By Sophus A. Reinert and Pernille Røge
The Political Economy of Empire
Beves Room, King’s College, Cambridge, 4 November 2006, 09:00-18:30
Rooted in imperial studies, the workshop aimed to integrate economic and political history with the history of science, of exploration, and of cultural encounters. The eighteenth century saw a conflux of these themes in the parallel codification and institutionalisation of political economy on the one hand, and the expansion of European dominion overseas on the other; political economy was in many ways the midwife of modern imperialism. The purpose of this one-day graduate workshop was therefore to bring together students from the United kingdom and other parts of Europe to study the political economy of early modern empire.
While exploring the intellectual origins and multifaceted theoretical manifestations of political economy was an important emphasis of the workshop, we also encouraged the submission of papers studying its actual implementation, and of the ways in which European imperialists organised and understood their economic encounters with exotic lands, their resources, and their inhabitants. How were colonies and plantations integrated into existing social, political, economic, and cultural structures, and how did they, in turn, come to change these structures? The topic certainly hit a nerve in the graduate community, for we received far more submissions than we could include in a one-day workshop. After careful review, we thus invited the papers we felt best represented the goals of the workshop, dividing the day into three main analytical blocks representing the theory, practice, and interaction of empires respectively.
After a thirty-minute breakfast where speakers and participants could mingle, Sophus A. Reinert opened the workshop by introducing the three moderators and the main themes to be discussed, focusing on the importance of bridging the gap dividing intellectual historians from social, economic, and cultural historians, theory from practice. The first section, moderated and introduced by Dr. Richard Drayton of Corpus Christi College, was devoted to Theorising the Early Modern Empire, and consisted of three papers. The first, by Pernille Røge (Queen’s College, Cambridge), was entitled The Physiocratic Vision of Colonial France after the Seven Years War: Empire as Symbiosis? As a consequence of the peace settlement ending the Seven Years War, Røge explained, France lost nine tenths of its imperial possessions, retaining only scattered sugar-islands in the Caribbean. While some bewailed this loss, key political economists of the time came to consider it a deliverance from a costly imperial burden and relished the opportunity to formulate a sustainable colonial structure in its stead. Chief among these were the Physiocrats, whose ideas on empire nonetheless seldom have been explored. The efforts of men like Quesnay, the Marquis de Mirabeau, and Mercier de la Rivière, forged not only through theory and philosophy but also through direct experiences and involvement in the French colonial administration, brought France away from the traditional Colbertian system towards a more ‘symbiotic’ relationship between core and periphery, emphasising the need for free trade to align the world economy to the natural order and escape the perennial hostilities caused by jealousy of trade.
Thomas Hopkins (King’s College, Cambridge) then presented a paper entitled Colonies and the Natural Order: Modelling Colonial Development in Adam Smith’s Political Economy, exploring the role of colonies in Smith’s four-stage theory of development, best expressed in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. The ‘waste country’ of European colonies overseas was singularly suited for rapid economic growth, Smith had argued, since the lands and the settlers represented different stages of stadial progression. It was the application of advanced tools and knowledge from commercial society to pristine lands previously exploited only by pastoral peoples that allowed for such miraculous growth, in clear opposition to the ‘unnatural and retrograde’ order of Europe. To appreciate Smith’s analysis, Hopkins argued it is necessary to distinguish sharply between the Greek and Roman models of colonial expansion. Overseas colonies in the New World, Smith argued, might have been based on the Roman model of territorial possession, but their great distance from the metropoles alleviated this burden, bringing them closer again to the Greek model of sending ‘emancipated children’ abroad. The independence of overseas possessions was, according to Hopkins, the ultimate aim of Smith’s colonial analysis.
Doohwan Ahn’s (Hughes Hall, Cambridge), Europe or America? The Economic Dimension of the Whig Split of 1717, was third and last paper of the first session. Taking a stand against the ‘Atlanticist’ dominance in recent historiography, Ahn explored the Continental European focus of early eighteenth-century English foreign policy derived from the Hanoverian preoccupations of George I, whose investments in the affairs of his native country were far more extensive than those of William III. Throughout the century the principal concerns of parliament regarded the balance of powers in Europe rather than the world at large, and oceanic interests were largely pursued to gain an edge in continental affairs. Ahn’s focus in the presentation was on the importance of the Baltic trade, the negative balance of which was quietly tolerated and manifest in a perpetual disharmony between British and Hanoverian interests. Far from an embodiment of Harrington’s Oceania, the British empire emerged through constant confrontations with Europe.
A lunch-break followed the first section, in which presenters and participants again could mingle, network, and discuss the issues at hand in smaller groups.
The second panel of the day was dedicated to Imperial Experiences and moderated by Dr. Gabriel Paquette (Trinity College, Cambridge), who introduced the three different presentations in light of recent work by Richard Drayton, Istvan Hont, and John Robertson to show both the fertility of the field and the richness of the topic. Although the three papers in question explored different topics in geographically very divergent areas (the London stock market, Yamacraw Indians, and Military-Fiscalism in Bengal), the comparative approach of the workshop shed light on the convergences and divergences of early modern imperial experiences, underlining the ways in which colonial powers had to adapt to local conditions and the multiple vectors apart from the purely economic with which they had to contend. Giles Parkinson’s (Newton Investment Management) paper on War and Peace in the Early Stock Market explored the emergence of a securities market in London during the Nine Years War, the catalytic effect of war on financial developments, and the ways in which contemporaries came to equate fluctuating share prices with the objective economic health of the country. Also through analytical instruments like econometric regressions, Parkinson showed the close correlation between the perceived probability of a Stuart restoration and the value of bank stock and state lottery tickets that, by virtue of promised yearly payments, constituted a quasi-national debt. By investing in the realm, he concluded, Huguenots and other nonconformists de facto invested in their own freedom from Catholic absolutism.
