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  • Print publication year: 1997
  • Online publication date: February 2010



Commerce is among the most universal, and the most dangerous, of all human activities. Foreign exchange, in particular, has always been hedged round by taboos and special provisions designed to protect the hearth culture from alien hostilities and impurities. Yet the allure of exchange seems nearly always to triumph over the fear of danger: this fact gave shape to much of the history of intercultural contact in North America.

In 17th-century Europe, fears relating to foreign trade were embodied in the principles of the mercantilists, theorists of state power who jealously guarded the national wealth. Mercantilists wanted their kingdoms to be self-contained and impregnable as they competed with one another for control of valuable resources. These principles shaped the early period of state-sponsored colonization in England and France and drove both powers to seek wealth on the North American continent. Competitive, acquisitive, fearful of foreign power, Europeans entered into the search for exploitable resources in the Americas. They sought to fashion empires of commerce, understood as mercantilists would understand them. They regarded colonial commerce as a one-way flow of wealth, from the margins of empire to its center, and they believed fiercely in the importance of maintaining the integrity – the purity – of their respective colonial spheres.

One source of colonial wealth was the trade for furs with Native American societies. In these exchanges the fears and desires of non-European cultures came into play as well.