britain takes on the world -- 3/1/22

Today's selection -- from The Trouble with Tea by Jane T. Merritt. British trade was the path that led the country to its global domination:
"By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the English had turned their gaze to the wider world, hoping to expand their political power and economic empire. In his Discourse of Western Planting (1584), Richard Hak­luyt articulated a commercial strategy that would 'yelde unto us all the com­modities of Europe, Affrica, and Asia, as far as wee were wonte to travell, and supply the wantes of all our decayed trades.' Besides procuring new re­sources, exploration and colonization would create markets to 'vente' English manufactures and provide 'for the manifolde imploymente of nombers of idle men.' Surely Hakluyt envisioned the mercantilist mind-set that would pro­duce the 'nation governed by shopkeepers' and its consuming subjects that Adam Smith later scorned. 

The Board of Trade circa 1808.

"Mercantilism generally posited that if a country encouraged foreign com­merce but managed to balance or excel in trade with competing nations, it could accumulate and control a greater portion of global wealth. The state, through its laws and banking system, would promote, protect, and regulate merchant traders in order to raise revenue by duties on the commodities they imported and exported. Simultaneously, home manufacturing would be se­cured from any foreign or colonial competition by tariffs and restrictions. Of course, some merchants, at least those who flourished under the protection of monopoly charters, supported these policies; others bristled at the inter­ference of regulation that kept them from profitable markets. In that regard, mercantilism was never an entirely coherent or consistent ideology, per se. Still, English merchants usually chose to work with policy makers to find a middle ground between overbearing regulation and unrestrained commerce, hoping to benefit from the intersection of self-interest and national need. In the mid-seventeenth century, Thomas Mun, a member of the increasingly influential, though still emerging, English East India Company (EIC), suc­cinctly described this commercial theory: 'The ordinary means to increase our wealth and treasure is by Foreign Trade, wherein we must ever observe this rule, to sell more to strangers yearly than we consume of theirs in value.' In essence, a nation's economic success was predicated on gaining access to foreign goods and maintaining a positive balance of trade. Additionally, for­eign trade would stimulate industry at home -- providing work for merchant marines, shipbuilders, sailors, and shopkeepers -- which would lead to new prosperity. As Hakluyt had hoped, consumer societies and commercial em­pires put 'idle men' to work.
"By the eighteenth century this mercantilist model came to fruition for Great Britain when commercial organizations acted as its political arm abroad. Indeed, political economists argued that aggressive commercial expansion, rather than warfare alone, would assure the British Empire's dominance in the global marketplace and enhance its political power. Adam Anderson in­sisted that 'Conquest were to ancient Rome, what Commerce is now to other Nations,' an idea that stretched back to the Renaissance. James Steuart, in An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy, argued, 'A nation which remains passive in her commerce, is at the mercy of those who are active.' Not only influenced by shopkeepers, Great Britain increasingly turned to mer­chants and trade companies to negotiate, finance, and maintain permanent imperial infrastructure at the new 'oceanic and territorial peripheries' of empire, regions far different from the maturing colonies of North America. British mercantile enclaves of the early modern period included the West Af­rican coast (dominated by the Royal African Company), Mocha and Smyrna (where the Muscovy Company and Levant Company operated), and the be­ginnings of an English presence in South Asia at Bombay, Madras, and Cal­cutta.? English merchants slowly insinuated themselves into already existing transnational networks of trade, even as these new commercial markets pro­vided a locus for competition between nations of Europe. In the seventeenth century, for instance, the Dutch dominated the pepper and spice trade in In­donesia and Japan, but their primacy gave way slowly under English com­mercial pressure. Even though merchants had great leeway in how they con­ducted business, commercial enterprises also relied on British naval power to protect and extend trading activities abroad." 



Jane T. Merritt


The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy


Johns Hopkins University Press


2017 Johns Hopkins University Press


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