Settler capitalism: company colonisation and the rage for speculation (NR Online Session 5)

By Matthew Birchall (Cambridge University)

This research is due to be presented in the fifth New Researcher Online Session: ‘Government & Colonization’.

 

Birchall1
Scan from “Historical Atlas” by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

My research explores the little-known story of how company colonisation propelled the settler revolution. Characterised by mass emigration to Britain’s settler colonies during the long nineteenth century, the settler revolution transformed Chicago and Melbourne, London and New York, drawing all into a vast cultural and political network that straddled the globe. But while the settler revolution is now well integrated into recent histories of the British Empire, it remains curiously disconnected from the history of global capitalism.

Prising open what I call the inner lives of colonial corporations, I tell the story of how and why companies remade the settler world. It takes a fresh look at the colonial history of Australia and New Zealand in an attempt to map a new history of chartered colonial enterprise, one that is as sensitive to rhetoric as it is to ledgers documenting profit and loss. We tend to understand companies in terms of their institutional make-up, that is to say their legal and economic structure, but we sometimes forget that they are also cultural constructions with very human histories.

The story that I narrate takes us from the boardrooms of the City of London back out to the pastures of the colonial frontier: it is a snapshot of settler capitalism from the inside out. From the alleys and byways immortalised in Walter Bagehot’s Lombard Street (1873) to the sheep-runs of New South Wales and the South Canterbury plains, company colonisation has a global history – a history that links the Atlantic and the antipodes, Māori and metropolitan capital, country and the City of London. My study marks a first attempt at bringing this history to light.

In digging deep into the social and cultural history of company colonisation, I focus in particular on the legitimating narratives that underwrote visions of colonial reform. How did these company men make sense of their own ventures? What traditions of thought did they draw on to justify the appropriation of indigenous lands? How did the customs and norms of the City shape the boundaries of what was deemed possible, let alone appropriate in the extra-European world? I aim to show that company colonisation was as much an act of the imagination as it was the product of prudent capital investment.

My research engages with large questions of contemporary relevance: the role of corporations in the making of the modern world; the relationship between empire and global capitalism; and the salience of social and cultural factors in the development of corporate enterprise. I hope to enrich these debates by injecting the discussion with greater historical context.

 

 

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