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The Oxford Handbook of the Ancien Rgime

William Doyle

Print publication date: Sep 2012


Print ISBN-13: 9780199291205
Published to Oxford Handbooks Online: Sep-12
Subject: History, Economic History
DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199291205.001.0001

Commerce
Silvia Marzagalli

DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199291205.013.0015

Abstract and Keywords


Although in the course of the eighteenth century there emerged in several
European countries a desire to set the economy and trade free, in the French
case it took the Revolution to sweep away a whole range of restrictions which
weighed upon the circulation of goods. Even so, the gradual ending of the
commercial system which had underpinned the prosperity of European ports
under the Ancien Rgime was also, in fact primarily, the consequence of
structural changes in the European economy and in the apparatus of colonial
domination in America. This article does not offer a complete picture of trade
under the Ancien Rgime, but rather attempts to bring out the distinctive
characteristics which would disappear between the end of the eighteenth
century and the middle of the nineteenth with the arrival of more modern
systems of exchange.
commercial system, goods circulation, Ancien Rgime, trade, systems of exchange,
European ports

Introduction
In the course of the fifteenth century, Iberian navigators transformed
Europe's knowledge of the world and opened new maritime trade routes.
From the beginning of the sixteenth century, the mental and commercial
horizons of Europeans successively opened up to the coasts of Africa, trading
posts in India and Asia, and the unknown lands to be called henceforth the
New World. The colonists and states who claimed them slowly began to
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exploit them and their products, and to build commercial networks around
them, to the point where, by the eighteenth century, transatlantic trade
became an integral feature of the economies and societies of countries with
Atlantic coastlines. Whilst the trade of the Mediterranean and the Baltic did
not disappear, and indeed did well out of international demand and supply,
they now appeared subordinate to the fortunes of Atlantic commerce.1
Over the three centuries between the European discovery of the Americas,
and the French and Haitian revolutions, not to say the independence of all
the Americas, the Atlantic became a pivotal area, linking three continents
together and also enabling Europeans to reach directly by sea the wealth of
the Asiatic world. This proto-globalization, as Franois Crouzet has called
it,2 affected the lives of a substantial number of those inhabiting these
continents and led states to formulate new commercial and colonial policies.
There is lively disagreement about the scale of this steady integration of
markets,3 but it is beyond doubt that the process boosted European trade, as
well as certain sectors of agriculture and industry. The most extensive trade
of the Ancien Rgime was seaborne, and took place around the Atlantic.
Though better and better known, tamed, and controlled, nevertheless
Asian and American lands remained remote both in space and time from
the Europeans who took most of the economic and commercial decisions
affecting trade with them. The character of international commerce under
the old order was formed by a series of constraints linked to the relationship
of time and distance which Fernand Braudel thought so fundamental.4
Once they were overcome by the technological advances of the nineteenth
century, it would spell the end of a commercial world in which information
often travelled only at the speed of sailing ships, and open the way to new
forms of organization and exchange.
Yet the widening of horizons, and the growth of the volume and nature of
goods exchanged, which the opening of transatlantic trade routes made
possible, did not supplant the realities of traditional trade, the age-old
rhythms of daily exchange on the European continent or along its coasts,
the everyday trade of internally produced goods. Wine, salt, wood, and
cereals still formed the bulk, in volume, of goods transported within Europe.
In societies whose staple food was cereals, the grain trade was a constant
preoccupation of state and municipal governments, which over the centuries
had put together a formidable apparatus of regulation to guarantee the
provisioning of towns and, beyond that, public order.

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Accordingly, constraints on internal and external traffic in goods and money


were the other fundamental characteristic of European trade under the
Ancien Rgime. Although in the course of the eighteenth century there
emerged in several European countries a desire to set the economy and
trade free, in the French case it took the Revolution to sweep away a whole
range of restrictions which weighed upon the circulation of goods. Even
so, the gradual ending of the commercial system which had underpinned
the prosperity of European ports under the Ancien Rgime was also, in fact
primarily, the consequence of structural changes in the European economy
and in the apparatus of colonial domination in America.
This chapter does not offer a complete picture of trade under the Ancien
Rgime, but rather attempts to bring out the distinctive characteristics which
would disappear between the end of the eighteenth century and the middle
of the nineteenth with the arrival of more modern systems of exchange.
The Structural Features of Trade under the Ancien Rgime
Ancien Rgime trade was powerfully conditioned by the structural
characteristics of European societies and economies, and above all by
the priority given to the production of grain. Diets were based on massive
consumption of cereals either as bread or as soup: 1.5 to 2 kg per person per
day when supplies were plentiful. Low agricultural productivity meant that
three out of four Europeans were obliged to cultivate the soil to produce the
surplus necessary to feed the other quarter of the population. Accordingly,
society was organized around the land and its products: various forms of
income from land and agriculture, such as dues levied by the church and
lords, or rents, were the basis of most wealth, while relationship to the
land and the unequal distribution of its yield formed the basis of social
hierarchies and determined economic inequalities. Only a few parts of
the Dutch Republic and of England proved able, over early modern times,
through productivity gains and regular grain imports from the Baltic, to lower
the relative weight of agriculture in their economies and to free themselves
somewhat from these constraints. Even the possibility of bringing cereals
from abroad was confined to areas close to navigable routes (seas, rivers,
and canals), since the cost of transporting heavy goods overland was
prohibitive. Thus most Europeans under the Ancien Rgime had to produce
the food they needed locally.
This priority given to cereals had a profound influence on the nature and
character of trade, in the sense that it affected the supply and demand of
other goods: other products could only emerge after a basic local supply
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of foodstuffs was assured, and demand for anything else, agricultural or


