Agents, Networks, Institutions and Empires
The Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction (FEEGI) has since its conception in 1996 held biennial conferences on North American soil. However, as the purpose of FEEGI is to provide a forum for the study of European expansion, which crosses national historiographies and traditional borders, it seems like a natural development for the Forum to take the show on the road, so to speak, and expand to Europe. Reversing the process of expansion, FEEGI’s presence in Europe highlights the reciprocal relationship between Europe and the Globe, and points towards dialogue between various geographies rather than a European monologue.
From the 2nd to the 5th June FEEGI held its first conference in Europe, more precisely in the Dutch town of Leiden, home to the oldest university in the Netherlands (est. 1575), which guaranteed beautiful historical surroundings. Also, Leiden University is currently the home of two larger projects investigating the role of free global agents in history – in the Netherlands and pan-European – and these agents’ relationship to State monopolies. These lines of inquiry was clearly reflected in the conference title, ‘Agents, Networks, Institutions and Empires’ and meant for an interesting dialogue with the general PEIC project, which focusses on the interactions with global entities via corporate activity at home and abroad.
Let it be said, I have rarely been to a conference with so well dressed and secret-agent-looking organizers and helpers. The proverbial fine feathers making fine birds might be translated into something along the lines of fine clothes making fine conference organizers. In any case, our principal host Dr. Catia Antunes and her team deserves much credit for their role in an engaging and smoothly run conference: three key notes and eleven panels (with too many papers to mention here unfortunately) with preciously little delay and few interruptions.
Tamar Herzog’s keynote – based on a chapter from her latest book Frontiers of Possession – argued that the history of state formation in Spain and Portugal could be changed by focussing on the New World rather than the Old thus emphasizing the overseas’ influence on European state formation driven by individuals and global exchanges. This set the scene well for what was to be the central themes: the relationship between centre and periphery (or the existence of either), subject and subjugator, fractured areas of control for European and extra-European powers, interactions and exchanges. Furthermore, the development of spaces of exchanges – be it court rooms in Java, international corporations or maritime spaces – was at the heart of many of the papers.
A somewhat extra layer to the conference’s generally tendency of focusing on people and commodities was presented by Amelia Polonia who brought the environmental impact of global meetings to the forefront – ‘When worlds collide they also intermingle and create new worlds’ – global history is not only the story people, networks and institutions but also of the environment. In her paper on botanical knowledge creation in South Africa Laura Mitchell did well to exemplify some of these movements, when presenting the systematic collection of knowledge of South African flora and fauna was distributed throughout the world.
Prof Michael Person’s keynote put forward the provocative statement ‘Curb your enthusiasm’ regarding networks and cosmopolitanism. The reach of cosmopolitanism and the networks of merchants and agents rarely reached far beyond the port cities: The Age of Early Globalization was only that for the few, and as such the concepts of cosmopolitanism and globalization should be questioned: European impact abroad in the early modern period was rather limited and vice versa. Even with the reminder that societies consisted of more than port cities and global exchange, the enthusiasm for these exchanges and interactions didn’t wane: the papers that followed continued to focus on the more uplifting narrative of early modern global interaction, and exemplified wide-reaching institutional, political and cultural consequences of the global exchanges.
Lisa Hellman was amongst those who expanded the concept of cosmopolitanism to a larger setting, by examining the precarious position of European powers in China during the eighteenth century and linking it to the development of a Swedish trade strategy based on toleration and seeming openness to Chinese culture. The experience of Swedes merchants in Canton, China – a cosmopolitan microcosm – affected how foreign policy was directed in Stockholm. Paulo Jorge de Sousa touched on similar themes in his paper, which highlighted Chino-European interaction in the South Sea during the early modern period thus bringing China as a historical actor to the forefront of development in the early modern world. Tristan Stein expanded the ideological exchanges from Asia Major to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. In his paper, he examined how English factors of the Levant Company integrated into the legal and cultural setting of the Ottoman Empire, while still working within an English corporate and legal sphere as well. The development of international law as we know it today was a result of legal integrations like these. In unison, the papers pointed out a large number of different exchanges – cultural, legal and economical – in rather varied settings – geographically and institutionally. The plethora of approaches to global history presented here promises more exciting in the future for the subject.
The first FEEGI conference on European soil did what it said on the tin: It questioned the relationship between agents, institutions and Empires in a global setting and illuminated a series studies and new venues of research for global history. However, it was very clear that it is difficult to asses where the agency of individuals stop and the flexibility of the corporation begins. The papers each illuminated a part of the large and opaque process that is global history, and underscored the continued usefulness of ambitious academic forums with a global focus. Hopefully FEEGI’s visit to Europe will not be the last, but rather the first of a many. The next FEEGI conference will be taking place at the University of California in Irvine; the deadline for proposals is the 15th of September.