This chapter explores using primary sources to write histories of trade and commerce in the early modern period. There are a wide range of topics that fall under this remit, including investigations into commercial exchange, trade, merchant communities, the operations of business, and the development of nations’ economies. Investigations into these topics might fall under the umbrella of economic history, economic and social history, commercial history, or business history. There are also elements of political and cultural history that contribute to these studies. Given this breadth, it will be no surprise that there is a wide range of relevant primary source material and a number of approaches that can be used successfully to investigate early modern trade and commerce, and a number of these are discussed here. It is important to remember that neither the sources nor the approaches outlined in this chapter are exhaustive.
There are two scales along which approaches to these histories might fall. One is the scale between quantitative and qualitative approaches; another is between macro- and micro-historical approaches. Quantitative approaches prioritise evidence that can be enumerated or measured – calculations of the amount of goods transported through ports, for example, or of the rate of customs duties charged on certain goods. A quantitative approach might attempt to extrapolate data from primary source material and use this data to present quantifiable evidence of trends or patterns. By comparison, qualitative approaches prioritise evidence that tell us stories of the people involved in trade and commerce – using evidence from correspondence between merchants, journals, or travel diaries. This evidence tends not to be quantifiable, but can offer alternative insights into the ways in which commerce was undertaken in the early modern world. Macro-historical approaches consider trade and commerce within broad national, often political, frameworks; examinations of diplomatic relations, war, peace treaties, or economic policies frequently form the backdrop to these investigations. Micro-historical approaches concentrate on local activities of specific networks of people – focusing on a particular port city, for example, or on a discrete group of commercial agents. Although there are distinct differences in these approaches – and all of them have both merits and drawbacks – the most balanced studies will find a middle ground, drawing on both quantitative and qualitative sources, and on both macro- and micro-historical approaches. A study that encompasses a broad range of the types of sources discussed below is likely to yield the strongest results.
The sources and approaches discussed here are concerned specifically with the early modern period. Many of the issues raised, however, are applicable to students studying similar topics in other time periods. Similarly, the examples used here are British, but the techniques and approaches outlined have been used successfully in other contexts. Students interested in broader aspects of business history, especially in the modern period, might like also to read the chapter in this textbook contributed by Graeme J. Milne.
As explained above, histories of trade and commerce are diverse. However, this diversity is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditionally, studies of trade and commerce have had two key attributes. The first is the situation of trade within broad international political contexts. Macro-historical analyses have viewed commercial relationships through the lens of official legislation and actions of governments, with international political relationships, international diplomacy, and domestic economic agendas at their core. The second common attribute is quantitative analysis, including attempts to calculate volumes of trade (assessing the types and amount of goods moved between different ports). Examples of primary source material used to pursue these analyses include legislation and port records, both of which are examined below.
Quantitative approaches can be effective in providing an overview of commercial exchange, economic development and international trade routes (Rössner, 2008; Smout, 1969). Recently, though, scholars have adopted a broader range of methodologies that have allowed for nuancing of general conclusions. Henriette de Bruyn Kops notes that ‘the scarcity of reliable statistics ... make the macro-economic implications of the trade the most difficult ones to assess’ (de Bruyn Kops, 2007). Indeed, quantifying early modern trade and commerce is extremely problematic, and we will look at the issue of reliable data later in this chapter. Crucially, though, much of the activity that contributed to international commerce and economic development took place beyond the gaze of port officials. Use of ‘official’ records including port books has encouraged an emphasis on commodities that were exchanged in bulk and which travelled through official trading ports (for example, the British kingdoms’ trade in wine from Bordeaux, salt from La Rochelle, or timber from Bergen), but many smaller, valuable items were exchanged through private channels. In addition, illegal activities, including smuggling, have left little trace for historians, but may account for a great deal of economic exchange. Use of ‘official’ records encourages a bilateral approach, examining trade between two ports and thus between two nations. This can provide skewed interpretations regarding the strength of particular trade routes. Rather than only being exchanged along linear lines, goods were later re-shipped, sold on by those who imported them, carried over land to alternative destinations, or re-exported. Moreover, a macro-historical approach does not allow for local or regional comparisons. Trading patterns differ between different ports, and these were directed not solely by government legislation, but were largely dictated by the local social and cultural contexts within which merchants and other commercial agents operated; thus, micro-historical approaches can dramatically alter our perception of international commerce.
