Book Review: The Corsairs of Saint-Malo

Disclaimer: the publisher, Columbia University Press, kindly sent me a copy of this book. Sometimes publishers send me copies; I do not always read or review the books, but if a copy was given to me I will write a disclaimer on top as I am doing now.

This book was a pleasure to read. It tells the fascinting story of French privateers (corsaires, in French) who were legaly sanctioned by the French government during wartime. Its author is Henning Hillmann, a professor of economic and organizational sociology at the University of Mannheim. I initially noticed that the book had an endorsement from Phil Hoffman of Caltech, who is in my opinion one of the best economic historians or indeed social scientist alive. That was in itself somewhat of a guarantee that reading this would be worth it – and it was.

Hillmann’s book considers in detail a series of related questions (listed in p. 3 of the book):

  • How did the partnerships for these course ventures form?
  • How did they entwine with parallel partnerships that 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?
  • 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?

The author then gives answers to these questions, for example arguing that “the course played a pivotal role in upholding social cohesion among the local merchant elite in Saint-Malo. When opportunities for the course were absent, however, fragmentation rather than cohesion prevailed”. The book has the merit of not being afraid to engage with numbers – unlike what is often the case in other historical or sociological books. The quantification of matters such as population, trade, or merchant elite wealth, is welcome and complements well the qualitative discussion that is also provided. The frequent reliance on primary sources from Brittany is also a plus.

However, there are pitfalls too. Chapter 5, for example, includes a worthwile attempt to estimate returns to privateering. But when attempting to build measures of estimated fitting costs (Table 5.1.), the author engages in the common error of comparing nominal amounts (i.e. values in the unit of account, here livres tournois) across long spans of time. A similar problem exists elsewhere, too, in Figure 2.9. when considering trends in foreign commerce. The fact that inflation isn’t accounted for makes such comparisons almost meaningless, or at least hard to interpret. And yet there is no excuse to do this, since price indexes for 18th century France are available, most recently from the Ridolfi’s Journal of Economic History paper (data available here).

The author also spends a great deal of time discussing the dynamics of partnership networks, which seems to be one of his main focus of interest here. To me, that was a bit too much. I enjoyed the descriptive aspects of the book more than the explanations provided, but at the same time I felt that there was a lot of micro detail given at times without an adequate motivation. For example, some of the readers of this post will know that with coauthors I have worked on a paper entitled “The vagaries of the sea: evidence on the real effects of money from maritime disasters in the Spanish Empire“. In that paper we show that the vast majority of shipwrecks and maritime disasters in fact happen as a consequence of weather accidents, not piracy, even though piracy has, of course, broader Hollywoodesque appeal. Still, our evidence is related to the American Treasure Fleets exclusively, and it was interesting to read here about priacy and privatering in a somewhat different context.

While some of the stories provided are fascinating, at the same time, felt that the book sometimes gets into so much detail about individual “trees”, indeed so much that “the forest” gets out of sight completely: why should the reader care? Perhaps I’m just more interested in more “macro” questions by nature, but it wasn’t always clear to me why I should care about some of the fine details here, or indeed why they mattered to the overall story. The matter of the forest, i.e. the macro picture and its implications, being lost of sight seems relevant, because we know, for example, that French intercontinental commerce was in fact rather small by comparison with other powers, in per capita terms – a matter which the issue of piracy could not overturn (see this paper for the sources of the figure below):

Per capita intercontinental trade, at constant £ per capita of 1700. Adapted from Palma, N. (2016). Sailing away from Malthus: Intercontinental trade and European economic growth, 1500–1800. Cliometrica10(2), 129-149.

Indeed, more effort to provide international comparisons (and discussion of their implications) would have been welcome in this book. Yet, at the same time, Hillmann’s work is not primarly aimed at economists, so perhaps this is understandable. While the book is in ways reminiscent of Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, Hillmann’s effort is more scholarly and historical (and as a result, more targeted at a specialized audience too).

Overalll, despite my abovementioned relatively minor quibbles, the book is very much worth reading. For the most part, I enjoyed learning from it.

The Corsairs of Saint-Malo: Network Organization of a Merchant Elite Under  the Ancien Régime (The Middle Range Series): Hillmann, Henning:  9780231180399: Amazon.com: Books
Henning Hillmann’s “The Corsairs of Saint-Malo: Network Organization of a Merchant Elite Under the Ancien Régime”

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