HT 2023: Fragile Neutralities. Practices of Maritime Trading as Neutrals during the Early Modern Period

HT 2023: Fragile Neutralities. Practices of Maritime Trading as Neutrals during the Early Modern Period

Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands (VHD); Verband der Geschichtslehrer Deutschlands (VGD) (Universität Leipzig)
Universität Leipzig
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Vom - Bis
19.09.2023 - 22.09.2023
Gabrielle Robilliard, Prize Papers Project, Abteilung für Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit, Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg

War on land in the early modern period often involved war at sea. Yet maritime warfare was not limited to naval battles; it also included economic warfare. Attacking and taking enemy merchant ships as “prize” was a strategic practice in the repertoire of economic warfare. Through European colonial expansion and the ensuing intensification of long-distance trade, waging war on high sea assumed global proportions. Taking “prize” became big business, with privateers – ships armed and licensed by governments to attack and confiscate enemy ships and their cargo – roaming the high seas to claim their booty. Capture was followed by a highly bureaucratic legal procedure designed to establish the legality of the prize.

A major problem emerging from this wartime practice was how to determine whether a ship and its cargo truly belonged to the enemy. Ships sailing under the flags of neutral political entities posed a particular dilemma. Huge profits could be made from trading in contraband of war. Merchants, frequently with the tacit backing of state actors, often used neutral ships to smuggle goods. A ship’s neutral status thus did not necessarily apply to the cargo in her hold and neutral ships were routinely suspected of carrying enemy cargo. Weak and regionally fragmented legal codification meant, however, that maritime neutrality remained a malleable grey area, influenced greatly by the immediate geopolitical context.

The three papers presented in this session explored practices of neutrality emerging from early modern maritime warfare. Drawing on various studies of legally contested neutrality, they demonstrated how the absence of a steadfast and globally binding legal framework provided privateers, merchants and state actors with substantial leeway to define the parameters of neutrality through everyday acts of engagement. The difficulty in proving neutrality at law meant that prize cases relating to neutral ships could last several years, draw on numerous pieces of evidence and generate huge amounts of paperwork. Consequently, praxeological norms prevailed: neutrality was a practice requiring continuous reiteration by all participants in war – on land, at sea, in port and in court.

Focusing on the American War of Independence, MAGNUS RESSEL (Bremen) demonstrated how a minor European power deployed neutrality during wartime to compensate its naval shortcomings. The Dutch had first successfully and profitably deployed the strategy of neutrality during the Seven Years War (1756–63). Longstanding treaties with Great Britain largely exempted them from British bans on trade with France (“rule of 1756”) and permitted them to trade under the principle of “neutral ship, neutral goods”. This gave them the edge over other European powers. At the outbreak of the War of American Independence (1778–83) the Dutch presumed they could repeat this strategy of neutral trading with the belligerent parties. Yet a shift in the balance of maritime power meant that the French and their allies were able to hamper British naval activities in the Western Atlantic and Indian Oceans, thus forcing the British to intensify their privateering and naval activities. After the Dutch were repeatedly caught smuggling arms to the Americans, the British ramped up their seizures of Dutch ships and eventually attacked the Dutch Republic in December 1780.

Into the void opened up by the new Dutch–British conflict sprang the Austrian Netherlands. It quickly established the Comité de commerce maritime (February 1781) and Ostend came to function as a much-needed neutral port for the British, who had lost colonial territories in the Caribbean to France and needed neutral carriers to transport commodities from plantations in the now French-occupied colonies. The Comité colluded with the British to advance the interests of its merchants and ship-owners and only intervened in matters of prize-taking when its subjects were under threat. It even tried to attract British mariners, merchants and ship owners to settle in Ostend. According to Ressel, this example demonstrates how during wartime, common interests could entice neutral and belligerent parties to form cooperative relationships. There were long-term incentives for this kind of cooperative and strategic practice of neutrality. Indeed, the infrastructure and networks put in place to provide neutral services to the British during wartime ensured that Ostend flourished long after the final canon was fired: neutrality enabled the Austrian Netherlands to participate in the slave trade and in the 1780s Ostend became the warehouse for the British East India Company. Ressel’s conclusion: “The politics of institutionalized and political exploitation of neutrality by the maritime country with the weakest navy on the continent had yielded an excellent result.”

LUCAS HAASIS (Oldenburg/London) examined neutrality practices from a micro-historical perspective. Drawing on the business archive of Hamburg merchant Nicolaus Gottlieb Luetkens1, he demonstrated how neutrality was praxeologically reiterated through the mundane matter of setting oneself up as a successful long-distance merchant from a neutral state in the mid-eighteenth century. As Hamburg had no colonies of its own, Hamburg merchants had no direct access to colonial goods or markets. Instead, they had to rely on access through an established colonial power. France was a favourable place for many Hamburg merchants to set up outposts and source French colonial goods for Hamburg and northern European markets. France encouraged these foreign “middlemen” because they were important for the French economy.

In 1743 the young Luetkens set off for France, where he sojourned in various cities to construct his merchant network. In 1745 he returned to Hamburg to marry and establish his own merchant house. As a merchant from a neutral power, Luetkens had to keep his French activities secret. For this reason, he hid the chest containing business correspondence with his French contacts deep in the hold of the “neutral” Hamburg ship Die Hoffnung. Alas, the ship was captured by the British and his archive was used as evidence in court to argue that the ship and its cargo was “French”.