Recent methodologies have begun to prioritise private records, including merchants’ correspondence, account books, and letter-books, in order to identify elements of exchange missing from ‘official’ source material (Barclay and Talbott, 2011). A number of scholars, including myself, have demonstrated the value of micro-level, qualitative approaches that place the actions of the commercial agents who were directly involved in business – the merchants, ships’ masters, manufacturers, and consumers – at the heart of commercial histories. The source material at the core of these approaches includes merchants’ letter-books, correspondence, and journals, an example of which is examined below. Application of what might be thought of as social history methodologies to traditionally economic topics has enhanced, and in places fundamentally altered, our understanding of key historical trading relationships in the early modern period, including those between Liverpool and Philadelphia (Haggerty, 2006), France and the Dutch Republic (de Bruyn Kops, 2007), France and Scotland (Talbott, 2014), and across the British and Spanish Atlantic worlds (Haggerty, 2012; Lamikiz, 2010). Of course, there are elements of trade and commerce that cannot be gleaned from qualitative material alone, and it is my assertion that a combination of all of these approaches yields the most well-rounded studies.
Although qualitative approaches, by their nature, tend not to yield hard data, new approaches to qualitative source material are demonstrating ways in which it might be quantified. Visual Analytics and Social Network Analysis (SNA) are allowing scholars to map commercial networks and to visually trace relationships between people involved in trade. An excellent example of this type of research can be found in the work of John Haggerty and Sheryllynne Haggerty (2010). Their work has shown that studies of commercial networks (i.e. a group of connected people involved in trade) can be significantly enhanced by studying not only the actors within them, but also the relationships between these actors. This is perhaps the most significant recent development in scholars’ analysis of early modern trade and commerce, and one that is transformative for the discipline.
As methodologies develop in what is an ever-changing field, a broader range of source material is being utilised, and being used in different ways. The approaches and sources discussed in this chapter should not be read as exhaustive. It is my firm contention that none of these approaches should be used in isolation, but should be used in conjunction with each other to provide well-rounded commercial histories. In the rest of this chapter, I will use a number of examples of primary source material to demonstrate how these histories can be written in practice, suggesting ways in which you might like to consider answering or developing research questions in your own work.
Selecting and interpreting sources
This section focuses on three broad categories of primary source that are used by historians of early modern trade and commerce. It outlines the range of material available in each category, and discusses issues relating to the selection and use of these sources. These categories should be seen as fluid rather than prescriptive. The type of source you choose will depend on the type of research questions you are seeking to answer, and much of the most effective work makes use of a range and comparison of different types of source material. Use of one type does not exclude use of another in the same piece of work, and some source material can fit within more than one of the categories suggested below.
One type of document frequently used by scholars of trade and commerce are records from ports. A variety of records were kept by officials that detailed the movement of ships, the commodities brought in and taken out of ports, and duties paid. A number of sources might fall into this category, including customs books and docket books, which detailed the customs and excise paid in ports; records of particular bulk commodities, including bullion accounts or wine accounts; or records of licences granted to merchants to permit them to trade. There are two types of port record that will be considered in this chapter. The first are records of ‘entries’, which are records of ships entering and leaving ports. The second are bills of lading, a document that acted as a contract for carrying goods.
