“London in 1731” is a wonderful guide book to the city which was penned sometime in the early 18th century and subsequently brought up to date. The author is supposed to be a Portuguese merchant named Don Manoel Gonzales but the internal evidence demonstrates that this is almost certainly a nom de plume. It is more likely that our author was an accomplished native of London. The guide was edited by Professor Henry Morley and published by Cassell as part of their wonderful little National Library series in 1888. The author now turns his attention to the established Companies who engage in overseas trade. There are almost as many as there are countries in the world. chief amongst them is the great East India Company but the biggest is the South Sea Company – but whose trade was just about sunk when he wrote!
Let me now proceed to inquire into the state of the several great trading companies in London. The first, in point of time, I find to be the Hamburg Company, originally styled “Merchants of the Staple” (that is, of the staple of wool), and afterwards Merchant Adventurers. They were first incorporated in the reign of King Edward I., anno 1296, and obtained leave of John, Duke of Brabant, to make Antwerp their staple or mart for the Low Countries, where the woollen manufactures then flourished more than in any country in Europe. The business of this company at first seems to be chiefly, if not altogether, the vending of English wool unwrought.Queen Elizabeth enlarged the trade of the Company of Adventurers, and empowered them to treat with the princes and states of Germany for a place which might be the staple or mart for the woollen manufactures they exported, which was at length fixed at Hamburg, from whence they obtained the name of the Hamburg Company. They had another mart or staple also assigned them for the sale of their woollen cloths in the Low Countries, viz., Dort, in Holland.This company consists of a governor, deputy-governor, and fellowship, or court of assistants, elected annually in June, who have a power of making bye-laws for the regulation of their trade; but this trade in a manner lies open, every merchant trading thither on his own bottom, on paying an inconsiderable sum to the company; so that though the trade to Germany may be of consequence, yet the Hamburg Company, as a company, have very little advantage by their being incorporated.The Hamburg or German Merchants export from England broad-cloth, druggets, long-ells, serges, and several sorts of stuffs, tobacco, sugar, ginger, East India goods, tin, lead, and several other commodities, the consumption of which is in Lower Germany.England takes from them prodigious quantities of linen, linen-yarn, kid-skins, tin-plates, and a great many other commodities.The next company established was that of the Russia Merchants, incorporated 1st and 2nd of Philip and Mary, who were empowered to trade to all lands, ports, and places in the dominions of the Emperor of Russia, and to all other lands not then discovered or frequented, lying on the north, north-east, or north-west.The Russia Company, as a company, are not a very considerable body at present; the trade thither being carried on by private merchants, who are admitted into this trade on payment of five pounds for that privilege.It consists of a governor, four consuls, and twenty-four assistants, annually chosen on the 1st of March.The Russia Merchants export from England some coarse cloth, long- ells, worsted stuffs, tin, lead, tobacco, and a few other commodities.England takes from Russia hemp, flax, linen cloth, linen yarn, Russia leather, tallow, furs, iron, potashes, etc., to an immense value.The next company is the Eastland Company, formerly called Merchants of Elbing, a town in Polish Prussia, to the eastward of Dantzic, being the port they principally resorted to in the infancy of their trade. They were incorporated 21 Elizabeth, and empowered to trade to all countries within the Sound, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Liefland, Prussia, and Pomerania, from the river Oder eastward, viz., with Riga, Revel, Konigsberg, Elbing, Dantzic, Copenhagen, Elsinore, Finland, Gothland, Eastland, and Bornholm (except Narva, which was then the only Russian port in the Baltic). And by the said patent the Eastland Company and Hamburg Company were each of them authorised to trade separately to Mecklenburg, Gothland, Silesia, Moravia, Lubeck, Wismar, Restock, and the whole river Oder.This company consists of a governor, deputy-governor, and twenty- four assistants, elected annually in October; but either they have no power to exclude others from trading within their limits, or the fine for permission is so inconsiderable, that it can never hinder any merchants trading thither who is inclined to it; and, in fact, this trade, like the former, is carried on by private merchants, and the trade to Norway and Sweden is laid open by Act of Parliament.To Norway and Denmark merchants send guineas, crown-pieces, bullion, a little tobacco, and a few coarse woollens.They import from Norway, etc., vast quantities of deal boards, timber, spars, and iron.Sweden takes from England gold and silver, and but a small quantity of the manufactures and production of England.England imports from Sweden near two-thirds of the iron wrought up or consumed in the kingdom, copper, boards, plank, etc.The Turkey or Levant Company was first incorporated in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and their privileges were confirmed and enlarged in the reign of King James I., being empowered to trade to the Levant, or