Private and Public in the case of Early modern Swedish consuls

Historians have shown how early modern European states used both of private and public resources to govern. Early modern states relied on social capital and social networks to function, and private contractors supplied their armed forces with both equipment and men. A recent article shows how the Swedish national bank was reliant on the personal credit of its employees.

This reliance on private resources is also prevalent when looking at the consular services of the early modern age. The Swedish consular service expanded drastically in the eighteenth century, especially in the latter decades, 48 consulates in total by 1789, and did so on a shoe string budget. Most consuls neither received a salary nor could levy fees on incoming ships. At the same time, cash and credit were necessary for the exercise of their office. This combination led to a striking amalgam between public office and private enterprise. In this post I focus on Swedish eighteenth century consulates in Spain, building on my two recent anthology[1] chapters[2].

The port of Cadiz in south-western Spain, a key port in the eighteenth century because most goods from the Spanish colonies landed here. Source.

In the eighteenth century, states appointed consuls in port towns across Europe. Their task was to promote trade, help nationals in need, and to correspond with their home authorities as well as diplomats and other consuls. They were not diplomats, but they performed some diplomatic duties and handled the day-to-day interactions between different nationalities on a much more frequent basis than diplomats did.

As for the Swedish consular service, a consul needed cash and credit to be able to serve. Most, if not all, consuls mostly made their living from private trade and had been merchants before their appointment. Their new post entailed many outlays. For instance, when consuls helped ships pay custom and clearance fees when entering and leaving port, for court and lawyer fees when Swedes ended up in court, or for hospital bills when Swedes needed health care, and so on.

Even though consuls made money from these outlays, as they charged ship owners and merchants brokerage fees, interest rates and fees for their services, it took at least several months for reimbursements to reach a consul in Spain from Sweden. And only in the much-frequented ports could these incomes reach substantial levels. Unsurprisingly, the Swedish consular decree of 1793 stated that a sufficient fortune was a prerequisite for receiving a consular appointment. If a consul filed for bankruptcy, he lost his position immediately.

Yet, the costs of exercising the consular office only partly explains the importance of cash and credit. As the decree also stated, it was undesirable that a consul allowed for the ‘decay of his credit’ (understood here as both reputation in a broader sense and trust in a financial sense), as this decay not only destroyed public confidence for himself, but also for Swedish trade. The reason for this is that, by appointing someone a Swedish consul, the Swedish crown had become associated with his firm, and even authorized it to some extent. The job applicants themselves recognized the boons of this affiliation. When Gustaf Baumgardt was appointed Swedish consul in 1776 in Alicante, he advertised his new position to Swedish merchants, making it clear that this appointment would benefit his private enterprise.

In exchange for an improved legal status, the Swedish authorities seems to have viewed it as the consuls’ task to improve and benefit Swedish trade by engaging in trade themselves. In Cadiz, this connection was so strong that the consul had to notify the Swedish authorities if he entered in any trade partnerships, and he was expected to choose a Swede.

Sometimes, public and private interests intermingled perfectly. Hans Jacob Gahn, consul in Cadiz between 1773 and 1800, managed to broker a deal with the Spanish navy to become its contractor for supplying copper sheets for its ships in the early 1780s. Copper sheets were used to make ships less susceptible to decay and formed part of the naval arms race between Spain, France and Great Britain at the time. Although some copper was brought to Spain from the Habsburg Empire, as Gahn partnered with the Italian merchant and consul Pablo Greppi, most of it seems to have come from Swedish copper mines, increasing Swedish metal exports.[3]

The Spanish frigate “San Carlos” in Port Mahon, Menorca. Source.

The association of a private firm with the Swedish crown also meant that the consulate served as a training ground for future merchants and consuls. To take an example, Jacob Martin Bellman, consul in Cadiz between 1744 and 1766, had it written in his instruction that it was “the duty of the consul to employ Swedish youths as assistants in his trading house in order to provide them the opportunity to learn about trade so that they may be of future benefit and use to the king and the realm.”

Consuls were supposed to employ young Swedes, give them training in international trade, and thereby produce skilled merchants who would either take up positions as consuls themselves or at least benefit the Swedish nation as merchants, enriching themselves and the Swedish trade and industry all at the same time. Although the Swedish authorities could do very little to enforce this demand, they expected the consul to repay his appointment not only with service but also with the training of new merchants.

The effects of this alliance of public office and private venture also manifested itself in the consular house. Here, the consul lived, ran his merchant operation, and operated his consulate. Consequently, his merchant office also doubled as his consular office, and his staff also worked for the consulate. As an example, Gahn’s business partner also worked as his vice consul, and the provincial historical archives in Cadiz show that the vice consul and several others of Gahn’s staff served Swedish ships and sailors as interpreters and legal aides whenever they needed help in the port. The consul himself is seldom visible in the material, his staff took care of his duties for him.

The consulate, moreover, kept his archives, including his formal correspondence with the Swedish authorities, other consuls, diplomats, merchants, and other people he kept in touch with. Bellman and Gahn kept in touch with, among other, the botanists Carl Linneaus and José Celestino Mutis. Sadly, there are no archives left from any of the eighteenth century Swedish consulates in Spain but they were important, not least to the Swedish authorities. When a Swede serving as the Russian consul in Cadiz also applied for the Swedish post, one of the arguments against him was that his Russian staff would have access to the Swedish archives.

Finally, the consular house also served as a house of representation. Although the house could not display a coat of arms on the front, it was adorned with a Swedish flag and could also contain many artifacts that showed its intrinsic connection with Sweden. The Swedish consul in Alicante in the late 1700s writes that the flag was important to the honour of the Swedish nation. Additionally, visitors to the Cadiz consulate in 1748 and 1751 wrote about how the consul had decorated one of his rooms in the colours blue and yellow and that he had adorned the walls with portraits of the late king Fredrik I, the present King and Queen, and the Crown prince. The room was clearly used for Swedish representation abroad.

Private businesses and public affairs clearly mixed in Swedish consular houses in eighteenth century Spain. My findings, thus, further adds to the results from previous research on the mixing of public and private resources in the early modern European consular service.

Crucially, the execution of the consular office rested on personal credit wedded with state authority, and the large outlays required from the incumbent necessitated some type of income from trade. A consular appointment resulted in the association between a merchant or merchant house and the Swedish crown, to the benefit of both, at least in theory. Very few precautions about the potential drawbacks of greed are noticeable in the material, and when they surface, they mostly relate to nationality. People who were not subjects to the Swedish King were seen as less trustworthy and more prone to prioritize their private affairs to the detriment of the public interest. How things worked in practice needs further empirical studies.


[1] Published in

[2] Published in

[3] In the 1790s, Gahn won the contract to supply the Spanish navy with lumber but this time the lumber was brought from Russia.

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