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Female agency in global trading companies

Trankebar was a diverse place with a small European population. Unknown, Trankebar, c. 1658, oil on canvas.

Over two centuries the English and Dutch companies (EIC and VOC respectively) established far-flung empires with thousands of employees globally. Though women rarely worked directly for the companies, they were important nodes in the networks that shaped corporations. The project, Women and the company: Female agency in global trading companies, 1600-1800, revisits women’s multiple roles and aims to present a more inclusive image of early global capitalism and labour.

By Aske Laursen Brock, PhD, Department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University

In 1692, Catherine Nicks was apprehended at her house in White Town, Madras (modern-day Chennai), India by EIC musketeers on charges of cheating the company. According to the accusations, Catherine had broken into the company warehouse and had taken great quantities of cloth of the first sort. Nicks then transferred the cloth to the account belonging to the president of company’s operations in Madras, Elihu Yale, who was her close trading partner. Catherine was a merchant separate of her husband and enjoyed commercial success via her connections to Yale and a network of Indian merchants.

Fact box 1

A large number of European states chartered East India Companies during the seventeenth century. The English East India Company (EIC) was chartered 1600 and became the United Company in 1707, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602 and the first Danish East India Company was chartered in 1616.

In England, the law of coverture meant that legally Catherine belonged to her husband, but in the overseas’ setting it was easier for her to create and navigate intricate commercial networks. Nicks’ career in India provides a couple of key insights to women’s agency within trading companies. 

First, it illustrates that women and non-European agents held hitherto underappreciated roles in international commerce and were integral in contributing to the key characteristics of global capitalism such as trans-continental commodity chains and capital accumulation.

Fig. 1. Fort St. George, modern day Chennai, was the most important English and later British foothold on the Coromandel Coast. The most important Dutch settlement was sixty kilometres north at Pulicat while the Danes settled two hundred seventy kilometres south at Trankebar. Jan Van Ryne (Dutch, 1712–60) Fort St George, Madras, on the Coromandel Coast, 1754, etching, h 25.5 cm x w 39.8 cm, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK

Second, the example underlines the deep social and institutional roots of global capitalism by highlighting the links between individuals and institutions, providing much needed insights into international commerce. Women and the company examines women’s socioeconomic agency through a comparative analysis of English, Dutch and Danish companies and their female constituents.

Multiple roles, multiple networks

Catherine Nicks was only one of many women who made a living for herself and family working with and against the East India Companies during the early modern period. However, women’s agency in the corporate setting have routinely been overlooked, partly because of the informal nature of their roles and partly because of the company attempting to regulate their participation.

"It is ordered that Anna Peddy, Jane Davis and Dorcas Johnson have Liberty to goe to their Husbands paying their passages; And that Thomas Lewes acquaint them that Children dye fast in those Long voyages"
East India Committee for Shipping, August 28 1685 (British Library (BL), India Office Records (IOR) L/Mar/C/27A)
Fact box 2

The majority of women who interacted with the companies did so in Europe. However, they increasingly found their way to Asia as well, where some became heavily involved in the country trade. Fig. 2 supposedly show the VOC employee Jakob Martensen and his wife outside of Batavia. They appear as a couple invested in the ships he is pointing towards.

Company women were seldom merchants in their own right like Nicks but held numerous different roles. A few women were employed as victuallers, housekeepers and in more menial positions as for instance hot pressers. 

The majority of women interacting with the company, however, were not formally employed. Instead, they were investors, trading partners domestically and globally as well as pressuring the companies for their relations’ wages in the metropole. 

While their male relations and networking partners were away at sea or abroad, women interacted with the company in Europe and India to ensure economic survival and increasing wealth for themselves and their wider network. As such, the trading companies provided a durable and porous umbrella under which women could exercise their agency.

Fig. 2. Catherine Nicks’ network at Fort St George in the early eighteenth century. Her most important connections were her family, the company employee Elihu Yale, an Armenian merchant named Cajo Satore as well as a number of Indian merchants and artisans. Illustration made using Gephi.

Known sources shedding light on overlooked stories

The companies’ own documents constitute the core of the project’s source material. Though the companies in England, Netherlands and Denmark differed on a number of points, they all created large bureaucracies and as such the companies’ court minutes, letterbooks and consultations provide a solid background for analysis. In these documents, women’s agency can be found in many places.

Fig. 3. Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch, 1620-1691) Portret van een opperkoopman van de VOC, c. 1640-1660, oil on canvas, h 138 cm × w 208 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The relationship was not perfect – the companies attempted to regulate women’s possibilities on numerous occasions – but the companies remained reliant on their female constituents. To achieve their ends, women petitioned the companies making their voice heard. 

This sheds new light on the relationship between companies and women accentuating the economic influence of otherwise overlooked and disenfranchised members of society. Concretely, I have created a database using a hitherto unused source: petitions to the companies mentioned in their minutes.

“The court observing that the petitions for months pay doe take upp soe great a parte of their time in reading and answering them as many times, hinders business of greater importance”
East India Company Court of Committees court minutes, 6 October 1635 (BL IOR, B/18)

So far, the data contains information on more than 1800 women petitioning the English Company and this will be expanded with data from the VOC during the summer and fall of 2019 as I undertake fieldwork at the Nationaal Archief in Den Haag while staying at the University of Leiden.

Sustainable development and understanding the past

Disenfranchised people’s agencies and women’s economic autonomy are not merely historical issues. In 2015, The UN set 17 goals for Sustainable Development including goals concerning gender equality and decent work & economic growth. The early modern corporations did not in any way work towards gender equality, but they still depended on their female constituents.

Fig. 4. Trankebar was a diverse place with a small European population. The painting shows the fort, the Catholic church, the pagoda and the mosque along with a number of stereotyped depictions of locals. The cosmopolitan spaces made new networks possible. Unknown, Trankebar, c. 1658, oil on canvas, h 132.5 cm w 273.5 cm, Skokloster Castle, Sweden.

Without women who worked actively to make the domestic economy work, formed new networks abroad and pressured the companies to provide basic charity, the success of the companies would have markedly different.

“Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.”
Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

The past does not provide us with a blueprint for sustainable economic development today, but by tracing women’s historical agency in global corporations it becomes clear that underappreciated agents too can be integral to shaping the economy.

Selected References

  • Aske Laursen Brock, “Networks,” in: William Pettigrew & David Veevers (eds), Transoceanic Constitutions: The Corporation as a Protagonist in Global History, 1550 – 1750 (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 96-115.
  • Danielle van den Heuvel, Women and Entrepreneurship: Female Traders in the Northern Netherlands, C. 1580-1815 (Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers, 2007).
  • Pamela Sharpe, 'Gender at Sea: Women and the East India Company in Seventeenth Century London', in Women, Work and Wages in England, 1600-1850, ed. by Penelope Lane, Neil Raven, and K. D. M. Snell (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), pp. 47-67.