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The Trouble with Networks: Managing the Scots' Early-Modern Madeira Trade

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2011

David Hancock
DAVID HANCOCK is associate professor of history at theUniversity of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


Most studies of the early-modern Atlantic world give its emergence a sense of inevitability. Historians who have tried to understand networks in the early-modern Atlantic have focused solely on their successes, which skews our understanding. This analysis of the role played by Scottish networks in the production, distribution, and consumption of Madeira wine during that product's golden age, which lasted from 1640 to 1815, attempts to correct the record. Networks succeeded when they led to profitable sharing of information, goods, and services, and they failed when individuals were unable to get networks to function for them. Problems arose among the parties in the course of negotiating terms for sharing, monitoring the agreements, responding to disasters, and estimating the costs of transactions. At times, networks worked so well that they metamorphosed into other social and commercial forms, helping to establish critical nonmetropolitan links within and between the British and Portuguese empires.

Special Section: Networks in the Trade of Alcohol
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College 2005

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20 Walter and Robert Scott first appear in the Saidas on 15 Dec. 1728, and 25 Aug. 1729, respectively. Livros dos Saidas, no. 252, ff. 53, 69, Arquivo Nacional do Torre do Tombo, Lisbon, Portugal. A younger brother, John, arrived several years later and took over the management of the house when Robert moved to London in 1736 or 1737. On the Scotts, see Colonial Office 137/17 sub 29 May 1737, National Archives of England, Kew, Surrey; Davies, Kenneth G., ed., Calendar of State Papers (Colonial Series), vol. 43 (London, 1963), 259–60Google Scholar; Edgar, Walter B., ed., The Letterbook of Robert Pringle, 2 vols. (Columbia, 1972), vol. 1: 29, 158Google Scholar; Will of Robert Scott, dated 11 Apr. 1769, proved 1 June 1771, PROB 11, National Archives of England, Kew, Surrey, England; and Plaisted, Arthur H., The Manor and Parish Records of Medmenham, Buckinghamshire (London, 1925), 139–40Google Scholar.

21 On the firm founded by James Gordon of Letterfourie and managed by James Gordon, his brother Alexander Gordon, and their nephews James, Robert, and William Duff of Pitchaish, see Alistair, and Tayler, Henrietta, The Book of the Duffs, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 1914), 466–88Google Scholar; Jacobites of Aberdeenshire & Banffshire in the Forty-Five (Aberdeen, 1928), 144, 203–4Google Scholar; Jacobites of Aberdeenshire & Banffshire in the Rising of 1715 (Edinburgh, 1934), 108–9Google Scholar; Burke, John, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, 18th ed. (London, 1972), 384–85Google Scholar. According to one contemporary account by an Englishman, in A Genuine & True Journal of the Escape of the Young Chevalier (London, 1749)Google Scholar, a ring was given to Alexander Gordon by Prince Charles Edward after the Battle of Culloden as a remembrance of meritorious service. What little is known of the Newtons before 1748 is documented in volume 2 of the Newton & Gordon Letterbooks, David Cossart Collection, Suffolk, England.

22 Granovetter, Mark, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78 (1973): 1360–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and “The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited,” in Social Structure and Network Analysis, eds. Marsden, Peter and Lin, Nan (Beverley Hills, 1982), 105–30Google Scholar. Granovetter calls relationships like that between the Newtons and the Gordons of the firm Newton & Gordon “weak” ties, in contrast to the “strong” ties of family, and he points to “the strength of weak ties.” The value of weak ties is that they connect one primary group to another, serving as channels for both information and support.

23 Cf. John F. Padgett, “Organizational Genesis, Identity, and Control: The Transformation of Banking in Renaissance Florence,” unpublished ms., 2000, 12.

24 Henry Hill to Newton & Gordon, 4 Nov. 1773, Newton & Gordon Papers, Bundle 5, Box 1, Guildhall Library, London, England.

