Maritime neutrality in trade was an active decision and meant that an economic power would neither involve itself in nor interfere with a current war. It was governed by treaties or implicit accords between the neutral nations and the belligerents. During the Early Modern period, however, maritime neutrality was often highly fragile. The open seas offered a rather high temptation for neutral ship-owners and merchants to transgress the implicit or explicit boundaries of their status. The windfall profits that beckoned in wartime (e.g. with regard to the transport of prohibited products to belligerents) were often too great a temptation for entrepreneurs and they not infrequently found support in this from their own governments.
However, the fragility of maritime neutrality did not only result from the problematic behavior of actors on the neutral side. Corsairs (privateers), a group that was difficult to control, also had substantial leeway to make decisions in the event of an encounter with a neutral ship on the high seas. Impounding a neutral ship and its cargo could be done on the flimsiest of grounds and afterwards the problem of restitution rested on the shoulders of the robbed ship- and cargo-owners, who had to try to win their case in the Admiralty courts.
Neutrality was thus in a state of constant renegotiation. Gray areas existed and, in many cases, the boundaries were shifting or open to interpretation. Definitions of what was permissible were hammered out in practice – and often ultimately decided in court. Archives of maritime courts – in Great Britain, France or Spain – are therefore vast treasure troves for uncovering commercial practices of alleged neutrality. They contain a plethora of borderline cases, fragile facts and instances of negotiable neutrality.
In this panel we will look at several case studies of commercial practices of merchants from Hamburg, France, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden from the 18th century, using them to explore early modern negotiations pertaining to the "fragile fact" of neutrality.
This presentation will illustrate the strategies, the legal limbo and subtleties of Hamburg’s neutral trade in France based on a case study of the eighteenth-century wholesale merchant Nicolaus Gottlieb Luetkens, especially during the years 1743–1745 when he was establishing his business. Though exempted from direct trade with the colonies, Hamburg merchants like Luetkens successfully participated in the French Atlantic trade as commission agents and shipowners, benefiting greatly from their neutral role in a contemporary world of conflict. As middlemen, these supposedly neutral merchants actively supported and sustained the French colonial economy.
The presentation will chart an important change that took place in British prize law in 1756, and show how merchants, ship owners and captains of ships from the kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden sought to negotiate this shift. In particular, it will tie changes worked out in diplomatic contexts to the evidence from real ships attempting to present themselves as neutrals. The presentation will pay attention to the kinds of cargoes carried and voyages undertaken by Scandinavian ships, and it will address trade with France, the Iberian Peninsula and the Mediterranean as well as with the West Indies.
The presentation shows the highly active shaping of maritime neutrality by different actors from the Austrian Netherlands, from small port officials in Ostend to rich ship-owners and on up to the Holy Roman Emperor, who periodically tried to intervene in London on behalf of his subjects. It also shows that the border between legitimate trade and smuggling was a flexible one, enabling not only an accumulation of wealth for the Belgians but also their first substantial involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Finally it discusses the reasons for the surprisingly high interest of the Ostenders in having a strong corsair threat, a product of the fact that both Brussels and Vienna had an interest in limiting the number of “freeriders” using forged imperial flags and ships’ passports.
This presentation explores the role of illegal trade in the Nordic peripheries, during the war-stricken period 1770-1820. During this period Denmark was strongly affected by two interlinked phenomena, neutrality, and flourishing trade. Neutrality boosted trade, and helped bring global wares to Europe. However, the Danish state also deemed it necessary to adopt a more active, and illegal, trading strategy in order to secure enough buyers for their imported exotic merchandise. A smuggling entrepôt was therefore set up in the Faroe Islands, directly targeting Denmark’s traditional allies, the United Kingdom. This paper investigates the entrepôt, asking how it worked and what effect it had on the UK.