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Edited by William A. Pettigrew and David Veevers

William A. Pettigrew and David Veevers put forward a new interpretation of the role Europe’s overseas corporations played in early modern global history, recasting them from vehicles of national expansion to significant forces of global integration. Across the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific, corporations provided a truly global framework for facilitating the circulation, movement and exchange between and amongst European and non-European communities, bringing them directly into dialogue often for the first time. Usually understood as imperial or colonial commercial enterprises, The Corporation as a Protagonist in Global History reveals the unique global sociology of overseas corporations to provide a new global history in which non-Europeans emerged as key stakeholders in European overseas enterprises in the early modern world. Contributors include: Michael D. Bennett, Aske Laursen Brock, Liam D. Haydon, Lisa Hellman, Leonard Hodges, Emily Mann, Simon Mills, Chris Nierstrasz, Edgar Pereira, Edmond Smith, Haig Smith, and Anna Winterbottom.
Open Access

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Edited by William A. Pettigrew and David Veevers

Open Access

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Emily Mann

Emily Mann examines corporate initiatives and investment in the construction and maintenance of fortified settlements on three continents—America, Africa and Asia—through the long seventeenth century, this paper will demonstrate how in each case the corporation, like the built spaces it created, was a process of negotiation between its internal constituencies, within states, and between communities (and other corporations) around the globe. The connected, comparative approach over space and time will illuminate how the experience of one company influenced not only the attitudes and activities of commercial counterparts, but also the ideas and expectations of shareholders and the state. In particular, the paper will consider the corporate/colonial business of building in the context of the emerging fiscal- military state and its global frame. At the same time, the paper will enhance understanding of the material impact that trading corporations had on overseas territories and their inhabitants, and of the impact that building and maintaining fortifications overseas had on the development of corporate and state constitutions. In and around these entangled spaces, corporate cultures came into contact with others, and European practices and ideas were challenged and reshaped by non-European customs and conditions. The chapter’s focus on fort-building facilitates discussion of the corporation’s operations on local and global levels, and across commercial, state and transnational spheres, and in so doing sharpens awareness of the interactions and tensions between them.

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Chris Nierstrasz

Chris Nierstrasz explores the global sociology of perhaps the most prolific corporations in the early modern world, those of the Dutch. His chapter argues that the study of Dutch companies more often than not have had a strong national bias that stands in the way of more abstract conceptualization of their essential form. National historians have a hard time jumping over their own shadow and acknowledging that companies are part of similar institutional developments elsewhere. Nierstrasz calls for a more general conception of Dutch corporations in order to understand that, for instance, the Dutch East India Company was not so different from the West Indies Company in their constitutional form. This chapter of the book specifically analyses the Dutch voc to tease out the ways in which the volume’s claim for the ‘distinctive Global Sociology of the Corporation’ can also be applied to Dutch overseas trading companies. Nierstrasz’s chapter delves into the position of Companies within the field of Global History and will then try to relate the distinctive Global Sociology of the Corporation to the Dutch voc. He argues that, although a more general conceptualization of corporations is necessary, it must also be acknowledged that similar global constitutional frameworks could often also create different local outcomes.

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Edited by William A. Pettigrew and David Veevers

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Leonard Hodges

Leonard Hodges explores early modern French chartered companies, and their role in transporting state sovereignty abroad. He argues that historians have traditionally arranged Dutch, British, and French overseas corporations on a sliding scale between private and state control. The Dutch are typically seen as running first and foremost a business organisation overseas, while French overseas enterprises barely rank above the Portuguese as appendixes of the state. The often-unspoken assumption is that the British sit serendipitously somewhere in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ between these extremes. Insofar as the metropolitan context is concerned, it is impossible to overlook the long shadow of the state in the organisation of the French East India Company, for example. Hodges suggests that rather than limiting ourselves to metropolitan perspectives, it is crucial to set the French East India Company more firmly in its Indian context. One of the most enduring puzzles of the French Company is how, under its aegis, the French engaged in a dress rehearsal for empire-building in the Carnatic and Hyderabad, setting the stage for the eventually more successful British intervention in Bengal. In return for military support provided to Indian rulers, for a brief period the French gained the right to raise revenue across large swathes of territory and wielded the trappings of Mughal sovereignty, with many individuals making significant personal fortunes. In this respect, the idea of the corporation as a protagonist in global history is to be especially welcomed in offering the chance to reframe a largely outdated historiography on the French East India Company’s role in imperial expansion.