industrial, was subordinated to the prior supply of whatever grain was
needed. Subsistence crises, most often brought on by poor weather or by the
devastation of passing armies, often had knock-on effects on the industrial
sector, in the sense that most wage-earners had then to spend the bulk of
their income on buying dearer foodstuffs, thus reducing their demand for
manufactures. It was the same for peasants unable to profit from selling a
market surplus of grain.5
The vital question of subsistence had equally produced over the centuries
a series of collective limitations on the exploitation of the land and the
selling of grain, as well as the establishment of state and municipal policies
to ensure the provisioning of towns and provinces. In France grain exports
were forbidden not only abroad, but also between provinces of the kingdom.
Experiments during the 1760s and 1770s to challenge these practices by
allowing the free circulation of cereals were a spectacular failure. For lifting
controls on the sale of agricultural products, although profitable for largescale farmers who could thereby take advantage of price differentials within
the national market, was of enormous concern to peasants and wage-earners
who saw part of local production disappearing elsewhere and feared the rise
in prices which this would inevitably bring locally.
Not only cereals were affected by restrictions. In order to keep money,
that tangible sign of wealth, within the frontiers, early modern sovereigns
attempted to limit the import of finished luxury goods and to encourage
industrial production in their lands by prohibiting or discouraging the export
of raw materials. Tariff policies designed to achieve these ends could give
rise to conflicts in Europe, as with Louis XIV's wars against the Dutch.
Similarly, rulers tried to confine the advantages of navigation to their
own subjects, excluding foreigners from certain sectors of national and
international carrying. Here, too, navigation policies had to be imposed by
force, as in the three Anglo-Dutch Wars (165274). These procedures of
international regulation were also pursued by diplomatic means, notably by
ever-proliferating bilateral commercial treaties. The result could be to boost
certain areas of exchange, but to limit others: the Anglo-Portuguese Methuen
Treaty of 1703, for example, cut back the export of French table wines to
England through import duties which prevented them from competing with
the wines of Portugal.
Thus commercial policies and international agreements held back the
process of integrating markets which comes about when price differentials
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between provinces and markets converge. Integration was uneven, not only
at the European level, but also within the realm of a single ruler, where other
factors could also apply. Accordingly in France as in most other European
countries, trade was subject to countless tolls and taxes levied by lords, local
authorities, or the state when goods passed through; dues were levied not
only at external frontiers, but also when internal barriers were passed. France
had to wait until 1789 for the suppression of the traitesinternal customs
duties.
Finally, Ancien Rgime commerce was weighed down by the ultimate
constraint on the integration of markets: the cost of transport. Before the
coming of railways, long-distance overland transport was confined to nonbulky goods of high value. Wherever navigable rivers were available, they
were preferred: in the eighteenth century, it cost six times more to send
goods between Orlans and Lorient by land than by river. Accordingly,
provinces far from a navigable route were deprived not only of a whole
range of products, but also of the possibility of developing goods for distant
markets. One of the decisive factors in the economic advance of Holland
and England in the eighteenth century was their development of internal
navigable routes.6
Ways of securing products also varied widely. Commerce was characterized
by the interlocking of different levels of exchange widely inherited from
the middle ages, linking territories unevenly. A village or nearby small town
market brought local buyers and producers into direct contact in exchanging
agricultural and animal products. In towns, the products of urban monopoly
corporations were sold directly by master craftsmen in their shops. Then
there were often weekly markets, more or less specialized according to the
size of the place, allowing inhabitants to buy their food and locally made
everyday objects under the watchful eye of authorities checking on quality
but also on the weights and measures used. Finally there were fairs, held
in important towns once or several times a year. They allowed consumers
but also all sorts of intermediaries access to a much wider range of goods
and products without the burden of dues. Depending on their importance,
they attracted merchants from some distance: the most important, such as
Beaucaire, Leipzig, or Frankfurt, were internationally important. Consumers,
finally, were served by itinerant pedlars carrying a varying range of products
throughout the countryside.7
Alongside all these ways largely inherited from the past of linking producers
and consumers there were new ways of making contact more regular
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between markets, avoiding fairs and inventing disparate patterns of


