Manual Trade and Empire in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World

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Europe, Africa and the Americas, 1500-1830

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Shows how merchants sought to minimise losses by forging strong bonds of interpersonal trust amongst a range of employees, partners, and clients. They also determined the nature of maritime trade and social interaction. By the late 17th century, England had established colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Over , people had emigrated from England alone by The colonies were exporting sugar, tobacco and other manufactured goods and importing products such as woollen cloth.

Atlantic World - Wikipedia

Transatlantic commerce was highly significant to Britain, and was strongly protected through laws like the Navigation Acts. Merchants supplied most of the capital and credit that drove trade networks, linking producers with consumers on four continents of the world. They collected cargoes, hired crews, fitted out ships, stored crops and warehoused manufactured goods.


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The exploration of the Atlantic opened up new markets. Britain imported sugar, coffee and cotton from the West Indies, and tobacco, indigo and rice from North America.

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The North American colonies were also important for wood and shipbuilding. The colonists spent their profits on local goods and services, and on slave labour to work their plantations. They also imported goods from Britain, including textiles, metalwork and the latest European fashions. West Indian sugar, molasses and rum were exchanged directly for North American foodstuffs, livestock and wood.

In Britain, the wealth generated by Atlantic trading led to a general rise in standards of living. Not everyone benefited equally and the distinctions between rich and poor remained stark but patterns of consumption did begin to change. People were able to buy more than the necessities of life. Commodities such as tea, coffee and sugar, previously regarded as luxuries, became more easily available. The Atlantic Ocean was, and still is, a rich and important resource.

It has sustained coastal communities for centuries, providing people with food and fuel, despite being a dangerous place to work.

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Yet, in many ways, the growth of British trade has been more spectacular and long-lasting than that of the Netherlands. The beginning of the British primacy in world trade came about during the second half of the seventeenth century and lasted until the beginning of the twentieth century. Even more miraculous is the fact that Britain's primacy in world trade helped to make it the first industrial nation in the world. The industrialisation of the Netherlands, on the other hand, took place long after the Dutch had lost their premier position in international trade.

David Ormrod's new book attempts to untangle the dynamics, which fuelled England's commercial ascendancy, and those which underpinned the Dutch decline across this period. Yet while the work clearly represents the scholarship of lifetime, there are areas of the study - notably Ormrod's discussion of English and Dutch operations in the East and West Indies - which perhaps deserve more investigation. Recent scholarship has shown that Britain managed to profit much more from the 'new' economy created by the opportunities outside of Europe than France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

In the period between and the Dutch and the British commercial empires changed places. Why this happened is not easy to explain. There seems little doubt that the commercial sector of the economy was the most innovative one. Changes in the rate of innovation were neatly reflected in the volume and direction of trade more so than in agriculture or even manufacturing. And it even seems possible to differentiate between the trade within and outside Europe.

The trade across the Atlantic, to Asia and the Mediterranean probably involved more innovative merchants, shipping firms and financiers than the more traditional trades in Europe. That is not to say that the latter was not competitive. In fact, David Ormrod's book contains extensive information on the intricate Dutch trade network of the early seventeenth century and the subsequent inroads into this network made by the British.

I will leave aside the question as to what extent trade contributed to the growth of the Dutch and British economies, because trade was at least twice as important to the Dutch economy. Ormrod's careful analysis shows that for most of the seventeenth century, the Netherlands and notably Amsterdam possessed the best distribution system in Europe. However, after English shipping and English merchants challenged this Dutch hegemony.

Thus most of the book is devoted to information about and discussion of the growth of British commerce after this date. The author sees the Navigation Acts as an effective instrument of protection to help British shipping and British manufacturing on their way. He also points to other factors over time that help explain the decline of Dutch trade and the rise of Britain to commercial primacy. The export of unfinished textile products from Britain declined, as did the British dependence on the Dutch staple market for selling finished products.

British shipping became more competitive, as shown by the number of ships passing the Sound between Denmark and Sweden, once the mainstay of the Dutch commercial network in the seventeenth century. Around the British share in trade with the Baltic was a mere 6 percent, while stood at about 30 percent a century later. Another indication of increased British competitiveness in shipping can be seen in the rapid decrease of foreign vessels clearing from British ports.

At the end of the seventeenth century this ran at about 40 per cent, and it had declined to less than 10 in The performance of the Dutch and British commercial sectors outside of Europe is especially suited to an analysis of their strong and weak points.


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Shipping and trade to non-Western destinations has been well recorded in ways that allow for comparison. In view of this it seems a pity that Ormrod has not devoted a special section to the Dutch and British competition in Asia and the Atlantic. At one giant stroke the Dutch moved far ahead of the British as far as the trade with Asia was concerned by establishing a monopoly company as early as After the EIC lost its monopoly, 'the English company was characterised by a greater degree of public accountability than its Dutch counterpart' p. In the course of the eighteenth century, the difference between the EIC and the VOC became the difference between profit and loss.

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The Atlantic World

In the end the VOC became a burden to the Dutch economy, tying up large sums of investment capital that could have been used elsewhere in modernising the economy. Ormrod's judgement is wry, but devastating: 'Although much has been claimed for the VOC as a well-managed bureaucracy, it is far from clear that the commercial companies were well placed to respond to changes in demand patterns as the seventeenth century progressed' p. A similar comparison in the Atlantic provides us with even better insights into the differences between the Dutch and British commercial empires.

That was a mistake and between and the 'Brazilian Adventure' cost the Dutch merchant community dearly. While the Dutch were keeping the Iberians at bay in the South Atlantic, France and the England took advantage of the Dutch preoccupation to conquer a sizeable part of the Caribbean.

The Dutch rivals started colonies of white settlement producing tobacco for the export market. Clearly, the WIC was far less effective in the Atlantic than the numerous British small-scale trading and planting companies. A second deviation from the pattern of the British activities in the Atlantic was the relatively large volume of the Dutch transit trade. Recent research has shown that the illegal trade to and from Spanish America, in addition to the transit trade to and from the French Caribbean, was worth more than the total value of the Dutch plantation produce.