25 On the connections of the Scott, Pringle, Murray, and Veitch clans, see note 20, above; Burke, , Landed Gentry, 3 vols. (London, 1846), vol. 2: 903Google Scholar, 3 (Suppl.): 267; Pringle, Alexander, The Records of the Pringles or Hoppringills of the Scottish Border (Edinburgh, 1933), 171–79Google Scholar; Craig-Brown, Thomas, The History of Selkirkshire, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1886), vol. 2: 299313Google Scholar, 335–48; Buchan, James W. and Paton, Henry, eds., A History of Peebleshire, 3 vols. (Glasgow, 1927), vol. 3: 438–43Google Scholar; Wilson, William, Folk Lore and Genealogies of Uppermost Nithesdale (Dumfries, 1904), 206–13Google Scholar; and Anon., Genealogical Fragments (Berwick, 1855), 1315Google Scholar. On the Cheaps, see The Court and City Register (London, 1765), 109Google Scholar; Gentleman's Magazine 64 (Suppl.): 1, 206Google Scholar; Will of Thomas Cheap, proved 15 Apr. 1795, PROB 11/1259, National Archives of England; Academia das Ciênciàs de Lisboa, Descriptive List of the State Papers, Portugal, 1661-1780, in the Public Record Office London, 3 vols. (Lisbon, 1983), vol. 3: 15, 25–26, 56, 71, 83–84, 8788Google Scholar; Parker, James G., “The Directors of the East India Company” (Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 1977), 197–99Google Scholar.

26 Thomas Cheap to Secretary of State, 3 June 1771, SP 89/71/130, National Archives of England. Also beneficial was Cheap's service as a director of the East India Company in 1777–78 and 1780–83, when he could procure for his firm large orders for wine sent to the India Presidencies. Parker, “Directors,” 197–99.

27 On the Loughnans, as well as the Fergussons, Dempsters, and Fearnses to whom the Loughnans were related, see George Spence to Francis Newton, 26 Oct. 1753, vol. 1, f. 77, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks; Michael Nowlan to Gedley Clare Burges, 24 June 1756, Nowlan & Burges Letterbook, Private Collection, Funchal, Madeira; Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary, 406–7; Burke, Bernard, A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage (London, 1959), 846–48Google Scholar; Fergusson, James, ed., Letters of George Dempster to Sir Adam Fergusson, 1756–1813 (London, 1934)Google Scholar; Last Will of James Fearns, written 13 Mar. 1797, proved 13 June 1797, PROB 11/292, National Archives of England.

29 The 28 David Hancock, Oceans of Wine, Empires of Commerce (forthcoming), ch. 6.

29 I say “usually” because one of the principal projects of economists in the last generation has been to complicate the textbook economic model. Some of the complications have moved in the direction of considering how agents respond to others in the economy, depending on who they are or the agents' personal history of interactions. A game-theoretical model in which agents in an economy are explicitly individuals is presented in Kelso, Alexander and Crawford, Vincent, “Job Matching, Coalition Formation, and Gross Substitutes,” Econometrica 50 (1982): 14831504CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Note, however, that some of the economics literature does refer to the relations among traders in textbook economic markets as a “network.”

30 John Corrie to Thomas Gordon, 7 Jan. 1771, Box 5, Bundle 1770–71, Cossart & Gordon Papers, Guildhall Library, London; Ursula Carlyle to David Hancock, 22 Aug. 2001 (no Mercer lists before 1833 have survived); Christ's Hospital Admissions Registers, c. 1735–42, Ms. 12,818/8, ff. 229–55, Mss. Section, Guildhall Library; Coldham, Peter W., ed., Child Apprentices in America from Christ's Hospital, London, 1617–1778 (Baltimore, 1990), 86, 91, 98, 100Google Scholar. Christ's alumni later tapped included William Antrobus of Antigua, Richard Allnutt of London, and John Jackson of Antigua.

