As a case in point, I focus on the port of Saint-Malo in the French Atlantic economy under the Ancien Régime (c.1681-1791). From a sociological point of view, one question is particularly salient for understanding how overseas trade was organized locally: what mechanisms facilitated the social cohesion of merchant communities? Answering this question is important because overseas ventures were organized as partnerships that offered efficiency gains compared to the rare occasion of lonesome entrepreneurs: risks were spread, trades diversified, and costs were shared. Understanding the sources of cohesion is important because the formation of such venture partnerships required networks of collaboration.
Here, I first show that privateering enterprise (i.e. state-licensed commerce raiding of enemy ships during wartime) was particularly instrumental in joining partners from different merchant strata who would otherwise be disconnected from each other in the partnership network. This finding establishes macrolevel evidence that privateering facilitated social cohesion in the merchant community.
Second, I show that privateering also served as a launching pad for the careers of rising new men in the merchant community. As these new men built their careers, expanding their venture partnerships from privateering into other trades, they eventually embedded their former and current partners into cohesive networks. This finding thus identifies a brokerage micromechanism that yields macrolevel cohesion through transitive closure over time.
My empirical evidence comes from the complete surviving set of venture partnership contracts that were set up in Saint-Malo. The earliest documents date from 1681 and the latest from 1791. They include information on the purpose of a venture, the vessel (name, type, tonnage, crew, captain, weaponry), and most important, the names of the shipowners and their shareholding partners, including the amount of their investments. The ventures range from privateering to North Atlantic fishing, from slave to coastal trading, and from long-distance voyages to India and China to colonial trade with the Americas. From these rich data, I code longitudinal affiliation networks that embedded 6,298 individual merchants within 3,250 venture partnerships during the 1681-1791 period. I link individuals in the network with systematic information on their wealth from complete poll tax registers of Saint-Malo. I complement both datasets with information on the costs and returns of voyages, biographical details on selected merchants, including their officeholding in municipal, provincial and national politics.