Atlantic History Merchants in the Atlantic World
Pierre Gervais
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • 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 were 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, what they were doing, and how they succeeded (or failed) in their activities.

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. Numerous edited volumes have been published since the 1990s; while they tended at first to focus on trade rather than traders, as in Tracy 1990 and its sequel from the following year, a significant shift toward the analysis of merchant practices took place starting in the mid-1990s, illustrated by Emmer and Gaastra 1996, McCusker and Morgan 2000 and Coclanis 2005, with recent efforts moving beyond description into structural analysis, as in Gervais, et al. 2014. But a lot can still be gained by reading older monographs, such as Price 1996 and Jeannin 2002, which leave no part of the merchant experience untouched.

  • 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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    Collection of articles on long-distance trading practices from various European countries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Two periods of expansion are distinguished, with the first one marked by state intervention and limited expansion, and the second by the integration of inter- and intracontinental trades and more independent merchant activity. Large joint-stock companies are presented as the most significant economic windfall derived from European expansion.

  • Gervais, Pierre, Yannick Lemarchand, and Dominique Margairaz, eds. Merchants and Profit in the Age of Commerce, 1680–1830. Abingdon, UK: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.

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    Covering mostly Atlantic merchants, the various papers provide an introduction to several methodological issues increasingly prominent in recent years, such as the role of quality scales in merchant economies, convention-based neo-institutionalist transaction analysis, or the reconciling of nonstandard accounting practices and economic rationality, the overall goal being to develop a historicized economic analysis of merchant societies in the Early Modern period.

  • 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: Variorum, 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.

  • Tracy, James D., ed. The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long-Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 1350–1750. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    One of two collections edited by Tracy, published back to back with The Political Economy of Merchant Empires: State Power and World Trade, 1350–1750 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Stemming from one of the first research programs to focus on the merchant dimension of European expansion in the Early Modern age. While still mostly focused on trade flows and state policies, the second volume broke new ground, with several of the articles dealing with the practices of European traders and the specificities of merchant development.

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