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Merchants and Migrations: Germans and Americans in Connection, 1776-1835

Author(s):Mustafa, Sam A.
Reviewer(s):Wegge, Simone A.

Published by EH.NET (October 2002)

Sam A. Mustafa, Merchants and Migrations: Germans and Americans in

Connection, 1776-1835. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001. xvii + 284 pp. $74.95

(cloth), ISBN: 0-7546-0590-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Simone A. Wegge, College of Staten Island – City

University of New York.

Mustafa’s Merchants and Migrations is a study about the development of

commercial activity between the Hanseatic ports of Bremen and Hamburg and

various North American ports during the post-colonial period. It is a

historical account of developing business activity between merchants or

Smithian economic growth on both sides of the ocean, as well as an account of

diplomatic efforts between the Hanseatic cities and the United States.

Migration per se is tangential to Mustafa’s tale, while political economy lies

at the center of it. Mustafa has used a wide variety of American and German

primary resources to explore this topic. These include the correspondence

records of merchants and diplomats, business records and contracts from a wide

variety of merchants, travel diaries of merchants and other private citizens,

the records and papers of various politicians, and consular papers. The author

has thus carefully considered various types of evidence to develop a picture of

the challenges businesspeople in the US and in the Hanse cities faced in

pursuing international trade.

The late eighteenth-century economies of Hanseatic cities like Bremen and

Hamburg, with ports easily accessible to the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean, were

involved in the business of exporting and importing goods between overseas

destinations. With the British navigation acts, however, any direct trade

between these German cities and American ports was difficult, except through

smugglers. All this changed with the American Revolution, after which Hanse

merchants were eager to develop commercial relationships with American

exporters and importers. Post-1776 trade between Bremen and Hamburg and the

American ports grew, slowly at first, but then in leaps and bounds during the

1790s. The Hanse cities became the second most important importer of goods from

the US in 1798, close behind Britain. In the years thereafter, under Napoleon’s

continental system, trade between the US and the main Hanseatic cities

collapsed, and the German port cities degenerated into places of squalor and

poverty. Mustafa provides extensive evidence of how much trade activity

deteriorated under French rule: a very large number of the Hanse merchants went

bankrupt, and only a very small amount of trade was transacted during the six

years of French occupation. With the end of French rule, trade between the

Hanse cities and the United States resumed, but only slowly. Business

relationships needed to be reestablished, and fleets needed to be built up


This monograph provides several accounts of the difficulties individuals and

firms faced in establishing an export and import business. Assistance from the

governments in terms of trade promotion was basically non-existent. Fostering

trade was up to the firms and merchants themselves and took time and a

willingness to take on risks. Many businessmen failed at this business. Overly

rapid expansion, “long delays in the extension of credit and the transfer of

funds,” competition from British trade, and piracy at sea, were the types of

difficulties merchants typically faced. Mustafa argues that trade eventually

thrived between Hanse and American ports partly because of the commonalties

among merchants in both places. Businessmen in both American and German ports

subscribed mostly to the same practical goal, that of liberal capitalism: they

were interested in laws and practices that promoted their commercial interests.

In the Bremen and Hamburg ports, in particular, the merchant class comprised

the largest interest group and had a lot of control in shaping the political

agenda and actions of their city governments to suit their own commercial


One of Mustafa’s more interesting findings involves the role of political

institutions in economic development. With the exception of the French

occupation period, trade grew in size and importance in spite of the lack of

strong diplomatic ties between the Hanseatic cities and the United States.

During the 1780s and 1790s the American and Hanseatic governments did little to

promote or interfere with international trade and trade thrived; in the

post-Vienna Congress world, trade again grew without immediate governmental


In spite of the large flow of trade between the Hanseatic and American port

cities, as a young nation the US concentrated its efforts in setting up

diplomatic relations with the big guns of Europe, namely France, Britain,

Spain, Prussia and Austria. In fact, in the last fifteen years of the

eighteenth-century, the US had very little in the way of trade with Prussia but

spent its limited resources on setting up high-level consulates in the Prussian

capital city of Berlin. In contrast, Bremen and Hamburg received low-level

consuls, mostly merchants interested in enhancing their own individual economic

interests. That in this case diplomacy was not a sufficient or a necessary

condition for the development of international trade should be of note to

economists and historians interested in political institutions. Still, it must

be noted that neither the American nor the Hanseatic governments worked

deliberately to impede or interfere with trade between their respective


For those interested in reading about the larger issues of the migration

literature, this monograph is better at providing background information for

the study of migration movements. Certainly there are many tales of merchants

moving back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, but there is little material

about the German emigrants who were not merchants and who may have helped

German merchants make their trips to the US more worthwhile. It might have been

quite valuable for readers if Mustafa had explained more clearly why US-bound

emigrants were not as important in merchants’ and shippers’ profit calculations

in Bremen and Hamburg as they were in ports like London or Rotterdam, as

Marianne Wokeck’s Trade in Strangers describes. By the mid-nineteenth

century Bremen emerged as the main port for Central European emigrants. What

importance did this have for the international trade of goods or vice-versa?

These are issues I wish the author had considered or might consider in the


With this work, Mustafa adds one more important case study to the history of

international trade. This book is relevant to those who study the microeconomic

behavior of merchants, traders and entrepreneurs, an area of great interest

among many economists and historians. Those interested in the political economy

of international trade will also find this work interesting, especially since

it recounts three phases, each with a different set of government policy


Simone A. Wegge’s research focuses on migration decisions in

nineteenth-century Europe. Her papers have been published in the Journal of

Economic History, and Explorations in Economic History. Forthcoming

articles will appear in Research in Economic History and the European

Review of Economic History. She recently received a best-dissertation award

at the 2002 International Economic History Association meetings in Buenos


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