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Roger North long ago observed the same peculiarities in Bristol’s trading community that we have just examined. “It is remarkable there,” he said,

that all men that are dealers, even in shop trades, launch into adventures by sea, chiefly to the West India plantations and Spain. A poor shopkeeper, that sells candles, will have a bale of stockings, or a piece of stuff, for Nevis, or Virginia, &c. and, rather than fail, they trade in men.[38]

At the Restoration, the London merchant John Bland portrayed the Chesapeake traders—especially those he believed had procured the passage of the Navigation Acts—in much the same way. “They are no Merchants bred,” he complained,

not versed in foreign ports, or any Trade, but to those Plantations, and that from either Planters there or whole-sale Tobacconists and shopkeepers retailing Tobacco here in England, who know no more what belongs to the commerce of the World, or Managing new discovered Countries, such as Virginia and Mariland are, than children new put out Prentice.[39]

North and Bland present a dark vision—to them, a nightmare—of a bustling, disorderly world of small men advanced beyond their stations. Bristol’s old-line Merchant Venturers would have deemed their description a prophecy of doom all but come true.

Their viewpoint, upheld largely unchanged down to 1639, not only reflected their economic interests but had conformed to the economic and social realities of overseas trade as well. So long as commercial profits were derived primarily from scarce and high-priced imports drawn from a small number of continental markets, successful trade depended on the maintenance of regular mercantile networks abroad and a complex form of organization at home. As we know, merchants habitually acted as agents, partners, creditors, and brokers for one another, switching roles as circumstances required. They chartered ships together and used each other’s servants as factors in overseas trade, and much of their business abroad proceeded through fellow Bristolians resident in the principal foreign markets trading for commission on behalf of their brethren at home.[40] Even though Merchant Venturers had reason to concern themselves with the overseas trade of artificers and shopkeepers, the actual conditions of foreign commerce limited the danger, since the Society of Merchant Venturers could readily control that trade. Only the Society’s membership commanded the necessary capital and organization to conduct such commerce on a consistently large scale. They owned the shipping; they had the foreign contacts; and they enjoyed the services of fellow merchants to help them drive the trade. The high prices of the luxury goods in which they dealt, moreover, would have kept all but the wealthiest of retailers from competition with them. In 1618 and 1639, the Merchant Venturers had relied on these truths when framing their ordinances. Since others who would attempt to trade could be barred from the services of the factors, servants, and mariners traveling abroad for the Merchant Venturers, craftsmen and shopkeepers would need to acquire their own shipping, establish their own credit network, and build their own organization in foreign markets to conduct their trade. The Merchant Venturers counted on them being unable to do so.

Across the Atlantic, however, a new commercial world was taking shape. The inhabitants of the colonies were Englishmen with family and business ties in their home country. The social composition of the colonial communities therefore provided commercial connections between planters and traders which elsewhere required specially established resident factors, commission agents, and brokers to achieve.[41] In a sense, the settlement of a colony already contained within itself the seeds of a mercantile organization to cultivate commerce as it was needed. Moreover, many of the colonists came from the west of England, and even from Bristol itself, which gave the city some particular advantages in the trade.[42]

Among these West Countrymen, a number of Bristol-based merchants and mariners stand out. For example, Anthony Dunn, a Bristol merchant though not a Merchant Venturer, resided in Barbados in the 1650s, leaving his wife behind in Bristol to supply him with servants. He may also have been connected with Richard Dunn and Ann Dunn of Bristol, each of whom also traded between Barbados and Bristol in these years. Another emigrant Bristol merchant was John Yeamans, brother of Robert, the Bristol martyr to Charles I’s cause in 1643, and himself an ex-colonel in the Royalist army. He settled on Barbados in 1650, later to become one of the great men of the island, governor of Carolina and a baronet. Other members of his family, however, remained in Bristol to trade with him. In 1654–55, when his Barbados holdings probably were still undeveloped, one hogshead of sugar was registered in his name for wharfage duty owed at the Backhall.[43] Richard Allen, a ship’s surgeon with political views nearly opposite to those of Yeamans, also became a colonial planter in these years, although in Virginia, not Barbados. And Robert Glass, mariner, reversed the process. In the 1640s he lived as a planter in Barbados, doing business with Bristol, but by 1655 he had set up as a merchant in the western port to conduct trade with his former West Indian neighbors. Finally, in 1657, he became a freeman of the city after marrying the daughter of John Dee, cooper. Dozens of such stories could be told.[44]