eastern part of the Mediterranean, particularly to Smyrna, Aleppo, Constantinople, Cyprus, Grand Cairo, Alexandria, etc. It consists of a governor, deputy-governor, and eighteen assistants or directors, chosen annually, etc. This trade is open also to every merchant paying a small consideration, and carried on accordingly by private men.These merchants export to Turkey chiefly broadcloth, long-ells, tins, lead, and some iron; and the English merchants frequently buy up French and Lisbon sugars and transport thither, as well as bullion from Cadiz.The commodities received from thence are chiefly raw silk, grogram yarn, dyeing stuffs of sundry kinds, drugs, soap; leather, cotton, and some fruit, oil, etc.The East India Company were incorporated about the 42nd of Elizabeth, anno 1600, and empowered to trade to all countries to the eastward of the Cape of Good Hope, exclusive of all others.About the middle of King William’s reign it was generally said their patent was illegal, and that the Crown could not restrain the English merchants from trading to any country they were disposed to deal with; and application being made to Parliament for leave to lay the trade open, the ministry took the hint, and procured an Act of Parliament (9 and 10 William III., cap. 44) empowering every subject of England to trade to India who should raise a sum of money for the supply of the Government in proportion to the sum he should advance, and each subscriber was to have an annuity after the rate of 8 per cent. per annum, to commence from Michaelmas, 1698. And his Majesty was empowered to incorporate the subscribers, as he afterwards did, and they were usually called the New East India Company, the old company being allowed a certain time to withdraw their effects. But the old company being masters of all the towns and forts belonging to the English on the coast of India, and their members having subscribed such considerable sums towards the two millions intended to be raised, that they could not be excluded from the trade, the new company found it necessary to unite with the old company, and to trade with one joint stock, and have ever since been styled “The United Company of Merchants trading to the East Indies.”The company have a governor, deputy-governor, and twenty-four assistants or directors, elected annually in April.The East India Company export great quantities of bullion, lead, English cloth, and some other goods, the product or manufacture of that kingdom, and import from China and India tea, china ware, cabinets, raw and wrought silks, coffee, muslins, calicoes, and other goods.Bengal raw silk is bought at very low prices there, and is very useful in carrying on the manufactures of this kingdom.China silk is of excellent staple, and comes at little above one- third of the price of Italian Piedmont silk.The China silk is purchased at Canton, but their fine silk is made in the provinces of Nankin and Chekiam, where their fine manufactures are carried on, and where prodigious quantities of raw silk are made, and the best in all China.The Royal African Company was incorporated 14 Charles II., and empowered to trade from Sallee, in South Barbary, to the Cape of Good Hope, being all the western coast of Africa. It carries no money out, and not only supplies the English plantations with servants, but brings in a great deal of bullion for those that are sold to the Spanish West Indies, besides gold dust and other commodities, as red wood, elephants’ teeth, Guinea grain, etc., some of which are re-exported. The supplying the plantations with negroes is of that extraordinary advantage, that the planting sugar and tobacco and carrying on trade there could not be supported without them; which plantations are the great causes of the increase of the riches of the kingdom.The Canary Company was incorporated in the reign of King Charles II., anno 1664, being empowered to trade to the Seven Islands, anciently called the Fortunate, and now the Canary Islands.They have a governor, deputy-governor, and thirteen assistants or directors, chosen annually in March. This company exports baize, kerseys, serges, Norwich stuffs, and other woollen manufactures; stockings, hats, fustians, haberdashery wares, tin, and hardware; as also herrings, pilchards, salted flesh, and grain; linens, pipe- staves, hoops, etc. Importing in return Canary wines, logwood, hides, indigo, cochineal, and other commodities, the produce of America and the West Indies.There is another company I had almost overlooked, called the Hudson’s Bay Company; and though these merchants make but little noise, I find it is a very advantageous trade. They by charter trade, exclusively of all other his Britannic Majesty’s subjects, to the north-west; which was granted, as I have been told, on account that they should attempt a passage by those seas to China, etc., though nothing appears now to be less their regard; nay; if all be true, they are the very people that discourage and impede all attempts made by others for the opening that passage to the South Seas. They export some woollen goods and haberdashery wares, knives, hatchets, arms, and other hardware; and in return bring back chiefly beaver-skins, and other skins and furs.The last, and once the most considerable of all the trading companies, is that of the South Sea, established by Act of Parliament in the ninth year of the late Queen Anne; but, what by reason of the mismanagement of its directors in 1720, the miscarriage of their whale-fishery, and the intrigues of the Spaniards, their credit is sunk, and their trade has much decreased.