Cultural Hybridisation and Early Modern Globalisation: 17th Century English Corporations and the Development of a Global Dialogue about Governance

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of History


This project explores the relationships between England's remarkable commercial expansion overseas in the 17th century and the profound changes to her government (political and commercial) that define England's domestic history in the 17th century. It examines the international and domestic operations of England's 17th century multinational trading companies. It shows how these companies provided a conduit for the importing of non-European ideas and practices about political and commercial government into England. It uncovers an unappreciated feature of England's involvement in globalisation in the 17th century: how experience overseas hybridised English thought and practice about government and how this hybridisation catalysed globalisation.

Connections between constitutional change in 17th century England and her concurrent overseas expansion are yet to be explored. This project uses my prior research into the cultural and political operations, at home and abroad, of England's 17th century trading companies. In trying to project and negotiate English interests overseas, these companies absorbed a wide array of non-European regulatory (political and economic) techniques. This absorption allowed the English to broaden their understanding of governance beyond traditional humanist stereotypes, which involved either 'despotic' or 'free' regimes, to the conceptual variety and elasticity of commercial, liberal, political economies. In this way, their cultural sensitivity abroad provided the English with greater conceptual and practical flexibility when it came to government. This flexibility helps explain the constitutional and economic changes of the 17th century and the continued international expansion of the English (then British) in subsequent centuries. This project contributes to our understanding of the international, cultural determinants of constitutional, political, economic, and ideological change inside and outside England. It takes early modern, global, constitutional, imperial, and economic history in new and exciting directions by engaging diverse literatures from intellectual history, cultural geography, business history, to post-colonial critical theory.

The project focuses on the East India, Levant, Virginia, Massachusetts Bay, Royal African, Hudson's Bay, and Russia Companies as vehicles of international political and economic regulation. These corporations provided the ideas, personnel, and infrastructure for all four stages of cultural hybridisation: stereotyping, translation, accommodation, and 'feedbacking'. The companies' charters justified their monopoly rights by stereotyping their non-European trading partners as barbaric. Their overseas officials translated the non-European cultures they encountered and accommodated the lessons these cultures offered. Correspondence between the companies' overseas officials and their London directors demonstrate how the hybrid governance they developed overseas, (in Bombay, for example) influenced domestic approaches to government. The companies provide a uniform institutional and cultural context to understand the hybridisation of governance cultures as diverse as the Fanteen, the Iroquois, the Moghul, and creole Philadelphia.

The project will disseminate its research findings internationally in a refereed journal article, a conference paper at an international conference, and a research monograph. It will also reflect on globalisation and cultural hybridisation with professionals involved in the international policy, business, and charity cultures by scheduling two workshops. These will offer 17th century case studies of cultural hybridisation to focus debate about how Britain might manage its international relations in the 21st century to enhance the effectiveness of British public services and strengthen the British economy. In this way, the project's research and impact ambitions engage with the AHRC's Translating Cultures highlight notice.

Planned Impact

In 2011, Britain channels resources into its relationships with other nations to an extent that is out of proportion to the real economic, demographic, and political influence of the United Kingdom on the global stage. The UK remains an outward looking state and culture, but with little actual influence. This combination of the determination to look outwards and the absence of real means to influence the world reflects another chapter in England's history: England's energetic but feeble global presence in the 17th century. Mediated by corporations and the state, guided by commercial not imperialist agendas, defined by weakness not strength, England's 21st century global interests look much like those of the 17th century. My project shows how English engagement with the world in the 17th century produced economic growth as well as political reform, both achievements pertinent to 21st century policy makers. My research records how these achievements resulted from a sensitive approach to non-European cultures, something that the current Prime Minister who, to cite only one example, insists on repeatedly lecturing the Chinese government about China's human rights record, while ignoring British history, would be well advised to take account of.

English experience overseas in the 17th century helped England to translate, accommodate, and feedback cultural insights from various non-European cultures in ways that informed ideas and practice in England and throughout the spheres of English influence. This unappreciated process of cultural hybridisation can help start a debate that will bridge cultural boundaries between academia, public policy, diplomacy, international business, and the international charities sector, as well as by ranging across the differing cultures of the 17th and 21st centuries, and the contrasting contemporary and historic cultures of England, Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. This project will achieve impact outside universities by hosting two evening meetings of London-based international business people; those who work for international charities; and Whitehall-based diplomats. These 'Translating Cultures' workshops will pioneer a new approach to achieving policy and economic impact for academics: a process inspired by the historical process at the centre of the research project, cultural hybridisation.

The first meeting will begin with a presentation from the Principal Investigator about the parallels between the 17th and 21st century contexts and an introduction to the historical process of cultural hybridisation in its various contexts around the world. This presentation will encourage non-academic stakeholders to debate some of the research questions of the project by comparing the 17th and 21st century contexts for British business, diplomacy, and charity sectors. Delegates will contest the idea of cultural hybridisation with the help of their own international cross-cultural experiences. These discussions will prime impact by involving non-academic stakeholders in the conceptualisation of the research project. The second meeting will disseminate the Principal Investigators' research findings and will discuss their utility for the same group of non-academic stakeholders. This meeting would then provide an arena for further debate about the past, present, and future of England's place in the world and how that presence has and will inform domestic and international policy. In this way, the research project's experimental approach to impact will also contribute to the AHRC's Translating Cultures highlight notice.
Description I have established the importance of non-European, corporate settings for domestic change in England
Exploitation Route By students of early modern English and global history as well those interested in the cross-cultural dynamics of international business
Sectors Financial Services, and Management Consultancy

Description Research Leadership
Amount £818,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2018
Description The Midwife of the Modern Multinational 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An evening workshop that engaged a mixed non-academic, corporate, tourism, and academic audience in the City of London

This event helped to raise awareness of the social and moral imperatives of trading corporations in their early modern genesis
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013