L. Haasis: The Power of Persuasion

The Power of Persuasion. Becoming a Merchant in the 18th Century

Haasis, Lucas
Practices of Subjectivation
Anzahl Seiten
660 S.
€ 60,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Elisabeth Heijmans, University of Antwerp

Lucas Haasis sets out to write a microhistory of a Hamburg merchant in France involved in indirect Atlantic trade during the eighteenth century. This book differs from other monographs on merchant culture and business practices of the eighteenth century because it draws from an untouched merchant archive, both in its content and state of preservation. The book is therefore primarily the story of a business archive of no less than 2,286 letters of the Hamburg merchant Luetkens during his stay in France between 1743 and 1745. The letters were seized during the war of Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and were used as evidence at the British High court of Admiralty. The archive of Luetkens has been kept in the original state of preservation since then in Kew, where the author found it in 2012. While Luetkens’ merchant house later became a successful business in Hamburg, the moment of his career captured in the letters is his “establishment phase”. As argued by the author, the focus on that particular phase of a merchant’s career is relevant to show merchants' negotiation and persuasion strategies before they were fully established and, for some, successful.

The aim of the book is to contribute to research on mercantile communities of the Atlantic trade in France and Hamburg during the eighteenth century. To do so Haasis aptly combines three methods: microhistory, thick description and a focus on practices. The chapters are divided by different mercantile themes combined with a specific “practical principle of persuasion” illustrated in letter episodes. They are standalone chapters, each starting with a strong contextualisation of the explored topic, such as shipping business, commission trade, mercantile partnerships and marriages. Some of the chosen practical principles of persuasion analysed in the book are demanding loyalty from correspondents, efficiency (including in solving problems), meeting as equals or preferential treatment. By placing letters at the centre of the analysis, Haasis demonstrates with concrete examples that correspondence was not just a medium for business or communication but that letters were demonstrations of skills or reliability during a merchant’s establishment phase.

A focus on practices and materiality is a welcome contribution to eighteenth-century business history and mercantile culture. Haasis carefully analyses negotiation and manipulation strategies in the content of letters, such as the purposeful use of conventions, discourses, registers or languages and rhetorical tricks. But the author goes beyond the content and pays detailed attention to the materiality of his sources. He takes full advantage of the fact that Luetkens’ letters remained the way they were archived by Luetkens himself, bearing the traces of the logic of an eighteenth-century merchant. Indeed, unlike donated material or stored archives, the letters of Luetkens have not been selected or organised by family members or archivists to show only successful years, memorable aspects or follow modern logic. Practices related to the materiality of the sources, such as folding letters in a specifying way, arrangements with multiple letters in one or the insertion of extra sheets of paper, the presence or absence of seals, the use and place of a post-scriptum, are rightfully considered as precious clues to better understand the full role of correspondence in a merchant’s business strategy.

It is important to state that the book's goal is not to idealise a successful individual career but rather to place letter practices at the centre of the study to show how an early modern merchant’s establishment relied on the cooperation of many other merchants and firms. The business archive of Luektens is well suited to this aim as it allows Haasis to provide a complete image of merchant practices, including unflattering sides such as manipulative techniques. Through thick description, Haasis delivers the reader with a deep contextualisation of each theme covered and thoroughly explains essential concepts and mechanisms at work in an eighteenth-century international business. The book is, therefore, also relevant to understanding some early modern notions such as commission trade, postal routes or marriage. An undeniable strength of the book is the many pictures and images illustrating and demonstrating the argument. The author shares with the reader the original storage of the letters showing the organisation logic of Luektens.

While the analysis is precise and detailed, some sections could have been shorter, and some of the arguments might have gained strength if they had been more straightforward. Despite some repetitions and the, at times, overly detailed structure, the book remains clear. It is a pity that the primary focus remained on the (indirect) Atlantic trade while a chapter is devoted to the Mediterranean trade and the difficulties of convincing captains and crews to undertake voyages in that region. It could have been an excellent opportunity to link two historiographical trends artificially separated: the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds.

Overall the book demonstrates what it is possible to learn from an untouched archive by following the logic of contemporary merchants and staying close to sources, not only in their content but also in their materiality. Haasis reached a balance between, on the one hand, respecting the original material and, on the other, convincingly placing this material in the broader context of eighteenth century commercial culture and practices.

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