Abstract: Networks, Institutional Innovation, and Atlantic Trade before 1800

Robin Pearson and David Richardson


This paper focuses on the relationships among networking, institutional innovation, Atlantic commerce, and economic change in Britain during the early stages of industrialization. There has been increasing interest in the role of networking in British transatlantic trade and in the development of British industry in the eighteenth century, but most studies have focused on single-interest networks based on firm, family, or kinship systems for constructing trust, often within geographically restricted areas. Building on our recent article (Economic History Review, 2001) and the debate that it provoked (ibid., 2003), the aim of this paper is to move beyond such types of networking activity and to explore how single-interest or geographically restricted networks evolved by means of institutional innovation into wider interlocking systems of associational activity characterized by increased flexibility, permeability, and impersonal relations. To illustrate how this evolution occurred and what its wider implications were, the paper will draw on evidence of financial innovation in the British slave trade from the 1730s onward that not only prompted adjustments in the commercial networking arrangements underpinning this activity but also gave rise to unprecedented expansion of its scale between 1750 and 1800. The paper will go on to explore the implications of our analysis of changes in the British slave trade for our understanding of how the transition from more to less personalized systems of trust helped to shape patterns of economic change in Britain during the Industrial Revolution.