Hillmann, Henning. The Corsairs of Saint-Malo: Network Organization of a Merchant Elite Under the Ancien Régime. Columbia University Press, 2021. ISBN: 978-0-231-18039-9, 336 pages, $35/£30.
By Jamie Goodall
Henning Hillmann, chair and professor of economic and organizational sociology at the University of Mannheim, examines the merchant community of Saint-Malo, Brittany, which was a key port in the French Atlantic economy. Looking at Saint-Malo, Hillmann seeks to illuminate the various networks that linked commerce and conflict in early modern Europe. His emphasis is on the role of privateering through which merchants secured their hold on established trades, seized new opportunities, and withstood the threats of armed conflict.
Hillmann opens his book with the Villegénie, a ninety-ton snow, which left the port city of Saint-Malo on a voyage to the French West Indies. Commanded by Pierre Anne de Chateaubriand, sieur de Plessis and crewed by 57 able men, the Villegénie sailed with one mission: “to intercept and seize merchant ships of the enemy and their valuable cargo as prizes, and to bring them into the nearest French port” (p. 1). The enemy? The British. It was the height of the Seven Years’ War. The men were corsaires, or privateers, who were granted a commission of guerre et marchandise, which meant they had permission to engage in both war and trade. And the journey of the Villegénie was successful, netting a return of more than 730,000 livres tournois. Pierre Anne de Chateaubriand was one among hundreds of similar privateering partnerships that were established at Saint-Malo in the early modern period. According to Hillmann, even if one considers just a few selected cases, a pattern emerges: “Sharing the costs and risks with their business partners enabled armateurs (shipowners) in Saint-Malo and other centers of maritime commerce to spread their capital and invest in multiple enterprises at once, and not just in the course (race)” (p. 3)
While Hillmann is focused on privateering and its role, he is not interested in the military aspect of its history nor its strategic role in state rivalries or its tactical aspects in naval operations. Rather, he examines the local organization of the course specifically in Saint-Malo. He asks four interrelated questions: “How exactly, beyond just a few anecdotal cases, did the partnerships for these course ventures form? How did they entwine with parallel partnerships from the same armateurs formed to promote their ventures in overseas trade? How did these various partnership networks combine to yield social cohesion within the merchant community? And, finally, how and why did this social fabric wax and wane over the course of more than a hundred years, from 1681 through 1792, from the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King, to the French Revolution?” (p. 3)
Hillmann’s work is divided over the introduction, six chapters and a conclusion. In Chapter two, Hillmann demonstrates the gradual establishment of Saint-Malo as a center of the French Atlantic economy. It is largely descriptive, forming a narrative arc that traces Saint-Malo’s development as well as the social structure of the merchant elite. The third chapter focuses on empirical analysis in which Hillmann draws on poll tax data for Saint-Malo to show the “extent of stratification within the merchant trader community” (p. 17. He combines the poll tax data with an assessment of the costs associated with fitting out these voyages, concluding that the course emerges as the “prime candidate for an organizational linchpin in the network of merchant partnerships” (p. 17). Chapter four presents a detailed history of the origins and legal regulations that embedded privateering within a strict institutional framework. Here, Hillmann draws a clear distinction between guerre de course, or privateering, from outright piracy. He also outlines all the preparations necessary for a typical privateering voyage. The fifth chapter examines the outcome of privateering, particularly its financial returns. Hillmann considers the administrative and judicial procedures that armateurs were required to comply with upon the return of the corsair ship. The chapter focuses specifically on the quantitative analysis of the costs and benefits associated with guerre de course to demonstrate privateering’s profitability. Chapter six exemplifies the network analysis of partnership over the 110-year period from 1681-1792. In doing so, Hillmann illustrates how “much cohesion within the macrostructure of organizational networks depended on the presence of partnerships in privateering” (p. 18). In Chapter seven, HIllmann returns to the narrative arc of the second chapter and moves it forward to the second half of the eighteenth century. This was when Saint-Malo experienced a resurgence of economic growth. Here, members of a new generation of armateurs, which Hillmann calls new men, become the center of his analysis.
Hillmann’s work is meticulously researched drawing on the extensive archives of the Archives départementales d’Ille-et-Vilaine à Rennes (AD-IV), the Archives municipales de Saint-Malo (AM-SM), and countless published sources in French, English, and Dutch. He includes four appendices related to the merchant-by-merchant partnership networks and the voyage-by-voyage networks, which further bolster his arguments. Hillmann’s work will appeal not only to historians, but to economists and sociologists as well. The book is a multilayered approach to privateering that illuminates a hybrid form of commercial-military market. Hillmann’s network analysis is stunning and reveals temporal overlaps in trade networks that provide insight into material requirements for the cohesion of the merchant elite under the Ancien Régime. Perfect for the classroom, Hillmann’s book is richly detailed and interdisciplinary, succeeding in demonstrating the utility of privateering to the early modern French Atlantic economy.
Jamie L.H. Goodall, PhD, is a staff historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History. She has a PhD in History from The Ohio State University with specializations in Atlantic World, Early American, and Military histories. She is also a first-generation college student. Her publications include a journal article, “Tippling Houses, Rum Shops, & Taverns: How Alcohol Fueled Informal Commercial Networks and Knowledge Exchange in the West Indies” in the Journal of Maritime History and Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay: A Brief History of Piracy in Maryland and Virginia. She has also published a National Geographic bookazine Pirates: Shipwrecks, Conquests, and their Lasting Conquests and is writing a book about piracy in the mid-Atlantic.