There are a number of ways in which port records can be used to assess trading patterns. Records of entries include a variety of information, including the origin or destination of ships; the name of the ship; the Master of the ship; the name of the merchant for whom the voyage was undertaken; the types of commodities carried; and the amount of each commodity on board. Bills of lading contain similar information, in the form of a contract for the carrying of certain goods. These also note who was responsible for paying the ‘freight’ (the cost of transporting the goods). Both of these types of source can suggest several things to historians. Port books might allow us to gauge how busy ports were, by looking at how many ships entered or departed between given dates. Both of these documents allow us to look for trading patterns – whether some routes were favoured more than others, or whether certain types of commodities were favoured in particular ports.
Port books and bills of lading can be thought of as quantitative sources. Historians might use them to attempt to quantify volumes of trade – for example, by calculating numbers of ships, the capacity of ships (measured in tons), or the amounts of commodities being traded. Further, both are ‘official’ sources. Port books were completed by port officials, on behalf of the monarch or government; bills of lading acted as formal contracts. Their ‘official’ status can lead to these types of sources being over-privileged by historians, but there are a number of issues that you must be aware of.
As with many sources from the early modern period, survival rates vary. More port books or bills of lading exist for some ports than for others, and series of records that do survive are frequently incomplete. It is common to find significant gaps even in relatively well-preserved series of documents. This can make comparisons between different ports difficult, and tracking activity over time, even in a single port, impossible. Further, the records that do survive do not always contain uniform information, even within the same series of records. The information given can differ from year to year, month to month, or even entry to entry. Some port books or bills of lading might list the types of commodities but not include the amounts. Some might indicate a ship’s capacity, but not detail the types of commodity being carried. As we will see in the next section, bills of lading are more formulaic than port books. This has meant that, where they survive, bills of lading are arguably better suited to trying to amass data, as the information contained within them was more consistent. However, it is less common that enough bills of lading survive from the same port to be able to pursue this type of quantification. While it is obvious where there are gaps in series of port books, bills of lading are much more ephemeral, meaning that although individual bills survive, and there are occasional ‘sets’ of bills of lading from a particular port, usually we do not know how complete these records are.
In addition, it is not possible to know whether the information contained within port records was accurate. There were times when, due to economic policies or warfare, trade between certain ports or trade in certain goods was prohibited. During these times, some merchants would use a variety of methods to try to continue their business. Some would declare that their ship originated from a different port; others might falsify their ship’s papers, including bills of lading. Port officials might be bribed to record different commodities, to allow contraband through the port. We know that these activities took place, but there is no way of knowing the scale, or which entries or bills of lading might have been falsified. As with all historical sources, the information contained within these documents must be treated with some caution. Although both port records and bills of lading are very valuable documents, and might be useful as quantitative sources, it can be very difficult to do more with them than to suggest broad, general trends. Compiling specific, accurate data from these records can be extremely problematic.
Another type of ‘official’ document that might be used by historians is legislation. There are a wide variety of types of legislation relevant to studies of early modern trade and commerce. They include Acts of Parliament that affected economic policies or trade laws; declarations of war, which often included clauses banning the movement of people and goods between enemy nations; prohibitions issued during conflicts; and laws regarding taxation, customs and excise.
Legislation can be very helpful to historians in offering an insight into how governments or monarchies attempted to impose control on trade and commerce. This is particularly important given the prevalence of what historians have termed ‘mercantilist’ theories in this period. Although remaining the subject of much scholarly debate, this term describes the early modern belief that governmental regulation of a state’s economic activity increased wealth and power at the expense of other nations. ‘Protectionist’ policies were imposed that sought to reduce the export of raw material and increase the export of manufactured goods. By looking at legislation, we might be able to identify ‘protectionist’ policies, and assess the ways in which such policies impacted on merchants’ activities (see Stern and Wennerlind, 2013).
Legislation allows historians to place the conclusions that they reach through using official port records, like the ones explored above, in a legal context. Once port records have allowed you to gauge the patterns of trade that existed, legislation can help you to assess the reasons why trade developed as it did. For example, if there is a period when no trade passed between two ports, you might look to see if there had been prohibitive legislation issued that closed trade between these ports. This was most common during periods of international warfare.
