by Aske Laursen Brock (Aalborg University)
Today petitioning still gives us an opportunity to exert agency and, in theory, influence the institutions that shape our lives. Lately, petitions about Brexit, saving the climate or holding internet trolls accountable for their online actions have gathered thousands of signatures. The British government has set up a website to collect petitions in one place and make it accessible for a larger populace.
Petitions from the seventeenth and eighteenth century similarly shed light on how popular involvement in state formation, overseas expansion and the commercial revolution was integral in shaping society. Petitioning was ubiquitous in early modern Britain; the king, parliament and local magistrates among other institutions received petitions from all tiers of society. Each petition underlines groups’ as well as individuals’ agendas and links macro-levels developments to the smallest actors in society.
For example, women’s petitions to the English East India Company influenced the company’s policies and governance. Though rarely formal members of trading companies, women were among the many who took advantage of new opportunities afforded by global trade to make a living; either by their own means or through their extended network.
Simultaneously, the global nature of trade presented new challenges, as personal wealth and connections were more far-flung than before. For example, obtaining the wages or goods of a relative who passed away in Indonesia demanded insight into the inner workings of a company and a diverse network. These developments forced women to interact more frequently with trading companies such as the East India Company in order to secure or improve their fortunes.
The state was more decentralised than today and delegated important tasks such as charity, education and healthcare to various institutions and organisations, such as the church, guilds and trading companies. This made people constituents of a wide variety of institutions and meant that institutions consisted of various constituents, who used petitions as a tool to influence them.
But until now, petitions to trading companies have been overlooked. During a period in which the East India Company was one of the biggest employers in Britain, the company faced new challenges on a global scale and came to include a higher number of constituents that were more diverse than before. Though not formally employed by the company, families in England relied on receiving the wages of relations working on ships or overseas.
As the East India Company was dependent on a functioning relationship with employees, it could not afford to ignore wholly its female constituents. But to make certain the company made good on its contracts and agreements, women had to petition to ensure wages, goods, inheritance and, in some cases, their own employment.
These petitions present an interesting subset of the petitioning culture and shed light on the social composition of companies. They represent varied interactions between constituents and company, and introduce a unique opportunity for understanding how women navigated the company boardroom in London and, in some cases, the market overseas.
This in turn makes it possible to appreciate how corporations and early global capitalism were shaped not only by directors, goods and markets, but also by the contribution of otherwise largely disenfranchised agents, in this case women, operating formally and informally under the company umbrella.