Abstract: The Trouble with Networks: Managing the Scots' Early Modern Madeira Trade

David Hancock


The eighteenth-century Atlantic economy was built through the extension of trade networks; historians of early modern business have spent the better part of the past forty years demonstrating that fact. But the treatments so far are one-sided, emphasizing important enterprisers and the successful ventures. Networks are presented as if to have had one was to ensure success. Such was not the case. This paper looks at the neglected part of the story—the problems networks raised for members, difficulties that in many cases led to networks failing. It first sketches the original meanings of "network" and its contemporary complements "correspondent" and "connection." It then reconstitutes the Scots Madeira wine exporters who created centers of extended networks of customers, suppliers, and agents around the Atlantic during the eighteenth century. Finally, it examines the problems the networks created for their members, as a counterbalance to the problems they solved when they functioned well. The personal, multi-dimensional, non-hierarchical, and voluntary nature of networks made them the organizational mode of choice in a largely pre-industrial, pre-corporate world. But they also created often terminal management challenges. By balancing the two, historians may add detail and substance to our understanding of the eighteenth-century business expansion that transformed many parts of the Atlantic World, and derive a richer, more realistic understanding of the emergence, structural change, and evolution of the trans-imperial Atlantic market economy.