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Consuls, Corsairs and Commerce: The Swedish Consular Service and Long-Distance Shipping, 1720-1815

Author(s):Müller, Leos M
Reviewer(s):Kaukiainen, Yrjö K

Published by EH.NET (February 2005)

Leos M?ller, Consuls, Corsairs and Commerce: The Swedish Consular Service and Long-Distance Shipping, 1720-1815. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2002. 268 pp., ISBN: 91-554-6003-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Yrj? Kaukiainen, Department of History, University of Helsinki.

In his recent study, Leos M?ller focuses on the development of Swedish consular services during the eighteenth century. Yet, he refers to a much wider issue: the long-term decline of ocean transport costs and the possibility of an “early modern transport revolution.” The idea of such an early decline in freight rates, or of an increase of shipping productivity, was presented in the late 1950s by Douglass C. North, but his conclusions were strongly challenged in the 1980s by C. Knick Harley, who argued that no real decline in ocean transport costs took place before the late nineteenth century and the introduction of steam propulsion and iron ship building. Harley’s view seems to have prevailed since then, as even some recent articles by Jeffrey G. Williamson and Kevin O’Rourke demonstrate. Yet, it should be mentioned that Jan Lucassen and Richard W. Unger (“Labour Productivity in Ocean Shipping, 1450-1875,” International Journal of Maritime History, December 2000) were able to identify a long-term trend of decreasing manning-ratios (suggesting improved labor productivity) in international shipping, starting in the early seventeenth century.

The author follows North’s train of thought by stressing the importance of protection costs; thus he suggests that the eighteenth-century productivity change in shipping depended to a substantial degree on a decline of piracy and other safety risks which made it possible to decrease average crew sizes. This idea connects the Swedish consular services with the “early modern transport revolution”: M?ller’s hypothesis is that such consular services were an important tool in increasing the safety of Swedish shipping, in particular on the Mediterranean. The author’s ambition, however, goes still further — he also aims at relating the Swedish protection costs to the overall costs of Swedish shipping. This involves a discussion of the effects of the Swedish Navigation Act plus an analysis of labor productivity, aspects which do not really fall under the umbrella of consular services.

After a short overview of the development of the Swedish consular services from 1600 to 1900 (chapter 2), a more detailed discussion of the Swedish mercantile policy in the eighteenth century follows (chapter 3). The latter focuses on Southern Europe, diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire and its vassal Barbary states, convoy services and the Swedish Levant Company. Even the creation of the Swedish Navigation Act is described in this context, albeit the author does not really discuss whether its aims were on the Mediterranean or somewhere else.

In chapter 4, the beginning and development of Swedish consular services are given a detailed description. The focal point, of course, was the North African Barbary states. Sweden followed the example of other European nations by concluding treaties with these, thus achieving immunities against the raids of their corsairs in exchange of “subventions.” Accordingly, the main task of the consuls which were sent to Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco was to insure that the treaties were followed and to resolve disputes arising from them. On the other hand, as Sweden had practically no trade with these states, the consuls had very little conventional mercantile functions. Compared with these, the consulates in Spain, France and Italy were more typically commercial emissaries, which represented Swedish traders or masters in their connections with local officials; many of them even acted as commissioning agents for Swedish ships. They also were important sources of commercial intelligence and, performing all these functions, they obviously were able to diminish the transaction costs of their “customers.”

In the next chapter the author discusses Swedish trade with Southern Europe in a broader context. Not only does he estimate the volume of exports, imports and shipping, but he also analyzes crew sizes and labor productivity. This is the most interesting chapter of the book, and some of the author’s conclusions involve important revisions to previous Swedish research in this area. Above all, he stresses that shipping was a more dynamic and important element of the Swedish economy than, for example, Eli F. Heckscher thought. Shipping to South Europe, as well as tramp shipping connected with it, grew at a good pace, in particular during periods of war, when Sweden (and some other smaller maritime nations) took advantage of their neutral position. M?ller also shows that the manning ratios of Swedish ships sailing to South Europe were quite high, even compared with corresponding Dutch figures. This obviously depended on the high average size of ships which was a result of bulky, or heavy, export products — iron, tar and timber. The reverse of the medal, however, was the fact that these were relatively inexpensive goods. Moreover, the author does not identify one negative factor: the volume of imports (in tons or volumes) tended to be quite low and typically ships returned home only half-loaded. In any case, the author, not surprisingly, concludes that the Swedish navigation policy, and consular system in particular, was able to lower protection costs. Yet he stresses that of all these factors neutrality was the most important one.

The subsequent two chapters deal with Sweden’s Atlantic and Caribbean connections and the development of a Swedish consular system in the United States. This is a section which has fairly little in common with the earlier chapters — and neither do they contribute much to the discussion of an “early modern transport revolution.” Of course, both chapters are well-written and they must be of interest to anyone conducting research on the commercial relations between Sweden and North America. But they also make the book rather a collection of articles than a homogenous and systematic analysis.

Overall, M?ller’s book contains important and interesting insights into the development of eighteenth-century shipping. The data he presents of Swedish manning-ratios confirm nicely with the findings of Lucassen and Unger. (However, when making international comparisons, it is important to remember that men per ton is not a linear but curvilinear ratio: it normally declines steeply between 50 and 200 tons but much more slowly between, say 500 and 1000 tons; thus, fleets with lower average tonnages are bound to present more men per ton than those with high averages). Yet, most of his other results (protection costs, neutrality) rather concern Swedish comparative advantages than international shipping costs (or productivity) at large. One other aspect which he does not touch upon is the differences between different shipping trades. With Swedish material it probably would have been possible to compare, for example, manning ratios on the Baltic and East Indian trades, as well as of South European and Atlantic trades. That would obviously have required an extensive use of local shipping-office (sj?manshus) archives but, hopefully, the author will continue his research and penetrate more deeply the problems he has identified in the present book. In any case, he has made a promising start.

Yrj? Kaukiainen ( Professor, Department of History, University of Helsinki) has mainly published on the North European history of shipping, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. He is the author of A History of Finnish Shipping (Routledge, 1993). A selection of his maritime writings was published in a volume Sail and Steam (compiled by Lars U. Scholl and Merja-Liisa Hinkkanen, Research in Maritime History no. 27, 2004).

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century