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The Success of the Minrothad Merchant Classby Jennifer Guerra
Averoignian economist Jean-Jacques Chretien, from a special lecture series ("The Future of the Magocracy in a Trade-Based World Economy") given at the Great School of Magic, Flaurmont 1016:
...Minrothad has replaced the sacrosanct notion of the commercial balance with the idea of working for commissions. They have become the great carriers over the seas. Enormous stocks of raw materials and tons of manufactured goods are transported from one country to another in their flat-bottomed, round-sterned ships. They buy only to sell again, and the major part of their vast commerce consists of taking supplies in every part of the world in order to supply the whole world in turn.
Minrothad City, in fact, seems to be the warehouse of the world's goods, if you will. Merchandise from everywhere is sometimes stored there for several months, then sold when the best prices are available.
Who are these Minrothaddans? How have "a handful of humans and elves reduced to a corner of the world where there is nothing but water and rocks," as Prince Étienne d'Ambreville has put it, managed to attain such affluence? What might the observations of a Glantrian be upon visiting their country? Let us imagine a fictitious trip taken by the son of an Averoignian merchant to the Minrothad Guilds. Suppose that the father of our traveller, like so many other merchants in Vyonnes, has a contact in Minrothad, a rich merchant who invites the young man to stay in his home in Minrothad City.
When our young traveller visits Minrothad, he is astounded by the fact that the country is essentially urban. The inhabitants of the town represent two-thirds of the population, an enormous proportion compared to essentially rural Glantri. Rising out of a world of sea cliffs and fog, the city--admirable, spacious, airy--is lined with red-brown, black, or pink houses on piles around its semicircular and concentric paved streets. Street life is intense and disciplined, always within hearing of the city's countless bells. The appearance of the city is mostly neat and clean. The commercial areas are full of life, but without the deafening uproar heard in Glantrian streets. Numerous warehouses line the streets; the state does not attempt to control economic activity in the cities as the Glantrian government does, although the power of the guilds over the various crafts is often tyrannical.
While walking from one store or workshop to another, our traveller observes with astonishment the amount of metallic currency in circulation. Good coin is so hard to come by in Glantri! Even in Glantri City, a merchant or craftsman often has difficulty in obtaining payment. Nearly all work is done on credit, because of the monetary famine of the times. Intrigued, the Glantrian promises himself he will get an explanation of all this from his host.
The home of his host is fairly large, comfortable, clean, but without ostentation. On the wall are hung paintings that show scenes of family and city life in all their truthfulness, all their simplicity. In the main room there is a portrait of the master of the house, by an artist who is doubtlessly struggling against poverty. Here a painter is one tradesman among others. Patronage is an unknown concept. A rich patrician pays for his order, and that is all. Art does not contribute in any way to illustrating the grandeur of the state.
Our traveller, accustomed to the diversity of dress among the Glantrians, who are always careful to reveal their social stature or acquired privilege through their clothes, notes with some surprise the sombre black or violet clothing of his host family. He is aware of their great fortune, and notes the near absence of servants. The mistress of the house does her own shopping. This simplicity of life extends to the important personages of state. Helka Ruyter, wife of a celebrated naval hero, does her own shopping too; and Oran Meditor himself sometimes goes about on foot (albeit with a contingent of bodyguards).
Meals are taken in near-silence. The food is not especially refined. Our traveller dreams of the lively feasts of Averoigne. he has further occasion to speak with his hosts in their little private garden, which almost all the Minrothad burghers possess, over a cup of tea, coffee, or chocolate, all commodities brought in by the ships of the great trade companies.
The Minrothaddans ask the young Glantrian his plans for the future. It is their turn to be surprised by the limited interest he shows in his father's export business. The young man's preoccupations seem to be the office of treasurer that his father wants to buy for him soon and the beautiful estate that his family is preparing near Ximes. The son of the household, about the same age as the guest, also speaks to him about his future. He evokes with enthusiasm the ships that adventure to the far reaches of the world in search of rare goods; he describes the fantastic commercial activity that animates the quays of his city. What is his ambition? It is to become a rich merchant like his father. For him, trade is a sort of epic. He is even learning the languages of far-off lands. Minrothad possesses the greatest centre in the world for the study of languages.
How will he invest his profits? As his parents did, in his townhouse. The properties of the landed aristocracy, few in number, hold no interest for him. A few paintings, some fine porcelain, and polished copper cookware will adorn his only investment in real estate: a fine urban residence where he can lead a simple, virtuous, and closed family life. All this talk gives the young Glantrian a glimpse of a new idea: Success confirms virtue. Minrothaddans read a tremendous amount. Greater intellectual freedom and lax censorship have made this watery corner of Brun a publisher's paradise. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can one find such a wealth of non-magical reading in a personal library. Our traveller finds numerous botanical works (a legacy of the country's elven heritage) and popularisations of science in his host's library. The Minothaddans know how to combine their live of the concrete and of science with their commercial genius. Thanks to the advanced techniques of their processing industries (such as certain ways of dyeing cloth), they dominate major markets.
