“Fortuitous circumstances?” John Owen Smith and the art of nineteenth-century colonial wealth accumulation
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A former British immigrant, John Owen Smith was one of the nineteenth century Cape Colony’s most prominent businesspersons. With interests in guano trading, farming, shipping, property development, auctioneering and arms trading, he enjoyed a high measure of prosperity and respectability. This resulted from the deliberate employment of several interlinked and often innovative wealth accumulation strategies. Through the skillful utilisation of personal and commercial relationships, Smith became an extremely wealthy person, a de facto functionary in the colonial network and a member of the political elite. This status allowed him a significant measure of influence within the colonial administration. Far from being the result of ‘fortuitous circumstances’ as claimed by some contemporary newspapers, colonial settler wealth was rather the result of deliberate social and economic action. After four decades of wealth accumulation, Smith retired in 1861 and returned to England, where he died in 1871. His business career serves as a useful lens into the wealth accumulation activities and strategies of nineteenth-century colonial entrepreneurs.