royals profited by selling soldiers -- 7/14/16

Today's selection -- from Founder by Amos Elon. In the late 1700s, Crown-Prince Wilhelm, Landgrave of Hesse and Hanau, cousin to England's King George III and son-in-law to the King of Denmark, was one of the richest men in Europe. He made much of his money by selling soldiers, including the Hessian mercenaries that fought in the American Revolution. But these soldiers were more slaves than mercenaries:

William I

"In 1776 the enterprising [Crown-Prince] Wilhelm, [Landgrave of Hesse and Hanau] sold a first contingent of Hessian soldiers to his English cousin, George III, for use as cannon-fodder in the American war. In this profitable business Wilhelm was following the example of his ancestors under whose reign, as Landgraves of Hesse, the sale of soldiers had become a major export industry. The soldiers were not mercenaries, in any accepted sense of that word; they were ruthlessly pressed into service, on the Prussian model, from among the poor peasantry. Deserters were made to run the gauntlet up to twelve times, two days in a row. In a seller's market, the terms were exceedingly tough for the English customer. But George III had already been rebuffed by the Russians and the Dutch; he had no choice but accept Wilhelm's oppressive terms.

"There was a base recruiting fee of fifty-one thaler (seventy-six gulden) for every foot soldier, payable within two months, and additional levies for any man killed or wounded. Three wounded men counted as one killed for whom another levy of fifty-one thaler was charged:

If an epidemic, shipwreck, siege or battle should cause unusually high losses to a regiment or corps, the King of England will in addition liberally pay the costs of recruiting new soldiers and officers needed to restore said corps to its former strength ... [the price of each being calculated] inclusive of recruiting and [burying the] corpse.

Hessian soldiers captured during the Battle at
Trenton taken to Philadelphia.

"None of these payments benefited Hesse or the county of Hanau in any way. Like his father the Landgrave, the Crown-Prince con­sidered the entire county his private domain. Wilhelm's net profits in 1776 from such business were estimated at several millions. Some of this money became due during the summer. It arrived in Hanau in the form of bills of exchange redeemable a few weeks later at an English bank. The bills were not subject to interest payments in case of delayed transfer. The Crown-Prince was therefore anxious to invest the money as soon as possible at the highest obtainable interest rate. He first had to convert his English bills into local currency by selling them, at a discount, to local bankers. To avoid depressing the market by cashing too much at once, sales were carefully timed or limited to small batches. Bankers were invited to bid for them in cash. For larger amounts, credit lines were offered to a limited number of trustworthy bankers."


Amos Elon


Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time


Viking Adult


Copyright Amos Elon 1996


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