One of the distinguishing features of the Interstellar Wars were the Free Traders, indeed it is generally accepted that they were a major factor in the ongoing tensions between the Terrans and Vilani. The Free Traders were independent Terran merchants who found a ready market for Terran goods amongst the Vilani frontier worlds. Whilst a few Free Traders could be found in the early years of the 22nd Century, they did not become a major factor until after the First Interstellar War. With the availability of large numbers of cheap surplus naval couriers and high tech Terran goods, the circumstances were right for a great flourishing of independent mercantilism.
The first Free Traders were collectives of former military personnel who had chosen to pool their mustering out benefits and use them as down payment on a surplus naval transport. This “collective” spirit was to distinguish the Free Traders throughout the Interstellar Wars period; most crews would consists of a group of shareholders working for a share of the vessels profits (or losses). Extra crewmembers might be hired on an “as needed” basis, but most ships avoided this as it greatly increased their expenses. Their command structures were informal with most decisions being made by consensus. Most crews generally accepted one of their number as captain (many interstellar regulations of the time required a “captain”), but few had use for other ranks and titles.
Initially the Free Traders were restricted solely to the Terran Confederation and the Vilani worlds within a few parsecs of the border. However with the Terran triumph (and resulting commercial concessions) in the 3rd Interstellar War they began to trade throughout the entire sector. By the dawn of the 23rd Century they were beginning to expand into adjacent sectors and had become a major commercial force in the rimward provinces of the Ziru Sirka.
The Free Traders did not follow organised trade route and while they did carry conventional freight, they were most noted for their speculative trading. Protected by their privileged position, the Vilani trading Bureaux had for centuries possessed an effective monopoly on interstellar trade. Despite paying considerable attention to their markets, they had gradually lost contact with their customers and by the time of the Interstellar Wars were no longer fully meeting the needs of many worlds. The Free Traders were able to capitalise on this and provide the Vilani frontier worlds with goods and services that the Bureaux were unwilling or unable to. Initially the Free Traders only traded in the few specialist goods which the Terrans had an advantage in (medical supplies, computers, and the like). Nevertheless, as Terran technology matched (and then surpassed) that of the Vilani, they expanded into other more mainstream areas. The watershed is usually regarded as the so-called “Empty Peace” (2158 AD to 2185 AD). During this period the Free Traders made considerable inroads into traditional Vilani markets, trading in everything from children’s toys to heavy machinery. It was during this period that the Free Traders overcame the traditional Vilani cultural prejudice towards alien goods as they came to regard Terran goods as equal or superior to their own. Once this prejudice was overcome, it was only a matter of time before the more responsive nature of the Free Traders came to supplant the Bureaux as the principle supplier of the border worlds.
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