According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the term ‘broker’ derives from the Old Northern French brokeor, literally a ‘tapster’ or a person who serves or sells wine from the tap. During the Middle Ages, the term became synonymous with second-hand dealers, peddlers or middlemen who facilitated commercial transactions, as well as pawnbrokers and furniture dealers. William Langland’s Piers Plowman includes several uses of the term ‘broker’. The figure of Envy, for example, presents itself as ‘a broker of backbiting and blaming men’s wares/ Among merchants all the time especially in London.’ The definition of the broker as a facilitator of commercial exchange also associated the term with the functions of a messenger or emissary. William Caxton mentions, for example, ‘[A]n alyen that was callyd Arnold of spayne that was a brocour of london’ and who was sent as secret emissary to France. In 1570, Peter Levens, in his English-Latin dictionary Manipulus Vocabulorum, associated ‘broker’ with the Latin word proxeneta, meaning ‘intermediary’.
Besides facilitating commercial transactions, the broker was also a figure who defined the value of goods or identified profitable prospects. This function of the broker as an evaluator of commodities and opportunities was evoked by John Donne to criticise what he considered to be the pernicious effects of money and conspicuous consumption in English society. This led to individuals opportunistically rating each other, pursuing their own interests by living through profiting from others: subjects ‘with enquiring eyes/ doth search (and like a needy broker, prize)/ the silk and gold he wears’. This special function of appraisal and supplying allowed brokers to have a central role in mercantile arrangements, one which granted them a considerable degree of autonomy and exposed the dependence of tradesmen on their activities, contributing to the perception of the broker as someone who, for acting autonomously, was more inclined to follow his individual interest than to fulfil his supposed obligations. Images of brokers as greedy, ambitious and deceitful characters were common in plays that depicted London mercantile life. Thomas Dekker, in The Belman of London (1608), compared brokers to prostitutes (‘he delivers it either to a Broker or some bawd (for they all are of one feather), of which Receivers they have as present money for it, as if they traded with merchants’), and criticised the conspicuous consumption and social ambitions of wealthy and successful brokers, presenting the allegorical figure of Lady Avarice as bizarrely and lavishly dressed, ‘attired like a Brokers wife, for her apparell is made of severall parcells, which by violence she hath torne from sundrie backes’. Lady Avarice’s bizarre apparel made of ‘severall parcells’ evoked, at the same time, the importance of brokers in connecting London and other English cities with foreign markets.
As English merchants expanded their activities into continental Europe in the fifteenth century, the term ‘broker’ became associated with foreign intermediaries who represented the interests of English traders abroad, or of European merchants in England. Around 1562, Thomas Ferrers, mentioning the experiences of English tradesmen in Germany, France and Iberia, observed that ‘a certain brokerage is allowed, and if any buy or sell without broker … goods become forfeit’. Ferrers presented the figure of the broker as ‘an indifferent person between the buyer and the seller, and keep books thereof’. The importance of this intermediary figure in other European markets led Ferrers to propose the establishment of a ‘chief broker for strangers’ to regulate the commercial transactions involving English and foreign merchants in London. Brokers were indeed regarded as useful elements in commercial transactions in foreign countries. Ralph Fitch’s account of his travels across the Indian Ocean reveals the importance of these individuals in Pegu, where there were ‘eight Brokers, whom they call Tareghe, which are bound to sell your goods at the price which they be woorth, and you give them for their labour two in the hundred: and they be bound to make your debt good, because you sell your marchandises vpon their word'.
Besides facilitating the purchase of goods, contacts with other tradesmen, and navigating relationships with primary producers, brokers played an essential role in introducing English or foreign merchants to the local norms that regulated commercial transactions, from matters of etiquette to methods of payment. On 19 August 1625, a consultation of the East India Company (EIC) factory at Surat mentioned that following the indications of ‘Moore brokers’, the company decided to adopt ‘the practice of the Moore marchants, the house-brokers now take 2 per cent, for brokerage on the calicoes bought in the factory, whereas they formerly took but one, it is ordered that in future they shall take the 2 per cent, but shall pay half of it into the Company’s account, insomuch as one of those taken by the Moore brokers is by them paid into the Custome house’. These English concessions to ‘Moors’ in the pragmatic realm of trade and negotiation offers a strikingly different insight into cross-cultural relations than those understood in cheap print or plays in England.
The figure of the broker was present in almost all markets where English tradesmen operated, but these intermediaries were particularly relevant for the activities of the English trading companies operating in the Levant and Asia. The middlemen employed by the EIC or the Levant Company often played a pivotal role in the transactions and organisation of the commercial structures developed by English merchants in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. The rich documentation of these two companies abound in references which offer a good illustration of the English perceptions of the broker and the dealings of local intermediaries who facilitated the penetration of English trade across the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, Persia or Southeast Asia.