production which bypassed urban corporations and allowed a considerable
widening of exchanges. Thus almost everywhere in western Europe networks
were established to bring the products of rural manufacture to distant
consumers. This was not the same thing as the ordinary handicrafts of
peasant families, things made during dead seasons in the agrarian calendar
and intended for local markets. Rather it was a matter of massive production
of spun or woven goods, or small hardware destined for very distant markets,
sometimes across the Atlantic. Raw materials were provided or sold by
merchants organizing these networks, who also handled the final product.
The producer was quite unable to exercise any control over what he or she
was paid, and had no alternatives if demand fell. The expansion of this protoindustrial activity also fed into the colonial trade, as in the case of Breton or
Silesian textiles made for Spanish America and exported in large quantities
from Cadiz.8
More generally, the expansion of trade beyond Europe stimulated the activity
of Atlantic ports, which expanded their entrept and redistribution roles.
Whereas formerly trade in exotic products had taken place through fairs,
merchants involved in Atlantic trade went beyond these limitations and
organized independent networks of sale and resale, although subject to
restrictions and norms fixed by states seeking to control them.
The intervention of the state was all the more significant when the widening
of European horizons and interest towards other continents had multiplied
the circulation of wealth and expanded what was at stake. The search for a
sea route to Asia by the Spanish and Portuguese had led on the one hand to
a greater flow of Asiatic spices onto European markets (notably at Lisbon and
Antwerp) and on the other to the takeover of territories in America. On the
way to Asia, the Portuguese became involved in the African trade in slaves,
which initially they brought as much to the Iberian peninsula, where they
served as domestic servants, as to islands off the African coastnotably
So Tomwhere they established the first sugar plantations.9 Towards the
middle of the sixteenth century, two major events increased the importance
of the Americas: first, the discovery of silver mines in Mexico and at Potos
in the 1540s considerably increased the availability of coinage for European
economies and confirmed the importance of the discovery of the new world,
which until then had only been of value to Europeans in the context of an
economy of predation. It also aroused, in France and England, renewed
efforts to establish sovereignty in America, which came to fruition in the
seventeenth century. Secondly, the Portuguese established the cultivation of
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sugar cane in Brazil, which began to supply ever more significant quantities
of sugar. It required a large labour force, which the Portuguese brought from
the coasts of Africa. In the north Atlantic, intensive fisheries fed into financial
and exchange activity, while the first encounters with North American Indians
set up a profitable trade in furs.10
Little by little, networks of transatlantic trade grew up, along with interEuropean networks for provisioning the ports from which ships sailed across
the Atlantic, and which on their return provided for the redistribution of
American and Asiatic products among European consumers. From the
seventeenth century, the colonization of North America and the Caribbean
by the English and French added to sugar other products like tobacco, indigo,
and other dyestuffs necessary in textile production, and then coffee. The
number of African captives taken to the Americas went from some 270,000 in
the sixteenth century to more than 1.7 million in the seventeenth, reaching
6.5 million in the eighteenth.11
On the eve of the French Revolution, some 1,3001,400 vessels of all
flags crossed the ocean each year from east to west carrying slaves,
manufactured goods, wines, and, in the case of the French West Indies
without nearby continental colonies to supply them, flour. Some 1,500
ships went each year to fish off Newfoundland, which supplied impressive
quantities of cod both to Catholic Europe and to the slaves in American
plantations. They gave employment to tens of thousands of sailors.
In its turn, this activity of ships, men, and cargoes fostered various circuits of
production and distribution which gave work to thousands who, while never
setting foot aboard ship, lived through navigation and trade as dockers,
carters, customs officers and port workers, shipbuilders, or coopers. These
exchanges also enriched the merchants of the Atlantic seaboard and of the
ports which took part, directly or indirectly, in the growth of these trades, as
well as the industrial sectors, textiles above all, which now sent their goods
all over the world.
The flow and the geography of these trades remained strongly dictated by
the restrictions imposed by states. From the beginnings of colonization, the
main European powers were determined to confine the monopoly of trade
with colonies they claimed to their own subjects. In the Spanish case, the
importance of the silver shipments which enabled the Spanish monarchy
to pursue European hegemony over more than a century brought the
establishment of a special department for the close supervision of departing
ships, their cargoes, and their passengers. To ensure better protection and
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control, ships were obliged to leave in groups from a designated port (Seville,
then Cadiz) and their route was strictly determined under the Carrera de
Indias. Other countries, like France or Portugal, did not establish group
sailings (although France established a monopoly in Lorient for all shipping
to Asia) but demanded that all trade going to or arriving from their colonies
should be conducted exclusively with ports in the home country. England,
on the other hand, designated a series of products which could only be
traded through the home country, allowing colonists relative freedom to
sell non-enumerated products directly to certain foreign markets. Beyond
the different forms they took, all these European policies shared a common
desire to maximize the benefits which the home country could derive from its
transatlantic possessions.
Within these constraints commercial circuits took shape. This was why sugar
produced in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), which emerged from the
1730s as the world's main producer of sugar and soon enough of coffee,
could only be sent to French ports, although its consumers were found very
widely across northern Europe and to a lesser extent in the Levant. Similarly,
tobacco was distributed almost exclusively through British ports because it
was one of the enumerated products, even if most of its consumers lived
beyond the English Channel.
The demand of early modern European consumers for American goods grew
astonishingly.12 In 1800, western Europe absorbed almost 120 million pounds
of tobacco, now coming almost exclusively from the Chesapeake (Virginia
and Maryland). Consumption of tobacco soon became almost universal
and socially egalitarian, affecting the whole of society from the elites
women includeddown to the lowest town-dwellers. As with tea, coffee,
and chocolate, tobacco consumption followed precise rituals, culturally
and socially determined, marking off usage in taverns from that of drawing
rooms: pipes and cigars, chewing tobacco, or snuff, all had their addicts.13
Sugar consumption boomed just as spectacularly: from 10,000 metric tonnes
in 1670, it went to some 280,000 metric tonnes (equivalent in unrefined
sugar) in 1789. If sugar was the dominant commodity, it was because the
taste for exotic drinkstea, coffee, chocolateboosted its use. English
consumption of tea grew ninefold over the second half of the eighteenth
century, to become already a national habit.
The production of West Indian goods and of tobacco depended on the labour
of slaves, and so in its turn sustained the networks which supplied the main

