Age of Invention: An Absent Atlantic

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I’ve become engrossed this week by a book written in 1638 by the merchant Lewes Roberts — The Marchant’s Mappe of Commerce. It is, in effect, a guide to how to be a merchant, and an extremely comprehensive one too. For every trading centre he could gather information about, Roberts noted the coins that were current, their exchange rates, and the precise weights and measures in use. He set down the various customs duties, down even to the precise bribes you’d be expected to pay to various officials. In Smyrna, for example, Roberts recommended you offer the local qadi some cloth and coney-skins for a vest, the qadi’s servant some English-made cloth, and their janissary guard a few gold coin.

Unusually for so many books of the period, Roberts was also careful to be accurate. He often noted whether his information came from personal experience, giving the dates of his time in a place, or whether it came second-hand. When he was unsure of details, he recommended consulting with better experts. And myths — like the rumour he heard that the Prophet Muhammad’s remains at Mecca were in an iron casket suspended from the ceiling by a gigantic diamond-like magnet called an adamant — were thoroughly busted. Given his accuracy and care, it’s no wonder that the book, in various revised editions, was in print for almost sixty years after his death. (He died just three years after publication.)

What’s most interesting about it to me, however, is Roberts’s single-minded view of English commerce. The entire world is viewed through the lens of opportunities for trade, taking note of the commodities and manufactures of every region, as well as their principal ports and emporia. A place’s antiquarian or religious tourist sites, which generally make up the bulk of so many other geographical works, are given (mercifully) short shrift. Indeed, because the book was not written with an international audience in mind, it also passes over many trades with which the English were not involved, or from which they were even excluded. It thus provides a remarkably detailed snapshot of what exactly English merchants were interested in and up to on the eve of civil war; and right at the tail end of a century of unprecedented growth in London’s population, itself seemingly led by its expansion of English commerce.

So, what did English merchants consider important? It’s especially illuminating about England’s trade in the Atlantic — or rather, the lack thereof.

Roberts spends remarkably little time on the Americas, which he refers to as the continents of Mexicana (North America) and Peruana (South America). Most of his mentions of English involvement are about which privateers had once raided which Spanish-owned colonies, and he gives especial attention to the seasonal fishing for cod off the coast of Newfoundland — a major export trade to the Mediterranean, and a source of employment to many English West Country farmers, who he refers to as being like otters for spending half their lives on land and the other half on sea.

But as for the recently-established English colonies on the mainland, which Roberts refers to collectively as Virginia, he writes barely a few sentences. Although he reproduces some of the propaganda about what is to be found there — no mention yet of tobacco by the way, with the list consisting largely of foodstuffs, forest products, tar, pitch, and a few ores — the entirety of New England is summarised only as a place “said to be” resorted to by religious dissenters. The island colonies on Barbados and Bermuda were also either too small or too recently established to merit much attention. To the worldly London merchant then, the New World was still peripheral — barely an afterthought, with the two continents meriting a mere 11 pages, versus Africa’s 45, Asia’s 108, and Europe’s 262.

The reason for this was that the English were excluded from trading directly with the New World by the Spanish. It was, as Roberts jealously put it, “shut up from the eyes of all strangers”. The Spanish were not only profiting from the continent’s mines of gold and silver, but he also complained of their monopoly over the export of European manufactures to its colonies there. It’s a striking foreshadowing of what was, in the eighteenth century, to become one of the most important features of the Atlantic economy — the market that the growing colonies would one day provide for British goods. Indeed, Roberts’s most common condemnation of the Spanish was for having killed so many natives, thereby extinguishing the major market that had already been there: “had not the sword of these bloodsuckers ended so many millions of lives in so short a time, trade might have seen a larger harvest”. The genocide had, in Roberts’s view, not only been horrific, but impoverished Europe too (he was similarly upset that the Spanish had slaughtered so many of the natives of the Bahamas, known for the “matchless beauty of their women”).