Legislation can be very useful for contextualising commercial or business activities. Again, however, there are limitations. Legislation is ‘official’ material, by definition something imposed ‘from above’. However, there were ways in which the commercial agents affected by these types of legislation acted to try to influence it. This was achieved through petitioning representative bodies including Parliament or the Privy Council, as well as through direct involvement in policy-making, for example sitting on Councils of Trade. Although not explored in this chapter, sources including petitions can help us to see how merchants tried to influence legislation. Further, there are things that legislation cannot tell us. Although legislation indicates what governments tried to do, and the type of legislation that was imposed at certain times, the legislation itself tells us nothing about how successfully it was implemented. To be most effective, legislation must be used in conjunction with other material, including the port records already discussed, to gauge its effectiveness. Beware of drawing conclusions about the impact of legislation without wider investigation – an example of the dangers of doing so can be found below.
Private merchant records
In order to examine how effectively legislation was implemented, or the impact that it had on trade and commerce, a valuable type of source material are private records kept by commercial agents. These are ‘unofficial’ documents, and can be very useful in supplementing port records and legislation, because they demonstrate how commercial agents behaved. This might help us to see how commercial legislation impacted on merchants, or whether the patterns of trade evident in port books are an accurate reflection of the activities pursued by merchants themselves. Sources that fall into this category include merchants’ journals, correspondence, travel diaries, shipping diaries, and account books. In the following section, I consider an example of merchant correspondence in detail.
As well as being unofficial, these documents are qualitative. Usually, these types of documents are not used to provide hard data (though private account books might be used in this way on a micro-level). Instead, they are used to gain an insight into the actions of individuals. They might be used to examine personal relationships, or to assess the ways in which a particular merchant responded to a crisis. Private records can be very useful in supplementing information gleaned from the types of records outlined above. For example, if trade is banned between certain ports, merchants might converse about this, discussing the actions taken either to flout the ban or to find another means of going about their business.
Private records allow for micro-historical investigation of commercial history, rather than the macro-historical perspective offered by national legislation. The stories that are told by these records relate to individuals, or to small groups of commercial agents operating in very specific contexts. This can be very useful to historians, and I have argued in my own work that we learn a great deal about how and why trading patterns developed through examination of the local contexts within which they emerged, whereas national perspectives can be too broad (Talbott, 2014). However, the narrow focus of these records can pose some problems that you need to be aware of when using them.
Again, survival rates can be low. It is not possible to ‘locate’ these types of records for particular ports at particular times – you are very reliant on good luck! For example, if you had some shipping information from Bristol, and wanted to look at a merchant’s private records to supplement it, you may not be able to find anything. Rates of survival present an additional problem – it is impossible to know how representative source material is. We do not know whether the actions of the merchants whose records have survived were mirrored by others; were the methods they used to trade representative of merchants as a whole, or were they in some way unique? Did context impact on merchants’ methods – were some ways of trading more suitable in specific locations? There might be a reason for survival: the records of a merchant who is a member of a particularly wealthy or influential family are perhaps more likely to have been preserved, as the family’s papers are more likely to have survived. This can weight evidence unevenly towards the upper echelons of both the merchant classes and of society itself, as wealthy, well-to-do families employed successful and established merchants to trade in high-ticket items. It is much less common to find evidence of the exchange of goods among the lower strata of society. Using these types of sources to make broad, sweeping statements about how merchants operated is therefore very problematic. They can only be used effectively to draw conclusions about the specific merchant or merchant group that they are concerned with, although extensive use of them might allow you to speculate on broader trends.
