According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 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’. William Caxton mentions, for example, ‘[A]n alyen that was callyd Arnold of spayne that was a brocour of london’ 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, or ‘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 criticize what he considered to be the pernicious effects of money and conspicuous consumption in English society, with ‘enquiring eyes’ scanning every individual to ‘search (and like a needy broker, prize) / the silk and gold he wears’. Tradesmen’s resulting dependence on their activities contributed to the perception of the broker as someone motivated not by the interests or needs of their employers, but by their own self-serving desire to make a profit. Comparisons between brokers and morally dubious figures such as prostitutes or usurers abound in early modern English texts, revealing a tension between the independence enjoyed by brokers, and the perceived codes of moral conduct and trust that should regulate commercial exchanges. 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 criticized the conspicuous consumption and social ambitions of wealthy and successful brokers. His allegorical figure of Lady Avarice as bizarrely and lavishly dressed, ‘attired like a Brokers wife, for her apparel is made of several 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. A different cluster of assumptions and expectations can be identified around such figures, which privilege professional integrity or objectivity over national identity. 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'.
Such brokers were also mediators, playing 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 Custom house’. These English concessions to ‘Moors’ in the pragmatic realm of trade and negotiation offer a strikingly different insight into cross-cultural relations than those understood in cheap print or plays in England.
Brokers were 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 1625 consultation from the EIC factory at Surat mentioned above reveals, brokers helped English merchants operate in foreign markets in ways that enabled them to gain an advantageous position. Although Ferrers idealized the broker as an ‘indifferent person’, the records of the English factory at Surat are rich in complaints about the untrustworthiness or ambiguous behaviour of local brokers. 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 often defined by a difficult balance between trust and profit. 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 ‘very knaves and traitors’. When ‘choosing commodities’, the employees of the Khambhat (Cambay) factory were advised to ‘put little confidence in their brokers, who are ever falsest where they discern 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 growing influence of local middlemen in the Levant and Asia, and the often-antagonistic interests between English trading companies and 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 ‘agent’ was deployed to be a counterweight to non-European mediators, an integral part of a strategy that aimed to use experienced English resident merchants to supplant non-English brokers or middlemen, and allow the English trading companies to operate according to a modus operandi that was closer to European trading practices. Another important advantage of using agents was the possibility of obtaining local knowledge. Agents usually possessed or developed the necessary linguistic skills that made them able not only to operate in local markets, but to apprehend local social practices and engage with relevant political and economic actors. This ability of agents to infiltrate into local social, economic and even political structures allowed the English trading companies to curb the influence of local brokers and expand their activities. Some EIC agents, for example, were involved in private trading activities that allowed the company to penetrate into the South Asian ‘country trade’.
While 'agent', derived from Middle French 'agent', which itself gestures back at classical Latin (agent-, agens), was already available in British sources as the cause or doer of an action, the term came to be used increasingly to refer to a function rather than a profession. An agent used their knowledge, skills, and ability to construct or operate within networks, and 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. To cut the English reliance on local brokers, Harborne performed a series of diplomatic and commercial duties directly for the English Crown. The agents of 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.
Like ‘broker’, however, an ‘agent’ remained an ambiguous observer who continually aroused the suspicion of observers. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (written c. 1598), in a dialogue with Don John, Claudio evokes the untrustworthiness associated with agents: ‘Let every eye negotiate for itself / 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’. The spectre of corruption, negligence, or disloyalty often troubled the reputation of agents. Within the domain of international trade and traffic, 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 keeping, very ill beseeming your repute and creditt'. The detailed knowledge that agents acquired 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 merchantsAgents tended to possess a somewhat liminal status which resulted from a juxtaposition of different commercial functions, as well as from recurrent conflicts between private and company interests. These ambiguities contributed to a perception by local merchants and officials of the agents of the English trading companies as second-rate employees who lacked the capacity to conclude negotiations or commercial transactions. This was the reason that led John Bangham, an EIC agent at Lahore, to express his ‘discontent’ for downgrading his original title from factor to agent.Although women tended to not be officially acknowledged as agents, they were often employed as ‘go-betweens’, ‘third-parties’ or discreet facilitators of contacts, especially in interactions with non-European societies. One of the most illuminating cases is that of Malintzin, alias La Malinche, a Nahua woman who became Hernán Cortés’s interpreter, counselor, envoy and ultimately mistress during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In her study of the early contacts between Portuguese colonizers and Amerindians in Brazil, Alida Metcalf highlighted the role of Margarida, the Christian name of an enslaved Aimoré woman who brokered the negotiations that led to the incorporation of the Aimoré into the Portuguese colonial apparatus in Bahia in 1602. The cases of La Malinche and Margarida are very similar to that of Pocahontas, a pivotal interpreter and mediator in the interactions between the English colony of Jamestown and the Algonquian region of of Tsenacommacah. The experiences of La Malinche, Margarida and Pocahontas reveal how non-European women linked to European men through sexual/marital partnerships or enslavement used their knowledge on local societies to reshape their gendered functions by developing an ability to intermediate different cultural worlds. In the same way in Europe, the ability of women to discreetly navigate between the domestic and public spheres, and especially their role in cementing strategic partnerships through marriage, also encouraged their role as discreet mediators or brokers. The biography of Lucy Harington, the wife of the third Earl of Bedford, Edward Russell, offers an interesting case study of how aristocratic women could use their marriages to become ‘political brokers’ at the service of the interests of their families.
With the rise of connoisseurship and art collecting in seventeenth-century England, agents and brokers were not just in the employ of trading companies but of individual patrons who sought go-betweens who could access global markets. Wealthy patrons like the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Salisbury, and the Countess of Arundel commissioned agents such as William Petty and Thomas Roe to broker for statues, art, coral, and coins in their travels to the Levant. The agents charged with bringing coveted Greco-Roman art and sculpture to England at the behest of their patrons drew on the same set of skills that company agents used, and often became involved in their own underhand mercantile activity. The ‘saucy’ Petty spent five years in Italy, Rhodes, and Athens in the Arundels’ service, crossing mountains and surviving storms at sea in the pursuit of objets d’art that might please his patrons. There was never man so fitted for employment’, Roe observed of Petty, ‘that encounters accidents...eates with Greeks on their worst days, lies on planks with fishermen at the best, is all things to all men, that he may obtain his ends’. Anthony Van Dyck’s painting, ‘George Gage and Two Attendants’ (c. 1620s), aptly captures such mediation. Van Dyck portrays Gage, a Catholic agent of the Arundels, in the midst of negotiating for a marble statue of Aphrodite, flanked by two attendants including an African man. The painting conveys a spirited confidence in the English capacity for lucrative brokering, but also the role of cross-cultural mediation and the presence of non-European peoples in the lives of agents, and in the circulation of knowledge and goods in and beyond England.