Moving to the other side of the Atlantic, to the western coast of Africa, it’s clear from Roberts’s descriptions that English trade with Morocco was not what it used to be. As I’ve written before, the Saadi empire based at Fez had once had a sort of mutually reinforcing, symbiotic relationship with England, both having had a common enemy in Spain. The English had in the late sixteenth century secretly sent the Saadis weapons, buying from them sugar, copper, and saltpetre — essential for gunpowder. The sultan had once even suggested to Elizabeth I that they invade Spain’s colonies in the New World together. But by Roberts’s time the region’s commerce had been wrecked by decades of civil war. One Moroccan coastal city, Salé, had even become a semi-independent pirate republic. English merchants, having once been a major presence in Fez, now avoided storing any goods or residing there, instead making “their ships their shops” and only unloading precisely whatever merchandise was actually sold. “Where peace and unity is wanting,” as Roberts sagely put it, “trade must decay”.

Further south, in the Gulf of Guinea (then called the “Genin and Benin” or “Ginney and Binney” coast), Roberts describes how the English trade there — buying gold, and selling cloth, weapons, and especially salt — was limited by competition with other Europeans. The Portuguese had long ago built forts along the coastline, which they could use as warehouses, keeping their goods safe from both locals and European competitors. But those same forts were used to prevent the English and Dutch from doing the same. The English thus had to anchor along the coast near the main trading centres, rather than being able to safely land or store anything ashore, which unfortunately also put them at the mercy of the few local brokers willing to come aboard and negotiate trades. This had not been too bad a problem when the English traders had been the only competitors with the Portuguese in the region in the mid-sixteenth century, as the regulation of their trade into official guild-like companies limited what they might do to undercut one another. But the arrival of competition from the Dutch had allowed the local brokers to start bidding up their fees to as high as 6-7%, as well as committing all sorts of alleged frauds “to the prejudice of all traders upon this coast.” By 1638, Roberts had heard of no great profits being made from the coastal trade by any of the Dutch, French, or English.

Things were on the cusp of change, however. Roberts noticed that, just the year before he published, the Dutch had seized a fort of their own from the Portuguese at Elmina, in present-day Ghana. It was their route into capturing a share of the sugar trade, which Roberts thought hardly worth mentioning because the Portuguese controlled its coastal production so tightly. In this, he would largely be proved right, at least with respect to sugar made in Africa. But what he failed to foresee was the eventual English involvement in trading slaves, which just a few decades after his publishing would begin to emerge.

Roberts’s only mention of any transatlantic slave trade was when discussing the Portuguese relationship with the Kingdom of Kongo — something he seems to have known very little about. Roberts’s ignorance was understandable given the English at that stage had only traded to any great extent in the Gulf of Guinea, where the Portuguese largely bought only sugar and gold. The Portuguese policy in the Gulf was to not buy slaves there in case the demand interfered with the supply of those both working the mines further inland and carrying the gold to the coast (I expect this extended to those who worked their sugar plantations in Africa too). Indeed, Roberts’s only mention of slaves in the region was a throwaway remark about the local owners of enslaved carriers of gold being defrauded by the aforementioned brokers who traded with Dutch and English ships. Otherwise, the Portuguese monopoly on the African slave trade was so total that he seems to have assumed that they must have actually conquered Kongo, rather than buying from certain local rulers, in order to take so many tens of thousands of people overseas. It didn’t even cross his mind that the English might be able to become involved. (The only English involvement in the slave trade to that point, that I know of, was when almost 70 years earlier John Hawkins had briefly attempted to muscle in on the Portuguese trade in three raiding-and-trading voyages in the 1560s — an attempt that had been cut short by the Spanish destroying his fleet.)

So the Atlantic trades that would become so famous, and infamous, were in 1638 still to come. Other than the cod of Newfoundland’s coast, which was fished almost as an extension of England’s, the English received the goods of the Americas by buying them indirectly in Portugal and Spain. Its older Atlantic imports, of Moroccan sugar and Guinean gold, were otherwise apparently in decline. As for England’s far more important Asian and European trades, which feature so much more prominently in Roberts’s work, those will have to be for another time.

P.S. Paying subscribers to this newsletter get another, more regular “behind-the-scenes” kind of post every other week. Last week’s was on the changing labels innovators have used to refer to themselves, from projectors and improvers, through to hackers and makers. The one before was on the return of serfdom to the Baltic, and why it’s surprising that this did not also happen in England. And the one before was on how we get almost everything wrong about the enclosure movement. (Students, and others on low incomes — whom Dr Johnson affectionately called garret-dwelling scribblers — can become subscribers at a discount here.)

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