I'm trying to get an understanding of how trade worked in the 18th century. I'm trying to learn how trade was conducted so I can make a realistic game. I'm struggling to find a good source for the questions that I have. Specifically, I'm trying to understand how trade agreements were reached. For instance, could goods be contracted for transport? If so, how did such agreements work? Was there fixed cost transportation? Percentage of cost of goods sold? Delivery on success only? Any other interesting details relating to transporting others goods, or your own goods on another person's ship?

To start with, I'm most interested in European trade, especially the British Empire, with its territories and other countries.

I'm most interested in smaller traders, not large companies.


1 Answer 1


Much of what you desire to know will be summed up by researching both the history of Marine Insurance, perhaps starting with the founding of Lloyd's Coffee House in about 1688; the history of the early trading companies such as

as well as the early banking arrangements established by Europe's key trading cities (eg Amsterdam in 1609, Hamburg in 1619, and Nuremberg in 1621) modelled after the Venetian Initiative already proven by Venice, Genoa and Barcelona.

Note that by the beginning of the 17th century all of Europe west of the Dvina-Dnieper line (at least) had a well established banking system offering Bill of Exchange (ie chequing) services and Foreign Exchange markets (also here) . Antwerp has a functioning Stock Exchange starting from 1531, and all those East India Companies were simply long-lived extensions of the limited liability concept that had long been used to finance risky maritime trade on a voyage-by-voyage basis. Somewhat coarsely, the financing which Antonio provides to Bassanio in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice illustrates the mechanism.

  • Note also that in this time period it was often the case that the Captain and pilot of a merchant vessel might be different persons. The Captain was responsible for the itinerary and the cargo, the pilot for safely getting the ship from port-to-port. There are remnants of this relationship in that between Master and Pilot relationship when a large vessel enters a harbour today: impahq.org/admin/resources/article1228231036.pdf. Jan 3, 2016 at 21:46
  • The pilot was a seaman by trade with likely at least a decade experience as an apprentice and journeyman pilot responsible for ensuring a safe voyage; the Captain was an experienced merchant who responsible for ensuring a profitable voyage. Needless to say, these responsibilities and authorities occasionally clashed. Jan 3, 2016 at 21:49
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    The role of a pilot (in the naval sense) has always been to steer a ship in and out of port. A ship would be sailed between ports by the sailing master and a local pilot would be taken on to guide the ship in and out of port using their detailed knowledge of the coastal winds and hazards. Once the ship left port, the pilot would be dropped off in a boat (just as they are today). So the ship's captain and its (many) pilots would always be different people.
    – Steve Bird
    Jan 3, 2016 at 22:30

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