31 Thomas Newton to Anthony Sarly, 22 Jan. 1756, to Malcolm Campbell, 22 Jan. 1756, to Dr. Robert Knox, 23 Mar. 1756, to Evan Cameron, 3 June 1756, to Malcolm Campbell, 27 Sept. 1756, to Francis Newton, 12 Feb. 1759, Thomas Newton Letterbook, ff. 1, 3, 7,15,19, 50, and Samuel & David Bean to Newton & Gordon, 15 Apr. 1760, Loose Letters, Madeira Wine Company Archives, Funchal, Madeira; Thomas Gordon to Francis Newton, 8 Apr., 15 May 1769, vol. 4, ff. 326, 341, Newton & Gordon to Fisher & Berney, 20 Apr. 1789, vol. 11, f. 41, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks. Cf. William Alder to A. Clow & Co., 26 Apr. 1790, Correspondence Folder 1785–1798, Box 60D, Claude W. Unger Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Alder had met Clow in Liverpool and, on setting up business in Madeira in 1790, made “a tender of best services” based on the establishment of that acquaintance. On trust, see Hosmer, Larue T., “Trust: The Connecting Link between Organizational Theory and Philosophical Ethics,” Academy of Management Review 20 (1995): 379403CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Newton & Gordon to Fisher & Berney, 20 Apr. 1789, vol. 12, p. 41, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks; Newton & Gordon to John Rowe, 17 Sept. 1762, vol. 3, f. 45, 4 Apr. 1767,14 Apr. 1768, 23 July 1771, vol. 4, ff. 79, 205, 597, and to Francis Newton, 28 May 1774, vol. 5, f. 361, and 9 Nov. 1775, vol. 6, f. 11, 9 Nov. 1775, to Henry Hill, 14 Aug. 1788, vol. 10, f. 42, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks.

33 On Hill's early struggles, and his successful attempt to overcome suspicions harbored by fellow Quakers, see Smith, John Jay, Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and His Children (Philadelphia, 1854), 23, 27, 34, 36–39, 56. See also Robert Scott to Richard Hill Sr., 10 Sept. 1740, with Hill's note at foot, and Richard Hill Sr. to Richard Hill Jr., 27 Jan. 1741, Folder 1, Richard Hill Sr. to Richard Hill Jr., 14 Sept. 1742, 4 July 1743, and Deborah Hill to Hannah Moore, 6 June 1750, Gulielma Collection, Haverford College Library, Haverford, Pennsylvania.Google Scholar

34 Newton & Gordon to John Rowe, 17 Sept. 1762, vol. 3, f. 45, 4 Apr. 1767, 14 Apr. 1768, 23 July 1771, vol. 4, ff. 79, 205, 597, and to Francis Newton, 28 May 1774, vol. 5, f. 361, and 9 Nov. 1775, vol. 6, f. 11, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks.

35 On problems with the Bean brothers, see Samuel & David Bean to Newton & Gordon, 15 Apr. 1760, Loose Letters, Madeira Wine Company Archives; Newton & Gordon to Samuel & David Bean, 29 Jan. 1761, 24 Feb. 1763, 29 Nov. 1766, 12 Apr., 30 July, 17 Aug. 1767, Thomas Gordon to Francis Newton, 8 Apr., 15 May 1769, vol. 4, ff. 326, 341, to Samuel & David Bean, 29 July, 3 Sept. 1769, 9 Apr. 1770, to Francis Newton, 27 Nov. 1773, 24 Apr. 1776, 8 Jan. 1778, 20 Feb. 1780, to Samuel Bean, 23 Dec. 1775, 22 Apr. 1776, and to Wilkinson & Gordon, 23 Apr. 1776, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks.

