Although these essays concentrate on merchant initiatives, they are themselves innovative perspectives on early modern economic life and previews of substantial scholarly work in progress. Most new European trading ventures of the early modern period were not spectacular initiatives to exotic peoples and places. These nine essays amply document how challenging things could be for those entering a trade within the relatively familiar bounds of the North Atlantic world. Free of the “North Atlantic triumphalism” that can affect the study of early modern world trade, these studies emphasize the opportunities, aspirations and methods of the mercantile intruder into established trades, and of the innovator attempting their reorganization.
What did merchants need to know in entering an unfamiliar trade? How much “mystery” was there to specific trades? Fur, fish, rice, molasses, and wine were each complex staples, capable of dictatorial economic power over the rhythms of life in their producing areas and, as we have been learning more recently, ultimately dependent upon consumers whose tastes varied and changed over time. As scholars learn more of the totality of these trades, it becomes even easier to presume that merchants needed to know a great deal. The American exporters to Northern Europe, discussed in Professor Daniel Rabuzzi's paper, were very anxious to contact knowledgeable and trustworthy merchants there. Professor Olaf Janzen recounts the misadventures of young Edward Burd Jr., sent as supercargo to buy fish at Newfoundland and paying the obvious price of ignorance compounded by bad luck.
Merchant adventurers were primarily wholesalers, or négociants, those “gains-from-trade” dealers engaged in a seemingly eclectic exchange of goods bought where they were thought to be cheap and sold where they were expected to be expensive, with the proceeds reinvested to repeat that profitable process. Armed with some understanding of calculation and languages, and one of the many printed merchant advisors of the period, bolder traders attempted to apply some general knowledge of commodities, shipping, customs brokering, marketing, and debt collecting to whatever opportunities presented themselves. The Gaigneurs of La Rochelle, discussed by Professor John Bosher, seem to have entered the fur trade in complete ignorance, and remained wholesalers who neither bought furs directly from Amerindians nor sold hats in retail shops. What they needed to learn about trade with Canada could come from experienced partners, investors, suppliers, shippers, and workers.