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slaving ports with goods of European or Asian manufacture used in the slave
trade.
Further on, products flowing into Europe from America sustained not only
inter-European re-export networks, but also Asian ones. European countries
Portugal in the sixteenth century, Holland, England and France from the
seventeenthgot their spices, tea, and Asian textiles like cottons and silks
essentially by paying for them with silver from American mines. In return, the
tea trade benefited that in sugar, just as Indian manufactures were used in
the slave trade.
By all their different connections, these exchanges thus linked up the ports
and hinterlands of four continents and affected the lives of their inhabitants
more or less profoundly: types of consumption, migrations forced or free,
markets for work and productive sectors, all were permanently affected by
the steady expansion of Europe's commercial horizons and by the direct links
which she established with the worlds beyond.
This trade was equally marked by the establishment of specific management
practices, whose shape was determined by constraints inherent in Ancien
Rgime commerce, notably the time required for ships and information to
circulate. These problems would only be overcome by the technological
advances of the nineteenth century.
Space and Time in Ancien Rgime Trade: A Fundamental Constraint
Long-distance trade depends on merchants knowledge of demand in
different markets, and on their ability to organize the transfer of products
from one place to another while making a profit. Much of demand and supply
is structural and recurs year upon year: it is the bedrock of trade. However,
accidental variations constantly disrupt plans: famines, epidemics, wars,
weather, all have short-term effects on the productive capacity and the
needs of a region. To handle these unforeseeable phenomena, merchants
need up-to-date information.14
Yet men and women under the Ancien Rgime lived when information
circulated at rates far different from our own day, where news travels in real
time. Before the electric telegraph,15 the telephone, fax, and the internet,
covering any distance took time. This limitation entailed the establishment
of specific ways of reducing lags which at the same time conditioned and
moulded economic activity.

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Time and distance weighed heavily in particular on relations with remote


