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Despite the resistance of conservative-minded Bristolians to the excesses of the colonial traders, these citizens could no longer look backward to the traditions of commercial organization for relief of their grievances, since the Society of Merchant Venturers had long since ceased to protect against the competition of interlopers. Not only did the conditions of colonial trade defeat the techniques of regulation available to the Society, but the Society itself no longer possessed the political power it once had had to control the trading community. The politics of the 1640s had broken its once united leadership and reduced its significance in local affairs. After the parliamentary victory in Bristol in 1645, the new regime in the Corporation and the Society does not seem to have shared the old order’s prejudices against artisan and shopkeeper merchants. Perhaps political allegiances made it difficult even for veteran Merchant Venturers to insist on their exclusion. Between December 1646 and December 1651, seventeen of the thirty-five men admitted to the Society were redemptioners of one sort or another. Some were highly irregular appointments by pre–Civil War standards.[75] Among these redemptioners, we find Thomas Speed, William Bullock, George Bishop, and at least one other sectary, who came to play important roles in the government of the Society in the early 1650s. Speed was one of the Society’s wardens in 1651, and he often served on committees engaged in negotiations with the Rump Parliament or the Council of State. He and Bullock also served on the Court of Assistants, as did Captain Henry Hassard, the fourth sectary and redemptioner. Finally, Bishop used his leverage with the Commonwealth’s officialdom to gain trading privileges for the membership.[76]

However, this was not an era of good feeling in the Society’s history. Although on paper the membership continued to grow, the records of the Merchants’ Hall in the mid-seventeenth century reveal a deep malaise. All through the 1650s and 1660s, considerably less than half of the membership appeared at the quarterly meetings, including the annual election meeting; fewer still turned out for special assemblies. Many of the members stayed away for years on end, prompting the passage in 1652 of a stiff ordinance against all who “wilfully refuse to come to the Hall upon reasonable summons” or who failed to leave proxies when they traveled from town on business.[77] The Society’s finances also appear in disarray. Time and time again the Hall Book says that the payment of fines and of wharfage were seriously in arrears.[78]

The crisis appeared to be one of authority as much as economics. In 1650 the Hall felt obliged to cite its ancient patent from Edward VI, the parliamentary statute of 1566, and Charles I’s charter of 1639 in insisting on the “power and authority not only to make laws and ordinances agreeable to reason for the good of the said Company, But to impose and assess such reasonable paynes, penaltyes and punishments by ffynes and amerciaments for breach of them.” To better collect these fines, the Society adopted the procedure by action of debt, bill, or plaint in the name of the wardens and treasurer before the Mayor’s Court in the Guildhall.[79] Despite this measure, the collections of fines and wharfage remained a continuing problem throughout the 1650s and 1660s.[80]

If the established Merchant Venturers could no longer rely on the Society to achieve their ends, however, they could still use the Common Council to do so. There, as we have seen, they still enjoyed a clear majority of the membership. Moreover, most of the Merchant Venturers on the council had joined before the Civil War, and even before the issuance of the new charter in 1639. Their commercial lives showed a commitment to the principles upon which the Society had stood for so long. The dominance of these men in the city government is clear from the way they handled the election of the first Protectorate Parliament. They controlled the poll both through the sheriffs and through insisting that their voices be heard before the others could vote,[81] and thus they assured victory for candidates who would act in the Society’s interest. Once the members were in Westminster they became spokesmen for this dominant interest, as they had been in the 1620s, using their positions to advance the Merchant Venturers’ claims in such matters as the trade in Welsh butter, and attacking the roots of radicalism in the city as well. According to instructions sent by the magistrates, the MPs were not only to help “establish and settle order in the Church” and to rid the city of the Cromwellian soldiers who had so ardently supported Bishop and Haggatt but were also to address some symptoms of the breakdown in the civic social order arising from the American trade. “The Privildges & liberties of the Citty,” the magistrates complained,

are very much incroached upon to the great discouragement of the Inhabitants, especially young men who thinke it much that they should serve apprentishippe for many yeares; whilst other men that have never served halfe their time & others that were never apprentices at all, are permitted to keepe shope in as free away as themselves.[82]

