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The institution of partnership reflects the same reliance on the community of merchants as does the use of factors. Most partnerships existed for short periods and for strictly limited purposes; they were more like trading fellowships than business firms. Frequently, they were no more than convenient arrangements that grew out of extremely short-term market conditions and were typically designed to fill only the most immediate trading needs of the members. In John Whitson’s letter book, for example, we note that one of the alderman’s factors in France, complaining of the high current price of salt, offered to “goe in partabell” terms with his principal if he “canne fynde anny that will goe upon reasonable termes.” Even the long-term trading relations of kinsmen, such as the “cumpany” that was formed between the brothers William and Robert Tyndale in the mid-1540s, had something of this informal and intermittent character, as the surviving records of their accounts reveal.[40] Customs records reinforce this view of fluid relations among merchants and of their small reliance upon permanent companies or firms. In 1636–37, only about 2 percent of the cockets issued by the Bristol customs officers for exports were in the name of a partnership. Trading in company was somewhat more common in inward traffic. For example, about 14 percent of the import cockets in 1637–38 were in the name of more than one merchant or of an association, with wine shipments almost always being made in this fashion. In nearly all of these cases, however, the parties traded independently as well as with co-partners. Indeed, there was nothing to prevent them from combining with more than one group of partners at the same time.[41]

The primary economic function of a partnership was the pooling of liquid resources, not the concentrated exploitation of the market through rational organization and the division of labor.[42] According to the classic seventeenth-century definition, a partnership exists

where one man doth aduenture a thousand pounds, another fiue hundred pounds, another three hundred pounds, and another four hundred pounds, more or lesse as they agree amongst themselves to make a stock, euery man to haue his profit, or to beare losses and aduenture according to their seuerall stocks in one or many voyages, for one or more years…to be diuided into so many parts as they agree.[43]

Yet few commercial enterprises had the permanence of the woad partnership in which John Smythe participated, and almost none had a comparable organization. At the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, for example, Hugh Eliot and Robert Thorne traded jointly at home and abroad for two decades, but they reckoned their books and settled accounts after each voyage rather than maintaining their profits and losses in a joint account from year to year. Half a century later, William Gittens and John Carr managed their joint ownership in the same way, each paying his share of expenses at the end of a venture. Those long-lived partnerships that did exist usually were family affairs. For almost twenty years in the 1620s and 1630s, for instance, Robert Aldworth and Giles Elbridge, his nephew, former apprentice, and adoptive heir, regularly traded together and engaged in other joint activities such as the plantation on the Pemaquid peninsula in New England. But they also maintained independent commercial establishments, taking apprentices and conducting business on their own. The pattern was the same for the brothers Erasmus and Thomas Wright in the 1630s. Although such arrangements necessarily required joint records and orderly procedures in settling accounts, there was little to differentiate them from partnerships for a single voyage. As with the partnership of the Tyndales in the early sixteenth century, their purpose was preservation of family interests by concentrating capital resources into a single stock, not the creation of specialized firms with highly structured internal organizations. Moreover, long-term partnerships that lacked a strong family character seem to have been especially vulnerable to dispute and litigation when accounts could not be balanced, as happened in turn to Eliot and Thorne and to Gittens and Carr, among others.[44] Only extraordinary investments requiring lengthy and systematic joint endeavor to turn a profit, such as Smythe’s woad partnership or the early seventeenth-century colony at Bristol’s Hope, Newfoundland, seem to have required more highly structured business organizations.

Even among shipowners, economic associations lacked the character of the modern business firm. Although sailing vessels were typically the property of small and apparently close-knit groups of merchants, individual members were continually divesting themselves of their interests, and, just as in commerce, partnerships were in a constant state of flux. Comparison of two lists of Bristol ships and shipowners, compiled in November 1626 and March 1629, respectively, shows an extraordinarily high turnover in both equipment and personnel. In 1626, Bristolians owned forty-two vessels; two and a half years later, they owned forty-eight vessels. However, only nineteen ships are common to both lists. In 1626, 50 percent of the vessels were individually owned: four by Robert Aldworth, four by John Brooke, three by Thomas Wright, two by Edward Ballash, and one each by Nathaniel Butcher, George Gibson, William Haskins, Richard Woodward, Thomas Rogers, John Came, William Owfield, and Edward Peters. With war increasing the risks of shipowning, only 25 percent of the vessels were in the possession of a single merchant in March 1629: three owned by Thomas Wright, two each by Giles Elbridge and Edward Peters, and one each by Robert Aldworth, William Owfield, Thomas Heathcott, Charles Driver, and John Brooke. Most merchants, however, preferred to own shares, often in several vessels. In 1626, for example, Humphrey Browne, John Gonning, and Nathaniel Butcher each held an interest in four ships, while John Barker, Richard Long, and William Wyatt were concerned in three and Francis Creswick, Richard Holworthy, and Humphrey Hooke in two. Between fall 1626 and spring 1629, moreover, the ownership of thirteen of the nineteen ships which appear on both lists was significantly altered. Either new shareholders had been added, or shares had changed hands. Twenty of the fifty individuals named as owners on the first list do not appear on the second, and seventeen of the forty-seven names on the second list do not appear on the first. A portion of this turnover is no doubt due to the maritime warfare that plagued these years, but not all the vessels were used for such purposes. Wartime conditions merely exaggerated what was already commonplace in more settled times.[45]

