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A popular trope with some basis in history is the "travelling merchant", who visits remote villages carrying merchandise both common and rare, and many stories from strange lands.

I've got a scenario in my mind, which is the expanded, aquatic equivalent of this. You have a family who operates their own trading company. But their company floats. For generations, they have sailed from port to port, picking things up in one place and selling them at a profit somewhere else. They do not follow a fixed route, yet their business is successful, and while they started with a single vessel, over time they could purchase more smaller ships - so as not to put their eggs in one basket and risk their fortune sinking all at once. The main character of the story grew up in the fleet.

So I'm thinking of three to five vessels, all relatively small, but together capable of crossing oceans. There's a total crew of a couple hundred, and put together they speak every language on the planet.

The story is not set on Earth, but the geography, politics and available technology is vaguely similar to the 1400s Indian Ocean. So you have strong empires, backwards tribes, thriving commerce, and active pirates.

The thing is, most trading expeditions in history were sent by nations, or later by trading companies powerful enough to act like nations. I don't think my nomadic trading fleet concept has a parallel in real history.

I think I can justify them not having a shore-based office as a cultural thing; like the Romani, this family has a nomadic lifestyle, and they just happened to have become wealthy doing it. It's possible they are treated as undesirables by the nations, and are not even allowed to settle anywhere.

But, the question: is this concept economically viable? Could you have a small fleet that goes from port to port, making a profit selling stuff they picked up in foreign lands, and competing with trading companies that have a fixed route and shore offices, not to mention the support of nations? And if not, what can I change about the economic circumstances of either this fleet or the economy, geography or politics of the world at large, in order to make the concept viable?

Update: I am tweaking their business model a bit. Tramp trade was a 19th-century thing similar in concept (cargo ships without a fixed route), but these ships were routinely chartered to carry something to a specific place. Because this is meant to have a more independent aesthetic than that, I am going to make it so that at a given moment, about two-thirds of their cargo has a specific destination, for which they were hired by a larger company or a small country. They do not take a direct route there however, and the remaining third is goods they buy and sell based on their own insights. I think this should make them more economically viable, whilst at least partially preserving the ideal of an independent fleet roaming where the winds and profits take them.

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    $\begingroup$ @Burki To be fair, they would not be selling an entire shipload at once; more they would go to Silktown to stock up, and then sell portions of that in each of the 199 other ports they visit. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 16 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ "Most trading expeditions in history were sent by nations": this is blatantly false. The Phoenicians and the Greeks made a historical career out of overseas trading. Investigate the notion of a tramp steamer. For a recent example of a floating trading company look up Aristotle Onassis. (Ah, and they might not have shore-based offices, but they definitely must have shore-based representatives -- otherwise how would they arrange things with their customers?) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 16 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ For the period of interest, the corresponding European setups were the Hanseatic League in the north, and the Genoese and Venitian trading houses in the south. Both were shore-based, albeit with massive maritime merchant fleets. I have no idea about what went on in the Muslim world, but there is always the story of Sinbad the Sailor. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 16 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ For setup, see also pre-islamic arab trade, the Monsoon Marketplace. The Golden Age of piracy may provide details about people spending lots of time at seas (but not all the time) as well as a problem such a nomadic fleet may need to face. $\endgroup$ – Adrian Colomitchi Apr 16 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ @John It looks like your link points to a file on your drive, rather than something on the internet I can access $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 16 at 19:24
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A ship is a horrible place to raise a family

To be clear, I am not saying the mixed-gender crews do not work, nor am I saying that it is impossible to design a ship in such a way to account for family life, just that historical ships lacked the space and privacy necessary for a properly functioning family unit.

The #1 reason you don't see nomadic sailors is because ships are way too confined places for families to live together for long periods of time. Men and women get along great for a few hours a day, but in general men are wired to need long periods of quiet focus which you can not get on a ship when confined with a large number of women and children. The male psyche is designed to 'abandon' his family so that he can provide for his family. Almost every sailing culture in history has had strong taboos about women being on board because of the variety of psychological problems this could cause in such close spaces.

Nomadic caravans worked out much better because the men could scout ahead, hunt, forage, or simply walk apart from the family because he is "ummm... in the forward guard, yeah that sounds like a good excuse."

