From the most ancient of times the transport and sale of merchandise has been of the utmost importance to whole nations or societies and to the merchants engaged in trade. More than one battle has been fought over the rights of trade and trade routes. More than one nation or city-state has been established based upon the ability to trade and the geographic facility to transport goods. The Phoenicians were traders and they couldn’t have succeeded as well as they did without customers and having a reasonably reliable transport system. Every time there is another discovery of an ancient galley in the Black Sea or the Mediterranean Sea they almost always find evidence of cargo being transported–oil, wine, salt, spices, wheat or raw materials like lumber or metals.
It didn’t take very long for systems to emerge to regulate the shipment and sell of these goods. People naturally wanted to receive something of value in exchange for their merchandise. A straight barter system was often used but it didn’t take long to realize that method was often inconvenient and coinage came about so the merchant could use the coins or other forms of value to exchange for something else he wanted closer to home. Today we have computer systems that monitor and regulate the flow of goods literally around the world. Every ship, truck and train is today under some control of computer systems for identifying the cargo carried, its destination and the intended recipient of the goods. The old guys were pretty efficient in their control systems even without computers.
As trade increased and the need to move as quickly as possible and to have maximum flexibility in dealings various types of paperwork came about to give instructions and identify ownership of goods in transit and who was to receive the goods and the final sale purchaser. For centuries merchants and sea captains and the nations that taxed by import duties or excise taxes used the manifest to determine cargo on the seas. The manifest would be a complete inventory of the cargo on board and the port of call for the ship and what country was its flag and the captain. It was a very important document. The mere absence of having a manifest on board was prima facie evidence of piracy. All legitimate trade and cargo would have the manifest and was required to be displayed to the harbor master or his equivalent around the world. Sugar, tea, coffee, spices, lumber and all manner of goods were shipped in this manner. Goods found on board not listed on the manifest were considered evidence of smuggling. The US and other nations often issued letters marque which authorized the use of private ships and crews to enforce embargos or to engage in battle with the enemy of the day. That is were the phrase “privateer” came from. There was a huge difference between being a pirate and a privateer, for one you were hailed and rewarded with a percentage of your capture and for the other you were hung.
A similar document was a bill of lading which identified cargo on land shipments. Sometimes the two phrases were used on land or sea but mostly the manifest was for the sea and the bill of lading for shipment by wagon or later train. It served the same purpose of designating the cargo, its destination and the intended recipient. The railroads as they became common got this down to a pretty precise system that worked for over a century. The yard master would receive the cargo and fill out the bill of lading and even which boxcar would carry the merchandise. The owner-shipper would get a copy of the bill, it was his proof of ownership and his receipt. Under the manifest or bill there would usually be a phrase that the goods were received in “good order” and were to be delivered in like “good order” to its recipient and destination. The recipient would have his own copy to verify he was entitled to receive the goods along with a purchase order or sale’s slip in most cases. The boxcar after loading would be sealed with a soft metal alloy made mostly of tin. Only the yard master at the destination was allowed to break the seal. Any evidence of tampering was considered a crime and suspicions would rise quickly. By the way most trains had very few if any empty boxcars. That was dead heading and a waste of money and resources. All those movies you see about people jumping into empty boxcars are Hollywood not reality in the vast majority of cases. If you owned a railroad would move any more empty boxcars than absolutely necessary?
Sometimes the seller of merchandise would already know what he was going to do with the proceeds of his transaction and would have arranged for the purchase goods to be shipped back to him. This sale would likely be from someone other than the person he sold and shipped his goods to. Thus the bill of exchange came about. It was a written instruction from A for B upon receipt of goods to make a payment to C and not A the seller. This could be because A was buying from C or A owed C due to an earlier transaction. It enhanced and sped the flow of commercial transactions. The bill of exchange would be with the bill of lading or delivered separately by mail or telegraph.
It is odd that after almost 250 years the amount of interest on our foreign debt is about the same. In the year 1782 the interest charged by the Dutch for their loan to the Colonies was 4%. That was foreign debt of course and curiously the domestic debt we owed to our own citizens was at 6%. May the locals were less confident of repayment that the foreigners. http://www.olcranky.wordpress.com