Pieces of Eight: Sailors, Wages, and Trade

by Richard Blakemore (University of Reading) – research conducted at the University of Exeter thanks to a ERC project.

 

In April 1642, Michael Johnson sailed from London aboard the Fame. The voyage took him to northern France, southern Spain, and the Caribbean, and Johnson started it with a ‘venture’, a personal investment of cash or goods, worth £5. He spent the voyage ‘turneinge and winding’ (as one of his shipmates put it) his venture and his wages: hiring out his cabin to passengers, buying and selling at each port. By the time the ship was heading for home, Johnson had accumulated 200 pieces of eight and some cargo, altogether worth roughly £50 – ten times his original ‘venture’.

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A white sailor seated and a black sailor standing; to left, the black sailor standing with the white sailor seated in profile facing right, and with a ship behind to right; a round composition. c.1660 Etching. From The British Museum, available at

 

This example invites us to reconsider the traditional image of mariners as wage workers, as poor and unskilled labourers, sitting at the bottom of a strictly ranked workforce. That is what this article is set to do.

This idea of mariners has endured among historians in part because it was popular among those mariners’ contemporaries, especially during the early modern period when global trade and shipping expanded enormously. A proverb from that period claims that ‘the sea and the gallows refuseth nobody’. Yet this interpretation has also been founded on a relatively limited analysis of sailors’ wages, which sought mainly to identify averages across the sector. This article presents a more detailed discussion of this topic, based on a dataset gathered from the papers of the High Court of Admiralty. It is possible to download the dataset here.

The data confirms the impression of a hierarchical labour market, with clear thresholds between ranks. Most mariners (sailors with no specific role) earned less than most specialists (men with a specific job, like boatswain, gunner, or carpenter); most specialists earned less than masters and master’s mates, who navigated and commanded ships. However, there was also remarkable variety – across the seventeenth century, mariners earned between 5 and 55 shillings a month, specialists between 13 and 100 shillings, though in both cases there was predictable lumping around a median point.

Such variation can be explained by the circumstances of a voyage, such as length, destination, and anticipated riskiness. In wartime, for instance, wages rose for most seafarers. This also reflects different levels of skill and social capital for individual sailors at all levels of the shipping industry. In other words, we must recognise that at least some mariners, as well as those at higher ranks, were experienced workers who could claim a skill premium in their wages.

As well as exploring this variety in wages, we also need to look beyond them to other forms of income – something which, like wages, scholars have often treated briefly, and with more attention to the activities of shipmasters. There were multiple available arrangements. Sailors might receive a share of the profits from a voyage, especially when working on a fishing vessel or a privateer, and they also expected a full ‘diet’ aboard ship, and protested loudly when the food did not meet their expectations.

Most crucially, it seems that Michael Johnson was not alone. Many sailors of all ranks carried goods aboard ship, sometimes in their own cabin or chest, sometimes in larger volumes with the ship’s other cargo. This is an area that historians have begun to investigate in more depth (as in this article by Beverly Lemire, and this roundtable edited by Maria Fusaro). Though there is not enough evidence on the value of these goods for a systematic analysis, we can at least establish that the practice was ubiquitous, and that it formed a significant portion of many seafarers’ incomes.

There are implications from this evidence for our wider understanding of the shipping industry and early modern economic developments. As well as the idea that they were unskilled, sailors have often been seen as an exploited group, essential to but not benefitting from European economic growth, to which shipping and trade were dynamic contributing sectors. There is some truth to this picture: sailors’ working lives were certainly hard and dangerous, and the period saw rising inequality, with wages falling behind inflation. Nevertheless, studying seafarers’ wages and trade shows us that they sought to make the best of, and some of them were able to successfully operate in, the venture economy of early modern shipping.

 

Full article: Blakemore, R. J. (2017), Pieces of eight, pieces of eight: seamen’s earnings and the venture economy of early modern seafaring. The Economic History Review, 70: 1153–1184. doi:10.1111/ehr.12428. Available here

To contact the author: r.blakemore@reading.ac.uk

 

 

Cameralism in Practice. State Administration and Economy in Early Modern Europe

On Marten Seppel, Keith Tribe (eds.) Cameralism in Practice. State Administration and Economy in Early Modern Europe, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge 2017 (ISBN 978 1 78327 212 9)

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There has been a growing interest in cameralism over the last five to ten years, but it has been claimed that the only scholarly book-length treatment of cameralism in English was a 1909 work by Albion Small.

Fortunately, things are changing: the annual conferences of the European Society for the History of Economic Thought are dominated by young French and Italian scholars; the developing field of intellectual history has upgraded the quality of work done in the history of economics; and from the later 1970s onwards the history of eighteenth century political thought has emerged as a very sophisticated field, within which the study of cameralism no longer seems such a minority interest. If there is a “logic” it could be described as a literature of economic management. Thought about this way, it then becomes more obvious quite why it is so hard to define, since there is no strictly equivalent body of writing in contemporary languages such as English and French. It has become more and more clear (as argued also our collection) that besides Germany and Austria, cameralist literature on state and economy also had great influence in Sweden, Russia, Denmark and even Portugal.

The present collection focuses on the practices of cameralism. In the 1930s August Wolfgang Gerloff argued that eighteenth-century cameral science was “die Lehre von der Staatspraxis, die Lehre von der praktischen Politik” (a doctrine directed to state practice, to practical politics). However, Andre Wakefield writes that cameralism was a kind of fantasy fiction or even a utopian theory, rather than any particular plan that could be followed by administration. He believes that cameralist authors did realise that their teaching was too theoretical.

One of the main goals of our book was to bring out the innovative tendencies associated with cameralist discourse in the eighteenth century. This objective raised intriguing questions such as: did cameralism change the world? Or was there a “cameralist revolution”?

However, it may be too easy to assimilate ideas of “progress” to a present-centred history lacking an understanding of past historical commentary and argument. While it would be wrong to suggest that cameralism in some way changed the world, what we can say is that it changed the language with which the world was conceived. Whatever the outcome of cameralist “practice”, by the later part of the eighteenth century there was a new language of state administration that became transformed into the financial sciences of the nineteenth century, and thence became part of the language of public administration. It gave “practitioners” a way of talking to each other about the way in which they conducted their affairs.

What the study of cameralist literature has brought to light is the extent of our ignorance about early modern Europe, its politics and administration, its economy and society. The sheer volume of material that recent work has revealed compels us to think about new ways of exploring networks of activity and argument. Rosenberg’s work on Prussia remains important, but today it would not be appropriate to write a history of bureaucratic rule without examining the language of administration. The key to that lies in the study of cameralist literature and its language, and in a new approach to the work of administration in the European states of the eighteenth century. As I suggest above, my problem with “mercantilism” is that it presents a grid that obscures from us both diversity and convergence in early modern economic literature. Insofar as our book on cameralism and administration shows the sheer diversity of this material, I hope that it provides encouragement to others to explore this literature more systematically than has ever before been attempted.

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