Merchants in the Atlantic World

Pierre Gervais

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online July 2012 | | DOI:
Merchants in the Atlantic World

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  • History of the Americas
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Atlantic history in the Early Modern period is, if not only the history of merchants, at least mostly the history of merchant development. From its start in the 15th century onward, European expansion through the Atlantic was driven by the commercial impulse to find new roads into the South and East Asian markets, and later to secure access to colonial products from the newly developed plantation economy in the Americas. Imperial expansion, the slave trade, and colonization were all merchant processes, insofar as they were explicitly aimed at tapping the wealth of overseas territory. While the macroeconomic impact of interoceanic trade on Europe is still debated (see the Oxford Bibliographies article Atlantic Trade and the European Economy), nobody questions its central place in the growth of the “Atlantic economy,” whatever that term means (see the separate article Economy and Consumption). The history of this trade is not the history of the merchants who managed it, however. Most economic research has focused on the extent and/or consequences of merchant activity, taking its nature largely for granted; even in works of social history, merchants were seen through the lens of standard economic theory, as paragons of rational choice and calculation, profit making, and capital accumulation, with little if any qualification by the particular historical context. Within this general framework considerable research was eventually devoted to various merchant subgroups, though almost always from a local/national and often Eurocentric perspective. Only recently have merchants themselves come to be problematized, with increasing attempts at building a working historicized paradigm of who Early Modern merchants were, what they were doing, and how they succeeded (or failed) in their activities.

Article.  7454 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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