To 'the Most Distant Parts of the Globe': Trade, Politics, and the Maritime Frontier in the Early Republic, 1763-1819

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Flaherty, Randall, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, History, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores how capital-poor American traders harnessed navigational information and commercial knowledge to expand the geography of American foreign commerce from the late colonial period to the close of the Napoleonic Wars. American traders like those in the mid-level port of Salem, Massachusetts, who form the focus of this project, recognized that overcoming their knowledge deficit about navigation and foreign markets would be faster than overcoming their capital shortages or the economies of scale in larger ports like Boston, and they structured the geography of their maritime commerce to maximize the acquisition of market and route-based information. By the 1780s, Salem traders drew on their longstanding Atlantic commercial strategies to trade in new Indian Ocean markets as they had traded for centuries in the Caribbean, on circuitous voyages that they modified en route as they gathered new information about surrounding markets. They deliberately constructed broad and diverse commercial geographies not tied exclusively to British, French, or even European markets. This work redraws the map of early American foreign commerce, particularly American neutral trade, by foregrounding American circuitous trade across regions and across political boundaries and by highlighting American dependence on hubs of commercial information like Mauritius in the Indian Ocean that fell outside of major and well-studied shipping centers like London or Calcutta. Protecting access to information as a means to enhance the ability of American traders to compete and capitalize on new commercial opportunities, rather than simple Anglophilic or Francophilic sentiment, lay at the core of American commercial interests throughout the colonial and early national periods, particularly as places like Mauritius became the contested spaces in the American debate over neutrality and the union’s place in international geopolitics. This commercial context and this new explanation of how American neutral trade operated provides essential background for understanding the meaning and the stakes of early national debates over American political economy that lay at the heart of the union-building project.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
History, Early American history, Salem, Political economy, Mauritius
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