Conveyance and Commodity
Without the ordinary merchant ship, capable of reliable ocean crossings with people and goods aboard, the sustenance and development of the Atlantic world would not have been possible. While that statement smacks of technological determinism, it is unavoidable. The availability of the resources for its construction, the know-how necessary for its proper design and execution, the labor requirements for its operation, and the ability of merchants to purchase and maintain it—taking advantage of a complex system of credit and risk management—coalesced into a certain technology for which an alternative is difficult to imagine. Yet a sophisticated understanding of that technology is largely absent from the historical literature. This chapter explores the ordinary merchant ship as a commodity in itself as well as a conveyance for the people, products, ideas, hopes, and miseries of Atlantic peoples. It uses the ship as an entrée into the rather extraordinary risk environment in which transatlantic capitalism managed to grow up and then to thrive. It also points out important ways in which these vessels represent significant technological diffusion across the largely imaginary imperial boundaries so important to the mercantilist weltanschauung.