Pourchasse Pierrick (2006) “Les consulats, un service essentiel pour le monde négociant: une approche comparative entre la France et la Scandinavie”, in Ulbert Jörg and Le Bouëdec dir., La fonction consulaire à l’époque moderne. L’affirmation d’une institution économique et politique (1500-1700), Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 191-209.
In the extremely slow early modern economy, having a good network to carry information as quickly as possible meant being competitive. Prices varied a lot from one place to the other, being informed on time meant one’s success or one’s ruin. During the 18th century, French merchants were very passive in the northern seas, they had no information network; on the other hand, the Scandinavian traders were emerging quickly as one of the main players of the region (191). Consuls – present mostly in port towns such as Bordeaux, Nantes, Bergen, or Dantzig – were a key element in the chain relaying information.
Choice of the consuls
The French consuls were all directly nominated by the king since 1681. Officially, all the consuls were meant to be French and the employees were all supposed to be Catholic. But there were a few exceptions (192). In 1691, the consuls became civil servants and were, as such, banned from getting involved in trade. Once more, the rule was not always observed, still being consul did not made one rich, the position was not really sought and many posts were left empty (193). Most of the consuls did not have a commercial background but rather an administrative or judiciary one (194).
The Swedish consuls on the contrary had necessarily a commercial experience. The royal Kommerskollegium nominated the consuls but usually they followed the recommendation of the trader community. The merchant elite association of Stockholm (Grosshandelsocieten), in particular, was instrumental in the nomination process. The Kommerskollegium tried as often as possible to chose Swedish nationals, but as late as 1789, 17 of 48 consuls were not Swedes. The position was prestigious and actively sought after. There were dynasties of consuls (195). As the consul was also the agent of the Swedish merchant, the latter took great care in picking one.
The Danes had a system similar to the Swedish one. Most of their consuls were foreigners, like in the case of Sweden, the king of France refused that his subjects became consuls for a foreign nation (196). The Scandinavian consuls were often rewarded by nobility titles granted from the kings (197).
There were only 7 French consulates from Hamburg to St Petersburg, plus a few short-lived vice-consulates (198). On the other hand, in 1787, there were 8 Danish consuls and 30 vice-consuls in France alone. Most of them had been created after the commercial treaty of 1742 (199). Sweden had 17 consuls in France by 1789 and an undetermined number of vice-consuls (200). The density of the Scandinavian networks compensated the lack of large merchant communities for the circulation of information.
Paying the consuls
The French consuls’ wages covered the bare minimum, they often lost money while in that position (201). They also earn a share of the consulage paid by the ship captains, but the later tried their very best not to pay any tax. On the other hand, the Swedish consuls received no wages from the crown (202). They were only entitled to a small tax paid by Swedish ship captains and all those that used their services in general. They also enjoyed the advantage that their cargoes or those of people using them as agents paid no taxes. As a result, the consuls concentrated most of the Swedish trade, which gave them (and the Swedish products in general) an edge in terms of economies of scale.
The Danish consuls complained that there were too few Danish ships and that among those too few paid consulage for them to ensure a decent livelihood (203). Eventually some of them even relinquish the modest wages paid to the consul.
The consul: a key element
The consuls were meant to represent their sovereign. They were diplomats, judges and notaries at the same time. There were also in charge of commercial intelligence (gathering information, proposing improvements, etc.). The French consuls with a commercial background were the most active, keen on spreading the Scandinavian innovations in France and to find new markets for the French products (204).
The Scandinavian consuls were required to produce more and more detailed information than their French counterparts their employers being a commercial organisation. Typically they send one report a month to Copenhaguen and Stockholm (while the French one do so only every three months) (205). All these information were collected and at the disposal of the merchants. In Denmark, there was a yearly publication of these information after 1782. There were noticeably entrepreneurial to find new market for their Danish or Swedish merchants (206).
French lack of ambition
Totally inefficient consuls were sometimes left at their post by the diplomatic authorities which did not really care about commercial matters. The French trade in the Northern seas was not very developed, which often meant that the government saw no need to endure the expenses of a consul there. Consequently, the French merchants lacked information about the region and trade never expanded (207). For instance, there was no French consul in Copenhaguen from 1760 to 1776 (208).
On the contrary, the Scandinavians created two extensive consular networks before their trade became important in France an in other parts of Europe. These networks became important source of information, they were crucial for the development of the Swedish and Danish commerce and seafaring activities (209).
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