|"Civilization", British style, part and parcel of the world the East India Company created|
For week 3 of European History Since 1648 at UNLV we began with some back-tracking, to think about some of the ways that religion shaped European politics and society during our period. We had some catch-up from the previous class (the schedule is largely theoretical), and so the class was too short to do the topic proper justice, but the students had a discussion of the Edict of Nantes, and thought about its implications for European state systems and the people living within them.
Students then discussed selections from the trial of Suzanne Gaudry, a woman who was tortured into confessing to practicing witchcraft, to think about the way in which religion could intrude into everyday life, but also about the vulnerability and contingent status of women during our time period, a link to the previous week’s fleeting discussion of Mary Astell, who turned claims about the social contract back against the patriarchal society in which she lived.
If Tuesday was about tying up loose ends, Thursday involved thinking through social and political innovations. Thursday’s class started with a discussion of coffee houses, and how these spaces (and the much-debated product they sold) facilitated new kinds of exchange and conversation, critical to the globalized economy that cut across class and other boundaries, which was emerging during the 17th centuries and beyond.
Coffee houses are often associated with the democratization and popularization of trade and its effects on popular culture. But the trade in coffee, tea, and other products depended on other new institutions. The focus of our class for the day was on the East India Company, a corporation with its own army, navy, and governing apparatus, and a salutary reminder that debates about a surfeit of corporate power are nothing novel.
I provided the students with a brief chronology of the company, from its origins, through its increasing accumulation of power in the Indian subcontinent, the impeachment proceedings against its corrupt leadership and the debates this sparked in British society about the corrosive influence of imperialism, to its days as a drug-running rogue quasi-state and its role in the Opium Wars.
We discussed its downfall through the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and its role in shaping the trajectory of British imperialism for years to come.