As the consultation from the EIC factory at Surat reveals, brokers helped English merchants to operate in foreign markets in ways that enabled them to gain an advantageous position. Although Ferrers idealized the broker as an ‘indifferent person’, the middlemen employed by the English in the Mediterranean, Persia or South Asia acted according to their self-interest and shrewdly offered their services to more than one party. The records of the English factory at Surat are rich in complaints about the untrustworthiness or ambiguous behaviour of local brokers. On 17 February 1628, EIC merchants at Agra complained they were ‘in great want of an honest broker’ since those who previously served them had been ‘verry knaves and traytours’. When ‘choosing commodities’, the employees of the Cambay factory were advised to ‘put little confidence in their brokers, who are ever falcest where they discerne most negligence.' On 26 November 1630, the EIC factory at Baroda was informed that its ‘broker will be called to account later for his neglect of their business and his underhand devotion to the Dutch’. The fact that most brokers were autonomous merchants who momentarily shared commercial interests with the English companies, and could eventually change their strategies and collaborate with other more profitable or advantageous partners according to their own self-interest, often led to conflicts of interest and suspicions and confusions about a broker’s true loyalty or allegiance. Indeed, the relation between a merchant and broker was most of the times defined by a difficult balance between trust and profit.
The role of the ‘agent’ evolved rapidly in this period precisely as a response to the role of the ‘broker’. Both the growing influence of local middlemen in the Levant and Asian trade, and the often antagonistic interests of the English trading companies and the local brokers led these companies to invest in the placement of their own intermediary agents in the main commercial hubs of the Ottoman Empire and the Indian Ocean. The company’s agent was deployed to be a counterweight to non-European mediators, a figure who would avoid situations as the one denounced by one EIC employee in Persia, who complained that the Armenian brokers and merchants who controlled the Safavid silk trade were taking advantage of the English dependence on them. They were ‘soe unfaithfull in work and deede, soe ungratefull for curtesies when their own turnes are serveth, soe griping and deceitful in their dealings and so slowe in performing of their promises are they even from the meanest to the very best of them all’.
The term ‘agent’ often referred to a function rather than a profession. An agent was someone who, thanks to his knowledge, skills and ability to construct or operate within networks, could perform a specific role as an intermediary, negotiator or a representative at a given occasion. The broadness of this term is well illustrated by William Harborne appointment as Elizabeth I’s ‘true and undoubted Orator, Messenger, Deputie, and Agent’ at the Ottoman court. English-appointed ‘agents’, therefore, were attempts to cut the English reliance on local brokers, used to encompass a series of diplomatic and commercial duties that Harborne performed directly for the English Crown. Indeed, the agents of the English trading companies were charged with a broad range of functions which included the supervision of commercial transactions, the monitoring of English merchants, and the procurement of privileges from the local authorities to English trade.
‘Agent’ remained an ambiguous figure, and, like ‘broker’, continually aroused the suspicion of observers. Mirza Mahmud, a merchant in Surat, complained to the EIC of the ill-behaviour of company’s agent in Persia, who was accused of ‘spending his time in drinking and company keepeing, very ill beseeming your repute and creditt'. Both the English and locals expressed a widespread mistrust of agents. The knowledge acquired by agents of local languages, commercial practices, and their proximity to relevant merchants and officials exposed them to interests that could clash with the wider strategies of English trading companies or groups of private merchants. The spectre of corruption, negligence or disloyalty often troubled the reputation of agents. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in dialogue with Don John, Claudio evokes the untrustworthiness associated with agents: ‘Let everie eye negotiate for it selfe/ And trust no Agent: for beautie is a witch’. This concern about trusting no agent also emerged in Protestant doctrine: ‘there is no other agent’, maintained Edmund Bunny in 1576 ‘or working powre in all the world, but [God’s] alone’.
Although agents were the main representatives of trading companies and merchants, they were occasionally regarded by local merchants and officials as minor employees who lacked the capacity to conclude negotiations, conduct diplomatic contacts or operate commercial transactions. On 23 December 1625, John Bangham, an EIC agent at Lahore who was initially appointed as factor, informed his superiors of the ‘the discontent he has received from Surat in their curtailing his title’. The company administrators received this information with some surprise since ‘there is little difference between chief agent and chief factor, and his authority for the court is as ample as that of any of his predecessors’. The similarities between the functions and authority of the two posts was also troubling Bangham and the EIC administration who advised the agent that if he was able to ‘refrain from meddling’ with the business of the head of the Agra factory, Justinian Offley, then the factor ‘will have too much discretion to interfere’. Like agents and brokers, factors operated locally and were responsible for ensuring smooth commercial transactions, monitor English merchants, establish contacts with local merchants, gather and analyse relevant economic and political information, as well as create a network of merchants, financiers, suppliers and other relevant economic actors. Agents and factors thus could easily enter into situations of conflict or interfere in their dealings.