Lucas Haasis


The Secret of Success - Mercantile Letter Liaisons in Mid-18th-Century


Context: Shipping Business, Commission Trade, Banking and Insurance Industry, Company-Trade: As ways and means to participate in the emerging global market of the 18th century, these mercantile fields of activity played a major role for German merchants. They formed, not without reason, intermediary activities. In contrast to colonial powers' merchants, the German mercantile community was barred from direct trade with the colonies. Shaped by mercantilist and colonial politics, the German mercantile community seems to have had a marginalised position within the 18th century's array of economic powers. Far from it! German trading houses were indeed deeply involved in the key markets of sugar, tobacco or indigo, and manoeuvred their vessels between the colonial super-powers. Predominantly Northern-German merchants, and amongst them especially those from Hamburg, became rich and influential in the 18th century. How was that possible? The answer: from their largely neutral position within trade policy, Hamburgian merchants gained a decisive advantage; an advantage that allowed them to get an entry into the aforementioned commercial sector. As in-betweeners, warrantors or providers of infrastructure, they profited from their function as hinges between the colonial powers. At the same time, this particular position required capabilities to deal competently with the inevitably emerging areas of contact and to use grey areas. Hence, the German merchants' creeds were: negotiating skills and alternating possibilities. In this context, correspondence became the bearing and constituting medium. Particularly for merchants with a German origin, the letter became the mainspring of trade, the permit into the realm of atlantic trade, the basis for negotiation, which was capable to transcend or circumvent barriers of language, law and countries – or at least to mediate between them. Quill pen, paper, bureau and the imaginary common letter-space became the virtual place of mercantile sociality; writing letters turned into an indicator, an efficient instrument and a test. It became the issue which could tip the scales in enterprises, thus, capable to make and mar a career. In my PhD-project, I will investigate 'correspondences' as objectified mercantile sociability in terms of the forms and impacts they could have or, rather, had to have on German merchants in the 18th century.

Object of investigation: Extensively and in detail, the project will document the social practice of mercantile correspondence as the main pillar, cradle and switcher of German commercial practices as well as the correlating self-concepts of 18th century merchants. I will focus on the means of assertion and justification, the group of German merchants employed within the unstable and highly competitive field of commercial trade. For several reasons, I will put emphasis on an analysis of that very phase of German merchants, in which the right and capability of participating on the commercial stage were yet uncertain: the phase of establishing oneself as a merchant. Analysing correspondence from this very phase of life provides significant insights into the merchants' processes of searching and readjusting as well as into manoeuvres and tricks. Such a corpus also allows to pinpoint those courses of action and negotiation that could have been successful. Furthermore, it provides answers to the question how these processes crowned the merchant with success. Correspondences, hence, provide crucial insights into adequate modes of mercantile self-making.

Sources: The primary material is the correspondence of Nicolaus Gottlieb Luetkens (1716-1788), a merchant from Hamburg, whose outgoing and incoming letters are almost completely preserved for the time between 1743-1745. It covers the crucial years of Luetkens becoming an established merchant and ends shortly before he married. The merchant from Hamburg will, however, not be the sole centre of analysis. Since the material provides access to incoming as well as outgoing letters, the primary sources also allow an analysis of his positioning and activities within the extensive network of German merchants in Northern-Europe of the 1740s, who insisted on their legitimate entitlement of participating in commercial trade. My analytical focus will be on a “community of practice” formed by a group 30 German merchants settled in Hamburg, Bilbao, Amsterdam, Bordeaux and Nantes and the reconstruction of their commercial activities – based on the inventory of Luetkens' correspondence.

Theory: My project's theoretical and methodological layout complies with this approach. It follows basic assumptions from praxeological and conversation analyses. This means to focus on a reconstruction of mercantile letter-liaisons – in a time-lapse perspective and under the condition of a plurality of correspondents. It follows that the processual nature of correspondence is privileged to a focus on the solitary act of letter-writing. I suggest that form, matter and making of mercantile sociality as well as activity and self-making can be ascertained only within the course and the moment of mutual negotiation – i.e. the effects of correspondence. Written communication, i.e. the practice, explains its specific basic elements and effective mercantile qualities to itself.

Goals: In eight episodes, I will investigate characteristic mercantile activities. Reconstructing them thickly and polyphonously and putting them within a trajectory, my project will provide insights into the manifold and, at the same time, decisive mercantile courses of action, tactics, approaches, dealings and ways of positioning themselves. One of my points is that prevalent states of research do not quite capture alleged guarantors of success – or that these historiographical assumptions at least require some nuances. From a praxeological perspective on correspondence, I suggest: mercantile sociality, dealing with the positioned self and the mercantile actors' actions, entirely declare themselves as being up for negotiation. It was up to the observer to ascertain whether something was legitimate or dodgy, decent or shifty, reasonable or foolish. My project aims to change the perspective from the merchant with the clean slate towards the shrewd merchant. Shrewd, in my project, is, however, connoted positively. My project is, in three ways, a history of 'well-versed' merchants at Early Modern Times' boiling point.

(Changed: 20 Apr 2022)