Despite their shortcomings, private, qualitative records are increasingly recognised as crucial for commercial historians, as they illuminate the practical ways in which trade was conducted. They allow historians to speculate on the accuracy or effectiveness of official records like port books, bills of lading, and legislation. It can be tempting to privilege official records for two reasons: one, because they are records of governments, and two, because they ostensibly contain quantifiable data. However, in many recent studies, the use of merchants’ records has been proven to offer a more nuanced view of trade and commerce, particularly when used alongside official, quantitative records. Some of these examples are cited above.
A variety of primary source materials can be very useful to historians of early modern trade and commerce, but they all have particular pitfalls that must be taken into account when considering using them. This section offers practical advice on how the types of sources discussed above can be used to support arguments or to develop research questions.
Three examples of port books are shown in the resources section accompanying this chapter. The first [A] is an Entry Book from the port of Kirkcaldy, in Fife, showing both imports and exports, dating from 1665–66. The second [B], from the same port, is an Entry Book showing exports from Kirkcaldy in 1690–91. The third [C] is a later example, showing exports from the port of Chester in 1754–55. Although these sources are from different ports and different time periods, the ways in which they might be approached are similar. You will see from these examples that over time, port books become more recognisable as modern-day accounts. The example from 1665–66 contains a short paragraph for each entry/exit, whereas the example from 1690–91 is presented more like a modern-day account, and by the mid-eighteenth century, port books are organised into tables.
Here, I will consider one of these in detail: the Entry Book from Kirkcaldy from 1665–66 [A] There are two images available from this book: one showing imports on 13 July 1666; one showing exports on 3 March 1666. This volume shows both imports and exports (many entry books show only one or the other), with the imports recorded from the front of the volume and the exports from the rear. On the page of imports five entries are recorded. You can see that these entries include information on the merchant for whom the goods were being entered, the type and volume of commodities, and the master of the ship on which they were loaded. For example, the first entry tells us that on 13 July 1666, John Brown, a merchant in Edinburgh, entered ten boxes and a barrel of ‘apothecary ware’, which were brought from London into the port of Burntisland in Fife, carried by John Boswell in his ship. It is noted that Brown takes the responsibility for ensuring that the correct customs duties are paid on these goods.
The bill of lading [D] is from the early eighteenth century – it is dated at Bristol, 22 March 1719. This, like many bills of lading from the seventeenth century onwards, is a printed form that has been completed by hand. There are several pieces of information that can be gleaned from this document. First, we know that the bill of lading is for a shipment being sent by Noblet Ruddock, in a ship named Union Sloope, of which Captain Samuel Parker is the Master. We are told that the Union Sloope was ‘riding at anchor’ in Bristol – this means that the ship was anchored in this port, where it was being loaded – and that it was destined for the port of Cork in Ireland. We can also see that the consignment was intended to be delivered to Mr James Webb. The consignment was made up of three hogsheads of wrought iron, one basket of leather, twenty bundles of sickles, and two bundles of saws. An addition of one bag of nails has been crossed out. James Webb has agreed to pay freight charges totalling £1 7 0 (1 pound, 7 shillings, and 0 pence).
All of this information can be useful to historians. It allows us to see the types of commodities that are passing between certain ports, and how much freight is being paid for their passage. We are given names of ships, masters, and merchants, which might reoccur in other bills of lading or in port books, allowing us to piece together a string of activities (although this can be difficult given the problems with survival rates noted above). The bill of lading contains a drawing of a merchant’s mark in the margin – you can see that ‘IW’ (‘JW’) has been drawn, which we can infer is the mark used by James Webb. These marks were included on consignments (marked on barrels or baskets) to denote the merchant to whom they should be delivered. One reason that merchants’ marks were necessary was because ships’ consignments were made up of a number of different, smaller consignments of goods. It was common for merchants to spread the goods they traded in across a number of different vessels. In an age when marine insurance was still limited (if expanding), this was a way of merchants protecting their investment. If all of your goods are on one ship and the ship sinks or is captured, you lose everything, but if you spread your investment across multiple ships, there is more chance of the majority of your goods arriving safely. This is termed ‘diversification of risk’ (de Bruyn Kops, 2007; Haggerty, 2012). Merchants’ marks identified to whom these small consignments legally belonged.