Our traveller might then wish to observe more closely "the world's greatest warehouse" and Brun's leading financial marketplace. The extraordinary activity on the quays and docks of Minrothad City astonishes every visitor. Among the peculiar mobile cranes, Karameikan cereals, Darokinian wool, rice from Ochalea, wine from Narvaez, iron and wood from the Northern Reaches, spices from Sind and the Midlands, sugar from the Serpent Peninsula or Davania, and countless other goods from everywhere are loaded or unloaded before the ships depart for destinations all over the globe. Around Fyrmont the Sindhi/Peninsular fleet returns: twenty enormous ships with fabulous cargoes. In Flaurmont nearly two hundred vessels raise anchor for the northern Sea of Dawn.
Because of its geographical situation, Minrothad finds itself not far from major river routes as well. Remarkable shipbuilders, the Minrothaddan elves design ships for each sea or water route and for each particular trade. The approach to the coasts is particularly dangerous, where the sea is at once violent and shallow. The merchants' spirit of enterprise does not allow itself to be intimidated by the wrecked ships broken up by the waves. All foreign visitors note the appetite for work and the extreme frugality of the Minrothaddans. All the world's goods pass through their hands, and they consume almost none of them. Even the best products of Minrothad are meant for exportation.
Everything is designed for the best possible return on the lowest possible investment. The famous "flutes" (from the elven word fluit), flat-bottomed ships with round sterns and narrow decks, are inexpensive to build but can hold vast amounts of merchandise. Transportation costs are by far the lowest in the world. Thus the Minrothaddans have become indispensable go-betweens in world trade. In order to deal with the tremendous risks of the sea, Minrothaddan shippers have organised two remarkable systems: that of defensive magics, and that of maritime insurance. As defensive magics are more this institution's domain than my own, I shall consider the Minrothaddan insurance industry. Insurance companies have multiplied in the capital, to such a degree that they can lower their rates to ten percent and even eight percent of insured value. By comparison, the Darokinian rate of insurance on an over-land caravan is about 25 percent.
Minrothaddan trade has invaded the world. Whereas in Darokin the great merchant houses struggle to establish separate markets, the Minrothaddan merchants spontaneously form associations to conquer the trade of both East and West. To the great consternation of the Thyatian trade ministry, part of Thyatian production (notably from the Isle of Dawn dominions) wind up in the warehouses of Minrothad City.
The great Minrothaddan merchants have utilised with formidable efficiency the weapon of information in the service of commerce. No country possesses a regular message service so perfected, although a private Darokinian company is making gains in this field in recent years (Master Guido Umbarth shall speak on magical applications to trade tonight). Nowhere are there so many gazettes, nor are any as well-informed of economic events worldwide. Minrothaddan businessmen are always the first to know of shifting prices in distant markets, as well as of shipwrecks and natural calamities. Because they are also largely responsible for transporting raw materials and manufactured goods, speculation has become easy. These merchants can sometimes dictate prices in foreign ports, which hampers local trade considerably.
The Minrothaddans have also had the genius to connect commercial and financial power in a manner never before seen. Economists rightly say that only trade can bring a country metallic currency. But Minrothaddan methods are different. After having seen the foremost port in all Mystara, our young traveller visits the leading financial market in all Brun (and perhaps the world, since Alphatia's demise). This is the famous Stock Exchange of Minrothad City, a sort of permanent commercial fair where world commerce is discussed. The building is classic, elegant. Some thirty columns support covered galleries, where the great merchants meet. Regular visitors know that they will find the Sea of Dawn merchants by one column, and those of the Savage Coast by another. Here a ship is chartered; a few steps farther on, it will be insured. In the courtyard, the talk is of real estate values, of long-term deals, of speculations in universal trade. All the world's goods, or nearly all, are given their price there. Perhaps in part because of this, the Minrothaddan crona is the most secure of world currencies.
Another reason for the success of the currency is that the Central Bank always keeps on hand at least enough silver to cover all deposits. And, as Corwyn Mauntea of Darokin has been heard to say, Minrothad has the "enormous audacity" to make no effort to protect the metallic currency in its possession through prohibiting the exit of precious metals. Resolutely antibullionist, the Guilds allow the exportation of currency, and even ingots. Furthermore, a merchant knows he can withdraw at any moment whatever he had deposited in the bank, without having to borrow. That certainty has attracted massive amounts of capital. Depositors accept the low interest that the bank offers them, in exchange for absolute liquidity, which as you know is unheard of in other countries. In this way, the bank accumulates considerable holdings in metal without charging large fees. This is the explanation for the abundance of metallic currency in circulation in Minrothad.
All is not idyllic in Minrothad--much is needed. The efficient and unbending capitalism largely profits the bourgeois class--a very large class, it is true--but it also engenders widespread poverty, as a visit to the edge of any city could demonstrate. There, miserable agglomerations of slums contrast sadly with the neat comfort of bourgeois neighbourhoods. But this is also true of other major cities, from Darokin to our own capital. Due to the absence of strict class distinctions and the Minrothaddans love of freedom, it can be said that social mobility is even more of a reality here than in Darokin or Thyatis. And it is the tireless ambition of the upwardly-mobile merchant class who will continue to make the Minrothad Guilds an economic force to be reckoned with.
[This passage was adapted from "Mercantilism and War: The Dutch Obsession," a chapter in _Colbert_ by Ines Murat, translated by Robert Francis Cook and Jeannie Van Asselt (Chalottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984), 136-46.]