original stock. In a few days this advanced in such a manner that the subscriptions were sold for double the price of the first payment.

Without entering into a detail of the proceedings, or explaining the scandalous deceits that were practised to enhance the value of the stock and decoy the unwary, we shall only observe, that by the promise of prodigious dividends, and other dishonest arts, the price of the shares was raised from one hundred pounds to one thousand, and the whole nation became infected with the spirit of stock-jobbing to an astonishing degree. All distinctions of party, religion, sex, character, and circumstances were swallowed up in this universal concern, or in some such pecuniary project. Exchange Alley was filled with a strange concourse of statesmen and clergymen, churchmen and dissenters, whigs and tories, physicians, lawyers, tradesmen, and even with multitudes of females. All other professions and employments were utterly neglected, and the people's attention was wholly engrossed by this and other chimerical schemes. New companies started up every day, under the countenance of the prime nobility. The Prince of Wales was constituted governor of

Welsh Copper Company ; the Duke of Chandos appeared at the head of the York Buildings Company; the Duke of Bridgewater formed a third company, for building houses in London and Westminster. More than a hundred such schemes were projected and put in execution, to the ruin of many thousands of people. The sums proposed to be raised by these expedients amounted to three hundred millions sterling, which exceeded the value of all the lands in England. The nation was so intoxicated with the spirit of adventure, that people became a prey to the grossest delusion. An obscure projector, pretending to have formed a very advantageous scheme, which, however, he would not explain, published proposals for a subscription, in which he promised that in one month the particulars of his project should be disclosed. In the mean time he declared that every person paying two guineas should be entitled to a subscription for one hundred pounds, which would produce that sum yearly. In one forenoon this adventurer received a thousand of these subscriptions, and then absconded.

During the infatuation produced by this extravagant scheme, luxury, vice, and profligacy increased to an enormous degree of extravagance. The adventurers, intoxicated by their imaginary wealth, pampered themselves with the rarest dainties and the most expensive wines that could be imported; they purchased the most sumptuous furniture, equipage, and apparel, though without taste or discernment; they indulged their criminal passions to a most scandalous excess, and their discourse was the language of pride, insolence, and ridiculous ostentation.

[ocr errors]

The infatuation prevailed till the 8th of September, when the stock began to fall. Some of the adventurers then awoke from their delirium. The number of the sellers daily increased. On the 29th, the stock had sunk to one hundred and fifty ; several emi. nent goldsmiths and bankers, who had lent great sums upon it, were obliged to stop payment and abscond. The ebb of this portentous tide was so violent that it bore down every thing in its way, and an infinite number of families were overwhelmed with ruin. Public credit sustained a terrible shock, the nation was thrown into a dangerous ferment, and nothing was heard but the ravings of grief, disappointment, and despair. Some principal members of the ministry were deeply concerned in these fraudulent transactions; when they saw the price of stock sinking daily, they employed all their influence with the bank to support the credit of the South Sea Company. That corporation agreed, though with reluctance, to subscribe to the stock of the Company. By this expedient the stock was raised, at first, and those who contrived it seized the opportunity to sell out. But the bankruptcy of the goldsmiths and of the Swordblade Company, from the fall of South Sea stock, occasioned such a run upon the bank that the money was paid away faster than it could be received from the subscription. Then the South Sea stock sunk again, and the directors of the bank, finding themselves in danger of being involved in that company's ruin, renounced their agreement.

The directors and officers of the South Sea Company were examined at the bar of the House of Commons. A bill was brought in, disabling them from enjoying


[ocr errors]

any office in that company, or in the East India Com. pany, or in the Bank of England. Three brokers were likewise examined and made great discoveries. The treasurer of the South Sea Company, who had been intrusted with the secrets of the whole affair, thought proper to withdraw himself from the kingdom. A proclamation was issued to apprehend him, and another for preventing any of the directors from escaping.

The Lords, in the course of their examination, discovered that large portions of South Sea stock had been given to several persons in the administration and the House of Commons, for promoting the passage of the South Sea Act. The House immediately resolved that this practice was a notorious and most dangerous species of corruption; that the directors of the Company having ordered great quantities of their stock to be bought for the service of the Company when it stood at a very high rate, on pretence of keeping up the price of stock, and at the same time several of the directors and other officers having, in a clandestine manner, sold their own stock• to the Company, such directors and officers were guilty of a notorious fraud and breach of trust. Many other resolutions were passed against this dishonest confederacy, in which, however, the innocent were confounded with the guilty. Sir John Blunt refusing to answer certain interrogatories, a violent debate arose about the manner in which he should be treated. Earl Stanhope, conceiving certain reflections to be aimed at him. self, was seized with a transport of anger. He undertook to vindicate the ministry, and spoke with such vehemence as produced a violent headache, and the following day he became lethargic, was seized with a suffocation, and expired.

The committee of inquiry found, that, before any subscription could be made, a fictitious stock of five hundred and seventy-four thousand pounds had been disposed of by the directors to facilitate the passing of the bill. The directors, in obedience to the order of the House, delivered inventories of their estates; which were confiscated, by act of parliament, towards making good the damages sustained by the Company, after deducting a certain allowance for each according to his conduct and circumstances. The delinquents being thus punished by the forfeiture of their fortunes, the House turned their attention to the means of repairing the mischiefs which the scheme had produced. While this affair was in agitation, petitions from counties, cities, and boroughs, in all parts of the kingdom, were presented to the House, crying for justice against the villany of the directors. Pamphlets and papers were daily published on the same subject; and thus the whole nation was wrought up to the highest pitch of excitement and indignation.

« VorigeDoorgaan »