Between 1550 and 1650, the output of English trade grew fourfold at a time when the population of the country only doubled. It was, argues Edmond Smith in this excellent new book, a development that presaged the rise of a ‘global’ Britain and it depended on the skills, efforts and expertise of that band of businessmen who made up England’s merchant community.
As Smith shows, with no little dexterity himself, these merchants lived in an elaborate world of training and sociability, operating according to codes of conduct and participating in corporate bodies such as trading and livery companies to which entry was strictly controlled. They learned foreign languages, conquered the mysteries of accounting and developed complex business practices that allowed them to maintain remarkably effective trading networks, stretching from Russia to the Far East, Virginia to Melaka. They possessed their own professional identity and lived in close-knit communities centred on England’s maritime towns, especially the City of London. It was they, rather than the infamous sea dogs of Elizabethan legend and certainly rather than the government, who laid the sinews of the trading networks that would flourish after the 1650s. Indeed, rather more troublingly, it was the structures and practices developed by merchants before 1650 that laid the groundwork for colonialism and the slave trade.
Merchants is a fine book, full of humanity and insight. The reader is lavished with anecdotes and stories, some of which are exquisitely funny. There is the case of the livery company that suffered a spate of napkin thefts and concluded (incorrectly) that the butler did it. And