Abandoned on the banks of the Benin River in 1553, the first English merchants to travel to West Africa could only look back and reflect that, perhaps, their organisational strategy had not been very effective. Things had started well enough, with a painless departure from Portsmouth leading to rapid progress down the African coast through tropical seas and under a scorching sun. On arrival, the merchants were lucky enough to be invited before the King of Benin in his ‘great huge hall long and wide’, where they learned that he spoke Portuguese (‘he had learned as a child’) and was happy to offer them a lucrative credit agreement. Within thirty days, they had bought ‘four score tons of pepper’ and were hopeful of receiving more. They must have been delighted: they had found both a viable market and a local economic culture that played by rules they did – with a supportive monarch and a shared language to boot. But even as the deal was struck, the merchants received some devastating news. The crew of their ships had mutinied, leaving them to fend for themselves in a strange new land. They were never heard from again.
This was undoubtedly not the sort of ending that they expected when they set out to launch their exciting new trading venture, but it is illustrative of the challenges English merchants faced in trading beyond Europe’s borders in the middle of the 16th century. It was a dangerous, experimental, and risky business.
In my new study of England’s trade and empire during its formative period between 1550 and 1650, I explore how its merchants overcame these challenges and explain how English commerce blossomed as thousands of merchants launched ventures successfully across the world. At the heart of England’s global expansion were so called ‘mere merchants’ – a group with a distinct professional identity and training who believed they alone were capable of leading the country to wealth and power. Through their labours, England developed from a peripheral power on the fringes of Europe to a country at the centre of a global commercial web, with its merchants’ interests stretching from Barbados to Ahmadabad and Arkhangelsk to Benin. For the first time, a single shop in London could advertise goods ranging from Russian wax, Málagan raisins, and Milanese rice, to sugar from São Tomé and Brazil, tobacco from Virginia, dates and almonds from Morocco, and spices from Asia – a cornucopia of commodities that would only grow more varied.
How though, did these merchants come to take such a leading role in the making of England’s trade and empire? What was so unique about this community? How did the ways in which they worked together and lived together make it possible for merchants to so successfully strike out to trade in distant lands?
The answer lies in the innovative range of business practices – most famously the formation of joint-stock corporations like the East India Company – that merchants adopted to ensure that their trades would be well governed, effective, and give them the advantage in the cutthroat international markets where they hoped to earn their riches. Importantly, these new structures provided common standards for training, regulation and behaviour that made it easier and less risky for merchants to collaborate. This meant that when things did go awry, merchants could depend on their skills, entrepreneurship, and ability to work together to find solutions to the challenges they faced – whether that was the Barbary Company’s worry that the ‘sinister and undirect dealing’ of one John Symcotte would ruin their trade, Jeremy Honeychurch’s panic in Bilbao when his ship was seized by Spanish authorities, or the unfortunate trader who mistakenly imported eighty monkeys to London after penning a poorly handwritten letter to his factor overseas.
In their day-to-day lives, merchants were consumed by worries about the trials and tribulations of international trade. As a community, merchants’ efforts would come to reshape England’s relationship with the world.
Edmond Smith is the author of Merchants: The Community That Shaped England’s Trade and Empire, published by Yale University Press.
The Making of Global Britain The Making of Global Britain The Making of Global Britain