36 On Joseph Gillis, see Smith to Gordon Brothers, 1780s, Gordon of Letterfourie Papers, Private Collection, Banffshire, Scotland; Bisset to Hill, 1780s, Hill Family Papers, John Jay Smith Collection “A,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

37 Lin, Nan, “Social Resources and the Emergence of Social Structure” (unpublished ms., 1990)Google Scholar, and Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action (New York, 2001)Google Scholar. Providing a refuge on the island forged links to individuals with new information and contacts and brought people from different worlds and empires and with different social and economic networks together. It initiated relationships of trust among previous strangers. Such “cross-fertilization” also exposed Atlantic so journers to new ideas; and the distributors made sure that among them was the idea of drinking a wine that perhaps they had not tasted before and in a manner that was new. Of course, the contacts were two-way channels, and they also offered the distributors new ideas and customs. By creating a climate of trust, distributors accessed information sources and consumer contacts as diverse as the empires they came from, although powerful and highly ranked customers were always preferred. Many a future customer or correspondent began with a merchant providing a room or a meal to a visitor who arrived at his door bearing the flimsiest of introductions. For instances of hospitality, see Gordon Brothers to James Gordon, 27 Dec. 1761, Letterfourie Papers; Newton & Gordon to Thomas Gordon, 20 Feb. 1793, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks, vol. 15, f. 64. In addition to commercial and social visitors were the “medical” visitors, who came in droves toward the end of the century.

38 Thomas Murdoch to Francis Newton, 1 Feb. 1790, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks, vol. 12, f. 218; John Leacock Jr. to William Leacock, 18 Oct. 1799, 28 Oct. 1800, 28 May 1801, Leacock & Leacock Letterbook 1799–1802, ff. 80, 206, 258, Leacock Papers.

39 On the assumed understanding among members, which in fact broke down, see Newton & Gordon to Alexander Johnston & Co., 25 Nov. 1773, vol. 5, f. 277, Newton & Gordon to Francis Newton, 15 Apr. 1778, vol. 6, f. 371, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks. See also Isaac Norris Sr. to Benjamin Bartlett, 7 Dec. 1717, f. 117, Norris of Fairhill Papers, vol. 8, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; John Brown to Welcome Arnold & George Benson, 29 Sept. 1787, VG35, Brown Family Papers, John Carter Brown Library, Providence, R.I.; Hill, Lamar & Hill to Samuel Galloway, 5 Mar. 1754, Galloway Papers, Box 1, Folder 1: Correspondence, 1739-54, Box 1, New York Public Library, New York, N.Y.; Alexander Oliphant to William Reeve, Son & Hill, 3 Sept. 1768, Letterbook of Alexander Oliphant & Co., 1766–71, GD 306/1/1, National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland.

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41 Although this was not an inevitable consequence of long-distance trade. The East India Company, for example, was organized as a hierarchy.

42 The Newton & Gordon/Willing & Morris relationship is recorded in Newton & Gordon to Kearny & Gilbert, 10 June 1768, vol. 4, f. 222, to Thomas Gordon, 25 Aug. 1787, vol. 10, f. 33, to Tunno & Cox, 28 Apr. 1795, vol. 17, f. 275,25,2 8 Mar. 1798, vol. 18, f. 281, 4 Sept. 1798, vol. 19, f. 82, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks; Willing Morris & Swanwick to Newton, Gordon & Johnston, 1 Oct. 1791, Cossart Gordon Papers, Box 1791–92, Bundle 6, Guildhall Library; letters to and from Willing, Morris & Swanwick, 1783–85, papers of Willing, Morris & Swanwick, MG 134, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Thomas Willing Letterbook, Willing Family Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Dominick Lynch & Thomas Stoughton Papers, 2 vols., 1783–94, New York Historical Society, New York, New York; Robert Morris Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

43 See note 39, above.

44 John Searle to Newton, Gordon & Johnston, 9 Dec. 1789, Box 1788/1789, Cossart, Gordon Papers, Guildhall Library; Newton & Gordon to Thomas Gordon, 6 Mar. 1790, vol. 13, f. 257, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks; Richard Lamar Bisset to Henry Hill, 17 Sept. 1791, vol. 10, f. 146, Hill Family Papers. See also Daniel Henry Smith to James Gordon, 16 Mar., 15 June 1776, Leacock Papers. Take, for example, the ups and downs of the Swedish supply of fish: Alexander Gordon to James Gordon, 8 Oct. 1760, Chambers, Torngren, Bellenden & Co. to James Gordon, 15 Sept. 1762, 2 Mar., 14 Sept. 1763, Alexander Gordon to James Gordon, 8 July 1766, Letterfourie Papers; Orders from Gothenburg, 1764–65, Box 3, Cossart Gordon Papers. Charles Murray supplied the Marquis of Carmarthen with a detailed qualitative and quantitative report on the state of the island's fish trade in 1786. Memo, 15 July 1786, Foreign Office 63/7, National Archives of England.