These documents can give us a range of information, but there are things that they cannot tell us. The Entry Books do not tell us what happened to these goods after their arrival or prior to their departure. We might go through the books systematically, and try to quantify volumes of trade or spot trading patterns, but we do not know whether the information contained here is accurate or complete. We do not know where else the ship might have stopped, or might stop, on its voyage. It is not clear whether these merchants specialised in these commodities – although if they occur again in this Entry Book or in others, we might be able to build a bigger picture of their activities. We do not know what other goods were contained in these ships’ cargoes. This is also true of the bill of lading. We know that this is only part of a ship’s cargo – we do not know what else the Union Sloope carried on this voyage. We might not be able to find out anything more about Noblet Ruddock or James Webb, or about the Union Sloope, at all. We do not know whether this particular consignment contained the kinds of goods that Webb usually traded in, or whether these goods were frequently moved between Bristol and Cork; we would need additional source material to see whether this was common. Finally, the bill of lading represents a contractual agreement for the movement of these goods, but the bill itself does not tell us whether the goods arrived safely at their destination; all we know is that they were shipped. Entry books and bills of lading can be very useful documents, but they also have limitations.
Sources [E] and [F] are examples of legislation taken from the Acts of the Parliament of Scotland. Both are examples of prohibitive legislation. One, from 23 April 1689, is ‘ane embargo on all ships’; the other, from 31 January 1701, is an ‘Act forbidding wine, brandy and all other liquors made in France’ from being imported into Scotland. It is important that we establish the context within which these pieces of legislation were passed. The first was passed just following the Glorious Revolution in Britain, at the beginning of the Nine Years’ War with France (1688–97); the second just prior to the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13), in which Britain was again at war with France. Knowing this context is important – we cannot tell from the legislation itself how or why these policies were adopted.
Both of these sources illustrate the type of legislation that might have had an effect on trade and commerce in the early modern period. The 1689 embargo [E] states that ‘an embargo [is] laid on all ships and barks within this kingdom … no ships or barks aforesaid be allowed to sail abroad until they first find caution … that they shall not go to France or Ireland’. This order is explicit in preventing ships travelling from Scotland to either France or Ireland. You might, understandably, conclude that this was due to the outbreak of the Nine Years’ War with France in 1688, and to tensions with Ireland during the Williamite Wars (1688–91). The 1701 act [F] states that parliament ‘strictly prohibits and forbids the importation of all French wines, brandy and other strong waters and vinegars made in France’, emphasising the punishments that await transgressors. In this case, you might cite the tensions surrounding the Spanish Succession as the primary motivating factor.
You must, however, exercise caution when examining legislation. These types of official, governmental documents have, I would argue, been over-privileged by historians, with conclusions being drawn from them that do not reflect realities of trading activity. Both [E] and [F] show restrictions on movement of ships and on trading in certain commodities, and such prohibitions have been taken as indicative of a desire to damage fundamentally an enemy’s trade, as well as taken as evidence that trade was negatively impacted by war. However, we must consider both motivations for and practical applications of this legislation in a much more nuanced way. Motivations for implementing economic legislation were complex. As discussed above, the prevalence of ‘mercantilist’ theories, and resulting ‘protectionist’ policies, had a huge impact on the economic policies of governments. Even during times of war, motivations were far more complex than a desire to cause damage to an enemy’s commerce. Destroying trade with an enemy was also counter-productive, as early modern economies were linked together and thus dependent on each other (de Bruyn Kops, 2007). Further, there were domestic motivations stemming from desires to regulate or to develop the domestic economy. The fact that these pieces of legislation were passed during wartime does not necessarily mean that this was the only motivating factor. Importantly, the fact that prohibitions and restrictions were laid must not be taken as evidence that this legislation was upheld or adhered to. In this case, we now know that Franco-Scottish trade continued during these two conflicts, despite legislation such as this being passed (Talbott, 2014). In order to understand the consequences of legislation, historians must look closely at the realities of trade following the implementation of Acts or Orders like these. This might be done by looking at the port records discussed above, though arguably even more can be gleaned by examining merchants’ private correspondence, to which I now turn.
