Reconsidering Time in Port: Comparing Management Practices in Early Atlantic Shipping

During the eighteenth century, Scots traders disrupted the market for transatlantic tobacco trading by developing a new business model (North, 1968; Shepherd & Walton, 1972). The new model reduced mariners’ control over decision-making about the cost-time tradeoff associated with time in port and allocated it to landed agents. In this new paradigm, captains rarely balanced time pressures themselves. Instead, stationary Scots agents in the colonies became strategic organizers of time while captains implemented their new axiom: reduce days in port to reduce costs. In many ways, this alienation transformed captains into salaried managers, charged with loading vessels quickly, and stripped them of many of their trading functions. Yet, the responsibility for negotiating temporal tradeoffs did not slip from sea to shore quickly, easily, or without contestation. Data from 30,821 shipping returns shows that captains trading in the Atlantic long had been efficient managers and entrepreneurial traders, balancing the charge to minimize days in port with the time required to deepen partnerships and develop new markets. Archival material from the United States and Britain shows that because mariners effectively balanced the charge to cut costs with their roles as informers and traders in a vast network, captains successfully opposed attempts to shift temporal decision-making from sea to shore. Early Atlantic shipping provides a test-case for a management model that sacrificed captains’ entrepreneurship on the altar of time calculations designed to improve efficiency. Mariners successfully resisted efforts to diminish their autonomy by acting on complex time-accounting themselves. In the process, they created an integrated and responsive Atlantic market for colonial produce. North, D. C. (1968). Sources of Productivity Change in Ocean Shipping, 1600-1850. Journal of Political Economy, 76(5), 953–970. Shepherd, J. F., & Walton, G. M. (1972). Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. Cambridge University Press.