This is why even the most maritime focused of cultures still maintained home ports to go back to, because they needed a place to raise their families which was not where they worked.

But even without an exact historical example, we can make some inferences about how this could work.

Vikings traded on unestablished routes

In the medieval period, ~90% of wealth was kept in tradeable/usable goods rather than currency. This means when vikings would sack a town, they would be taking tons of trade goods that they often did not have a direct need for. They also did not have the manpower to attack many of the towns they would find while exploring; so, when they came across larger towns or cities, they would often stop to unload their pillaged commodities for things that either had a more direct need for or silver coinage.

This meant that they were trading along unestablished routes because what they were really looking for were small poorly defended communities that you often had to go off the beaten path to find. They did not need to make the same profit margins on their trade goods as regular merchants because their commodities were generally "purchased at extremely discounted rates"; so, sub-optimal trading was okay.

How your scenario could have evolved

Vikings needed hometowns, but as history progressed, northern European towns got better and better at defending themselves. Historically what this meant was that vikings kept having to go farther and farther out to find easy targets, or they had to take bigger and bigger risks attacking better defended towns. This issue was actually what ended the viking age as viking simply became to big of an investment in time or risk to still be sustainable.

For a viking clan to remain viable past the 11th century, they would have to abandon the idea of having a home to go back to. Unlike most other European civilizations, viking women often had many of the same freedoms, privileges and responsibilities as men. They were trained to farm and fight and perform more masculine trades so that the village would still function while the men where away. This means that training women to also be sailors would not be a huge stretch for their social norms (as long as they are not sailing with the men).

This is where your ship convoy comes in. Convoys are typically combinations of larger less maneuverable merchant ships surrounded by smaller more maneuverable military escorts to protect them. By placing women and children aboard the larger "village ships" and allowing them to be fully manned and captained by their female crew, the men could meet their psychological needs by going out onto the smaller escorts while the families are kept safely in the middle. This gives your a situation more similar to a caravan where people can come together and segregate as needed. Now your fleet can explore (and raid) the whole world without ever having to turn back home.

As time goes on, this fleet would develop a far more comprehensive map of possible trade routes than any merchant company would have access to such that they could eventually stop raiding and just trade. Instead of connecting 2-3 major port cities and letting the cities make the man-in-the-middle profit of distributing these goods, they might interconnect dozens or even hundreds of smaller towns directly by knowing precisely what each town needs and when. At times the the fleet might park in a hidden alcove in a river delta while a dozen smaller escorts sail off in different directions with precise amounts of goods, to all of the little towns within 1-2 days. At other times the whole fleet might sail up to a major city with goods from a 100 different farmers, miners, and craftsmen around the world each purchased at the lowest price possible.

These trade routes would be so complex and inconsistent as to seem randomly nomadic, but to the enigmatic fleet elders it is a complex formula of precisely timed stops based on a deep knowledge of places that other merchants have just never gone far enough out of their way to know about.

Surviving against militarized trade competition

As L.Dutch points out in his answer, large trading companies in the late medieval and colonial periods turned to military force to protect their economic interests, but a post-Viking fleet like this is the last thing you want to compete with on that level. The fleet is not so large or spread out as to put the major trading lanes out of business, and the cost of fighting them makes about as much sense as the Seleucid Empire attacking Sparta. Win or lose, you are guaranteed to pay a bigger price fighting such a fleet than any profit margin you might hope to gain.

Surviving against storms

Storms are a constant danger on the deep seas when you are travelling direct routes between major ports, but this fleet would by its very nature stick close to shores and rivers so that they could hit all of those little towns, and in the process discover just where all the natural safe alcoves and smooth beaches are. This means they could pull up into safe places and/or anchor down during major storms such that they might lose a ship here and there, but losing the whole fleet with all hands would be much less likely than for a deep sea fleet. Even with all their ships in one spot.

