Published by EH.Net (January 2013)
Sheryllynne Haggerty, ?Merely for Money?? Business Culture in the British Atlantic, 1750-1815. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012. xiv + 287 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84631-817-7.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Julian Hoppit, Department of History, University College London.
In a way, this book is a behavioral study of merchants trading across the Atlantic in the era of the American, French, and early industrial revolutions. As such, it is much less concerned with prices and profits, supply and demand, ships and ports, laws and government, than with hopes and fears, conventions and customs, friendships and networks. It explores the culture of business practice, not how merchants conspicuously consumed, engaged in philanthropy, or donated to the libraries and assembly rooms of the ports they worked from.
The great strength of the book is the extent of primary research on which it rests and how that evidence is related to modern research into business practice from the fields of economics, business studies, and sociology. Throughout that relationship is developed thoughtfully and suggestively. Moreover, Haggerty also engages with a large body of secondary work by economic historians. Given such efforts, the many footnotes provide lead after lead to follow up on. This is a book to make one think, even if its conclusions are unsurprising.
A key aspect of Haggerty?s book is its geographical and chronological ambition. In practice, the ?British Atlantic? is viewed from Liverpool primarily (though not exclusively) to the Caribbean and, more especially, North America. In Britain, Glasgow, Bristol, and London are given some consideration, Whitehaven none at all. Records of merchants in the Caribbean and North America are employed, trade with West Africa is mentioned in passing, but Ireland is completely ignored. Chronologically, the weight of the book lies from the mid-1760s to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. This was, to put it mildly, a challenging time to be a merchant in the British Atlantic and Haggerty?s book is suggestive in helping us to understand how those challenges were met.
To a considerable extent the book rests upon the correspondence of a number of merchants. Material from 30 archives in several countries is employed, as well as numerous printed primary sources. Yet weighty though this material is, it plays a supporting role in determining the book?s approach and direction. The titles of the six substantive chapters in the book make clear Haggerty?s focus: Risk, Trust, Reputation, Obligation, Networks, and Crises. Each of these chapters begins by carefully setting out recent and mainly theoretical work on these from beyond history: terms are defined with real care, previous assumptions critically considered, and telling questions nicely posed. This is a very valuable feature of the book. Those questions are then addressed in the body of the chapter by detailed exploration of the primary sources. Haggerty is notably skilled in identifying the apposite quote and showing how a jigsaw with many missing pieces can, nonetheless, be plausibly reconstructed.?
This is then a book, full of good things. But one its great sources of strength, the attention to the subtleties of business relationships to be found in letters, arguably makes it harder for more general arguments to be made. Haggerty?s approach is mainly qualitative and illustrative, dipping in and out of particular sources with a focus upon individuals and their business connections. There is very little quantitative analysis, and only in the chapter on networks is her approach more systematic, and even then the presentation makes it hard to compare her case studies and little attention is paid to how representative they are. Take therefore Haggerty?s statement near the end of the book that ?the United States continued to be Britain?s largest single trading partner. This success was largely due to a business culture which facilitated trade despite long-term structural changes and short-term crises? (p. 235) To write ?largely due? is to make a big claim for the role of business culture which Haggerty has not attempted to support by systematically considering other possible explanations, such as terms of trade and the international division of labor.
A further marked feature of the book is that six of the seven substantive chapters pay scant attention to balancing issues of continuity and change. Haggerty skillfully and deftly shows aspects of business culture, habits, and etiquette, but is less interested in showing how they did or did not change over time. Developments are not ignored, but just what was distinctive about business culture in this period needs more concerted consideration. This matters because a number of her key features might be supposed to have a timeless aspect to them ? such as the role of trust or networks. Perhaps more weight might have been paid to the influence upon business culture of the evolution in the period of marine insurance, the emergence of chambers of commerce (on which Robert Bennett has done path-breaking work, including a detailed study of Liverpool), pre-war Anglo-American debts after 1783, the growth of the Lancashire cotton industry, and the Continental System. None of these are ignored, but they crop up only in passing and are only foregrounded near the end of the book in a discussion of crises.
A lot of outstanding work has been published on the mercantile world of the British Atlantic in this period by the likes of Bernard Bailyn, Ralph Davis, Tom Devine, David Hancock, John McCusker, Kenneth Morgan, and Jacob Price. It is no mean achievement of Haggerty that she has made a distinctive contribution to such a rich field of research.
Julian Hoppit?s recent publications include Nehemiah Grew and England’s Economic Development (Oxford University Press, 2011), ?Compulsion, Compensation and Property Rights in Britain, 1688-1833,? Past and Present (2011), and ?The Nation., the State, and the First Industrial Revolution,? Journal of British Studies (2011). email@example.com
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