Luetkens’ correspondence, Haasis demonstrated, reveals not only how “neutral” Hamburg merchants were enablers of French trade. It also exemplifies how long-distance “neutral” traders deployed neutrality to further their own commercial interests. In the shipping business, for example, Luetkens needed Hamburg flags for nine ships, but did not at that time hold Hamburg citizenship. He thus had to sign over his ships to his brother, who acquired Hamburg citizenship for this purpose. His subsequent hugely successful sugar business was largely based upon trade via France: a highly risky business, in which a “neutral” Hamburg flag went some way to mitigating the risk of capture by the British.

The final joint paper by LEOS MÜLLER (Stockholm) and MARGARET HUNT (Uppsala) looked at how merchants, ship owners and ship captains negotiated an important change in British prize law in 1756. Drawing on Danish and Swedish prize cases from The Scandinavian Prize Papers, Leos Müller first presented examples of ships exploiting neutrality in a bid to subvert the The Rule of 1756 and the Doctrine of Continuous Voyage. The Rule of 1756 forbade neutrals from engaging in trade barred to them during peacetime through trading monopolies. The Doctrine of Continuous Voyage stipulated that neutral ships stopping in the port of a British enemy were in breach of voyage. Both targeted “French” trade after France loosened its monopoly on colonial trade in 1756 to ensure the flow of goods from the colonies to continental France. This gave Dutch and Danish neutrals (and a much smaller number of Swedes) direct access to French colonies, which they had not previously enjoyed. As Müller argued, the prize cases show that both belligerents and neutrals fully exploited the grey areas of neutrality. British privateers even colluded with other powers to take prize suspected of being en route to France. This included hoisting the British flag to attack a Swedish ship, then swapping flags mid-attack and capturing the ship under the Prussian flag. As Sweden was at war with Prussia, this ensured a theoretically legal prize, regardless of who owned the cargo. A further practice, deployed when the British captured Swedish or Danish ships enlisted by the French, was to contest the legality of the prize on the grounds that the cargo was not contraband of war.

Margaret Hunt presented illustrative cases involving Danish ships. Like the Swedes and Dutch, the Danes shipped goods on behalf of France – in particular sugar produced by enslaved persons on French plantations – between the French colonies and continental France. Danish ships were routinely suspected of laundering goods in the Danish colony of St Thomas or of taking on French cargo whilst at sea (from small barques). Hence the British referred to them as “adopted French ships”. Prior to the Rule of 1756 it sufficed to prove that goods – even if loaded in a French port – were of Danish origin/ownership. After 1756, however, the High Court of Admirality deemed ownership irrelevant: all French goods were now liable for confiscation. Hunt argued that, despite harsher legal norms now applied by the British, determining neutrality was not straightforward. As demonstrated by an exemplary appeal case, it was even possible to mobilise political influence to quash HCA rulings of condemnation. According to Hunt, Danish Prize Papers cases show that the British treated Danish ships trading in colonial waters less leniently than those in European waters. This, Hunt argued, indicates, firstly, how valuable and important colonial trade had become for European powers and, secondly, how globalized war, the European economy and politics had become by the late eighteenth century.

The ensuing discussion touched on practical and logistical issues of neutrality and how they affected neutrality practices, for example, what happened to a confiscated prize if a ship was eventually found to be neutral. In such cases, the captor was liable for damages, which was an incentive for privateers to be careful about which ships they seized. Often privateers would demand a bribe rather than seize a ship outright: capturing was financially risky due, not least, to the poorly defined and geopolitically contingent definition of neutrality. The afterlife of cargo and ships was also a concern. There was an entire machinery of auctioning attached to prize-taking. Perishable goods would be sold quickly to avoid spoilage, but ships would also be sold on. Most of the ships taken as prize were merchant ships as these were commercially valuable and refitting a navy ship for trade was very expensive.

A further insight from the discussion was that practices of neutrality led to the emergence of a vast administrative and legal framework and infrastructure over the course of the eighteenth century. This included legal experts specializing in prize-taking and a professional, permanent body of court personnel who dealt with prize cases and negotiated the malleable and ever-changing grey area of neutrality. The emergence of international law, as the presenters pointed out, was connected to conflicts over neutrality in early modern maritime trade and warfare.

Section overview:

Head of section: Lucas Haasis (Oldenburg/London) / Magnus Ressel (Bremen)

Magnus Ressel (Bremen): “’ se fit d'excellentes opérations maritimes aux Iles françoises d'Amérique, à la traite etc.’. The Neutrality of the Austrian Netherlands from 1778–1783”

Lucas Haasis (Oldenburg/London), Prize Papers Project ( “Pushing the Boundaries of Maritime Neutrality: A Hamburg Merchant in Colonial France 1743–1745”

Leos Müller (Stockholm) / Margaret Hunt (Uppsala), The Scandinavian Prize Papers ( “The Fragile Neutrality of Scandinavian Flags in the Seven Years War”

1 The digitized Luetkens papers are accessible via the Prize Papers Portal, (17.11.2023).
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