A shipbroker is a middleman, ‘a conduit pipe connecting two other parties’, as one modern writer has described the role. But a broker was also an entrepreneur: shippers expected a deep understanding of market conditions so they could take full advantage of commercial opportunities, and they relied on their broker to negotiate the most favourable terms of contract. (E.J. Edward, Shipbrokers and the Law, Glasgow: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1957, p.17; Nicholas Gaskell, ‘Shipbrokers as Intermediaries in English Law’, in K. Gronfors (ed.), Intermediaries in Shipping, Gothenburg Maritime Law Association, 1991, pp.43-113)
The core business of shipbroking lies in buying and selling vessels and negotiating charters. In the late 18th century, however, brokers were also involved in organising surveys and fitting out ships, arranging insurance on both vessel and cargo, finding convoys, obtaining export permits and navigation licences, and securing quarantine and customs clearances. They acted as forwarding agents. They provided shipping intelligence. They undertook commissions on behalf of ships’ captains, collecting debts and providing short-term finance to defray necessary expenses. They appeared in Admiralty prize courts to defend their clients’ interests. They acted as agents in the disposal of cargoes seized by privateers.
A good idea of the role of a shipbroker in this period can be obtained by reading the letterbooks of the London firm of Calef & Chuter (rough notes of which are attached). [Credit to Ken Cozens for locating the Calef & Chuter letterbooks.]
Shipbrokers and Convict Transportation
The convict contractor for the First Fleet was a small London shipbroker, William Richards, whose father had also been a broker for a time.
The contractor for the Second Fleet was another small shipbroker, who was almost certainly acting on behalf of the firm of Camden, Calvert & King. They secured the Third Fleet contract themselves without using a broker.
Thereafter, the role of the convict contractors was much less significant and ship owners used brokers to secure the contracts. From 1792 until the outbreak of war, one firm of brokers (and shipowners), Bignell, St Barbe & Green (later St Barbe, Green & Bignell), managed by John St Barbe, won a series of Botany Bay contracts, probably because of St Barbe's close relationship with the Navy Board's Deptford agent, James Bowen.
With the outbreak of war in 1794, two shipbrokers dominated naval contracting, and thus convict transportation - James Duncan and George Brown - presumably as a matter of convenience.
- Gary L. Sturgess, 11 March 2016