England expanded–internally and externally–through a conglomeration of corporations. In the eighteenth century Britain continued outsourcing the expansion and protection through the use of corporations, but in the late seventeenth century private English merchants challenged corporatism by arguing that freeborn Englishmen had the constitutional right and trade on their own–without the regulation of a company. This rallying cry for free trade gained momentum in the eighteenth century and would influence classical economic thought. However, the English/ British merchants argued that they had the freedom to trade with Africa for slaves. Free trade, one of the hallmarks of liberalism, was founded upon the Atlantic slave trade and chattel slaver in the Americas.
In Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (2013), historian William Pettigrew revises the history and demise of the Royal African Company by focusing on the public and political support private merchants solicited to undermine the company. Literature on the demise the Royal African Company usually focuses on inherent inefficiencies of monopolies and large companies compared with private merchants. His work not only revises the history of the Royal African Company, but it also reveals a different side of the British slave trade overlooked by scholars. According to Pettigrew, scholars writings about the British slave trade too often focus on the abolition movement, while neglecting, in part, the ascendancy of British slave trade. His works shows that the public was active in the expansion of the British slave trade.
Recently, Pettigrew began a research project on the “The Global Determinants of the English Constitution,” where he leads a team of scholars investigating external effects of England’s commercial expansion on the domestic political sphere. In the journal Itinerario, he held a forum on “Corporate Constitutionalism,” which is “a category of historical analysis,” focusing on the “the constitutional activities of international trading corporations to understand the cross-cultural dynamics at work in European expansion.” This project holds the prospects of understanding how cultural exchanges on the periphery of empire influenced the core domestic sphere of the British Empire.
Pettigrew often connects current ideas about corporatism and free trade with his writings, thereby drawing attention to the connection between history and our contemporary world (important for students!). Although he focuses primarily on the seventeenth century, his work compliments other current and recent literature dealing with global history and globalization. For instance, Gurminder K. Bhambra, from the University of Sussex, published Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (2007), where she argues that Eurocentric history and sociology has excluded “those without history.” She argues that Europe’s ‘other’ in fact had important roles in the development of modernity, which have been overshadowed. Using “connected histories” Bhambra encourages scholars to approach global history through historical sociology that will enable scholars and the public to understand the development of modernity without a Eurocentric approach. Other works, such as Kathleen Wilson, have used Foucault’s ‘governmentalities’ to explore the heterogenous governing strategies used by companies on the periphery of Empire.
Pettigrew’s work provides the next step in connecting world and global history. The center of Empire has often been seen as impenetrable from cultural exchanges on the fringes of ‘civilization,’ but Pettigrew and others have opened a door that will hopefully broaden scholarly perspectives of the interconnected world.
1. Bhambra, Gurminder K. Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination. Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
2. Pettigrew, William A. Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752. UNC Press Books, 2013.
3. Pettigrew, William A. “Free to Enslave: Politics and the Escalation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1688-1714.” The William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 3–38.
4. Pettigrew, William A. “Corporate Constitutionalism and the Dialogue between the Global and Local in Seventeenth-Century English History.” Itinerario 39, no. 03 (December 2015): 487–501.
5. Pettigrew, William A., and George W. Van Cleve. “Parting Companies: The Glorious Revolution, Company Power, and Imperial Mercantilism.” Historical Journal 57, no. 3 (September 2014): 617–638.
7. Wilson, Kathleen. “Rethinking the Colonial State: Family, Gender, and Governmentality in Eighteenth-Century British Frontiers.” The American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (December 2011): 1294–1322.