Crossing Companies: Mobility and Cooperation between Early Modern National Monopoly Trading Companies

AHA Session 290
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Philip Stern, Duke University

Session Abstract

Scholarship across history, business studies, economics, and sociology has long since stressed the importance of early modern national monopoly trading companies, the East India Companies in particular. As the first joint-stock companies they have been hailed as the first modern multinationals and condemned as agents of mercantilism, colonialism, and slavery. Scholars have identified the crucial role their various national manifestations have played in transoceanic mobilities, the gathering of useful knowledge, global material culture, empire-building, corporate governance, the development of sophisticated financial instruments, capital accumulation, and the industrious and Industrial Revolutions.

Given the vast amount of sources involved, scholars have tended to focus on only one company at a time, most usually on one of the two largest, the Dutch VOC and the English EIC. Those who study more than one company usually do so from a comparative, not a connective, perspective in order to investigate trade flows, diplomatic relations, or imperial competition. As a result the various European East India Companies continue to be seen as hermetic national enterprises. This is the assumption that this panel seeks to challenge.

Bringing together new researchers and established authorities in the field, this panel demonstrates that cross-company cooperation and mobility was a defining feature of early modern overseas trade. By focussing on four issues in particular – the role of skills; of information; of government intervention; and of private, commercial, religious, regional, and family networks – the panel will explore the mechanisms that allowed actors to cross and blur company boundaries.

The theme of this year’s conference, ‘Historical scale’, is central to this undertaking. By combining several micro-historical studies together spanning two centuries and four continents, this panel aims to challenge the prevailing national macro narratives. In doing so it can also shed new light on some of the early modern era’s most enduring legacies: the development of global capitalism, the Great Divergence, and the rise of European nation states.

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