The letter [G] is taken from an out-letter book of a merchant named Thomas Baret, who was based in Norwich in the mid-late seventeenth century. An out-letter book is a collection of letters sent by merchants, copied into a volume that they kept for their own reference. You might think of it as being like a ‘sent-mail’ email folder! This volume contains 256 pages of letters, which span a five-year period between 1672 and 1677.
The letter-book coincides with the Third Anglo-Dutch War, a war between England and the Netherlands that was fought between 1672 and 1674. It also coincides with the Franco-Dutch War, a linked conflict fought between 1672 and 1678. Although the causes and consequences of these conflicts are the topic of vociferous debate, it is common to think of them as wars fought over control of commerce – a result of the mercantilism framework outlined above (see Jones, 1996). This manuscript is historically significant for a number of reasons. First, use of this type of source material contributes to emerging methodologies used by historians to write commercial and business histories, as discussed above. Second, because the letters contained within this letter-book were written during a period of war, it can help us to investigate the impact of these conflicts on merchant activity. Finally, it can contribute to micro-level studies, for example being used to elucidate Norwich’s overseas trading networks and local business economies in this period.
The letter [G] was written by Baret to a business associate named Rowland Cockey, another Norwich merchant based in Amsterdam. Although only the initials of the recipient are included here, Cockey was a frequent associate of Baret, appearing throughout this letter-book, and we can deduce that Cockey was the recipient of this letter. As with any document, it is important to date this letter accurately. Baret was diligent about recording dates, but you might notice that the date at the top of this letter looks a little odd – it has been written as ‘10 February 1672/3’. It is important to know, when using any early modern document, that between 1582 and c. 1752 two different calendars were in use in Europe. In the ‘old style’, the year began in England and Wales on 25 March, but from 1582 this began to change to ‘new style’, when the year began on 1 January. The way that the date is rendered here is called ‘double dating’, or ‘dual dating’, and indicates that the date is 10 February 1672 OS (‘old style’) or 10 February 1673 NS (‘new style’). In the first line of the letter you can see that Baret refers to a previous letter sent to him ‘the 3rd instant S.N.’ – meaning the 3rd of the current month (February), new style (1673).
In this letter, Baret wrote of problems that he faced due to the war with the Netherlands, where much of Baret’s business took place. He wrote in response to Cockey’s ‘apprehentions of safety in Amsterdam’ of his belief that ‘there can be noe long safety in that place unless the discource of peace’. As a result of this uncertainty, Baret asked Cockey to send ‘all my goods to your correspondent Mr William Fitts at Oostend’. This letter can therefore indicate one way in which warfare impacted on merchants’ business, and how they might have dealt with resulting upheaval. This letter is also useful for demonstrating the methods by which Baret conducted his business. In telling Cockey to send his goods to Fitts, he noted that ‘I request you would not adventure above £2: or £300 vallue in one bottum [one ship] unless you see safety in the conveyance and good convoy’. Baret's letter demonstrates here the ‘diversification of risk’ discussed above – he restricted the amount of goods that should be sent in one ship, in order to protect his assets. We can also see that there were general problems encountered in communicating via letter in the early modern period. Baret took the time here, as he did at the beginning of every letter in the volume, to assure Cockey that his previous letter had been received. He noted his concern that a letter sent to Cockey on 17 January might not have arrived. It was essential for both Baret and Cockey to ensure that they were working from the same information and were not speaking at cross-purposes.
