'We shall hope to have gold teeth in return of our capital': the Williams Family of Merchants From the Levant to Barbados

The Williams family was a multigenerational unit that was deeply involved in the organization of the Levant Company in the early seventeenth century. They served as officers in the company and as merchants, and they established a trade network that extended from London to Livorno (Leghorn) to Istanbul that was manned by members of the family. This paper will focus on the letters of one of the Williams brothers, William, kept at Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library dating mostly to the late 1640s and early 1650s. Many of the letters were written to William’s brother Philip, who was stationed in Livorno, but there are also letters to various other merchants stationed throughout the Mediterranean. The letters are an important window into the mental and material world of a mid-seventeenth century English merchant. The letters reveal the wide variety of goods and items that Williams acquired, traded, and sold, but also the letters are replete with the language of early modern commerce. There is talk of supply, demand, quality, risk, finance, and return on investment. Indeed, much of the language could be classified as capitalist or at least proto-capitalist. Beyond this, the letters also discuss a major investment project of the Wiliams family – starting a sugar plantation in Barbados worked by enslaved west Africans. From his desk in London William Williams created a network of commerce and capital that connected England to the Eastern Mediterranean to west Africa to the Caribbean. The paper will also seek to contribute to the ongoing debate among scholars about the historical connections between capitalism and slavery.