I am just back from a family vacation in The Netherlands, during which we got to admire (among others) the architectural treasures of Amsterdam – a very active merchant city through the 17th and 18th centuries, at a time where long distance travel and trading was a risky endeavor, and instantaneous means of communication inexistent. So when merchants would expect ships bringing home coffee, spices or silks, all they could do was wait – and pray (for they were devoutly Christian).
It is hard to imagine in today’s times of instantaneous communication, GPS and online real-time tracking, not to know when one’s shipment would arrive, even if it would arrive at all, for enemy fleets, pirates, and just bad weather, were always to be feared on the open seas. But beside the nerve-wracking wait for the families of the sailors, lots of money was in play too. The merchant cities of Northern Europe were then operating as marketplaces, pretty much like today’s commodities exchanges: a fresh supply of coffee or sugar would generate fresh income for the importer, but could also cause wholesale prices to drop, whereas a shortage due to delayed shipments could cause price inflation. Continue reading