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David Veevers

In chapter 7, David Veevers analyses the corporation through the lens of gender. He highlights how the relationship between gender and the primary protagonists in England’s overseas expansion, corporations, has yet to be investigated. As trading companies were, first and foremost, constitutions for the regulation of trade and the government of inhabitants within their jurisdiction, Veevers argues that they were therefore crucial sites of gender formation, in which male and female identities and relationships were proscribed and ordered within a corporate structure. Senior company officials, for example, legitimised their authority by drawing on patriarchal ideas of absolutism and divine right, projecting themselves as the paterfamilias of the settlements and subjects under their government. However, as trading companies expanded in Asia and the Atlantic in the years 1550 to 1750, Veevers notes that their constitutional parameters gradually became more malleable and shifting. This process meant that covenanted servants and their female relations increasingly operated within a decentred corporate framework, one that provided them with the opportunity to reshape and reimagine their own sense of gender to an extent less possible in their domicile nation-states. This allowed women, for instance, to exploit a degree of independence to become partners in the business of their male relations and even private traders on their own account. In more extreme ways, they could even facilitate or instigate conspiracies in an effort to shift the balance of power within particular factions or settlements, to suit the interests of themselves and their families. Furthermore, as the family became a significant actor in establishing expansive Company networks of trade, settlement and movement, men and women crossed cultural and national borders to integrate a number of foreign constituencies into the Company through sexual relations and even marriage. The ingratiation of non-Europeans was crucial for the success of England’s trading companies, and the process transformed corporate settlements into transnational sites of exchange and cooperation, expanding populations and markets, whilst also acting as recruiting grounds for commercial brokers, soldiers and translators. Veevers concludes by illustrating that with the establishment of mixed-race families, non-Europeans were able to exert a degree of agency to shape the corporate landscape around them, challenging and often subverting the order of gender in Company settlements.

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Edmond J. Smith

The development of new forms of trading and colonial corporation in the latter half of the sixteenth century provided an effective means of regulating the behaviour of people in England and overseas. Livery and urban corporations had played an important role in how commerce was organised in England, providing a framework for commercial education, institutions and law that became central pillars of the new corporate bodies that facilitated global exchange. Across the multiplicity of corporations that governed English activities across the world we can see a set of shared social and cultural conditions that provide an effective means of approaching global history. Through corporations the early modern world became increasingly connected; examining how they were governed in a comparative framework reveals what different corporations shared, but more importantly how they negotiated and adapted to different environments. Effective corporate governance helped establish and integrate transoceanic frameworks that facilitated migration, commerce, and knowledge exchange on a global scale. The chapter surveys how corporate governance developed between 1550 and 1750, focussing in particular on how it sought to regulate the behaviour of employees oversees in Europe, the Levant, the East Indies and the Atlantic World.

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Edgar Pereira

Edgar Pereira compares the English overseas experience with that of the Iberian powers, Portugal and Spain. His chapter provides an etymological analysis on the concept of “corporation” within its Iberian context, pointing out its rich and long history in Spanish and Portuguese society, law and political order, making insightful comparisons with the place of ‘corporations’ in English society. Pereira then deploys the volume’s conceptualisation of corporations as adaptive constitutions to the Spanish and Portuguese overseas experiences to challenge entrenched understandings of their colonial dominance. Instead, he explores the responsive nature of, for example, the Estado da India, and highlights its malleable and fluid nature. By drawing on examples of Iberian trading companies from Asia to the West Coast of Africa, Pereira is able to refute historiographical accusations that Iberian companies lacked the durability of their north European counterparts or the centrality to Spanish and Portuguese overseas interactions. He most notably points out that in the eighteenth century, corporations came to dominate Iberia’s engagement overseas, whether as the Royal Company of Havana or the Company of Barcelona. The chapter concludes by demonstrating that we can confidently talk of a Spanish or Portuguese corporate Atlantic in perhaps more ways than the English.

Open Access

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William A. Pettigrew and David Veevers