In the commercial economy of Elizabethan and early Stuart Bristol, the role played by rationalized firms, joint enterprises, and highly organized, permanent partnership was small. The social foundations of trade were provided, rather, by the existence of networks of regular mercantile contacts among Bristolians. Capital was extremely mobile, not only permitting the diversification of a merchant’s interests into many markets and many commodities but also encouraging the formation of a variety of commercial ties with numerous overseas traders. To a remarkable degree, the conduct of most individual merchant businesses showed little difference in principle from the pattern revealed by partnerships. Judging from John Smythe’s ledger, merchants usually considered each investment as a separate enterprise, accounting profits and losses in compartments. Smythe practiced a form of “venture accounting” in which individual enterprises and dealings with particular persons were kept in separate entries. This method permitted him to distinguish his many interests from one another and to keep a close watch on the balances in each one. He grouped his exports under the markets to which they were sent, and a profit-and-loss account was kept by voyages to a particular region for a stated period, usually a year. Import items were each given a separate profit-and-loss account. Hence for most undertakings individual and joint ventures were treated the same in the accounts.[46]

The highly fluid character of partnerships and of shipowning arrangements was a manifestation of the social principle on which trade was based. The commodities market also reveals that principle at work. When large stocks of merchandise were brought into Bristol, their first market frequently was not a retailer but a fellow merchant, whose business contacts could help distribute the goods. Early in James I’s reign, for example, Thomas Aldworth and Francis Doughty imported substantial quantities of sugar, Canary wine, sumac, and perhaps also currants aboard the White Stag of Bristol from Madeira. Aldworth sold a portion of his goods to Walter Williams, merchant, and Doughty conveyed his share to Humphrey Fitzherbert, Peter Miller, and William Barker, merchants. This helped spread the risk among a number of individuals, who for their part were happy to have the supplies. In place of a world of established business firms anxious to exploit a specialized market for the utmost profit to the exclusion of all competition, there existed a community of merchants, men personally known to one another by reputation and credit, who cooperated as well as competed in the marketplace.[47]

As in John Smythe’s day, credit was the binding force in this community in the early seventeenth century. Usually a merchant was both creditor and debtor, waiting on the payments of one tradesman in order to clear his accounts with another. To Alderman John Guy this was an inevitable consequence of the calling. “Neither the borrower nor the lender have any money,” he said, “and only he that neither borrows nor lends; for the borrower commonly as he receives with one hand he pays with the other, and for the lender it is ever out of his hands, he will borrow a small sum to make up a greater to put it out.”[48] Merchant inventories reveal something of this ubiquity of indebtedness. At Richard Pley’s death in 1639, for instance, over 55 percent of his total assets were in thirty-eight separate debts owed him by forty-one different individuals. Thirteen of these debtors were fellow Bristol merchants. Among them was Walter Stephens, who owed a total of over £2,100, of which £675 was exclusively in his own name and the remainder in conjunction with four others. John Gonning, Junior, was responsible for another £130 or thereabouts, and Richard Aldworth was personally indebted for almost £150 and joined with Stephens and three others in a further sum of nearly £900. With these men Pley conducted business “on Accompte,” suggesting either commodity sales or partnerships. But there were also a number of bonds, including one for £104 in the names of Thomas and Erasmus Wright, who perhaps purchased property or capital equipment from Pley.[49] The inventory does not record Pley’s own debts, since those were not assets for which the executors of his estate were liable. But Pley’s account book, had it survived, probably would reveal sums owed others from whom he bought goods or with whom he jointly traded. As Sir Arthur Ingram said in 1624, “if the trade of the kingdom were divided into 4 parts, 3 of them at least are carried on credit.”[50]


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