Fragile Neutralities. Practices of Maritime Trading as Neutrals during the Early Modern Period
Maritime neutrality in trade was an active decision and meant that an economic power would neither involve itself nor interfere in a prevailing war. It was governed by treaties or implicit accords with 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 lured in wartimes e.g. with regard to the transport of prohibited products to belligerents was often too great a temptation for entrepreneurs and these not rarely found support of their governments.
However, the fragility of maritime neutrality did not only result from problematic behavior of actors on the neutral side. Many corsairs, 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 could be done upon the flimsiest of grounds and afterwards, the problem of restitution befell the robbed ship-owner, who had to try to gain the litigation in front of the Admiralty court.
Neutrality was thus in a flux of constant renegotiation. Gray areas existed or, in many cases, the boundaries were shifted or interpreted broadly. Definitions of what was still permissible were found in practice – and often ultimately decided in court. Archives of maritime courts – in Great Britain, France or Spain – are therefore vast treasure troves for finding commercial practices of alleged neutrality. This material unveils a plethora of borderline cases, fragile facts and negotiable neutrality.
In this panel we will look at several case studies and the commercial practices of merchants from Hamburg, France, Belgium and Sweden from the 18th century and explore the opportunities and limits of neutrality as an early modern example of negotiation practices relating to this "fragile fact".
This presentation explores the role of illegal trade in the Nordic peripheries, during the war-stricken period 1770-1820. Denmark was during this period marked 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.
This presentation will illustrate the strategies, the legal limbo and subtleties of Hamburg’s neutral trade in France based on the case study of the eighteenth-century wholesale merchant Nicolaus Gottlieb Luetkens, who traveled the French west coast during his establishment phase 1743–1745. 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 decidedly 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 of the Austrian Netherlands, from small port officials in Ostend over rich ship-owners up to the emperor, who intervened in London on behalf of his subjects. It also shows that the border to smuggling was a flexible one, enabling not only an amassment of wealth for the Belgians but also their first substantial involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. The surprisingly high interest of the Ostenders in a strong corsair threat on the oceans can also be shown as this decreased the amount of “freeriding” with forged imperial flags and ship passports and thus was overall more beneficial than harmful to the interests of Brussels and Vienna.