lands, American colonies, Asia, and the Levant, in other words those
regions which sustained European economic growth from the sixteenth
to the eighteenth centuries, facilitating unprecedented enrichment and
accumulation of capital, and supplying at the same time a notable part of
the resources of states, whether in the form of the quinto real levied by
the crown of Spain on the product of American silver mines, or as customs
duties.
In order for goods or information about distant lands, enabling economic
actors to take their decisions, to reach their destinations, several factors
came into play. Geographical distance, availability of ships to go, weather
conditions on the voyage, all heavily influenced how long it took. Still in
the mid-eighteenth century, it took on average five weeks for news from
Constantinople to reach Venice, two and a half months to link the Levant with
Spain.16 But averages are meaningless unless they reflect actual situations:
thus a crossing from New York to Bordeaux took an average of forty-five
days in the period 17901815, but it could be as little as twenty-seven days
or as long as seventy-nine. In the other direction, where currents or winds
were less favourable, two extra weeks were needed for ships, men, and
correspondence to come into port: the average passage from Bordeaux to
New York took sixty-one days, with extreme cases between thirty and 189
days.17
This relative slowness in the transfer of information strongly limited the
possibility of reacting promptly to circumstances affecting exchanges,
of whatever sort (shortages, declarations of war, changes in customs
policies, etc.). Imagine a merchant who, on receipt of news from the east
or across the Atlantic, decides to organize an expedition to exploit the
market conditions he has heard about: this expedition, even under the
most favourable circumstances, with a ship and adequate cargo to hand, is
unlikely to reach its destination until five or six months after the information
on which it was based was sent. In many cases there would be little prospect
of profit. To this spatial constraint is added that of availability of ships ready
to leave, without which merchants, commercial agents, and consuls must
either wait, or send their response by roundabout routes which extended the
time yet further it took for news to arrive.
Braudel's enemy number one, the time it took to transmit information,
profoundly affected the processes of exchange under the Ancien Rgime.
Before technological innovation allowed information to travel in real time,
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economic and political life had to find ways of reducing these disadvantages
as much as possible.
These problems, though recognized by contemporaries as normal, had
a profound influence on behaviour.18 It was because he had to operate
on necessarily out-of-date information that an Ancien Rgime merchant
was forced to delegate a fundamental number of decisions to others.
Correspondents, captains, and supercargoes were told to buy and sell
cargoes, to handle the ship as they thought best, and more generally to take
all the decisions where it was impossible because of distance and time to
consult owners directly involved. This gave them wide room for manuvre.
The indirect way in which all exchanges operated under the Ancien Rgime
followed directly from the constraints of time on the circulation of economic
information. Since business decisions which profoundly affected the profit
margins of an operation were entrusted to others, everything depended
on trust between principals and their agents. Merchants did business with
agents they trusted rather than people unknown to them, even if the latter
offered better prices: without the bond of confidence which ensured that the
operation could take place in good conditions, the price in itself counted for
little.
Confidence was bred in many ways:19 family or religious ties lent
opportunities for redress if trust was breached; geographical origins
underpinned local knowledge and a common language. Information
conveyed by reliable contacts might recommend third parties: the circulation
of information facilitated exchanges at the same time as it allowed internal
monitoring and control of networks. But at the root of these indirect ways
of management which governed the expansion of European trade in early
modern times was the central problem of the time it all took, which brought a
systematic unevenness of information.20
As well as affecting management, the limitations on the circulation and
transmission of information also helped to remodel the pattern of early
modern economic activity. The effect was that, as the scope of European
economic activity widened, it concentrated its energies around a handful of
great ports offering multiple functions: entrepts, redistribution, financial
services, insurance. Whether favoured by their geographical position linked
to rich and varied hinterlands (London, Bordeaux, Nantes, Hamburg, etc.), or
enjoying specific privileges granted by the state (Lorient, Marseilles, Seville,
and then Cadiz), the greater ports which emerged over early modern times
were also information hubs which gave them a comparative advantage
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which every day increased their predominance over ports of the second rank.
Aware several days or weeks in advance of what was happening on the other
side of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean thanks to the more frequent arrival
of ships, merchants in these leading ports were in a position to react more
promptly to opportunities, and the availability of ships and products to put
together a cargo was also greater than in a port engaged almost exclusively
in regional trade.
The End of the Commercial Ancien Rgime: The French Case
Observing things from one of the great ports which had done best out of the
productive growth of the New World, and its needs in products and labour,
such as Bordeaux or Nantes, a merchant in the late 1780s would scarcely
have foreseen the upheaval about to affect his business, which would change
forever the opportunities available to his town. The suddenness of the
change has led several historians to attribute the end of the commercial
world which had made the fortune of the French Atlantic seaboard in the
eighteenth century to the Revolution.21 However, if the slave revolt of SaintDomingue of 1791, and the loss of the colony in 1804 was a huge blow to the
French Atlantic ports, the effects of the revolutionary period can be better
understood by setting it in a wider context in which technological changes,
new ways of thinking, and productive structures came together to put an
end to the old commercial order and open up the modern world. This process
embraced not only France, but the whole of European trade.
A more subtle analysis of the revolutionary and imperial period, led by
some of the historians who have studied French ports in the eighteenth
century, has allowed us to refine the chronology of overseas trade and to
attribute its disruption more to the war at sea which began in 1793 than to
the Revolution.22 War was a recurrent phenomenon in early modern times,
and French merchants had learnt how to deal with its disruptions during
numerous conflicts over the eighteenth century, in order to avoid the final
collapse of their business. It is true that the price maximum in France under
the Terror, and later the continental blockade, confronted all those involved
in trade with unprecedented situations, but the essence of how to get round
the difficulties of navigation in wartime was well known and mastered by
merchants: putting ships and cargoes under neutral flags, roundabout routes
through non-belligerent ports, privateering, reinvestment in land until the
war was over. There is no doubt that the collapse of sugar production in
Saint-Domingue as a result of the slave revolt of 1791, and then the same

