- The Forgotten Majority: German Merchants in London, Naturalization, and Global Trade, 1660–1815 by Margrit Schulte Beerbühl
This well-researched text has much to teach us about the global systems of trade that developed around London during the early modern period, especially German merchants’ impressive roles in those systems. Schulte Beerbühl came to those insights indirectly. Her interest in naturalization laws revealed a number of surprising facts about the economic functions behind them. For example: allowing foreigners living abroad to become British subjects proved to be highly advantageous for both those foreigners and the British. In turn, her exploration of such facts exposed a “forgotten [End Page 576] majority” of German merchants in London and abroad who played critical roles in expanding that city’s global markets. At the same time, the lives of those merchants now teach how tightly intertwined immigration, naturalization, and individual merchants’ interests were during the period in which Great Britain’s empire became global.
Anyone with an interest in naturalization laws or trade networks will profit from reading this book. So too will individuals who would like to know more about Anglo-German trade in the seventeenth century or the development of eighteenth-century German trading houses. Many scholars will also benefit from her revelations about the ways in which Germans became critical to London’s trade with Russia, the importance of which has been largely obscured by our focus on British trade networks spanning the Atlantic, reaching into the Mediterranean, and extending as far as China and India. Russia, she reminds us, played a critical role in supplying industrializing England with raw materials, such as flax, hemp, and timber, and German merchants were essential to that trade.
In part, the role of German merchants in building trade with Russia and other places came about as a result of trading patterns and cultural practices established by the Hansa cities. Germans were already well integrated in Russian trade by the time the British Empire began to grow. They were conversant in local customs as well as the Russian and German languages, and many German merchant families had established households in Moscow and later St. Petersburg, not to mention the Baltic States. British merchants, in contrast, were newcomers in those territories, and few were interested in staying in those locations for extended periods. As a result, after the signing of the 1734 trade agreement between Russia and Great Britain, naturalizing German merchants who had family connections in those areas, ties to Russia’s political and commercial elite, as well as stores of local knowledge made good business sense. Indeed, it made sense to the Germans as well. As Schulte Beerbühl reminds us, German trade families with international operations considered the acquisition of foreign nationality a business decision. It was wise in places such as Great Britain, where it facilitated their ability to trade, but unwise in nations such as Spain, where it brought no advantage.
During the mid-seventeenth century, the expansion of the British Empire also made immigration to London highly attractive to merchant families. Many came from the Hanseatic cities of Bremen and Hamburg, and many of those drew on older Hansa patterns of creating family networks, sending younger sons to multiple posts abroad, and developing close-knit relationships based on trust to anchor their far-flung businesses. Settling in London afforded them many advantages. They could do business under the protection of the British navy, a great boon during times of crisis and war. The worldwide character of British trade also afforded them greater [End Page 577] opportunity for profits, and these merchants connected their places of origin to those profits as well. Such individuals proved important for the integration of European trade, and many became successfully integrated into English society, into its reigning elites. Many more, however, failed in their business efforts. Indeed, one of the great virtues of this volume is that Schulte Beerbühl pays those failures as much...