At the beginning of the seventeenth century, participation in many a branch of English foreign trade was either monopolized by a favored joint stock company or restricted to members of a particular chartered society (for example, the Merchant Adventurers, the East- land Company, the Levant Company). Very often these chartered companies restricted their membership to Londoners and to "mere merchants," excluding retailers, manufacturers and ship captains. By contrast, participation in the newly developing trades to North America and the West Indies -- particularly after the termination of the Virginia Company in 1624 -- was open to all subjects of the Crown. With the gates ajar, a numerous and motley band of small ventuirers -- including retailers and ship captains -- pushed into these new and promising American trades. By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, it had become apparent that most of this huckster horde lacked the resources to carry on transatlantic trade efficiently and profitably, and that a contraction in the number of participating firms was already in progress. Thus, even though the merchandise turnover in all branches of the Atlantic trades continued to expand until the American Revolution, the number of English and later Scottish firms involved was progressively reduced, leaving such trades in the hands of much fewer but considerably stronger houses. 1 In eighteenth century London, these fewer and stronger American houses (even if collectively never as weighty as the firms trading to Europe and the Mediterranean) could cut most respectable figures. In the contemporary outports, their equivalents were even more, important, dominating the commercial life of such places as Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol.
Success in any open trade was not just success for an individual or a firm; it might also open new prospects of advancement for a whole family. Kin might help a growing firm with capital, credit, reputation and a useful circle of acquaintances in all sorts of places. In return,