- The Capital and the Colonies: London and the Atlantic Economy, 1660-1700
The roster of scholars who have published important books on seventeenth-century English merchants and mercantile life is long and formidable. To this roster we can now add the name Zahedieh. For more than two decades, she has been writing important articles and essays on these topics, and in The Capital and the Colonies, her impressive [End Page 451] first book, she at once consolidates and elaborates upon her previous work.
Over the years, economic historians of seventeenth-century England have written a good deal about the growth of England's colonial trade during that century. Political historians have written extensively about England's attempts—or rather the attempts by certain Englishmen and women—during that same century to formulate an imperial ideology, to establish imperial institutions, and, in time, to forge an empire. Moreover, urban historians have documented in considerable detail London's seventeenth-century growth and will to power. Many scholars have treated these subjects as though they were independent of one another, and others have argued explicitly that the relationship between them (especially the relationship between the colonial trade and London's growth) was weak. Zahedieh, however, sees these developments as inextricably linked; she makes a strong case for such linkage in her densely researched and, to some extent, densely written book.
Simply put, Zahedieh sees the impetus to trade rising from production on the "ghost acres" in England's American colonies as the primary catalyst for England's increasing economic dynamism during the seventeenth century (particularly after the Restoration), for the enhanced productivity of England's commercial sector (particularly vis à vis the Dutch), and for London's transformation into one of the leading emporia in Europe.1 In her view, England's merchants in general and London's merchants in particular responded vigorously to the opportunities opening up in the Americas.
The rapid growth in the size and relative importance of imports from and exports to the colonies, however, is only the beginning. Because the imperial economic structure created during the second half of the seventeenth century—the so-called Navigation System—allowed considerable commercial competition among English merchants and few opportunities for rent-seeking (at least during the first few decades of its existence), merchants perforce avidly pursued greater efficiency in order to stay afloat. Zahedieh shows that commercial competition was rendered even more intense because of the fact that barriers to entry into the colonial trade were low. These considerations pushed merchants into a cycle of vigorous economic activity. In their push to stay competitive—and, if successful, to reap some of the economic bounty derived in one way or another from the colonies—merchants promoted efficiency gains throughout the commercial sector, thereby rendering the entire English economy more productive and wealthy.
Nowhere was the process described above more apparent than in [End Page 452] London. The merchants in England's leading city—with a population of 575,000 in 1700, far exceeding that of Norwich, England's "second city," which was 30,000—were responsible, more than any other group, for the activities promoting the city's population growth and for the capital accumulation needed for industrialization in the eighteenth century.
Zahedieh makes a strong case for her claims in The Capital and the Colonies, relying in large part on a meticulously constructed (and well-employed) database comprised of London's fifty-nine largest merchants in the late seventeenth century. Although the book is not the last word on the subject, its publication places the author securely on the short list of leading authorities on trade and commerce in seventeenth-century England.
1. Ghost acreage, a term introduced to economic history by Eric Jones, refers to the hypothetical acreage equivalent that would be needed for domestic producers to supply—under existing techniques—food, fiber, minerals, etc., otherwise secured from outside. See Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the...