In This Article Merchants in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Atlantic History Merchants in the Atlantic World
Pierre Gervais
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0160


Atlantic history in the early modern period is, if not only the history of merchants, at least mostly the history of merchant development. From its start in the 15th century onward, European expansion through the Atlantic was driven by the commercial impulse to find new roads into the South and East Asian markets, and later to secure access to colonial products from the newly developed plantation economy in the Americas. Imperial expansion, the slave trade, and colonization were all merchant processes, insofar as they were explicitly aimed at tapping the wealth of overseas territory. While the macroeconomic impact of interoceanic trade on Europe is still debated (see the Oxford Bibliographies article Atlantic Trade and the European Economy), nobody questions its central place in the growth of the “Atlantic economy,” whatever that term means (see the separate article Economy and Consumption). The history of this trade is not the history of the merchants who managed it, however. Most economic research has focused on the extent and/or consequences of merchant activity, taking its nature largely for granted; even in works of social history, merchants are seen through the lens of standard economic theory, as paragons of rational choice and calculation, profit making, and capital accumulation, with little if any qualification by the particular historical context. Within this general framework considerable research was eventually devoted to various merchant subgroups, though almost always from a local/national and often Eurocentric perspective. Only recently have merchants themselves come to be problematized, with increasing attempts at building a working historicized paradigm of who early modern merchants were, and what they were doing.

General Overviews

With the notable exception of Braudel 1992, no transnational work of synthesis on the early modern era or the Atlantic economy takes merchants as its primary focus. The second best choice is two collective volumes, McCusker 2000 and Coclanis 2005, which come as close as one gets to a general introduction to merchants in the early modern period; Emmer and Gaastra 1996 can be useful if one is interested in a more narrowly national approach. The monographs Price 1996 and Jeannin 2002 could also serve as a point of entry, insofar as these two works left no part of the merchant experience untouched. Last, the student new to the field can turn to a number of edited collections and journal special issues, or thematic studies such as Steele 1986, even though they are necessarily much narrower in scope.

  • Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

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    Coming out of a bygone past in which scholars actually had time to write 1,800-page masterpieces, these three volumes interpret the whole early modern era as a growth of long-distance, global, and eventually industrial capitalism out of a world of local market exchange operating at the margins of a largely self-sufficient society.

  • Coclanis, Peter A., ed. The Atlantic Economy during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Organization, Operation, Practice, and Personnel. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

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    A series of ambitious attempts at synthesizing various aspects of the Atlantic economy in the 18th century, mostly in the North Atlantic. From product markets to financing to regional specificities, the dominant argument is the systemic nature of the trade-based society that developed in that part of the world.

  • Emmer, Pieter, and Femme Gaastra, eds. The Organization of Interoceanic Trade in European Expansion, 1450–1800. Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1996.

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    These essays study long-distance traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, and Spain, mostly in the 17th century, and England and France, mostly in the 18th century. The editors argue that two periods of expansion can indeed be distinguished, with the second one marked by the integration of inter- and intra-continental trades.

  • Jeannin, Pierre. Marchands d’Europe: Pratiques et savoirs à l’époque moderne. Paris: Editions Rue d’Ulm, 2002.

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    Among the best analyses of merchant practice in the early modern era. Focused on the Baltic and the 16th century, but several papers deal with issues of concern to the Atlantic, from accounting knowledge to network building and business organization, and show that these were shaped by the limitations specific to the period.

  • McCusker, John J., and Kenneth Morgan, eds. The Early Modern Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    In spite of the overly general title, most of the essays in this collection are devoted to merchants and merchant practice, exploring credit and kinship networks, the organization of merchant operations, their social standing and its evolution, the circulation of European and colonial goods, and the financing of all these activities.

  • Price, Jacob M. Overseas Trade and Traders. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1996.

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    All of Jacob M. Price’s publications could well be cited here, and this collection of essays is only one possible choice. It concentrates on British merchants and their behavior, especially Quakers, and also includes a general methodological piece fittingly titled “What Did Merchants Do?” Price stresses the efficiency and inventiveness of merchant business strategies.

  • Steele, Ian K. The English Atlantic, 1675–1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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    Focused on issues of communication between British communities, but describes also trade routes for sugar, tobacco, staples, and fish around the North Atlantic. The author stresses the “shrinking” of the ocean and the increasing ease and efficiency with which it was crossed.

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