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thing in all the French colonies after the first abolition of slavery in 1794, had
a much more serious effect on French commercial interests.
But in seeking short-term causes for the end of the trading system that
France had known in the eighteenth century, we can lose sight of its own
elements of fragility. The idea put forward by some that, in the long run,
these weaknesses could only bring about the disappearance of the system
which had made the fortune of French seaborne trade under the last
Bourbons diminishes the importance of the break made by the Revolution or
the Empire. French trade was enormously dependent on the colonial sector,
and more and more narrowly on the production of Saint-Domingue. Less
diversified than that of other empires, that of France was accordingly more
vulnerable. And the Saint-Domingue revolt cannot simply be viewed as a
result of the French Revolution: it was much more the product of choosing
to cultivate with slaves, the foundation of the whole Caribbean system of
production, which made colonial prosperity entirely dependent on keeping
up an expensive slave trade, given that the cost of reproducing a slave
population was greater than that of importing and exploiting them in bulk.
A second weakness came from the fundamental contradiction between a
trading system confined to one nation and international demand:23 this
contradiction was a source of permanent conflict between colonists and
the home country, certainly not something specifically French but common
to all European countries with American colonies. The desire to be free of
the shackles of the Exclusifthe metropolitan trading monopolyfuelled
a vigorous smuggling trade which damaged the profit margins of home
merchants, which were already tending downwards over the last third of
the eighteenth century through wider participation and the general rise in
the volume of trade. Colonial indebtedness, often pinpointed as the main
cause of difficulty for home merchants, was also the result of the colonists
prioritizing payment for goods outside the legal framework imposed from
Europe: they paid foreigners before their own merchants, knowing that in the
end the latter were captive suppliers.
Finally, the weight of the colonies in the French trading structure was a
real weakness, as Louis Meignen, Pierre Lon, and Michel Morineau have
pointed out.24 While it is true that demand from African and colonial markets
was a stimulus to certain inland industries and crops,25 and that some of
the sugar imported was refined in France, the fact remains that colonial
imports only gave a modest stimulus to the French economy as a whole,
in contrast to the British economy, characterized by the importance of
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exporting manufactures. The growth of French overseas trade, with its


strong colonial component, did not on the whole benefit the rest of the
French economy, and was only a sort of bubble depending on special
conditions laid down for a time by the French state.26 In this perspective, the
remodelling of patterns of trade after the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars
and the shrinkage of colonial business lose the dramatic impact they have if
we believe that a growth dynamic very profitable to the French economy as a
whole was suddenly brought to an end by political events.27
Conclusion
On the eve of the French Revolution, a merchant from the end of the fifteenth
century would not have known where he was. Admittedly ways of paying for
transactions through credit, relations of trust, networks of correspondents
in various markets would have still been familiar, but what acceleration and
generalization in the circulation of correspondence and information there
had been! Similarly, if the design and capacity of ships had progressed,
the hazards of seaborne transport were still there, even if insurance was
now general. But how many new products, and above all how many new
lands were now part of the world of commerce! And how much more regular
were all these links! With the widening of geographical horizons and the
quantity of goods traded, wealth was no longer confined to a few great
trading houses, but enriched some major ports which had succeeded in
distinguishing themselves from a host of lesser ones. Trade was also far
better controlled by the authorities than before, with systems of health
supervision, registration of entrances and clearances, logging of crews,
levying of duties: all these were now well organized, although this did not
prevent widespread fraud. Rhythms of exchange had also changed, for to
the regular rhythm of international fairs had been added a torrent of daily
arrivals of boats and ships which carried goods for sale locally, regionally
and internationally. The system of routes was unrecognizable, and in several
parts of Europe internal navigation was highly developed.
From the European discovery of the route to Asia and the opening up of
the Americas, the range of products traded and above all the volume of
goods available to consumers, or at least for those of them able to afford
goods beyond basic necessities, had widened. This increased circulation
of products sustained for centuries Europe's agricultural and industrial
production, enriched states, formed a world of production in the Americas,
established new relationships of power and domination but also new forms of
collaboration among those involved at the four corners of the world.
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These patterns were however subject to the technological constraints of the


age and to state action to regulate traffic. Certain choices made at the outset
of American colonization and notably in sealing off colonies from foreign
trade, and, even more dramatically, recourse to a labour force of slaves and
the transportation of captives from Africawere beginning to show their
limits as the stakes rose and tensions increased. On the eve of the French
Revolution, these limits had already opened up the first cracks in the system:
with hindsight, the independence of the thirteen colonies proved only the
beginning of a process which within a few decades would envelop the whole
of the Americas. The slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, the American territory
with the greatest concentration of slaves, would soon bring to light the
problems of massive reliance on slavery, and ultimately accelerate abolition.
By the 1780s the European economy and the Atlantic economy had begun to
undergo structural modifications which would change forever the framework
to which French maritime business had grown accustomed,28 removing all
hope of any return to the trading structure which the last century of the
Ancien Rgime had known, and progressively modifying the conditions
under which that trade operated. As the economic heart of western Europe
shifted from the coastline towards the Rhine, to the disadvantage of the
French Atlantic ports, European colonial dominance in America came under
challenge, opening up a time when the ability to conquer markets through
competitiveness supplanted the pattern of exclusive colonies. New forms
of imperialism emerged, even as the structure of international demand
moved towards trade in manufactures to the detriment of growth based
on exporting agricultural goods and re-exporting colonial goods within
a framework of a system of mandatory metropolitan monopoly such as
that which prevailed in France. These modifications happened alongside a
progressive diversification of the functions which still characterized the world
of seaborne trade at the end of the eighteenth century, leading ultimately
to the separation of the functions of handling trade from those of shipping
it, insuring it, and bankrolling it.29 The transport revolution, with the coming
of steam, and the communications revolution, with the invention of the
telegraph, brought the commercial Ancien Rgime to an end in the course of
the nineteenth century.

