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British pharmaceutical trade during the long eighteenth century

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Dorner_Image 1This post has been kindly written for us by Zack Dorner, a Junior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.

I’m Zack Dorner, a fourth year PhD candidate in the History Department at Brown University in the United States. Through the IHR’s Junior Fellowship Program I am living in London for the 2013-14 academic year to pursue my dissertation project.

My dissertation examines the British pharmaceutical trade during the long eighteenth century across Asia, Europe, and North America. Motivating this project are unresolved historical questions about the co-evolution of capitalism, global empire, and science in the eighteenth century. Through examining the business transactions of individuals and firms scattered around the British empire, I am trying to reconstruct the infrastructure through which capital, goods, information, and people traveled across long distances. In particular, my work focuses on the pharmaceutical trade, which allows me to discuss how the intersection of scientific and commercial practices contributed to a larger story of British economic and imperial expansion in an incipient age of global capitalism.

In tracing a global trade, my research thus far has taken me to a range of archives in search of documents such as correspondence, insurance policies, ledgers, shipping receipts, and wills that reveal both the economics of business transactions and the interpersonal negotiations that facilitated them. My research began in New England at a series of historical societies in Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. From these local repositories I shifted to research at the giant British Library and Wellcome Library in London. I have also been spending time at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, a building in a narrow street off Blackfriars rebuilt in 1672 after the Great Fire of London. For a short respite from the London rain, I travelled to Barbados in January to visit the Barbados Department of Archives and follow some leads of individuals purchasing pharmaceutical products from the firms I examined in London archives. Finally, in contrast to the state and private records I have read thus far, I am currently exploring the corporate archives of GlaxoSmithKline, whose eighteenth-century predecessors were active in the British imperial trade.

A closer look at the career of Robert Wigram (1744-1830) hints at some of the larger themes my dissertation engages. Wigram’s first career was as a surgeon, in which he regularly sailed to India and China as a ship’s surgeon for the East India Company in the 1760s. These voyages exposed Wigram to the growing drug trade as many of the products that travelled between Asia and London did so through the private dealings of EIC employees. In 1772 Wigram retired from surgery and reinvented himself as a successful merchant and broker, likely applying what he learned aboard ship. Wigram became a major importer of drugs into England and owned majority shares of several vessels trading to Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. And in 1800 he wrote to an EIC official to argue that high British duties on Asian drugs encouraged competition from Danish, Swedish, and Dutch merchants, limited British merchant stocks, and stunted the British economy. Of course Wigram was hardly the first to consider the political-economic impact of the drug trade; other cases abound in the archives.

Even from this single case it is clear that the pharmaceutical trade was both a public and a private project. State-imposed economic policy influenced the shape of the trade carried out by publicly funded joint-stock companies and private traders. And British political-economic calculations, as evidenced by Wigram’s accusation, often altered the balance of the pharmaceutical trade. Already in 1769 a group of London druggists and drug merchants petitioned to reduce the duty, rate, and drawback on drugs imported into England. The drug and pharmaceutical trade and its participants linked the Indian and Atlantic Ocean trading circuits as London firms exported pharmaceuticals to plantations in Antigua, Barbados, and Jamaica; and provided an influx of capital into provisioning, cotton, and sugar voyages. As I continue to follow the capital, goods, and merchants around the British imperial world of the eighteenth century I increasingly see the informal interactions that made possible the institutional expansion of trade in this period.