Empires of copper in the midst of revolutionary change

The social organisation of the copper trade before and after the great divergence

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 301


Please note that there is a break from 12 pm - 1.30 pm.


For centuries European copper production remained on a fairly uniform level, implying that the demand and usage of copper items also were stable. From medieval times the main producing centres were located to the Alpine Lands, in Harz and Slovakia. When these ore deposits entered into a phase of decline during the mid-16th century a new – gigantic – source emerged in Sweden; Stora Kopparberg in Falun became the main supplier of European copper for most of the 17th century, and large volumes of copper were exported from Sweden to foremost the Dutch market. During the century these supplies were augmented by shipments from Japan, on the keels of Dutch East-India Men. Also, Falun went into decline, and new centres emerged from the second half of the 17th century. Norwegian copper making expanded, followed by Britain, as Swansea gradually grew into the role of a truly global supplier of copper. The production in Wales took the copper trade into the era of globally integrating industrial modernity. For the first time, we can talk about a rapidly rising output, technological change and a global chain of mines supplying the insatiable smelting furnaces fired with mineral coal; Swansea became in the mid-19th century ‘Copperopolis’ and copper ore were shipped from Cuba, Chile and Australia.

Even if we can detect a spatial development of copper production from Central Europe, to Scandinavia and then to Wales, we are not witnessing a complete eradication of copper making at older centres when a new one arrived. There was a revolutionary change, but there was also a gradual adaptation within the sector as a whole to new – global – conditions. Copper production, for instance, remained important in Falun well into the 19th century while Røros was in ascent even in the shadow of the developments in Swansea from the beginning of the 18th century, and Hungarian and German copper remained competitive in both Amsterdam and Hamburg at the dusk of the 18th century. At the dawn of modernity revolutionised copper making from Wales still faced competition of the early-modern centres in the midst of central Europe and Scandinavia.

The starting-point of this session is comparative, as it brings together people working on different copper making sites, but its aim is to establish links between them during an era of rapidly expanding output; a kind of 'Great Divergence' in copper making or an 'age of revolution'. The ambition is, further, to avoid a restricted analysis of merely copper making for a discussing that links production to trade and consumption. This means that we can include the importation of Japanese copper into Europe as well as to link the brass industry to copper production. Markets for brass and copper outside Europe are a crucial part of our discussion.


Göran Rydén (Uppsala University)


Kristine Bruland (University of Oslo)


Måns Jansson (Uppsala University)


Chris Evans (University of South Wales)

Ragnhild Hutchinson (University of Oslo)

Miroslav Lacko (University of Ostrava)

Louise Miskell (Swansea University)

Sven Olofsson (Uppsala University)

Kristin Ranestad (University of Oslo)

Ryuto Shimada (University of Tokyo)

Klaus Weber (Viadrina European University Frankfurt/Oder)


Chris Evans: London: Capital of the British copper trade

The story of British copper in the 18th century is, of course, the story of South Wales. The emergence of coal-fired copper smelting in the Swansea district was a truly revolutionary departure, not just in European but in global terms. Slowly at first, but with gathering speed from the 1750s, South Wales became the global centre of copper smelting, establishing a paramountcy that lasted until the mid-19th century. But smelting was not the whole story. There were new sources of demand, most of them associated with colonial commerce (the sugar industry) and imperial aggression (the sheathing of warships). These depended on processing plants that were clustered around London. This paper suggests an alternative geography for British copper production and suggests that the revolution in British copper making was just about coal energy; it was about sophisticated engineering systems that could produce copper products (sheets for sheathing, for example) to a very high specification.

Ragnhild Hutchinson: Implications of the Røros copper trade: nation, region and family

Copper was one of the metals that truly became part of the 18th-century global trade. Not only was it traded globally, it is recognised to have played important parts in as varied aspects of history and everyday life as warfare, art, science, housing and cooking both in Europe, Asia, Africa and America. This paper asks what the global copper trade meant for some of the actors who came into contact with it, and how it impacted them. The paper will focus on the copper trade from Trondheim in Norway, and discuss the implications it had for the Danish/ Norwegian state, for the Trøndelag region in Norway and for the Cramer family, one of the smaller shareholders in the Røros copper works in Trøndelag.

Miroslav Lacko: Copper production in the Habsburg Monarchy during the 18th century: Quantification of the production and profitability

The growth and spread of the state dominance in the early modern mining industry were perceived as an obvious trend in the Habsburg Monarchy as a Fiscal-Military State. Traditional sources of state financial income were insufficient to fund the increasingly more costly military policy. One part of the measures comprised the reform and reshaping of the financial and chamber administrations that were supposed to meet the military needs and boost the growth of the public economy. With the commencement of active state entrepreneurship in the field of the copper production from the end of the 17th century, new forms of cooperation with private Western European merchants and bankers were introduced and these should be executed by the so-called copper administration. The copper production was subordinated directly to the central authorities of the Habsburg finance administration, as well as conducted by them. The close interconnection of the economic and political objectives (being the repayment of state debt, i.e., including the saturation of military needs) of the Habsburg Monarchy and the constant pressure to promote innovation in the everyday production practices of the mining and metallurgical plants are extraordinary important circumstances for investigation of the quantification and profitability of the copper production in the Monarchy during the 18th century.