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Notes:
(1.) For a reassessment of the relative position of the Mediterranean and the
Atlantic, see the issue La Mditerrane dans les circulations atlantiques,
Revue dHistoire Maritime, 13 (2011).
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(2.) De la mondialisation, Historiens et Gographes, 378 (2002), 231


41. See also K. H. ORourke and J. G. Williamson, Globalisation and History
(Cambridge, Mass., 2005).
(3.) P. Emmer even disputes the existence of an Atlantic Economy:
see In Search of a System: The Atlantic Economy, 15001800, in Horst
Pietschmann (ed.), Atlantic History: History of the Atlantic System
(Gttingen, 2002), 16978.
(4.) The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (2
vols. 1966; tr. London, 1972), part ii, ch. 1, Distance, the First Enemy.
(5.) The link between subsistence crises and industrial crisies is
demonstrated by Ernest Labrousse, Les Ruptures priodiques de la
prosprit: les crises conomiques, in Fernand Braudel and Ernest Labrousse
(eds.), Histoire conomique et sociale de la France, ii. 16601789 (2nd edn.,
Paris, 1993), 52963.
(6.) Gerald Crompton (ed.), Canals and Internal Navigation (Aldershot, 1996);
Andreas Kunz and John Armstrong (eds.), Modern Europe: Inland Navigation
and Economic Development in Nineteenth Century Europe (Mainz, 1995).
(7.) On these interlocking markets of differing scale, see Fernand Braudel,
Civilization and Capitalism, 15th18th Century, ii. The Wheels of Commerce
(London, 1983), part ii.
(8.) Since the pioneering article by Franklin F. Mendels, ProtoIndustrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process, Journal
of Economic History, 32 (1972), 24161, the idea has been developed by
Peter Kriedte, Hans Medick, and Jrgen Schlumbohm, Industrialisation before
Industrialisation: Rural Industry in the Genesis of Capitalism (Cambridge,
1981). For overall introductions, see Sheilagh Ogilvie and Markus Cerman,
European Protoindustrialization (Cambridge, 1996), and Ren Laboutte
(ed.), Proto-industrialisation: Recherches rcentes et nouvelles perspectives.
Mlanges en souvenir de Franklin Mendels (Geneva, 1996).
(9.) For a synthesis on the slave trade, see Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade:
The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 14401870 (London, 1997).
(10.) A masterly study of the commercial networks and financing of fishing
is Andr Lespagnol, Messieurs de Saint-Malo: Une lite ngociante au temps
de Louis XIV (Rennes, 1997); for the establishment of networks for exporting
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furs to France, see Bernard Allaire, Pelleteries, manchons et chapeaux de


castor: Les Fourrures nord-amricaines Paris (15001632) (Paris and
Quebec, 1999).
(11.) Figures from www.slavevoyages.org.
(12.) Paul Butel, The Atlantic (London, 1999).
(13.) On the consumption patterns and rituals of Madeira wine, see David
Hancock, Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade
and Taste (New Haven, Conn., and London, 2009).
(14.) Pierre Jeannin maintains that merchants tended to rely more on their
own information and knowledge, following familiar routes and ways, rather
than constantly trying to adapt their activities to the whirlwind of incoming
news. See P. Jeannin, La Diffusion de linformation, in Simonetta Cavaciocchi
(ed.), Fiere e mercati nella integazione delle economie europee: Secoli XIII
XVIII (Florence, 2001), 23175.
(15.) Freeing the use of the telegraph, originally invented for military
purposes, happened slowly in France from the middle of the nineteenth
century, whereas in England at this time there were already over 6,500
km of lines to which the public had had access for a decade. The first
transatlantic cable was laid in 1866. See Armand Mattelart, LInvention de
la communication (Paris, 1994), 645, 1889. In a general way at the same
time railways and steamships considerably increased postal rapidity through
regular schedules. For all these reasons, the economic and commercial old
regime can be said to have come to an end in the mid-19th cent.
(16.) Braudel, Mediterranean, i, 357.
(17.) Silvia Marzagalli, Bordeaux et les tats-Unis, 17761815: Politiques
et stratgies ngociantes dans la gense dun rseau commercial (thse
dhabilitation, Universit de Paris I/Sorbonne, 2004; publication forthcoming
from Droz, Geneva), ch. 6. The calculation takes no account of the fortunes of
war: all ships captured or held by the British are excluded.
(18.) In his analysis of the circulation of information within the British Empire,
Ian K. Steele concludes that contemporaries thought it normal to exchange
news once a month: The English Atlantic, 16751740: An Exploration of
Communication and Community (New York, 1986), 50. For circulation within
the French Empire, see Kenneth Banks, Chasing Empire across the Sea:
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Communications and the State in the French Atlantic, 17131763 (Montreal,