This letter, along with the others in this volume, might help us to begin to map the network in which Baret operated. Just from this letter alone, we know that Baret was in Norwich, that he was writing to Cockey in Amsterdam, and that he had contacts in Oostend, Yarmouth, Hamburg and London, with men including Fitts, along with Mr Jacomo Lemo and Mr William Wilkinson. Personal, as well as business relationships, are illuminated – Baret told Cockey that his daughter Lidia was ‘very well and chearly’, and reported that he had told Cockey’s father that his son was well. We learn in this letter that Baret was married. These are the kinds of source material that are being used by scholars interested in Visual Analytics and SNA, as discussed above; by bringing together information on who Baret was writing to, it is possible to begin to ‘map’ his network.
There are a number of things, however, that this letter, even in conjunction with the rest of Baret’s letter-book, cannot tell us. An out-letter book can be useful because it contains a series of letters, but these can be isolated sources, often read by historians on their own with no further context. Through a letter-book, we can track the activities of Baret over a number of years. However, we do not have the incoming letters, so are seeing only one side of this correspondence – although in places it is possible to glean incoming information from Baret’s responses. Some of the individuals that Baret wrote to, he wrote to only once – unlike Cockey, who was a frequent correspondent. We may find no further evidence anywhere of the business of these people. Caution must be exercised when material like this is used in Visual Analytics or SNA, as explored above. Mapping Baret’s network from this source alone might be problematic. As this letter-book belonged to Baret, he is involved in every relationship, placing him at the heart of the network, but we cannot see relationships beyond his personal involvement. Thus, while SNA might provide a map with Baret at the centre, this might not be an accurate picture of the formation of the network in which he was involved. He might, in fact, have been a relatively minor player, but we cannot tell this from this source alone. Letters like Baret’s, and the larger collection of letters from which it is taken, can be invaluable in investigations of early modern trade and commerce, but like all of the sources examined in this chapter, they have their limitations.
The range of sources that may be used by historians of trade and commerce in the early modern period is vast. Although in traditional economic histories the focus has tended to be on quantitative, official documentation, it is becoming more common for historians to recognise the benefit of supplementing these kinds of sources with qualitative, private sources. It is my own belief that an approach that integrates aspects of all of these methods gives the most balanced view of commercial activity. Further, historians are becoming more aware of the benefit of using various forms of computer software to map their source material, and to draw conclusions from this. There is no one ‘right way’ to write early modern histories of trade and commerce; the approach that you take and the sources that you use will depend heavily on your own research questions. There are also many sources available that I have not been able to include in this chapter. I hope, though, that this has given you an insight into potential starting points for your own forays into this lively and ever-developing field of history.
Barclay, K. and Talbott, S., 2011. New perspectives on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scotland. Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, 31(1), pp.119–33.
de Bruyn Kops, H., 2007. A spirited exchange: the wine and brandy trade between France and the Dutch Republic in its Atlantic framework, 1600–1650. Leiden: Brill.
Haggerty, J. and Haggerty, S., 2010. Visual analytics of an eighteenth-century business network. Enterprise and Society, 11(1), pp.1–25.
Haggerty, S., 2006. The British–Atlantic trading community, 1760–1810: men, women and the distribution of goods. Leiden: Brill.
Haggerty, S., 2012. ‘Merely for money’? Business culture in the British Atlantic, 1750–1815. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Jones, J., 1996. The Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century. London: Longman.
Lamikiz, X., 2010. Trade and trust in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world: Spanish merchants and their overseas networks. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer.
Rössner, P., 2008. Scottish trade in the wake of union (1700–1760). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
Smout, T.C., 1963. Scottish trade on the eve of union, 1660–1707. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.
Stern, P. and Wennerlind, C., eds, 2013. Mercantilism reimagined: political economy in early modern Britain and its empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Talbott, S., 2014. Conflict, commerce and Franco-Scottish relations, 1560–1713. London: Pickering and Chatto.