March 23, 2012

Fishing merchants

Allan Dwyer's wonderful article about Fishing merchants in Newfoundland deserves to be read, if only to show how complex 18th Century Commerce really was. He takes as his cases two particular merchants: Benjamin Lester and John Slade. Lester was, according to Dwyer, an international commercial merchant: he had trading links going up and down the coast of North America and was heavily involved in trading lots of goods across the Atlantic. Slade on the other hand was a more disreputable character- who functioned on the boundary of British rule in the same areas as Lester but less as a merchant and more as a bucaneer. The account is very interesting and shows how each man structured his business and what they did to thrive in the brutal world of 18th Century commerce.

But I think there is a deeper interest here, for a wider community, and that's this. In an earlier post this week I discussed how context forms value. That's absolutely right and I'm sure that Dwyer would agree- context is key. But equally different contexts can create very different ways of behaving: in this case Slade fought and Lester sold. Both strategies were successful. And this brings me to a second major point- a second truism if you like- and that's that each strategy was in a sense mutually dependent. Lester represented legitimate authority: in addition to being a merchant he served the crown in other capacities. Slade extended British territory into the Notre Dame bay and therefore solidified the British claim- by illegally taking on and fighting his French or Indian opponents. Its not just that these are different strategies- they are- but they are compatible to the point of being mutually parasitic.

That raises all sorts of moral and political issues which are fascinating. Historically though it reminds us to see societies hollistically, rather than purely biographically. Only then can we understand which choices were open to them within their context and possibly also how they sought to effect their context and drive the choices of others.