The common councillors proposed no specific remedy for this last ill, perhaps because it sprang from a number of separate, if interrelated, sources. Most of all, they could no longer urge the principle of monopoly as the solution to their troubles, since even the conservatives of the Protectorate could not be expected to endorse it. However, one of the acts of the Long Parliament, arising from political circumstances similar to those we have found in Bristol in 1654, offered a start toward a cure. In May 1645, the House of Commons received word that Edward Peade, a London merchant, had engaged in child-stealing in the course of his trade. Peade served, along with such radicals as Maurice Thompson, Cornelius Holland, and Owen Rowe, as a commissioner for Somers Islands, and he and Rowe were associated with John Goodwin’s congregation at St. Stephen’s, Coleman Street.[83] During 1645 this intimate connection between the leading London Independents and the Somers Islanders, also noted for their religious zeal, appeared as one theme in London’s “counter-revolution” mounted by the so-called Presbyterians in the capital.[84] The information against Peade only confirmed for these conservatives that Goodwin’s followers were without scruple in all they did. Enemies of London radicalism such as William Spurstow pounced upon the accusation as a means to punish their opponents.

We have no evidence that the parliamentary ordinance of May 1645 or the measures later taken to strengthen it were ever enforced, but they provided the legal authority upon which the Bristol Common Council rested its own registration scheme.[85] With it the common councillors took a first but vital step in regulating the disorder of the colonial trades—a disorder produced largely by the trading activities of their political enemies. The Register worked against those shoemaker merchants and shopkeeping interlopers in various ways. It authorized the water bailiff to board ships in harbor to make inquiry about the indentures of servants and thereby placed the trading activities of all those who used the port under far closer official scrutiny. In this way illicit traders—especially traders who had not paid the entry fees for admission to the freedom of Bristol and had not sworn the freeman’s oath—became somewhat more vulnerable to arrest and to payment of local duties. But the requirement that indentures be used for all servants did something more: it placed the traffic of marginal traders under new economic restraints, which reduced their threat to the established merchant community.

The new registration scheme introduced in Bristol raised the transaction costs associated with conducting the servant trade, since shipping a servant across the Atlantic now required coping with a cumbersome administrative system and with the need to pay for the drawing and registration of the servants’ indentures. Although the charges were small, they had to be paid in coin, as did the fee for admission to the freedom of Bristol. Even for the relatively well-to-do, coin was not always easy to come by. Since most of the servants exported to the colonies in the 1650s were poor men and women seeking subsistence and without money in their purses, it seems clear that these charges would have had to be borne by the servant traders. The trade in servants also operated under certain constraints unusual in other types of commerce. Conditions in the Chesapeake and the West Indies were devastating to newcomers in the seventeenth century. According to some estimates, about 40 percent of those who arrived in these regions died during their terms, many in the first year. The others went through a period of severe “seasoning” during which they were ill for much of the year. As a result, planters usually tried to protect their investment in valuable labor by keeping the new servants free from work during the hot months. Only in the second year, if these newcomers had survived, could the planter expect to get a full year’s work from them.[86] Thus a difference of a year or more in a servant’s term represented a significant difference in his value. As it turns out, servants with indentures had, on average, shorter terms by a year or more than those who came on the custom of the country, since they enjoyed far more leverage to negotiate their terms while in England than after they had crossed the Atlantic. Once the servant had received his payment in the form of passage, he could do nothing but accept the custom as it existed. He had no freedom to return.[87] The use of indentures to regulate the trade therefore had the effect of cutting into its profitability for the trader. In this way it might be thought to bring the evil of “spiriting” under some control, since the poorer traders, those most easily tempted to inveigle or purloin servants to the colonies, were more susceptible than their richer competitors to the disincentives created by the new registration scheme.

For the marginal traders such as the mariners, shopkeepers, and artisans so heavily represented among the sectaries, the forced shift in operation instituted by the registration scheme of 1654 was especially significant, since the price of tobacco and sugar was already in decline in the 1650s. For the large merchants the losses involved would have been easier to absorb, especially because these men could more readily trade in other goods not affected by the same market conditions as servants. Thus the Register sought to accomplish what other economic regulations could not. Since it was no longer possible to exclude marginal traders from the use of ships and the services of factors, it sought to take advantage of the wealth of established merchants to reach the same end. In doing so it conceded an important point. If the larger retailers and manufacturers, such as those we find supporting Aldworth and Jackson in the election, could no longer effectively be barred from overseas trade, at least the Quaker shoemakers might.


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