The second paper of the panel was by Claire S. Levenson (St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge), entitled The Impact of Gifts and Trade: the Georgia Colonists and the Yamacraw Indians in the Colonial American Southeast. Focusing on the cultural encounter between British settlers and indigenous populations in Georgia, Levenson explored the rich and complex interaction of different commercial epistemologies and the often overlapping categories of gift-giving and commerce that solidified relations between colonists and the colonised. Ceremonies of gift-giving were considered prerequisites for all further dealings with outsiders by the Yamacraw Indians, even market interactions, and was key to achieving dominance in the shifting alliance-systems between indigenous peoples and the rival European powers. Criticising teleological accounts of Indian-settler interactions, Levenson showed how their seemingly idealistic relations based on goodwill at the time nonetheless satisfied the practical exigencies of both camps.
James Lees (University College London) ended the panel with his paper on Retrenchment, Reform and the Practice of Military-Fiscalism in the Early East India Company State. Exploring the tax-system of British occupied Bengal from the 1760s onwards, Lees showed how the East India Company failed to appreciate the structures and practices of Indian rural society, instead attempting to govern it in accordance with the British model of landlord-tenant relationships. Measures it were forced to implement to cut costs, including the sub-contraction of revenue duties to cheap paramilitary substitutes, were ultimately self-defeating and detrimental to the reputation on which so much of British authority in the region rested. Since the professional soldiers of the British army shared uniform with the recruited militia, they were not differentiated by the local population and hence undermined the professional prestige of British rule.
Following a short coffee break, the third and last session comprised two papers under the heading Countervailing Empires, dedicated to studying early modern imperial interactions, and was moderated by Dr. Istvan Hont (King’s College, Cambridge). Jan Hartman (Erasmus University Rotterdam) presented Pieter de la Court’s (1618-1685) criticism of the Dutch East India Company, a paper on de la Court’s political economy and specifically on his analysis of Dutch decline in the face of jealous English competition. Holland, de la Court argued, should neither be the Machiavellian lion, nor the fox, but rather a cat, well versed in reason of state that avoided alliance politics and unnecessary wars. Decline should not be considered a moral concern but one of trade and navigation, and the real issues thus became those of overcoming foreign competition through the abolition of monopolies and the encouragement of manufactures. The global trade of the Dutch Republic could no longer be analysed in a vacuum, but had to take the other emerging powers into consideration, an approach Hartman compared to that proposed by John Cary in England thirty years later. Both, in fact, belonged to a pragmatic tradition that put faith in the economic advice of practicing merchants rather than courtiers and the erudite.
The final presentation of the day, by Sophus A. Reinert (Hughes Hall, Cambridge), was entitled Recipes for Empire: A Quantitative Analysis of Economic Translations in Europe, 1500-1849. Here, Reinert compared a data-set representing the critical mass of economic translations housed in the world’s greatest libraries on the subject to OECD statistics on world economic history to argue shifting relations of economic power in early modern Europe. Such changes were reflected in shifting demand for translations of foreign economic works, and the paper demonstrated how Britain went from being a net importer to a net exporter of economic works in the wake of the War of Austrian Succession while Italy and Spain both developed a translation deficit in the same period. Empires, it seemed, were conceived to have recipes that could be emulated to countervail their relative power. The changes in the patterns of economic translation were so sudden in the 1750s, however, that they may helpfully be explained by recourse to the analogy of a shock in a ‘stock market’ of translations.
Dr. Hont concluded the panel by calling attention to the fact that Cambridge was trailing behind other major universities in terms of what major digital collections it subscribed to. Unless more resources are invested in these vital tools for research (such as the “Making of the Modern World” Kress-Goldsmiths’ collection online) Cambridge risks becoming a second-rate university. Dr. Drayton seconded this observation and noted that Cambridge students and scholars did not even have access to Project Muse. Following a brief discussion, Pernille Røge closed the workshop and thanked the moderators, presenters, and participants for contributing to a very fruitful day.
Lively discussions took place following most papers and at the end of each section. Important topics that were touched upon, apart from critiques and comments on specific papers, included the perennial question of whether a historian should lend weight to contemporary sources or rather use modern analytical tools to penetrate the charades of the time, on the geographical focus of the British Empire, on the validity of terms like ‘Empire’, ‘Political Economy’, and ‘Fiscal-Military State’ to describe past processes, whether political economy for some was not an alternative to empire, and on how different historical narratives—economic, cultural, political, scientific—best should intersect to illuminate the topic of the workshop. The debate is sure to continue beyond the limits of the workshop.
The workshop was generously funded by the Faculty of History at Cambridge and the Centre for History and Economics at King’s College. 43 people were registered and it was generally deemed a great success. Work is currently under way to publish the proceedings, and a network of junior and senior scholars has been established that certainly will facilitate further research on the rich and important topic of empires, their economies, and their echoes in today’s world.