An Atlantic Triangle: New England–Holland–Rio de la Plata Commercial Networks

AHA Session 128
Conference on Latin American History 23
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Bryant Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Wim Klooster, Clark University
Varieties of Trade: A Dutch Merchant in the Rio de la Plata
David Freeman, University of Missouri–Kansas City
Carousing and Trade: Early American Merchants in Surinam
Kim Todt, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Alison F. Games, Georgetown University

Session Abstract

This panel examines networks of trade that crossed imperial borders in the 17th and 18th century Atlantic World. By focusing on commercial connections linking Dutch, Anglo-American, and Rio de la Plata merchants, the authors illuminate the social, economic, and political aspects of trans-imperial trade beyond national and political boundaries. Historians have emphasized the centrality of commerce in the making of the early modern Atlantic empires; nonetheless, trade with foreign powers and contraband trade has not received as much scholarly attention, often being regarded as a minor variable in Atlantic dynamics. The three papers in this session aim to explore the significance, logistics, social, and legal aspects involved in commercial interactions that crossed imperial frontiers. These works provide a comparative perspective on how Anglo-American, Dutch-American, and Spanish-American merchants created and maintained networks that enabled trans-imperial trade. By utilizing varied sources (ship logs, cartography, merchants’ correspondence, and judicial cases) the authors illuminate merchants' legal, social, and economic strategies for conducting business beyond the political limits of empires. Furthermore, the authors suggest that trade with foreigners was integral to the development of colonial societies. As a result, merchants and authorities’ social, economic, and legal strategies in trans-imperial trade shaped the very definition of empire and colonialism in the Atlantic World.

            Freeman focuses on the career of a Dutch captain-merchant to explore the possibilities opened in Spanish Rio de la Plata for Dutch merchants. Freeman analyzes how colonial authorities and merchants selectively deployed imperial laws and institutions to legitimize commercial relations that crossed the borders between the Dutch and the Spanish Empires. The operations of merchants beyond the realms of a specific empire are also the subject of Todt's piece. The commercial networks linking Anglo-American merchants in New England to Dutch traders in Surinam illuminates the legal strategies that colonial merchants and authorities deployed to justify trans-imperial interactions. Todt suggests that these cross-border networks shaped Surinamese society as well as political and commercial dynamics within the British Empire, specifically opposing the interests of New England merchants and Jamaican planters. Prado's paper completes the Atlantic triangle by analyzing commercial networks between New England and Rio de la Plata merchants in the late 18th century. Prado examines how New England traders established and maintained longstanding trans-imperial networks encompassing merchants and local authorities, as well as legal and illegal methods of trade logistics. His paper suggests that commercial interests and personal alliances were crucial in shaping imperial institutions’ late colonial markets in the Atlantic.

            By examining merchants operating simultaneously in three different polities and regions in the Atlantic, this panel sheds light on the limits of political boundaries when confronted with the movement of peoples, goods, and ideas in the Atlantic World. These three papers illuminate the multi-faceted relationship between legal and illegal trade, as well as how illegal trade simultaneously shaped and defied empire. Finally, Alison Games will lend her expertise to the panel by offering enriching insights and probing how the papers advance our understanding of social networks, empire, and law in the Atlantic World.

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