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Book Review, NRJ 64.1

February 15, 2019 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

John Banister of Newport: The Life and Accounts of a Colonial Merchant

Marian Mathison Desrosiers

Marian Desrosiers interprets a qualitative assessment of newly found ledgers in John Banister of Newport. These ledgers detail everyday expenditures for one of the most active merchants of Newport, Rhode Island between 1746–1749 CE. Meticulous entries denote quantities, purchasing and selling prices, origins and destinations, along with specific ships used for the import or export of goods. Luxuries, everyday necessities, food staples, naval stores, cloth, building supplies, and enslaved persons are shown in these ledgers. The entries provide an assessment of shipments through Rhode Island during this period of economic expansion.

Desrosiers demonstrates the shrewdness of Banister as a merchant, arguing that Banister was a philanthropist, who diversified his holdings, quickly learned from contentious investments, and became an economic force through employing many residents to expand and shape Newport in ways still evident today. Moreover, the expenditures of the Banister family are within these ledgers and reflect the lifestyle of a merchant rising in social standing. In an ironic twist, Desrosiers argues that, despite being an accomplished international producer, Banister was concomitantly a major consumer.

Banister made several donations to his church, orphans, the community, and educational institutions, impacting the community more than himself. Public records show Banister built and rented properties, a shipyard, and a wharf. After low returns on investments in privateer and Letter of Marque ships, he abandoned future ventures. A transition from businessman to the gentry lifestyle can be seen when he buys and moves into a countryside manor. Additionally, family expenditures reflect opulence, luxury goods common to the social elite, and a Harvard education for one of his sons.

Many of the arguments put forth by Desrosiers are logical and transparent in historical records. The ledgers themselves show a drastic increase in net worth for those years. Social networking through marriages and business partnerships placed Banister in the presence of wealthy social elites, many of whom consumed his goods or elicited his services to export theirs. On the topic of slavery and the slave trade, it appears Desrosiers tries to address the topic but not condemn Banister’s participation. To denigrate Banister is contrary to Desrosiers’ aim to applaud him and his accomplishments. Avoidance serves only to vitiate the discussion of how influential and pivotal icons that participated in enslavement should be perceived. 

Overall, this book provides insight into everyday transactions of colonial merchants. Research covers the entire life, business, and legacy of John Banister with a focus on the 1746–1749 CE ledgers. The statistics are straightforward and contain just enough detail to show relevance but not affect readability. Notes, bibliography, and index are thorough and resourceful. Page and print size are large, a pleasant deterrent to eye strain. Desrosiers’ writing style is best summarized as congenial and reflect his distinguished writing of history.

  •  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2017
  • 7” x 10”, softcover, xii + 234 pages
  • Illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95

Reviewed by Stephen Lacy, East Carolina University

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