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    $\begingroup$ If your first paragraph was true, then there would be zero "stay-at-home dads". $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Apr 17 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal nope, he wrote "but in general men are wired" — remains absolutely true if a small proportion of dads are stay-at-home. Which is exactly what happens. $\endgroup$ – Jivan Apr 17 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Chronocidal Even stay at home dads leave to the grocery store, go to the bar, and use modern inventions like TVs and Internet to avoid thier families. A medieval ship is not a home that you come and go from, it is a small place you are stuck in for weeks or months at a time. Even with these things, stay at home dads are much more statistically likely to be abusive and frustrated with thier lives. Domestic violence has actually been a major issue with recent quarantines for this reason. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Apr 17 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, but your first paragraph, while sounding plausible on the surface, seems fundamentally unbelievable to me. Where are you getting these concepts from? Do you have any sources for these blanket statements about male psychology? $\endgroup$ – cowlinator Apr 17 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ While there is some good content I have to -1 for the completely unsourced and overgeneralised blanket statements on gender psychology. If you do actually have sources, please, by all means, add them to the answer. $\endgroup$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Apr 21 at 7:38
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Anti trust laws in the time you are referring to were as an abstract concept as the human right declaration: whoever had a vantage position in a trade, defended and affirmed it with force, not excluding active sabotage if needed.

Look at the competition between the sea republics in the Mediterranean sea, or at the competition between Spanish and British fleet.

It's highly unlikely that a small trade would be allowed to stomp the feet of large corporations and companies. For one, they might be uncapable of satisfying the demand of a specific port (you mention the fleet is small). And if by pure luck they satisfy it, whoever has major interests in that port will make sure that suck luck won't strike again. Ship can sink, sailors can get stabbed when leaving a brothel...

The only way to make it profitable is that they only know how to pursue a specific route and there are no suitable alternatives to that route. This is how the silk road worked, until the sea route didn't become more reliable.

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  • $\begingroup$ Ouch… I was only considering how to make them competitive economically - not militarily! $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 16 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm they are the same. Remember that Military conflict its the continuation of Politics by other means. $\endgroup$ – Gustavo Apr 16 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm Now the question is, would these guys converting to piracy work? For your story, and economic/militarily. $\endgroup$ – Mark Gardner Apr 17 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkGardner Given the mentioned aggression against economic competitors, I doubt turning them into full-blown outlaws would help them survive… $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 17 at 8:19
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As the other answer says, you need to go big, in order to compete with other companies and negotiate with locals.

But that's not the only problem.

Sailing can be very lucrative but is also very risky. That's not a problem with a big fleet, as the losses (sunken ship in a tempest, pirates, conflict with the locals) are compensated by the benefits. For a company such as the East India Company it's not that much of a problem if you lose 20 ships while in the same time you earn enough to build 40 of them.

But from the point of view of a single ship it's different.

While the mathematical expectation are still positive vessel which is lost can make you go bankrupt. Basically, you toss a coin each time you leave the port.

You need to be very lucky to do this for generations, and the nomadic way of life will prevent you from growing big

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! I now tweaked the concept a bit so they do have some routine customers, who I suppose could help carry the cost of a sunken ship if the contract was drafted cleverly enough, but you're correct that this company is never going to be as stable as one with ten times as many ships. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 16 at 15:15
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To be honest, i am unsure.

Typically, trade arrangements (of a larger scale) are made between companies and their representatives on land.

To sustain their lifestyle, your nomadic traders will need to make sales large enough that the profits of those sales pay at least for the voyage to the next harbor. They should normally have a net gain lest the first bad day ruin them.

Every sale has to reap enough profit to pay for wear and tear on their ships, as well as provide food and commodities for the few hundred crew.

I doubt they would be able to do that sustainably without contacts in the towns and cities they call at.

Yet, this is world building, and this here is a reality check question. We only need to find a way to make it possible. It desn't have to work in every story, just in the one you are telling.

So, in order for your nomadic traders to be able to make substantial sales in every harbor, they need contacts there. This could be explained if they routinely travel more or less the same routes, then over time they get acquainted with local merchants.

To start it off, it probably began generations ago with a small boat and their crew that just traveled up and down the coast, and with some luck and skill, the family became richer and their fleet grew.

So, while it might be difficult, yes i think it is possible to have a setup like that.

