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Who on a trade ship was ultimately responsible for purchasing cargo in foreign ports, and was this a recognized position or more of an ad hoc thing? I assume the ship's owners were the ones who decided what they ideally wanted the ship to purchase and transport, but I can't imagine that this decision was absolute.

Say you intend to ship pepper from China only to find out when you get there that a hurricane has destroyed most of the pepper crop and it now costs ten times the price you expected, if you can get it at all. Presumably the ship didn't just turn around and head back with an empty hull.

In such circumstances, who decided what to purchase? Was there a dedicated factor onboard to make such decisions? I know the captain was responsible for the ship as a whole, but it seems a bit much to ask him to also be an expert in language, culture, and barter as well. At the very least, it seems that whoever was in charge of purchasing should be familiar with the local language or else have contacts in the country who were fluent. Perhaps the purchaser was a land-bound position at the destination?

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    This seems a little broad at the moment. The Age of Sail covered about 200 years and there were a wide range of trade ships on the seas, representing a range of ownership from the costal owner-operator to world-spanning companies (like the HEIC & VOC).
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 6 at 22:26
  • I guess I'm more interested in early on, before the rise of the giants like the East India Company. Smaller enterprises, let's say, rather than the gargantuan, well-oiled machines. But I'm not too terribly picky. If it was sometimes a dedicated position and sometimes not, I'd be interested in knowing that, too.
    – Galendo
    Mar 6 at 22:32
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    Start researching with the term supercargo.
    – justCal
    Mar 6 at 22:53
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    Okay, I think that pretty much answered my question, actually. Could you make an answer to that effect? I'll still wait the traditional 24 hours in case someone has a better response, but that seems to be the necessary term previously missing from my vocabulary.
    – Galendo
    Mar 6 at 23:06
  • It's too broad. Who decided what cargo to buy? The captain, in your question. Or a company representative of the EIC/VOC. Lower ranking officers would manage supplies and provisions. Usually the first officer, who would assign tasks to lower grade officers.
    – Jos
    Mar 7 at 4:28

2 Answers 2

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The supercargo was an individual found on many trade ships during the age-of-sail period whose responsibility it was to represent the interests of the corporation or financiers involved in the trade goods being sold or acquired. Wikipedia says

A supercargo (from Spanish sobrecargo) is a person employed on board a vessel by the owner of cargo carried on the ship.1 The duties of a supercargo are defined by admiralty law and include managing the cargo owner's trade, selling the merchandise in ports to which the vessel is sailing,1 and buying and receiving goods to be carried on the return voyage.

Another definition can be found here, in a list exploring roles found on ships:

The merchants’ agent on board. He could also be the freight agent, and was responsible to take decisions about what to load and what to pay for it.

If you search the term on our site, you will find several mentions discussing early trade (Russian-America Company, Hawai'i, California) and one specifically concerning trade with (China). These will give you an idea of some of the varying instances where supercargoes have been mentioned historically.


The first time I encountered the term was while reading Dana's Two years before the Mast', which I recommend if you want to get a feel for 19th century sailing ships, trading, and some info on early California History. Dana mentions the supercargo as a peer of the Captain, which was lacking on his ship:

The captain, in the first place, is lord paramount. He stands no watch, comes and goes when he pleases, and is accountable to no one, and must be obeyed in everything, without a question, even from his chief officer. He has the power to turn his officers off duty, and even to break them and make them do duty as sailors in the forecastle. When there are no passengers and no supercargo, as in our vessel, he has no companion but his own dignity, and no pleasures, unless he differs from most of his kind, but the consciousness of possessing supreme power, and, occasionally, the exercise of it.


Since your example was early trade with China, there is a source found here, which is by Hosea Ballou Morse who was a customs official and historian. An excerpt from his article published in the English Historical Review, mentions the importance of the supercargo and Chinese trade:

TWO hundred years ago the supercargo was an important person on a ship trading to the Indies. The ship went exploring to new countries; there were no banks of exchange, and her owners had no correspondents in foreign ports; they loaded on the ship what was required, in goods or in money, to buy a cargo of the products of the foreign country; and, as they could not go in person, they must have a representative on board who was qualified to sell his 'stock', to exchange his money for the currency of the country, and to buy his 'investment' of such quality and at such prices that the commodities could be sold at a profit on the ship's return to its home port. Besides this mercantile qualification, he must be capable of dealing with persons of rank and dignity. In one port the principal trader might be the king of the country (such a trader was the king of Tongking1); in another he might be the admiral commanding the naval defences, as at Mindanao in 1686,7 or the general commanding the garrison, as at Amoy in 1684;7 in another the merchants with whom he must trade were only the commercial representatives of the highest officials, as at Canton in 1699,7 or one merchant might have the imperial commission to monopolize the trade with foreign ships, as at Chusan, Amoy, and Canton in 1702–4.7 The supercargo needed diplomatic ability to deal with all such extraordinary situations; not simply the courage to resist extortionate demands, but the skill to conduct a trade notwithstanding that such demands were made.


Note that not all ships had a supercargo, but if you were looking for an induvial whose only role was control of the trade on a sailing ship in the 'age-of-sail', this would be a relevant term to research.

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  • Thank you, this is a helpful post. I've actually read Two Years Before the Mast, many years ago; but of course, there wasn't actually a supercargo there, so the lack or expectation thereof didn't make any impression on me. It's a good book, though.
    – Galendo
    Mar 8 at 22:42
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Depends on the time and place.

  • The ship might transport good for a merchant house, represented by factors abroad. The Hanseatic League called the permanent establishment of these factors Kontor.
  • There might be several merchants abroad, effecticvely chartering part of the ship and doing their own speculative trade.
  • There might be only one. This person might or might not be the same as the captain.
  • Officers and crew might be paid, in whole or in part, by the right to use part of the cargo hold for their own benefit.

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