Merchants and Commodity Trade, 1800-1850
Peter Maw (University of Leeds)
This paper will consider the major changes taking place in the organisation of Britain’s textile export trade in the first fifty years of the nineteenth century. Historians writing on this subject have produced contradictory accounts of the place of the British and foreign merchants in handling the major increase in textile exports generated by the industrial revolution. Some historians (Buck, 1925, Hudson 1986, Nash 2005) have emphasised the slow dismantling of the eighteenth-century mercantile system in this period, highlighting the more active role played by manufacturers in extending the frontiers of Britain’s world trade, while others (Chapman 1992, Nicholas 2002, Farnie 2004) have posited a revitalisation of an established merchant order and even hypothesised a link between early nineteenth-century merchant businesses and the development of modern corporations. This paper aims to assess historiography by analysing both the different methods used by historians to analyse mercantile activity and the different strategies pursued by contemporary export firms in British industrial towns and ports. It will argue that the roles played by merchants varied by export market. In the established trades to western Europe and North America, the scale and scope of trade promoted specialisation reducing the part played by traditional (general) merchant elites, while in the rapidly increasing trade to less-developed world markets (above all in Asia and Latin America) merchants remained the key intermediaries linking British producers and foreign consumers.