School of History

The Global Determinants of the English Constitution

A Leverhulme Trust funded research project conducted by Dr Will Pettigrew

What was the relationship between England's remarkable commercial expansion overseas in the 17th century and the profound changes to her government that define England's domestic history in the 17th century? A Research Leadership Award from the Leverhulme Trust will allow me to lead a team of researchers who will examine the archives and histories of overseas trading corporations – the first ‘multinationals’ - to answer this question. During the 17th century, England established and sustained several overseas trading companies: the East Indian, Royal African, the Virginia, the Levant, the Massachusetts Bay, the Russia, and the Hudson’s Bay. Together they developed an English corporate presence in four continents. In the same period, the English constitution changed from a divinely ordained absolutist monarchy to a mixed constitution in which Parliament enjoyed supremacy and supported a more powerful state. How did these developments – the expansion of English influence in the world and the profound alteration in English domestic governance – influence one another?

Answering this research question will help us to better understand an unappreciated feature of England's involvement in globalisation in the 17th century: how corporate experience overseas ‘hybridised’ English thought and practice about government and how this hybridisation catalysed globalisation. My research team will examine how these corporations served as structures that assisted the reciprocal interactions between Europeans and non-Europeans around the world. How did these processes operate? England's 17th century expansion overseas brought English ideas into direct contact with non-European cultures of governance. Employees of English corporations translated, then accommodated, and then fed these ideas back to the mother country. For example, the development of an English presence in West Africa by the Royal African Company (see photograph) forced slave-trading merchants to compare the political economies of their African suppliers with their American customers in ways that helped to hybridise English ideas about political economy. This hybridisation influenced thought, policy, and activity. For example, it produced a huge increase in the capacity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

This research project will depict the formative stages of the English empire as a series of experiments with government. These experiments generated important insights for the mother country and her overseas holdings. It will show how the first multinational corporations played an unappreciated part as conduits for globalization and constitutional change. The project will depict the institutional bastions of English national pride: representative government, the rule of law, deregulated economies, as the product of an earlier globalized dialogue about political economy that involved South Asians, Native Americans, Ottoman merchants, and Oyo Chieftains. It is time for the totems of British political culture, representative institutions and secure property rights, to be explained with reference to the non-European contexts that first informed then and then became their victims. This project challenges us to consider whether the rest of the world played as much of a part in the germination of the British constitution as the British Empire played in the imposition of that constitution overseas.


School of History, Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NX

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Last Updated: 20/03/2013