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Merchant Enterprise in Britain: From the Industrial Revolution to World War I.

The extraordinary transformation of the world in the last two centuries appears inextricably bound to mass production. Cotton, iron, steel, chemicals, power, wave after wave of new and improved gadgets and machines revolutionized travel, communications, knowledge; food production, processing and distribution; population growth and settlement, and not least the relationships between city, country, nation, state, and empire. For at least four generations - since Arnold Toynbee's 1880-81 lectures on the Industrial Revolution - historians of Britain's economic development have focused on the Industrial Revolution; its nature, origins, causes, speed of development, impact, and diffusion to Europe, the Americas, and the world.

Accustomed, then, as we are to this emphasis upon industry in the economic modernization and Britain, it gives us pause when Stanley Chapman, in this work, claims merchant enterprise remained the dominant force in the British economy throughout the nineteenth century. However, after the pause, several observations come to mind.

Chapman's emphasis on the mercantile foundation of the nineteenth-century British economy is consistent with what economists and economic historians afl along have said about the Industrial Revolution, namely that it is historically and economically rooted in the four centuries of commercial expansion which began in the late fifteenth century. Obviously the massive increase in commodity production brought about by modern factories could not go forward without a greatly increased marketing capacity. Chapman does not find evidence that the new manufacturing enterprises were able themselves to market their output, and through even the most rapid decades of factory growth in Lancashire and the North, London and the South of England with its historic concentration of financial and commercial activities retained predominance in the British economy. Merchant enterprise in the form of partnerships, agency houses, and investing groups constituted the largest fortunes in Britain and remained the preponderant force in the British economic structure throughout the nineteenth century, not only because of their role in marketing output but also as a significant source of capital and enterprise for new and increase commodity production.

This mercantile community was culturally diverse and dynamic. More than three-quarters of the merchants in London in 1763 were of foreign origin or descent. In 1914 twelve out of twenty leading accepting houses (merchant banks) were of foreign origin. In Manchester two-thirds of the capital for continental trade in 1833 was provided from abroad. The major British trading cities of the period were multi-cultural centres through which foreigners brought to Britain new trading contacts and methods, capital, and new ideologies. Furthermore, the struggle for social recognition by foreign trading families - German, Jewish, Greek - brought much hard murk, discipline, and competitive strength to British overseas trade.

In conclusion, Chapman offers further evidence and argument for the continued preponderance of the merchant community throughout and after the Industrial Revolution. He shows that this community was remarkably diverse in its cultural composition and wide open to the infusion of foreign enterprise. These conclusions are drawn almost exclusively from the business records and histories of British overseas merchant enterprise: Jardine, Matheson, Ogilvy, Sassoon, Skinner, Wallace, Ralli, Beit are the prototypes here. How different would the picture be if the emphasis were upon the domestic market and domestic merchant enterprise? From time to time Chapman alludes to this question but never gives it systematic attention. His reflections on this issue would be helpful. Also the study is diffuse. A broad range of business histories and historical records, stretching from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, are examined relating to British enterprise in Asia, South Africa, Russia, Latin America. This research provides long - at times seemingly endless - lists of business enterprises with related information on the ethnic background of partners, the types of commodities traded, areas of trade expansion, profitability, capital investment, capital growth. But we are not provided with much biographical information regarding family and religious ties, the knowledge, skills, and credibility of individual business partners. As the viability and desirability of the partnership, as a form of business enterprise, was based on the dynamism and power of the individual and personal ties, the history remains frustratingly insubstantial. In fairness to Chapman we need to recognize that there is no easy way around this problem. His strategy of doing a broad but superficial sweep of business histories, while having its limits, raises important questions for consideration and provides context for case studies which, in principle at least, might illuminate the dynamic and powerful powerful core of the business partnerships.
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Author:McGinnis, David P.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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