The early Chesapeake and West Indian colonists, moreover, traded under conditions far different from those experienced by commercial dealers in Europe. Rather than develop production in a variety of necessary goods for home consumption, they used their comparative advantage in natural resources—in this case, land—to produce one highly valued commodity, which they exported in return for the manufactured items and other resources that they needed.[45] This type of economy had a profound effect on the character of trade. At the major European ports a merchant could buy a variety of goods, each governed by its own market conditions. To maximize his profits he needed to play these markets with great care, neither committing all his capital to one commodity whose home price might later collapse nor buying everything that seemed quickly merchantable.[46] To purchase these wares, the merchant needed cargoes of quite specific items in high demand and scarce supply among his foreign customers. At Cádiz he might choose among sherry, wine, olive oil, oranges, almonds, and even sugar and tobacco. To acquire them, however, he could use only lead, calfskins, Welsh butter, salt fish, or certain varieties of English cloth. Each of these commodities, of course, also had its own market which needed careful cultivation. A trading venture, therefore, usually involved a complex series of transactions, often requiring numerous brokers and go-betweens, sales at San Lucar de Barrameda and purchases at Jerez de la Frontera, with bills of exchange drawn on Seville.[47]

How different trade looks in the Chesapeake and the West Indies during the mid-seventeenth century. At Jamestown in Virginia, a merchant found tobacco and little else; at Bridgetown in Barbados, he found sugar, with perhaps small quantities of ginger, cotton, or tobacco as well. To get these goods he could bring the most varied of cargoes; the early colonists lacked practically everything in the way of household wares, manufactured items, clothing, and even food and drink—hence the bales of hosiery and pieces of stuff mentioned by Roger North. Most of all they lacked labor. This need was answered by huge shipments of servants that arrived every year from Bristol and London. Since the colonies possessed no system of currency, the colonial merchant operated by a form of barter: so many pounds of tobacco or sugar for so much of this or that. Although by the 1660s elements of a more complex commercial organization had begun to appear,[48] many colonial traders still operated on the same speculative basis that Richard Ligon described for the 1640s, using their vessels as both warehouses and trading counters, bringing mixed cargoes of servants and manufactures to the colonies in hope of finding a market for them. This pattern in much of colonial commerce would have struck the itinerant merchant of the Middle Ages as thoroughly familiar.

The survival of speculative commerce along these lines depended on the settlers as much as the traders. So long as the colonists relied so heavily on sugar or tobacco as a cash crop, they could hardly escape the market economy for many of the goods they needed. Only a few had the capital to serve this market themselves by becoming merchant planters or industrial producers. The others, even those with skills in highly valued manufacturing crafts, looked upon the acquisition and development of land as their best hope of gain. Even the early Chesapeake factors, with their important business connections in England, rarely became shopkeepers trading exclusively at their own risk and on their own account. The more successful among them used their accumulated profits to buy land, not to expand their trading operations.[49] According to Richard Ligon, the Barbados merchants operated in just the same way, pyramiding their commercial gains until they had amassed the funds to set up a sugar plantation for themselves.[50] Under such conditions the growth of sophisticated and well-capitalized commercial institutions was bound to be slow, at first utilized only by the biggest and most ambitious planters, while the others made do with more primitive forms of organization. Until the final decades of the seventeenth century, the trade remained largely decentralized, despite evident signs of increasing concentration.

In its formative years, this emerging Atlantic economy conformed poorly to the economic theories advanced by Bristol’s Merchant Venturers. From the point of view of the settlers, sugar and tobacco, still luxuries in England, were staples. They represented the lifeblood of their economic activities. If they did not have them to sell, the colonists could purchase little they needed.[51] Thus planters were unable to restrict production to uphold prices. Doing so would only idle servants, who nonetheless continued to require maintenance, and waste the labor already expended in clearing land for cultivation. For this reason, planters met falling prices for sugar or tobacco by more intensive efforts at production, not less. As Russell Menard has shown, until about 1680 the faster tobacco prices fell, “the more rapid the growth of output.”[52] Sugar production reveals the same relation to declining prices.[53] Above all, the colonial economy’s dependence upon land conditioned the expansion. During the mid-seventeenth century, planters simply had no alternative ways to use their capital. They could either employ it in growing sugar or tobacco, or they could save it by buying land for later use. Thus, contrary to the Merchant Venturers’ expectations, the prices of sugar and tobacco did not automatically rise when large numbers of traders competed for the goods. Rather, production grew in order to uphold income as prices fell. As a result, the colonial trades in the mid-seventeenth century could not be regulated in the same way as the European. Trade proceeded through too many outlets, and production remained high and continued to grow. Although to the Merchant Venturers, with their traditional viewpoint, the American trades represented the very image of disorder, their Society could offer no ready and easy way to bring discipline to the market.[54]


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