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    $\begingroup$ I now tweaked it so that they do carry a lot of cargo to a specific destination and can expect payment with some measure of certainty. They just do not necessarily take a direct route, and reserve the opportunity to buy and sell their own goods wherever they dock. I think this makes their business model more viable. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 16 at 14:59
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It can work as a family, but not as the entire family.

Sailing on ships in the age of sail is risky. Men go out to sea and they die - beset by pirates or privateers or weather or lack of wind or whatever. In return, they're financially relatively high-payoff. That can work financially, but it doesn't cover the lineage requirements.

At a genetic level, this works if what you're mostly throwing out there is men. They sail, they probably die young, but they have women in various ports that they come back to (and spend money on), those women raise whatever children they manage to spawn, and often those children (when male) go back out on the boats to repeat the process (along with other young men drawn from overpopulated farmland). It mostly works. In a family, though, if the ship goes down, you don't just lose the men. You lose the wife and kids, too, and that's the end of the line. The family might get lucky, but it won't stay lucky, and just about any loss is goign to be crippling. Further, if there's no central port, it gets much harder for the family to coordinate.

On the flip side, you could much more easily have a situation where a family had some holdings on land in a single port that they regularly returned to, where their children were born and raised, and so forth. It gives them some more stability, and a place to convert shipborn (and therefore at-risk) holdings to landside (much more secure) advantages. Possibly based around a "Familyname Importers" shop? Certain kinds of goods can get a much better price if you're willing to hang onto them for a while and sell them retail a bit at a time.

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This small company is an opportunist which is not afraid of taking the risk

While big trading companies run established trade routes, small actors can fill the niches that remain open. There is a new port where big companies don't go yet? A group of pilgrims wants to travel? No one else dares to sail in a storm season, even if profit is good? You can rely on this company to try these things. The risk maybe high, but the reward is also great.

Sometimes a ship can be lost with all hands, and for a small company it is a big blow, but this company had learned to persevere. They have enough resources to replace the ship, and strong "family culture" which is imposed on all new members is somehow superior to what big companies have.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you have this backwards. A small company cannot afford to take risks - if they make one bad bet, their business is ruined. Large companies are the ones that can afford to make risky bets, since they can afford the losses they'll incur while waiting for one bet to pay off big. If you only have 2 ships and one gets wrecked when attempting to sail a new route, you've lost 50% of your revenue. If you have 100 ships and one sinks, you lose 1% of your revenue. A small company that takes risks also needs to be lucky to have those risks pay off, at which point just being lucky is sufficient. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Apr 16 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Nuclear Wang Well, in saturated markets small companies always take risks - otherwise they would have no business at all. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 16 at 20:03
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First of all I do not agree that this family of wandering traders, is an economically viable model of an organization.

I agree with @frish's answer and maybe change some of this clan's attributes:

  • The crews of the Wandering Gypseas consist of former slaves, persons with big depts in advanced countries, criminals who escaped conviction (maybe even criminals from other races) and any sort of "marginal" person in the rest of the civilized world.
  • The captains of the ships are all family members (inner or outer circle does not matter), and are all biologically engineered to withstand the severity of the sea. They are trained from their childhood in sea navigation, military tactics, swordsmanship, arms, and are the absolutely badassess of the ocean.
    • They only occupy an island in the edge of the world, that serves them as their hideout. Nobody knows of course of the island's exact location.
    • Because of the cruel ways of the clan, most countries do not wish to trade with them. (only disadvantage I could find, if you want to balance this Clan :) ).
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  • $\begingroup$ Biological engineering is quite a bit out of scope for a 1400s setting with no magic, isn't it? Or do you just mean training? $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Apr 17 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ He could mean artificial selection. Human civilizations that have spent enough generations facing a particular hardship will drift toward qualities that accommodate that hardship. In 20 generations a person might have, millions of descendants but only a handful left alive. If all 20 generations were all sailors, then you might actually see traits emerge like lower center of gravity, larger better gripping hands, lower need for certain nutrients like Vitamin C. Basically, because people who don't go overboard or contract survey as easily will have more successful offspring. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Apr 17 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ sorry forgot that you were on the 1400's era. I though of sci-fi and added the biological engineering attribute :') $\endgroup$ – Damian Apr 18 at 8:54

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