Edmond Smith’s merchants – the profit motive that propelled an empire

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On April 28, 1636, President Methwold, the East India Company’s most senior official in Asia, took up his quill to write a serious letter to returning directors. The recruits they had recently sent to India had turned out to be rather disappointing. Almost without exception, they were, he writes, “drunken, debauched, irregular companions who cannot be trusted. [be allowed out] to Surat with the hope of seeing them again in ten days, or more if their money holds up any longer, which keeps them continually drunk in the arack and grog, if they are not worse (if worse can be) employed “.

He continued, “We have been so weary and ashamed lately that we have instead decided to give up. [them] than to endure this scandal for our nation. How they behaved in several of the Portuguese ports [ie in Goa] our ears tingled to hear related. . .[A few of them]deserve to be seen as men aspiring to promotion; the others only look down, to find the bottom of a bottle of arack or a pot of grog.

Beginning with upbeat family patronage in London and ending with unsavory adventures in faraway lands, such stories are typical of many of the turbulent Elizabethan lives that Edmond Smith exposes in his wonderfully large and deeply documented book. Merchants. These lives, many of which ended in tragedy, were the ‘ultimate driving force behind England’s emerging global commerce and empire’ and did much to define the ‘transformative engagement with the world’ of England. Elizabethan England.

Most of the young men who were recruited into England’s trading companies were already from a commercial background, its members being linked by shared education and learning. Trained from their youth in the arts of correspondence and accountancy, they generally entered the first trading societies through the influence of family networks and quickly found themselves propelled, often in adolescence, across the world, from ” Virginie in Ahmadabad and Arkhangelsk in Benin. ”.

16th century England was already a surprisingly cosmopolitan and multilingual space. “When ‘Cidi Abdulla Dodan’ who was ‘born in Andalusia, naturally speaking Spanish and Italian’ visited London around this time, he had no difficulty finding merchants who could converse with him,” Smith writes. . Correspondence concerning the Levant trade between the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed III and Elizabeth I was in English, Latin and Arabic.

Portrait of Anthonis Mor by Thomas Gresham, one of the most successful merchants of his time

Some of these merchant careers have resulted in real wealth. One of the success stories was Thomas Gresham, a black-clad, white-ruffled Tudor merchant whose calculating, energetic and incredibly direct gaze came to us in a brilliant portrayal of Anthonis Mor. His interests included “the trade in velvet, satin, damask, sarsenet, camlets, tapestry, raw silks, taffeta, Dutch sheets, English sheets and kerseys”, as well as lead , tin and silver. He ended up becoming the richest merchant of his time, founding the Royal Exchange, modeled on the Antwerp Stock Exchange, and becoming the financial advisor to Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. His name survives in the eponymous series of colleges and conferences.

Many others were much less successful, particularly in the days of the “trial and error” improvisation of early English international trade. Several of Gresham’s near-contemporaries, for example, found themselves “abandoned in Africa on the banks of the Benin River.” Despite having successfully negotiated a massive shipment of pepper with the King of Benin, they found themselves stranded after their crew mutinied to protest their treatment by the captain, Mr. Wyndam, a man “of various vices and numerous “.

Other business careers have been cut short by offenses ranging from “keeping women obscene” and counterfeiting the “best brand of herring” to calling a senior merchant a “false rascal” and making “vile and improper speech”. In one instance, unclear handwriting proved to be a career killer, as an order for “2 or 3 monkeys” from Africa led to the eventual delivery of a troop of 203 primates to London docks.

But despite all these slippages, the dizzying diversification and abrupt upward trajectory of English trade was astonishing: the country’s economic output quadrupled between 1550 and 1650. The efforts of English merchants, Smith writes, “contributed to the development of England from a peripheral power on the fringes. from Europe to a country at the center of a global trade network ”. It is not, he underlines, the “buccaneer sea wolves of the popular imagination” who are at the origin of this transformation, nor the much vaunted “pirates and explorers”, but rather “simple merchants” .

These Elizabethan traders “built the foundations of the British Empire and integrated the country into global networks that would shape it for centuries to come,” Smith writes. And it was these individuals, working for their own business purposes, often under the auspices of the early stock companies, and not government officials, “who became the colonial business leaders” or were their investors, champions and suppliers. These “overlapping and intersecting worlds of commercial and colonial enterprise.” . . has woven a web of commerce that has spanned empires, oceans and continents and has linked England to maturing global trade networks ”.

Smith concludes that “it was business and individual actors, rather than the state” that controlled “England’s burgeoning commercial and imperial efforts.”

This led, for better or for worse, to the Ulster Plantation in Ireland, the North American Coast and Caribbean colonies, and the ever-growing African land holdings in Asia, especially the most profitable of all. , in Mughal India. Much of what brought England such enormous wealth at the time, and indeed much of what led to postcolonial opprobrium, came from the way trade and colonization worked so closely together. in parallel.

What Smith could perhaps speak a little more about is how England’s dramatically growing wealth has been amassed at the expense of other economies and lives lived elsewhere. For corporate capitalism and British imperialism were born at the same time and were in many ways the dragon’s teeth that spawned the colonial world.

Merchants: The community that shaped England’s commerce and empire, 1550-1650 by Edmond Smith Yale University Press, £ 25, 362 pages

“The Company Quartet” by William Dalrymple is published by Bloomsbury

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