Corporations changed the early modern world. Adopting a number of roles – diplomat, government, interlocutor, monopolist, jurisdiction establisher, war machine, and property rights arbiter – they were pivotal in the establishment of imperial order. This is true of exploitative colonies, where big companies from the early seventeenth century cemented trade relationships firmly into place, but it is also true, I argue, of settler colonies. In key windows of corporate rule, or periods during which royal government was ambivalent and patchy, European-born companies often instigated the earliest (and most legally onerous) acts of dispossession and acquisition. This paper extends from a large global study of corporations in the North Atlantic (ca. 1590-1690), at the Cape of Good Hope (1652-1795), in the South Pacific (ca. 1642-1860), in the North Pacific (ca. 1670-1880), and in Southern Rhodesia (ca. 1875-1923). At once legal history, economic history, and business history, this project is intended to communicate with debates currently animating imperial historiography (especially relating to the history of settler colonialism), and legal scholarship (especially relating to the jurisprudence of corporations, international law, and property, and where these discrete bodies of law overlap). This paper focuses exclusively on corporate activity in colonial Australia and colonial New Zealand: starting with the impressions left by Dutch and English East India Companies, then focusing on the revival of corporate speculation in the colonies after 1824. Time permitting, the focus will shift to specific incidents of violence and diplomacy, and how these imbed into a bigger legal-historical picture.
Edward Cavanagh is completing his PhD as Trillium Scholar at the University of Ottawa. He has published widely in the fields of both law and history, and is the co-founder and managing editor of Settler Colonial Studies. His second book, Settler Colonialism and Land Rights in South Africa, was published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan.
All welcome. Please direct enquiries to Kynan.Gentry@anu.edu.au