Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

A Finger in Every Pie: Transnational networks in the debates over British free trade, 1660-1730

The role of transnational, non-institutional networks in the opening up of British transatlantic trade at the end of the 17th/beginning of the 18th century

2013 - 2017

In its greatest scope this project attempts to reshape the way we think about the great European empires that formed in the early modern period. Because of their tight link with feelings of national belonging, there is a tendency to remember and think of them as purely national endeavors. This was not necessarily the case. In this project I attempt to show how international networks of independent merchants and traders were important players in building the early British Empire, and with it some of the first links in a truly globalized market. The development of globalized trading networks are both fascinating and important subjects, and it is the aim of this project to explore the role they played as drivers of empire. Debates regarding state-sponsored monopolies and regulated overseas trade were raging in England after the Revolution of 1688, and in mapping to what extent independent transnational networks of merchants played a role in the outcome, I hope to contribute to our understanding of the full picture.

This project will challenge traditional historiography that privileges the role that institutionalized monopolies played in building empires, while all but ignoring the contribution of free agency to the construction, maintenance and growth of those same empires. The European Empires that grew from the increasing global contact of the Early Modern period have become important symbols within the national history of the states that were involved. The empires represent a nation’s shared past, as symbols of expansion; development; and even of entrepreneurial spirit, but also of cruelty; exploitation; and an outdated and arrogant worldview. However, this research will question in its greatest scope how 'national' and ‘state-driven’ the development of empire was in reality. Through extensive, qualitative archival research it aims to clarify the role played by transnational and cross-cultural networks, that were active in the commercial Atlantic trade and in the British debates surrounding the questions of trade deregulation in the latter part of the 17th century.  It will examine the contact between one of the largest chartered British trading companies of the period, the Royal African Company (RAC), and transnationally linked separate traders and merchants that operated in the United Kingdom, the British colonies and in the Atlantic space. The deregulation debates were tightly connected to the political (and ideological) shift brought about by the Revolution of 1688, and would have large impact on British foreign trade, including the trade conducted by independent merchant networks. The aim of this project is therefore to map in what ways such networks were impacted, and to what extent they themselves  attempted to influence the outcome.

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