2002).
(19.) Catherine Cart-Engel has studied the almost exemplary case of the
confessional networks established by the Moravian brothers in Saxony, in the
West Indies, and on the North and South American continents: Religion and
Profit. Moravians in Early America (Philadelphia, 2009). For an illuminating
presentation of different ways of thinking about how networks functioned
and the possibilities for opportunism, see Francesca Trivellato, Juifs de
Livourne, Italiens de Lisbonne, Hindous de Goa: Rseaux marchands et
changes interculturels lpoque moderne, Annales: Histoire, Sciences
sociales, 58 (2003), 581603. For a critical approach to the operation of
networks, see David W. Hancock, The Trouble with Networks: Managing the
Scots Early Modern Madeira Trade, Business History Review, 75 (2009), 464
91.
(20.) On the application of concepts deriving from the new institutional
economy to the realities encountered by the historians Mark Casson and
Mary B. Rose, see the introduction to the special number of Business History,
39 (1997), Institutions and the Evolution of Modern Business, p. 3.
(21.) The verdict applies to the whole of the French economy. See Pierre
Chaunu's preface to Franois Crouzet, De la supriorit de lAngleterre sur
la France: Lconomie et limaginaire, xviiiexxe sicles (Paris, 1985), p. iii:
At the end of the Ancien Rgime it was by no means impossible to think
that France might end up ahead. in the eight years from 1792 to 1800,
everything was thrown away. In the Atlantic trade, J. P. Poussou asserts even
more clearly: The Revolution in eliminating the West Indies trade and
maritime activity certainly brought on a catastrophe: Le Dynamisme de
lconomie franaise sous Louis XVI, Revue conomique, 40 (1989), 982.
(22.) See Paul Butel, Les Difficults du commerce maritime bordelais sous
le Directoire: Exemple de ladaptation la conjoncture de guerre maritime,
Congrs National des Socits Savantes, 94/2 (1969), 33244, and Crise et
mutation de lactivit conomique Bordeaux sous le Consulat et lEmpire,
Revue dHistoire moderne et contemporaine, 17 (1970), 54058. Charles
Carrire, Ngociants marseillais au xviiie siecle (2 vols. Marseilles, 1973), i,
152, notes that the real turning point was 1793.
(23.) This point has been made by Andr Lespagnol, Mondialisation des
trafics inter-ocaniques et structures commerciales nationales au xviiie

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sicle: Contradictions et compromis, Bulletin de la Socit dHistoire


moderne et contemporaine, 12 (1997), 8991.
(24.) Michel Morineau, La Vraie Nature des choses et leur enchainement
entre la France, les Antilles et lEurope (xviiexviiie sicles), Revue Franaise
dHistoire dOutre-Mer (1997), 324; Louis Meignen, Le Commerce extrieur
de la France la fin de lAncien Rgime, Revue Historique du Droit franais
et etranger (1973), 583614; Pierre Lon, Structure du commerce extrieur
et volution industrielle de la France a la fin du xviiie sicle, in F. Braudel
(ed.), Conjoncture conomique: Structure social. Hommage Ernest
Labrousse (Paris, 1974), 40732.
(25.) On the importance of the West Indian market for the products of
Aquitaine, see Paul Butel, Succs et dclin du commerce colonial franais,
de la Rvolution la Restauration, Revue conomique, 40 (1989), 107996.
(26.) The clear conclusion of Meignan, Commerce extrieur.
(27.) For a survey of historiographical debates in France, see Silvia
Marzagalli, Le Ngoce maritime et la rupture rvolutionnaire: Un ancien
debat revisit, Annales historiques de la Rvolution franaise, 352 (2008),
183207.
(28.) These transformations had already attracted the attention of Francois
Crouzet forty years ago in his Wars, Blockade, and Economic Change in
Europe, 17921815, Journal of Economic History, 24 (1964), 56788.
(29.) See the remarks of Louis Bergeron, Le Ngoce international de la
France a la fin du xviiie sicle: Quelques remarques en guise de conclusion,
in Franois Crouzet (ed.), Le Ngoce international, xiiexxe sicles (Paris,
1989), 199203.

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