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In the aftermath of the Hundred Years’ War Bristol’s place in the English commercial economy had been transformed as its dependence on the manufacture and export of traditional kinds of woolen cloth and the import of French wines diminished and it became a major redistribution point for foreign wares to the Severn valley, South Wales, and the west Midlands, on whose products—raw materials and agricultural commodities as well as manufactures—it relied for its exports. Hence, as London grew in population and economic power, coming to dominate and give order to England’s urban hierarchy, Bristol gradually settled into its niche as “the metropolis of the west,” a role it would play with increasing definition in the later seventeenth and the eighteenth century.[103] What drove Bristol’s trade in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was the pursuit of high margins of profit and quick gain, rather than economic concentration and expanding control over capital resources. The entrepreneur’s object was to multiply small investments into large returns by understanding and playing the market, not by efficiently converting raw materials into salable manufactured wares. Small reliance was put upon fixed capital assets. The emphasis was on distribution, not production, and on imports that could be marketed after little or no investment in labor. But there was an elusiveness to the Bristolians’ quest. The more successful the pursuit of scarce and much-prized wares, the greater the supply; the greater the supply, the lower the unit price and profits. The problem of the southern trades, then, was the problem of a traffic in luxuries and other scarce commodities gradually becoming a trade in staples. In the long run this outcome was inescapable. In the short run, however, it was possible to resolve the dilemma by pushing beyond the established trading centers to markets with more plentiful supplies or less competition and by trading whenever possible at the first, not the second, hand. The expansion of Bristol’s commerce in the early seventeenth century was guided by these considerations, which help to account for the movement of the city’s trade into the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and for the continuing search for the Northwest Passage.


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