45 Ledger A, 1724–1731, Norris of Fairhill Papers, vol. 13, f. 29, and Isaac Norris Sr. to Miles & Richbell, Benjamin Bartlett, Oliveira & Mordecai, and Vasconcelos D. Bettencourt, 20 Nov. 1716, Isaac Norris Sr. Letters, Norris of Fairhill Papers, vol. 8, ff. 39–41; Lamar, Hill, Bisset & Co. to Samuel Galloway, 8 Mar. 1763, Galloway Family Correspondence, vol. 6, 1762–64, Galloway-Maxcy-Markoe Family Papers, Library of Congress; Lamar, Hill, Bissett Papers, John Jay Smith Family Papers A, vols. 6–8, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; InLetters, 1763-75, Baynton, Wharton & Morgan Papers, Pennsylvania State Archives; Gerard Garret Beekman to John Searle, 3 June 1764, to Eleazer Trevett, 10 Oct. 1764, to Hill, Lamar & Hill, 15 Jan. 1759, to David Barclay & Sons, 1758, in The Beekman Mercantile Papers, 1746–1799, 3 vols., ed. White, Philip L. (New York, 1956), vol. 1: 466, 474, 328, 337.Google Scholar

46 Newton & Gordon to Fisher & Berney, 20 Apr. 1789, vol. 12, p. 41, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks; Newton & Gordon to John Rowe, 17 Sept. 1762, vol. 3, f. 45, 4 Apr. 1767,14 Apr. 1768, 23 July 1771, vol. 4, ff. 79, 205, 597, and to Francis Newton, 28 May 1774, vol. 5, f. 361, and 9 Nov. 1775, vol. 6, f. 11, 9 Nov. 1775, to Henry Hill, 14 Aug. 1788, vol. 10, f. 42, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks. On conversation, see Hancock, “Commerce and Conversation.”

47 Newton & Gordon to Charles Hunter, 19 July 1772, to Alexander Johnston, 25 July 1772, to Francis Newton, 25 July, 15 Aug. 1772, vol. 5, ff. 90, 93, 92, 113, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks.

48 Newton & Gordon to Fisher & Berney, 20 Apr. 1789, vol. 12, p. 41, Newton & Gordon to John Rowe, 17 Sept. 1762, vol. 3, f. 45, 4 Apr. 1767, 14 Apr. 1768, 23 July 1771, vol. 4, ff. 79, 205, 597, and to Francis Newton, 28 May 1774, vol. 5, f. 361, and 9 Nov. 1775, vol. 6, f. 11, to Henry Hill, 14 Aug. 1788, vol. 10, f. 42, Newton & Gordon Letterbooks.

49 Miles and Snow, “Causes of Failure,” 67.

50 This and the following paragraphs are drawn from: Henry Hill to Robert Bisset, 27 Oct. 1792, Folder 7, Sarah A. G. Smith Collection, Hill Family Papers; list of Outstanding Debtors, 1797, vol. 1, f. 172, Robert Bisset to Henry Hill, 23 Apr., 25 May, 20 June, 9 July 1798, vol. 12, ff. 69, 69, 84, 94, John Jay Smith Collection “A,” Hill Family Papers. The “Losses & Debts” list drawn up for the suit waged by the widow Lamar lists debtors as of 25 Jan. 1797; since all sales were on credit, the list of outstanding debtors provides some sense of who received wine from the firm several years before 1797.