Eighteenth-century Commerce

When the War of the Spanish Succession started in 1701, England was one of the sea powers. When peace came in 1713, she was recognized as the power on the seas. England's commercial growth, however, was steady and plodding, practically lacking in the spectacular achievement of the Dutch between 1600 and 1660 and the glamour and dash of the days of Sir Francis Drake. Statistics of that day are notable for their incompleteness, and the few that are available cannot be accorded the credence of modern efforts. However, they can be trusted to give a general indication of the growth of trade.

Even during the war of 1701 to 1713, British trade flourished. More than 3,550 ships, most of them English, cleared English ports in 1710, while in 1713 clearances had risen to 5,800. By this time the population of Britain's overseas colonies was doubling every twenty years, and her trade grew in proportion. In 1698, trade with the colonies is estimated to have been worth 1.7 million pounds (contemporary value), or 15 percent of her total trade. By 1775, the value of colonial trade had risen to 9.5 million pounds, to represent 33 percent of the total. Furthermore, colonial goods furnished a large share of the cargoes reexported to other European countries, particularly the Baltic and Mediterranean areas. That the colonies had developed into important markets for English exports is evident from the accompanying figures for value of shipments in contemporary pounds sterling. Although English trade with India was considerable, figures were not included since India was not a colony. In 1682, imports of cotton cloth from Surat alone had amounted to over 1.4 million pieces, and the competition offered the English textile industries led to restrictions of the cotton trade.

The only country that could offer England effective commercial competition was France; Dutch commerce had passed its zenith, and the Spanish flotas, or annual fleets, were becoming smaller and smaller. From about 1660 to 1815, French commerce fluctuated in accordance with the whims of her monarchs and the vicissitudes of almost continual warfare, and we cannot follow its ups and downs. In 1715, in reflection of Louis XIV's policies, her total commerce is estimated at a value of 72 million dollars (1940 dollars). In 1785, French commerce is estimated at roughly 330 million dollars, in comparison with England's 265 million dollars. The explanation is mainly threefold: France's population was three times that of England; France held Martinique, Guadaloupe, and St. Domingo, the best sugar islands in the West Indies; and commercial wealth then lay in the tropics. British trade had undoubtedly expanded more consistently throughout the century than had French. Owing to popular demand after the wreck of the colonial empire in the Seven Years' War which ended in 1763, the French navy and merchant marine had been rebuilt, and both were at a peak of efficiency during the 1780's, while British trade still suffered from the effects of the Revolutionary War.

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