Merchants The Community That Shaped England's Trade and Empire, 1550-1650 Edmond Smith

Publication date:
14 Sep 2021
Yale University Press
376 pages: 235 x 156mm
16 color illus.
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A new history of English trade and empire—revealing how a tightly woven community of merchants was the true origin of globalized Britain

In the century following Elizabeth I’s rise to the throne, English trade blossomed as thousands of merchants launched ventures across the globe. Through the efforts of these "mere merchants," England developed from a peripheral power on the fringes of Europe to a country at the center of a global commercial web, with interests stretching from Virginia to Ahmadabad and Arkhangelsk to Benin.
Edmond Smith traces the lives of English merchants from their earliest steps into business to the heights of their successes. Smith unpicks their behavior, relationships, and experiences, from exporting wool to Russia, importing exotic luxuries from India, and building plantations in America. He reveals that the origins of "global" Britain are found in the stories of these men whose livelihoods depended on their skills, entrepreneurship, and ability to work together to compete in cutthroat international markets. As a community, their efforts would come to revolutionize Britain’s relationship with the world.

Edmond Smith is a Presidential Fellow in Economic Cultures at the University of Manchester. Formerly a capital markets research manager, Smith now specializes in the histories of capitalism and globalization, having completed his PhD at Cambridge in 2016.

"Wonderfully wide-ranging and deeply-researched"—William Dalrymple, Financial Times 

“This exceptional, scholarly book is written with verve and style and will immerse readers in a vibrant world glimpsed only occasionally in plays and histories. It will widen their scope of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries not just geographically but culturally and socially...A colourful, witty treat, from the pages of which waft exotic spices and sea salt.”—Steven Veerapen, Aspects of History ‘Books of 2021’

"Merchants is a fine book, full of humanity and insight...This excellent new not economic history as we know it [and] Smith uses his vivid reconstruction of the lives of merchants to make an important point about the birth of capitalism: it depended on culture, on institutions, on people getting together and doing things. The blind force of the market was just one part of the story; the meeting, greeting, schmoozing, learning, counting and thinking undertaken by the merchants themselves were integral to the birth of England as an international trading power."—Literary Review 

This scholarly yet highly readable – indeed, page turning – text is certainly timely...Throughout, Smith demonstrates an exemplary handling of sources, weaving together an enormous variety (both printed and manuscript) into a delightful narrative. The resultant history of the trade – or art – of merchandising becomes a wide and compelling picture of innumerable interesting personalities trading, arguing, and organising their communities across place and time.’"—Aspects of History

‘An assured study of the merchants who changed England’s relationship with the world in the century after 1550...Edmond Smith’s analysis of merchant activity has clear relevance for contemporary debate about Britain’s role in the world, and how to understand global economic change."—Times Literary Supplement

‘At last an account of early modern merchant communities that balances the cold, hard reality of profit and investment with the intangible capital of trust, sociability and human connection that drove English trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sharply observed, innovatively analysed, and always accessible, this is a book that demands the attention of anyone who is interested in the traffic between English trade and imperialism in this early, foundational period.’ —Professor Nandini Das, University of Oxford

' A terrific achievement. Written with pace and panache, Merchants shows how in the space of 100 years England’s merchants went from a group of largely irrelevant traders on the fringes of Europe to international empire builders. Managing to combine intricate detail of mercantile innovations within a broad sweep of English commercial relations from the Americas to Japan, Smith is brilliant at recording the credits and debits of this most decisive period in English commercial history. A superb book.'—Professor Jerry Brotton, author of A History of the World in Twelve Maps

‘‘Mere merchants’ as individuals, but as a class they shaped modern English history. This is a rich and deeply fascinating account which addresses fundamental questions about England's rise to commercial power.’—James Evans, author of Merchant Adventurers

Merchants is an important new study of the men who, for better or worse, laid the foundations of England’s first commercial empire. Drawing on impeccable research, Smith shows how it was corporate institutions and collaborative practices that turned England from European backwater into global power.’—Professor Phil Withington, author of Society in Early Modern England