Subscription list, 1696
NatWest Group History 100 object 11: list of the subscribers to Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, 1696.
This is an alphabetical list of names, from Arbuckle to Zeaman with over a thousand in between. They had all invested in the ill-fated Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, established in Scotland in 1695 to shape a colonial future for the nation. Much has been said about the legacy of the company's failure, but the company itself also left a legacy, establishing habits of share ownership and company organisation which have become essential characteristics of modern business.
The Company of Scotland was a joint stock company - the predecessor of a modern plc. It had a permanent capital, rather than raising money on a project-by-project basis. The capital was raised from a large number of shareholders who were free to buy and sell their stock as they wished. Although the shareholders had influence over the company, their involvement was kept separate from its day-to-day management.
Joint stock companies came to prominence for the first time in the 17th century, with the emergence of international trade and other large-scale financial enterprises. The bigger the venture, the more money was needed, which meant that larger numbers of people had to group together in shared investments. The involvement of more people called for clear business structures to ensure that operations were managed properly, and so boards, committees and office-holders were formalised for the first time. Meanwhile, shareholders' freedom to buy and sell their investments meant that companies had to ensure that they remained an attractive investment. Shareholders had to be kept informed and supportive, leading to modern company practices such as the publication of balance sheets and directors' reports, annual general meetings and independent auditing.
When the Company of Scotland was formed in 1695 there were already several famous joint-stocks in existence, including the Dutch and English East India Companies, the Bank of England and the Bank of Scotland. What made the Company of Scotland different was the size and reach of its share ownership. At its foundation in 1695, the Bank of Scotland had 172 subscribers; just one year later, the Company of Scotland signed up 1,320. Even the Bank of England, in a country with five times the population of Scotland, did not have so many shareholders.
200,000 people had some kind of financial stake in the company
In fact, more people than just the named 1,320 would have thought of themselves as shareholders. The minimum subscription was £100 - a lot of money - but less well-off people could club together to raise a contribution. For example, the list shows that the Scottish town of Brechin subscribed £700, but town records indicate that this sum was made up of contributions from the local guildry and over 40 individuals. It is impossible to know how many other subscriptions were actually collaborative contributions of this kind, but a pamphlet published in 1696 claimed that no fewer than 200,000 people had some kind of financial stake in the company.
Although the Company of Scotland itself was a failure, the lessons it taught became a vital link in the chain that made Scotland one of the world's most significant financial and industrial powerhouses in later times. The experience of setting up a huge shareholder-owned company, and then of administering its decline and failure, brought Scotland valuable experience of raising capital, investing, owning and selling shares, and administering debt and credit for business purposes. This helped to initiate a financial revolution which was to be of fundamental significance for Scotland's economic success in the following centuries, and equipped her to play a vital role in the industrial revolution that created our modern world.