Edmond Smith, what inspired you to write about these early entrepreneurs, the subject of your new book, Merchants?
My PhD set out to explore how individual investors shaped the infamous East India Company, but the more I dug into this, the more links I discovered with other parts of England’s commerce and colonisation. This surprised me, because historians so often write about the corporation as this kind of unique, monolithic entity – a narrow oligarchy at the head of England’s trade – rather than as part of a wider community. As I shifted my focus to commercial community more broadly, I then kept coming across references to ‘mere merchants’, and I started to see how this wider community, with its distinct professional identity, was a fundamental part of how early modern trade functioned. I wanted to know who they were, what they did that was so special, and how that shaped the development of England’s trade and empire.
There are fascinating characters involved, many that achieved huge wealth – do you have any favourites?
Some merchants, such as Thomas Smith or Thomas Gresham, certainly obtained incredible wealth; they used it to buy properties and estates and it gave them access to the highest echelons of English society. My favourites, though, are probably the scrappier merchants whose careers weren’t so clear cut – people like William Turner in the book’s introduction – who overcame failures and took risks to be the first to new markets. One aim of the book is to bring both types together and show how it wasn’t just the immensely wealthy who shaped England’s trade and empire but a much larger community.
A key thrust of the book is how trade laid the groundwork for the later empire – how much were the merchants driven by ambition and/or greed, and how much by patriotic fervour?
The ‘mere merchants’ I examine were professional traders, so making a living was always part of their motivation, whether it was fairly measly returns for minor cloth exports to Germany or the ridiculous profits obtained for early East India Company voyages. But they also justified their commercial and colonial activities using arguments about increasing English power, a desire to improve the ‘common wealth’, expanding the Protestant faith, and even charitable responsibility (providing employment for the poor). While they were of course individuals with individual motivations, these ideas were always part of how their conceived their role in England’s emerging empire.
Early modern society was predicated on rank and status. How were ‘mere merchants’ viewed in their own country?
They certainly viewed themselves very highly! England’s trading corporations predicated much of their organisation on the principle that ‘mere merchants’ knew best. At the same time, they were looked down on as too profit-driven or as monopolists who undermined enterprise – especially by the gentry, nobility and tradesmen who were excluded from trading overseas and wanted to diminish the authority merchants had in commercial affairs.
How integral were English merchants to the developing slave trade, in order to help with their American plantations?
Merchants were central to the slave trade from the outset. Although they rarely governed Caribbean colonies directly, they were determined to keep control over the trades that would supply these plantations and to exploit the new opportunities that they represented – regardless of the human cost. England’s involvement in the slave trade increases massively after the period I cover ends, but merchants were already heavily represented in financing and managing those voyages. They certainly profited from colonial commerce built on enslaved labour.
The text draws on a rich variety of sources. Did you find that these have been underused or underappreciated by previous scholars?
It took a lot of work in over thirty archives to write this book, which I did to show the connected history of this whole community, rather than just focus on one small part of it like the spice trade or colonisation in America. The first archive I worked in was the East India Company collected at the British Library, which is rich, accessible and in excellent condition. I was spoilt by that experience, as many of the corporations and merchants I examine left records that have not survived in anything like that state, and I had to work with whatever scraps I could find. It was exciting uncovering connections and relationships that we weren’t aware of before – merchants who lived together, worked together, gossiped and exchanged ideas together. Those finds really built up this idea of a common merchant community, which hasn’t been well appreciated by many scholars to date.
You also carry out research in the current financial and policy sectors – do you see any parallels, or recognise any lessons that the modern world might learn from the merchants of the past?
First, my book highlights the role of social networks and the relationships that tie people together in business. It’s easy today to lose track of that and focus just on the people at the top, which can have detrimental impacts both on workers’ lives and organisational effectiveness. Second, the corporations and people in my book were constrained by expectations that they would provide a positive service to society, and their privileges were justified in part on that basis. While we have very different ideas about what a positive service to society might look like today, we don’t always see modern corporations feeling that a positive societal contribution is intrinsic to their purpose. Recently, this has led to a backlash against how corporations are managed and efforts to establish new ways of organising business, such as the rise of the B-Corp.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I’ve started a new project that pushes my research forward into the latter seventeenth and eighteenth century and examines the broader entrepreneurial communities involved in colonisation, innovation and industrialisation. It’s great to be getting stuck into new archives and new arguments, and if all goes well it will culminate in my next book on Slavery, Capitalism, and the Origins of Britain’s Wealth. Watch this space!
Dr Edmond Smith is an author and academic. His latest book, Merchants: The Community That Shaped England’s Trade and Empire is out now and is published by Yale University Press.
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