Jane Anson works back from the storming of the Bastille and delves into the world of Bordeaux wine before the French Revolution of 1789.

The handwritten banknote, made out in beautifully clear script to Messieurs Schroeder and Schyler from a Mr Sartorius in Paris is for a sum of 4,000 livres. It is dated 14 July, 1789.

It’s somehow entirely unsurprising to see that even with the revolutionary forces storming the Bastille just a few streets away, Mr Sartorius was still thinking of getting payment for his wine off to a Bordeaux négociant.

But it’s still hard not to feel a thrill to be sitting with this in my hands, one of hundreds of rare 18th century promissory notes that are held in the archives of Schroeder and Schyler négociant firm.

In fact, archives sound a little grand. Many of these are held in numbered boxes (and when I say numbered, I mean by year – so 1739, the firm’s first year of operation, sits next to 1740 and so on) in Yann Schyler’s office, the eighth generation of the family to run the merchant business.

Inside the boxes, bundles of letters and manuscripts are bound in their 18th century string. Some have never been opened, others carefully unfolded and read, with a few choice items preserved under glass. Clearly they have always been treated with this level of care, right from the start – every letter the date it was written, the date received, and the date it was replied to painstakingly noted on the envelope.

Even this tells a story, as the early letters took up to two months to arrive in Bordeaux via boat from their origin (often Hamburg or Lübeck, from where the founders Jean-Henri Schÿler and Jacques Schröder arrived in 1738) while things had speeded up considerably by the late 19th century to one week or less.

Several thousand more documents, from correspondence to order forms to contracts with châteaux securing 10-year bulk purchases of harvests, are held in Bordeaux’s city archives. These vast repositories have just moved to a new building designed by architects Robbrecht & Daem (the same architects designed the new Le Pin winery back in 2011).

Opened in March 2016, the building is the result of the conversion of former rail warehouses that once stored goods in transit between the river and the railways that slowly began to take over trade movement from the mid-19th century.

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Bordeaux’s power

Schyler has kept many of the most precious examples with him, and they offer a fascinating glimpse of the trading years when Bordeaux was at the height of its colonial power from the 1700s through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Schroeder & Schyler was one of the first foreign merchants to set up offices in the city, and is the only one that remains privately owned and in hands of its founding family.

Today their offices have moved from their original location on the Chartrons quays to the wide, tree-lined street of Cour du Médoc, still within walking distance of the river but away from the real-estate boom that has swept the quayside. I am here to see a particular collection of 450 letters that cover the period of 1739 to 1874 and that I played the tiniest of roles in returning home. Barely worth claiming credit for – I simply passed on a message from Axel Borg, the librarian at UC Davis in California, that he had been offered a collection of Bordeaux merchant letters but had to turn them down due to lack of funds. The collection came via a London rare book merchant, on offer for US$17,500, and described as, ‘manuscript letters, almost all of one folded sheet, addressed and with wax seals; plus a number of printed sheets, facsimiles, price lists, form letters, auction slips, and postcards; some with marginal tears where opened but mostly in very good condition’.

Bordeaux in 1871, bordeaux trade

Bordeaux sea trade in full flow in 1871. Credit: Edouard Manet / Yorck Project / Wikipedia

I forwarded the description to Yann Schyler, wondering if he knew of their existence, and it turned out that they had been stolen from Bordeaux some time around the First World War, most likely in 1910. The bookseller in London (Edmund Brumfitt, who had only recently bought them and tells me that they had been circulating in auctions for the past half-century) was only too happy to return them to their original owner and travelled to Bordeaux to do so.

‘I didn’t pay directly for their return,’ Schyler tells me, showcasing that grasp of commerce that his ancestors bred into him, ‘but he did get several cases of nice wine’.

However much wine he had to exchange, it was worth it. These are letters that shine a light on a period of Bordeaux history that decisively shaped what the city would become. Among the most interesting are lists sent from suppliers of colonial goods that would have passed between Bordeaux, Saint-Domingue and a host of other cities through the triangular trade. Schroeder and Schyler was one cog of a vast network of merchants that would send ships loaded up with barrels of wine from Bordeaux destined for Hamburg and other Hanseatic and Scandinavian cities. The same ships would then leave the Baltic carrying oak intended for the production of barrels and head off to the Americas and the West Indies, before returning to Europe. On occasion (as detailed in a letter of September 3, 1745), paying passengers were also on board – as were non-paying slaves on the return leg, although this is not covered in the letters here.

Merchants were more like grocers than wine sellers

An idea of the distances that these vessels covered is clear from one inventory, dated 1743, that lists cocoa, cotton, ginger, cinnamon, saffron, tobacco and capers but also Swedish iron, German steel, Dutch cheese (it specifies not only the origin but the red rind) and Navarre olive oil.

At the time, merchants were closer to grocers that wine sellers – a 1771 letter from Trondheim on the west coast of Denmark orders ½ barrel of Pontac, 2 barrels of ‘best Margaux’, 12 bottles of Burgundy, ½ barrel of Cahors plus a jar of anchovies, 24 jars of best olive oil, 2 dozen ‘perfumed waters’ and one packet of coffee beans.

The letters also show just how adaptable your average Bordeaux merchant was. During the Anglo-French war from 1778 to 1783, Schroeder and Schyler turn boat owner, shipper and mercenary to ensure continued ability to trade. There is an astonishingly detailed contract (not among the returned letters but in the original boxes) where the merchants, along with nine partners, commission the construction of a frigate called L’Eulalie that was to head from the port of Bayonne to Saint Domingue in 1779. The expected contents are listed over six closely-written pages and contain 20 canons, 96 rifles, 36 pistols and dozens of other weapons. The contract specifically states that the crew (of 105 men) were licensed to use the weapons if fired upon.

There are probably 1,000 documents in total in the reunited collection, a fraction of what can be found in the city archives but after several hours we are slightly dazed by the sheer volume of history that we are reading through. I look at my watch and realise it is late afternoon, time to head home.

‘Ah yes,’ Schyler says, standing up and looking at his own watch, ‘and I’d better get back to the business of selling Bordeaux wine’.

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