Timo Boehm, Henning Hillmann
A Closed Elite? Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers and the Abolition of Slave Trading

Pp. 147 - 175 in: Emily Erikson (Ed.): Chartering Capitalism: Organizing Markets, States, and Publics. 2015. Bradford: Emerald Group Publishing
[Political Power and Social Theory; 29]

Why, despite clear economic incentives, did eighteenth-century slave traders fail to defend their business interests against the abolition campaign? We focus on the outport of Bristol as a case in point. Our main argument is that slave traders lacked an organizational basis to translate their economic interests into political influence. Supporting evidence from merchant networks over the 1698–1807 period shows that the Society of Merchant Venturers offered such an organizational site for collective political action. Members of this chartered company controlled much of Bristol’s seaborne commerce and held chief elective offices in the municipal government. However, the Society evolved into an organization that represented the interests of a closed elite. High barriers to entry prevented the slave traders from using the Society as a vehicle for political mobilization. Social cohesion among slave traders outside the chartered company hinged on centrally positioned brokers. Yet the broker positions were held by the few merchants who became members of the Society, and who eventually ceased their engagement in slave trading. The result was a fragmented network that undermined the slave traders’ concerted efforts to mobilize against the political pressure of the abolitionist movement.