In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Credit and Debt

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Contemporary Writings
  • Journals and Research Networks
  • Trade Credit Instruments
  • Institutions and Credit Markets
  • Laws, Courts, and Bankruptcy
  • Risk, Confidence, and Trust
  • Networks of Credit (and Debt)
  • Credit, Slave Trade, and Plantations
  • Financial Crises
  • Case Studies
  • Culture and Representations

Atlantic History Credit and Debt
Yannick Lemarchand, Cheryl Susan McWatters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0223


Trade and commercial development in the Atlantic world required capital, investment, and financing, both directly and indirectly. Credit was allocated, extended, used, and abused to further growth in various commercial sectors. The circulation of capital was a requisite feature of trade activity, with implications on both sides of and across the Atlantic. It was also a very social activity involving networks of partners and players across time and space. Issues of credit and debt cannot be isolated, therefore, from the broader institutional context: technical, social, and cultural. This article presents selected readings on the role played by credit (and debt) in the economic development of the Atlantic world. The scope is restricted to private rather than public credit, and to the long 18th century. Readings reinforce the nature of credit operations across the Atlantic, including merchant trade, the organization of the slave trade, and agricultural production in the colonies; and within Europe, as merchants and traders sought out operating credit and refinancing of trading activities. The nature of credit and debt cannot be understood without some appreciation for the technical tools, mechanisms, institutions, and laws in which these systems operated. Equally, credit networks were social relations within extensive and extended networks of actors subject to social and cultural norms. These norms can be apprehended more readily through the examination of the attitudes, perceptions, and values of those involved in granting and securing credit. Credit evokes questions of confidence, insolvency, risk, reputation, and trust. How these concepts were interpreted, perceived, and operationalized are important in understanding the evolving nature of the broader institutional context. Finally, while not exhaustive, this entry incorporates readings that provide a comparative dimension to this history, enabling the reader to tease out the parallels in different national histories, the divergent adaptations in various settings and contexts, from which it is possible to weave a common thread to the story of credit and debt in the Atlantic world.

General Overviews

The structure and organization of trade and its impacts on credit and debt have been variously examined with different emphases in terms of networks, the technical evolution of credit and trade mechanisms, geography, and institutional practices. Sheridan 1958 examines the organization and operations of the slave trade and, by extension, offers evidence of the far-reaching web of relations involved in the trade, including the long chain of credit and debt obligations. Anderson 1970 offers an extensive analysis of the English context, confirming how credit and trust relations were linked to the growth of the credit economy and the rise of the bill of exchange. In a large number of studies, three of which are selected as a starting point, Price (Price 1989, Price 1991) has investigated and explored the simple yet intriguing question of “what did merchants do”. Their multifaceted role as purchaser, financier, agent, and social actor was transformed in light of institutional changes during the period. The credit and market linkages across the Atlantic are well documented in Price 1980, an analysis for the British tobacco trade; themes revisited more generally in Nash 2005 with respect to the English merchant trade and its related growth in terms of scale and specialization. Price 1989 is insightful in its analysis of the dynamism in domestic and export markets and their effects on institutional arrangements and infrastructure. Price 1991 provides an important reframing of the research discussion in terms of transaction costs and their impacts on the trading activities, commission sales, and credit operations. Mann 2002 demonstrates how the evolution in insolvency legislation represented or anticipated those of mentalities. Muldrew 1998 emphasizes social and cultural practices, facilitating our understanding of the profound changes in thinking that took place at the end of the 18th century.

  • Anderson, B. L. “Money and the Structure of Credit in the Eighteenth Century.” Business History 12.2 (1970): 85–101.

    DOI: 10.1080/00076797000000001

    Examines the relations between money, credit, and capital formation. Outlines problems of circulation, coinage, and preferences for credit over specie, especially in areas of significant economic growth. Archival sources demonstrate the emergence of the bill of exchange, network, and trust relations as a turning point in the English credit system.

  • Mann, B. H. Republic of Debtors: Bankruptcy in the Age of American Independence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

    A rich work on the evolution toward legislation favorable to debtors and the measures aimed at enhancing the security of credit and motivating risk taking. The entirety was grounded in recurring debates on the nature of insolvency: moral fault or economic failure.

  • Muldrew, Craig. The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-26879-5

    A stimulating work, at odds with the dominant vision of the beginnings of capitalism, based on multiple printed and archival sources. Examines the relations between credit practices and their cultural significance at a time, in the absence of specie, credit—in the reputational sense—was “cultural currency.”

  • Nash, Robert C. “The Organization of Trade and Finance in the British Atlantic Economy, 1600–1830.” In The Atlantic Economy during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Organization, Operation, Practice, and Personnel. Edited by Peter A. Coclanis, 93–151. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

    Analyzes and compares the evolution in the roles of the various participants in the transatlantic trade to those of its sources of financing. If London maintained a central position, at the end the actors were not the same as those at the beginning: merchants had given way to industrialists and bankers.

  • Price, Jacob M. Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade: The View from the Chesapeake, 1770–1776. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674435025

    A pioneering study on the financing of the British tobacco trade. Examines in an extensive manner a wide variety of possible sources of financing in order to appreciate their respective contributions: merchant-firm capital, the issuance of “bonds,” bank loans and discounting, and finally commercial credit and the terms of payment agreed upon by intermediaries.

  • Price, Jacob M. “What Did Merchants Do? Reflections on British Overseas Trade, 1660–1790.” Journal of Economic History 49.2 (1989): 267–284.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022050700007920

    Demonstrates that the dynamism of international trade beyond England and Scotland can be explained in large part by the development of a wide variety of credit practices, by key institutional innovations with respect to commercial and financial affairs, and by the accumulated experience of thousands of firms.

  • Price, Jacob M. “Transaction Costs: A Note on Merchant Credit and the Organization of Private Trade.” In The Political Economy of Merchant Empires: State Power and World Trade, 1350–1750. Edited by James D. Tracy, 276–297. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511665288

    Analyzes merchant trade in terms of transaction costs, noting the low cost and flexibility of the correspondent system. Insightful presentation of trade arrangements in various sectors, accounting, and control systems, with rich examination of bills of exchange as a credit transfer instrument including the role of insurance in exchange operations.

  • Sheridan, Richard B. “The Commercial and Financial Organization of the British Slave Trade, 1750–1807.” Economic History Review 11.2 (1958): 249–263.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.1958.tb01639.x

    In-depth examination of the slave trade and dynamic relations between slave-trade merchants, planters, factors, and commission agents. Analyzes financial and commercial implications, especially the role of debt and the impact of British sugar prices on plantation profits and slave-trade organization in both the United Kingdom and the Caribbean.

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