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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: October 2015

5 - The “Big Bang” of financial capitalism: financing and re-financing the Mississippi and South Sea Companies, 1688–1720


The accumulated expenses of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) left each of the great powers of Europe with unprecedented burdens of government debt. The overlapping Great Northern War (1700–1721) also encumbered Sweden and Russia with pressing financial problems. The competitive experiments with ways to deal with their amassed debts among the emerging nation-states of Europe over the next decade ended with Britain alone holding the key to success in war finance. Spain retreated from European expansion to focus on its increasingly productive colonies in Latin America while strengthening mercantile ties with France and allowing provincial elites to regain their local authority over both taxes and coinage. Austria focused on exploiting the trade and finance possibilities through its acquisition of the remaining provinces of the southern Netherlands, which meant renewing the privileges of the city authorities there as well. The Netherlands found that the resources of Holland no longer sufficed to maintain its role among the Great Powers, and the Dutch merchant capitalists turned instead to invest in emerging powers, first Britain, then Germany, Russia, and finally even the new republic calling itself the United States of America. France, having dallied with an attempt to imitate the financial successes of the Netherlands and Great Britain under the tutelage of John Law during the years 1716–1720, reverted to its previous reliance on domestic financiers to sustain both royal authority and provincial aristocracy.

Britain alone among the contesting military powers of Europe in the eighteenth century succeeded in convincing a large and diverse number of individuals to hold onto their claims against the government. Especially important were the foreigners holding British sovereign debt, which included not only the expatriate community of French Huguenots and Sephardic Jews settled in London after the Acts of Toleration in 1689, but also Dutch and German merchant elites, and even the Swiss city of Basel. In the first generation of British financial innovation after 1688, Parliament created a unique combination of chartered corporations to hold most of the national debt created by war finance.

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