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From Sugar Triangle to Cotton Triangle: Trade and Shipping between America and Baltic Russia, 1783-1860

Author(s):Ahonen, Kalevi
Reviewer(s):Hutchinson, William K.

Published by EH.NET (January 2006)

Kalevi Ahonen, From Sugar Triangle to Cotton Triangle: Trade and Shipping between America and Baltic Russia, 1783-1860. Jyvaskyla: University of Jyvaskyla, 2005. 572 pp. 35? (paperback), ISBN: 951-39-2142-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William K. Hutchinson, Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University.

The purpose of this book is laid out explicitly in the first chapter — the “principal purpose of this study is to discuss the development of commerce, mercantile shipping and politico-commercial relations between the United States and Russia from the Treaty of Paris in 1783 to the year 1860.” Chapter 1 describes how this study fits in with other studies of Russian trade with Europe and the United States. This book goes beyond Walter Kirchner’s Studies in Russian-American Commerce, 1820-1860, in several ways. Ahonen covers a longer time period and focuses on the entrepreneurship in American-Russian trade, particularly the practices, the merchandise, and the people engaged in trade. This chapter also describes in detail the extensive list of sources that will be used.

Chapter 2 provides a general overview of Russia and the United States as they were at the end of the eighteenth century, explaining the attitude of each toward international trade. Both were viewed as being protectionist. Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 detail the political process that was necessary to establish stable trading relations between St. Petersburg and the United States. Denmark played a crucial role as it controlled passage through the Danish channels, and the Sound in particular, to the Baltic ports. Copenhagen played an important role in shipping to and from the Baltic ports. It was not until the end of the period that political negotiations resulted in Sound dues being eliminated for ships passing through the Sound.

Chapter 5 is a very detailed description of which trading houses were engaged in trade between various ports in the United States and the Baltic ports, especially St. Petersburg. British and American traders were major competitors, but the British had the lion’s share of the business. At times the Russians are described as cooperating with the United States to diminish British domination through an expansion of the presence of American traders. The basic need for information about the quantities of goods being shipped to St. Petersburg was solved initially by traders hiring people to keep a record of the ships that left West Indies ports bound for Baltic ports. This was to avoid an excess supply of sugar and other products in St. Petersburg that could not be sold at a price which would cover costs. It appears that it was not uncommon for ships to register as sailing for one port, when in fact they were headed to another port.

Chapter 6 is nearly one hundred pages and details the various ships that sailed and the tonnage and ownership of these vessels. There are several tables which contain data on the number of ships, tonnage, and type of ship by year. The United States, as a major shipbuilder and innovator in the steamship business, became a major supplier of ships for Russia. Ships would sail from New England to Havana, or another West Indies port, to pick up a load of sugar and tobacco. These ships would then sail to Boston and on to the Baltic or directly to the Baltic. Some ships went to southern Europe, trading tobacco for wine and fruits which were then taken to St. Petersburg or some other Baltic port. The return voyage would carry shipbuilding materials such as hemp, duck cloth, and iron. Russian bar iron was said to be superior to American bar iron for making ship parts and anchors.

Chapter 7 describes how this trade was financed through the use of bills of exchange, letters of credit, simple loans, or consignment or commission. Most of the financing was carried out through British bankers. Barter was used in St. Petersburg at times, where a ship would agree to take on a certain cargo in exchange for the cargo brought from America, in hopes that it could be sold either on the way back to America or in America for a profit. Risk sharing was accomplished by each party: seller, ship captain or supercargo, and merchant, all assuming part of the cost of a cargo. In this manner each had an incentive to deliver the cargo for the best possible price. A supercargo was a person who represented whoever chartered the ship, whereas a ship captain looked out for the ship owner’s interests.

Chapter 8 details the goods exported from the United States, West Indies, Cuba and Brazil to St. Petersburg and how the mix of products changed over time. In the early period it was tobacco and sugar that were exported. As the textile industry developed around St. Petersburg, raw cotton was exported along with tobacco and sugar. Cotton began to dominate by the end of the period.

Chapter 9 details the goods that were shipped from St. Petersburg on American ships. American ships returned with naval stores, iron, hemp and flax for the United States. Russian hemp was considered superior for shipbuilding to hemp from Kentucky. Other ships, especially in the later years, brought lumber, tallow, bristles and potash to London and other western European ports, where these goods were exchanged for others that were in greater demand at ports in the United States.

There are more than fifty tables in the text and over sixty tables of data in the appendix. There is a twenty-page bibliography of sources that supports the extremely detailed accounts of merchants, ship owners, shipping houses, diplomats, cargoes, types of ships sailed, and the economic conditions of both Russia and the United States during this period. The index is also well done. This book will be an indispensable source for anyone who wishes to learn about any aspect of the trade between the United States and the Baltic ports, especially St. Petersburg during the period 1783 to 1860. The author is at the Department of History and Ethnology at the University of Jyvaskyla in Jyvaskyla, Finland.

William K. Hutchinson is Visiting Professor of Economics at Vanderbilt University. Recent publications include: “‘Linguistic Distance’ as a Determinant of Bilateral Trade,” Southern Economic Journal, 72(1) 2005, pp. 1-15 and “The Impact of the Civil War on Capital Intensity and Labor Productivity in Southern Manufacturing,” Explorations in Economic History, forthcoming.

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