Louise Miskell: Before the boom: Securing customers for Swansea copper, c.1720-1780

Swansea, with its coastal location, its proximity to excellent quality coal and its sea-borne access to Britain’s largest copper ore field, offered significant advantages as a smelting site for early 18th century investors. But despite its locational benefits, there were considerable challenges to be faced, not only in developing effective coal-fired methods of smelting copper but also in getting their products accepted in European markets which had, for decades, been dominated by Scandinavian producers. This paper focuses on the ways in which the emerging Swansea-based smelting firms of the early- and mid-18th century tried to establish a reputation for the quality of their smelted copper and evaluates how their production methods were tailored towards meeting the demands of existing and new customers. As such it attempts to draw connections between production-level decisions and the evolving marketplace in which Swansea-smelted copper had to compete for customers. It also sheds light on some of the uncertainties and risks encountered by the first generation of smelting firms, active in the era before Swansea’s place in the international copper trade was firmly established.

Sven Olofsson: Feelings of frustration and steps towards transformation – Falu copper mine and the European copper and brass trade during the 18th century

The copper markets during the 18th century were part of a multifaceted transformation which reshaped the production and consumption on a global scale. Swansea in Wales was gradually winning position as the leading European provider of copper, in competition with sites as Neusohl in Hungary, Mansfeld in Thuringia, Röros in Norway and, last but not least, Falu copper mine in Sweden, the largest European producer in the seventeenth century. The aim of this paper is to analyse the copper commodity chain from a Swedish perspective, exploring the links between the changing global market for copper and brass, and individual actors in Sweden involved in different parts of copper business. What kind of events and processes affected the Swedish part of the global copper market and how did Swedish producers, merchants and state officials respond to changes on the global market?

Kristin Ranestad: Connecting Scandinavian copper to global markets

The research explores the development of the copper processing industry in Denmark-Norway in the early modern period through a detailed analysis of the people involved in the making, trade and use of copper. The market for and trade patterns of Scandinavian gahr copper have not been systematically analysed and our knowledge of where the copper was transported, how it was used to further elaborate goods, and whether it was resold, is scarce. The investigation is divided into two main tasks. First, the gahr copper that was produced at the mines in Sweden and Norway is followed to coppersmiths and factories in the area around Copenhagen and other places within the Union. Second, from the processing centres, the copper products are followed to the global market. In doing so, the connections, interactions and transactions between copper merchants, copper industrialists, coppersmiths and consumers are examined. The aim is to further our understanding of trade patterns, processing, consumption and global markets for copper and copper goods, in a period in which copper production in Norway increased, Falun’s major production went into decline, privileges regulated trade patterns and industrialisation was in its starting phase.

Ryuto Shimada: Competition in the Indian sales market for copper between Dutch and English companies during the 18th century

The paper analyses the import trade in copper into South Asia by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC) and their competition in the South Asian copper market during the 18th century. Already since the mid-17th century, the VOC had been engaged in the trade in copper from Japan and Sweden to South Asia. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Japanese copper, in particular, was sold on a large scale in the Indian market. It was a means of payment for the VOC to procure Indian cotton textiles, which were definitely important merchandise for the Dutch intra-Asian trade as well as for the Dutch Euro-Asian trade. Imported Japanese copper was smelted to produce copper cash in South Asia. On the other hand, the EIC began to export European copper to India in the 1730s. The copper was mainly produced in Britain, and British copper imports into India took the position of top share in the 1760s in terms of volume. Despite this fact, the British copper trade was not so profitable for the EIC, as the Indian market preferred Japanese copper to the British one. This is because of the difference of the quality between Japanese and British copper.

Klaus Weber: Hamburg’s 18th-century copper trade

There is ample evidence that Hamburg has been a major place for copper and brass exports throughout the 18th century, and most probably beyond. Customs records from the mid-century indicate that this metal was Hamburg’s second export item, next to linen. During a few sample years from the 1750s, copper and copper products made up for 20 percent of the value of tollable exports to France – the city’s by far most important trading partner (linen: 38 percent). The exports covered a wide variety of qualities and products: sugar mill equipment, sheets used for the production of a fungicide for Bordeaux grapevines, sheathing for the underwater parts of warships, etc. Less clear is the origin of the metal. Some of it came in from Chile, to be horse-carted to the Mansfeld furnaces and there transformed into sheets, and then reshipped through Hamburg to the Havana shipyards, where it was fitted under the waterline of the galleons. Larger portions of the exports must have been originally mined in Mansfeld, and most probably in Sweden. In the Duchy of Stormarn, situated half-way between Hamburg and the Baltic Sea, there had been ca. 30 copper mills operative during the 18th century – with no ore deposits around. Hardly any of the mills survived the Continental Blockade, but place names like Kupferdamm, Kupferteich or Kupfermühle still hint to this industrial past. The paper shall outline a research project and offer preliminary results. 

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