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corporation as a protagonist in global history is to be especially welcomed in offering the chance to reframe a largely outdated historiography on the French East India Company’s role in imperial expansion.
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.
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.
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.
Liam D. Haydon
In chapter 4, Liam Haydon considers the role of the global corporation in making literature, and the role of print culture in making the corporation. Historians of the corporation have recognised the importance of writing to corporate activity, and the creation of corporate identity, but have not considered the corporation’s relationship with fictional, or literary, texts. Conversely, literary scholars have noted the profound impact of global political economies in early modern literature, though often without observing the centrality of the corporation to the development of that political economy. Haydon considers a varied set of texts, including drama, pageantry, and poetry, as well as fictional and ‘factual’ prose from across the globe, to try and capture something of the interplay between fiction and economics. The functioning of a state or economy, the relationship between Europe and its ‘others’, even the ontology of the corporation itself, relied on language which was deployed, tested and refined in contemporary literature. Corporate ideas about trade and international relations took on cultural capital in early modern London, and around the globe. This process was part of a larger intellectual network, in Europe and beyond, which, through history, theology and early attempts at anthropology, sought to understand and historicise European relations with their new trading partners.
Michael D. Bennett
Michael Bennett examines the prominent role that corporations played in transporting free and unfree migrants across the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. The global networks of exchange forged by overseas trading corporations during the early modern period facilitated the movement of people over long distances, and directed migration flows to regions of America, Africa, and Asia which were of commercial interest to English colonisers. By using their chartered monopolies to integrate these various colonial regions, and by successfully negotiating the competing interests of both the English state and non- European empires, corporate bodies were particularly effective in mobilising free planters, co-religionists, overseers, artisans, servants, slaves, and coolies to ‘people’ nascent English colonies and trading outposts. The constitutional and governmental structure of corporations, which encouraged the sharing of expertise and the regular changeover of members, enabled policies relating to labour and migration to constantly evolve and be re-shaped to better suit the shifting economic and geopolitical circumstances of the early modern world. The dynamic approaches taken by corporate bodies towards empire-building encouraged experimentation and transnational interaction. An inclination to learn from other European and non-European empires meant that corporations were especially effective at inventing new methods of stimulating migration and producing innovative labour systems during the seventeenth century.
Aske Laursen Brock
Aske Laursen Brock assesses the importance of networks to the distinctive global sociology of corporations. Brock explores how trading companies relied on global networks to ply their trade and secure the position far from British shores. The companies constituted a very fertile and durable global space for exchange and dissemination of commodities, information and ideas over large distances. To successfully do this, the forming and strengthening of networks with other numerous agents, companies, and English trading companies with knowledge of long distance extra-European trade became increasingly important. Between 1550–1750 new connections were formed to answer the changing political and commercial realities globally and domestically. England developed from a peripheral power in Europe to a country at the centre of a global commercial imperial web. Corporate interests spanned from America and the Caribbean to South-East Asia and from Russia to southern Africa. The early modern corporations were created by networks and would come to facilitate a space globally where new networks were formed and, in time, strengthen the corporations. Partnerships and other looser associations did not create durable ties that lasted multiple decades and generations like corporations. For Brock, it is only by studying the social networks of company employees in Britain and overseas it is possible to understand how decision making worked, how the early modern knowledge economy developed and how knowledge became a commodity for commercial agents tied together in patronage and/or kinship networks.
William A. Pettigrew
William Pettigrew examines how corporations focussed debates about political economy – prevailing ideas about the relationships between commerce and governance – in their European and non-European fields of operation. From the outset, trading corporations had to justify their privileges with reference to the broader social and commercial advantages they generated for the state and public. In making their case, they developed a recognisable corporate discourse of political economy that proved formative for mercantilist ideologies and policies. The tropes of this discourse structured opposing arguments that proved formative for liberal political economies of the eighteenth century. A central focus of this discourse was the debate about monopoly, but the debate also confronted questions about sociability, the civility of non- European peoples, and theories of economic growth. The corporation’s inherent calibration of commercial and governmental agendas sustained a role for constitutional and political variables in economic outcomes. As structures that gave individual personality to dynamic networks of individuals, the corporation helped to absorb and shape writing about political economy and gave that writing a public role. As an intermediary institution between cultures, these debates about political economy channeled the experiences of international contexts into domestic public debates. In this way, corporations can help us to demonstrate the global contexts in which mercantilist doctrine emerged and altered and can show how non-Europeans peoples interactions with European corporations prompted and structured transnational debates about political economy.
Haig Smith examines how throughout the early modern era, corporations provided the main institutional framework to organise and police the commercial, political and religious lives of their members. English company charters for the majority of the seventeenth century gave general religious and social obligations, both domestically and abroad, to advance English Protestantism in America, India, Japan and the Levant. The commercial and religious aims of the company became entwined as the companies’ flexible governments developed various forms of religious control shaped by local circumstances and global experiences. Corporate structures both provided the legal space and protection to establish diverse but connected forms of autonomous English governmental authority across the globe. An assessment of religious control in England’s overseas companies allows further analysis into how overseas companies developed into corporate political bodies that established and advanced their own sovereignty. By understanding how corporate control of religion became a mechanism through which corporate structures directed and governed people overseas we can see how companies formed governments over its own employees. Moreover we can see how company employees as well as, local peoples and foreign environments, shaped the religious and governmental identities of those in the trading corporations. By doing so this expands our understanding into how early modern English people regulated the political and religious behaviour of its employees, corporators and the communities it governed. Furthermore, through an assessment of how religious governance and control regulated interaction between religious communities, we are better able to recognise the role and involvement of numerous faiths, including Hindus, Muslims, Catholic, Jews and Armenian, in the development of English Protestant authority abroad.