In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Merchants' Networks

  • Introduction
  • Theory and Definitions
  • General Overviews
  • Printed Merchants’ Papers
  • Atlantic-Wide Networks
  • North American Networks
  • Caribbean Connections
  • African Connections
  • Family-Based Networks
  • Ethnic and Religious Networks

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Atlantic History Merchants' Networks
Cathy D. Matson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0076


For many decades, scholars have studied the commercial connections of the Atlantic world across national and imperial boundaries. Merchants have been one of the most important social groups in many of these studies. But only in recent years has scholarly focus shifted noticeably from connecting merchants to the rise of organized, regulated mercantile empires, to viewing merchants in webs or networks of individually organized, constantly shifting coalitions of interests. The individual agency of merchants, with their methods of organizing commerce against the backdrop of imperial authority, has become a dominant way of reconstructing merchants’ lives in transnational economies. Merchants’ correspondence, account books, literary choices, cultural memberships, material cultures, and interest-group activities have become valuable ways of gaining insight into merchant networks and how they worked. Networks have also been reconstructed based on merchants’ credit, concerns about reputation, methods of bookkeeping, family alliances, distribution of particular commodities, and other business methods. Many scholars have also written comparative studies of different port cities, ethnic groups, or generations over time that have also yielded portraits of essential and enduring networks of merchants.

Theory and Definitions

Network analysis of social groups, across times and places, was developed in two disciplines—sociology and anthropology—during the post–World War II years, and had become influential among historians by the 1980s. The works cited here provide a range of perspectives about merchants’ networks. Ditz 1999, Drayton 1998, and Duguid 2005 emphasize the imperative of establishing knowledge networks and communication across varied places and conditions. Holland 1988 and Rauch 1999 place more emphasis on the practical organization of trade and credit during the early modern era. Silver 1990 provides a theoretical reading of the idea of “friendship,” an important component of merchants’ networks, in terms of broad cultural traditions. Wolf 1966, in contrast, puts friendship, family, and clientage into an anthropological framework that considers sweeping economic and social transformations. Wetherell 1998 is a general model of network analysis that focuses on systems of interpersonal knowledge, some of which involve consumer preferences or the circulation of print culture that illuminated commercial relationships.

  • Ditz, Toby L. “Formative Ventures: Eighteenth-Century Commercial Letters and the Articulation of Experience.” In Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter-Writers, 1600–1945. Edited by Rebecca Earle, 59–78. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

    The glue of merchant networks was written communications across great distances. This essay not only deeply analyzes particular merchant correspondence but also offers scholars important methodological insights into interpreting private letters within merchant networks.

  • Drayton, Richard. “Knowledge and Empire.” In The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Century. Edited by P. G. Marshall, 231–252. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    One of the most important aspects of merchant networking was the creation, gathering, and distribution of news about commercial conditions. This essay surveys elements of personal and public dissemination of information through account books, correspondence, and print culture.

  • Duguid, Paul. “Networks and Knowledge: The Beginning and End of the Port Commodity Chain, 1703–1860.” Business History Review 79 (Fall 2005): 493–526.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007680500081423

    Offers a challenge to scholars who emphasize increasing diversification in trade and commercial networks over the early modern era. Instead, this article argues that port wine traded from Portugal to Britain decidedly moved from being diversified to dedicated specialization for a “commodity chain” in this product. Quality controls and specialized knowledge were centralized, as was power over decision making.

  • Holland, John H. “The Global Economy as an Adaptive Process.” In The Economy as an Evolving Complex System. Edited by Philip W. Anderson, 117–123. Redwood, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.

    Makes crucial distinctions between large market systems that exhibit recognizable patterns of development over time, and successions of individuals forming networks of agency within global markets.

  • Rauch, James E. “Networks versus Markets in International Trade.” Journal of International Economics 48 (1999): 7–35.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0022-1996(98)00009-9

    An important, rigorously argued study based on how commodities are traded and consumed. Comes to the conclusion that informal local markets based on familiar customs and common language communication were far more important than organized exchange relations.

  • Silver, Allen. “Friendship in Commercial Society: Eighteenth-Century Social Theory and Modern Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 95 (May 1990): 1474–1504.

    DOI: 10.1086/229461

    A valuable study that considers the role of the Scottish Enlightenment in promoting not only “polite commerce” and the rise of Western empires based on expansive commercial enterprise and colonies, but also the Enlightenment’s theorization of commercial networks as the pinnacle of imperial power.

  • Wetherell, Charles. “Historical Social Network Analysis.” International Review of Social History 43 (1998): 125–144.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020859000115123

    Makes a strong argument for historians and professionals in the humanities to adopt social network analysis from sociology, where the theory has been influential for decades. Provides an overview of the basics of social network analysis.

  • Wolf, Eric R. “Kinship, Friendship, and Patron-Client Relations in Complex Societies.” In The Social Anthropology of Complex Societies. Edited by Michael Banton, 1–22. London: Tavistock, 1966.

    One of the few studies of networks using anthropological theory that includes a wide range of social agents (including merchants) across many cultures.

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