On Tuesday, the theme for European History since 1648 at UNLV was the British East India Company. But we kicked off the class with a discussion of our two primary sources for the day, a satirical treatise praising the virtues of coffee and spelling out the rules for behavior in a coffee shop, and selections from Adam Smith on the “Wealth of Nations”.
The discussion of coffee and coffee shops led us to the commercial world of stocks and markets, and the places and methods that people used to communicate the dense information necessary to navigate the 17th and 18th century commercial worlds. And the selections from Smith helped us to make the transition from the mercantilist ideologies of an earlier era to the laissez-faire economic outlooks of the late-18th century. Although as we discovered, there were limits to Smith’s tolerance of the “free” market.
I like the example of the East India Company because it provides a good example of an unintuitive, corporate form of colonialism, and illustrates the relationship between politics, empire, and money. Moreover, as a discussion of the Company’s critics reveals, the debates about the relationship between corporate power, governance, and democracy are not unique to our own era!
Tracing the Company’s history took us from its foundation in 1600 to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th Century. But on Thursday we were back in the 1700s discussing how to make sense of the Enlightenment, the backdrop not only to the American and French Revolutions, but also to historical events well into the 20th Century…