Robert Plumsted was a merchant and we are fortunate to have his Letter-book, covering the period from November 1756 to April 1758. Although it includes only copies of the letters he wrote, not those he received, it still gives us a unique insight into the business issues and problems of an English merchant in the first part of The Seven Years War.
He seems to have been trading a good deal with the American colonies and the West Indies, especially Antigua. Not surprisingly, since he was himself a Quaker, a good deal of the American business was with Pennsylvania, but he also traded with merchants in Maryland and New York. He exported many manufactured items, from agricultural tools, blankets, textiles, thread and hat-pins to garden seeds, pepper mills and pewter utensils. In return, he imported iron ore, sugar, wheat and similar commodities.
The Seven Years War
Many of his problems arose directly from the outbreak of war and the fighting that erupted in America with the French and their Indian allies.
In May, 1756 he wrote to one correspondent:
On the 18th instant war was declar’d here against France, they have laid siege to Port Mahon and fear may have taken it. This oblig’d the government to declare [war] — which I am sorry for, being in great hopes an accomodation [sic] would have been brought…
He also notes when Pitt the Elder became prime minister in December of that year:
Wee have an intire change in the ministry, publick affairs are put into new hands and great reformations upon the carpet. Wee hope for more promising events than last year-which have been verry unfavourable…
That ministry didn’t last long though and he was soon sounding a note of deep gloom:
Wee have had no sea engagements lately. All Europe seems in a ferment and wn the sword will be sheath’d is only known to him who permits such a heavy scourge to fall upon the nations; to humain view things look very gloomy, and how soon our temporal affairs may be involv’d in the general confusion we know not. Certain it is, that wee are in a very precarious situation and those who have the least concerns in trade seem the most secure…
Stranded or Captured
The war brought him more specific worries as well. Crews may be taken by Press-gangs, leaving vessels stranded or too ill crewed to commence a voyage. Delays became endemic, with severe effects on cash flows. French privateers were also active throughout the Atlantic and especially where valuable cargoes like sugar might be expected. It wasn’t only cargoes that might be lost. Business letters, orders and bills of exchange could easily go missing, so merchants were forced to resort to sending duplicates and triplicates by different routes.
The only way of dealing with the privateers was to travel in convoy, guarded by suitable naval vessels. This added further delays, since ships had to wait until a suitable number had assembled before setting sail. There were no set or regular times for convoys to leave. Bad weather could separate the vessels en route, leaving stragglers vulnerable to lurking privateers. Nonetheless, Plumsted acknowledged the navy was doing all it could and recorded occasions when all went well, such as this from 1757:
The Leward Island fleet came verry unexpectedly, tho verry agreably upon us and by the great care of the men’a’war, I think all the ships got safe in to their different ports. I wish the next may have as good success…
The Worries of a Quaker
The fighting in America and Canada meant a demand for weapons and ammunition to be sent from England to sustain the troops and their Indian allies. This brought particular concerns for a pious Quaker like Plumsted. Was it permissible under the Quakers’ pacifist principles to carry such goods, let alone trade in them? There were business issues as well, since shipping arms required an expensive licence.
On a few occasions, he did send limited numbers of sword-blades and guns, taking no profit on them, but the clash with his beliefs soon grew too much for him and he declined further business of that kind:
You know, wee as a people, are in principle against everything that tends to war and bloodshed, and consistent with this belief can neither be active therein or pertake of the profit arising from the sale of goods the use whereof is for destructive purposes. This lays me under a difficulty, which there seems but one expedient for. The demand for these things are but temporary they cease in time of peace and now are but a verry small part of your busyness, would it be any great ill convenience to you to let them drop. It would ease me from a scruple that at present I cannot divest myself of…
Payment and Credit
Plumsted seems to have been strongly opposed to what he termed “the pernicious practice of giving such long credit”, adding that “it will never answer in a large trade and small capital”. He even tried to avoid “bad payers”, even if that meant his own business would be limited as a result. Unfortunately, his best efforts seem often to have failed, even when doing business with fellow Quakers on the other side of the Atlantic.
He took one to task most severely for his delays. The use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ shows he is writing to a fellow member of the Society of Friends:
I have thine of 25th 10 mo: [25th October] and continue to admire at the excuses thou makes. I expected the rum would be pleaded, though to my certain knowledge not one farthing of the proceeds was directed to be paid to me … Thy invention no doubt will furnish thee with materials for another letter when thou art ashamed of being silent any longer and as thou know how to improve calamitys to thy own advantage, thy next if thou please may turn upon provincial affairs.
To another he wrote:
… thou has deceiv’d both me and my attourney so often, that wee can give verry little credit to anything thou says. If thou hast either honour or honesty, my forbearance with thee should produce some better effects. I am ashamed of thy shuffling tricks, they render thee very contemptable and are a most ungratefull return for my long patience.
The picture these letters show is that of an honest, hardworking man trying hard to survive in a world suddenly become even more hostile than usual. Whether he succeeded after 1758, I don’t know. He deserved to. It’s easy to view the warfare of the time purely from the military or political points of view, neglecting issues which must have been far more pressing to most people. The scarcity of wheat for bread-making and the need to import it from America. The temporary stopping of exports to continental distilleries and the fall in the price of barley this produced. The constant ups and downs in the costs of basic foodstuffs as merchants sought to sell to the highest bidders. If a prosperous merchant like Robert Plumsted found the times difficult to negotiate, imagine how hard they must have been for the poor, with no security of food or employment.