Women’s East India Company

Aske Laursen Brock, curator at Museerne Helsingør, Denmark

In my personal experience, the allure of new research or a fresh project always manages to overshadow the task I should be completing. The excitement that comes with the scent of a new endeavor is hard to beat. The point of departure for my PhD dissertation was understanding how the networks of trading company officials influenced the formation of the English political economy. I was a part of a broader project that examined various aspects of trading company development, with my specific task being the examination of directors. To reconstruct these intricate networks, I dedicated countless hours to poring over minute books within the India Office Records at the British Library. These records meticulously detailed interactions between company officials themselves, their employees, and their constituents. Among these interactions, a notable presence emerged – that of women, each with her distinct set of agendas. Gradually, my thoughts began to shift from my PhD research to the realm of a new project: women’s roles in the East India trade.

Around the same time, while delving into research related to directors and company leadership, I came across an article by Olwen Hufton. In this article, she boldly stated, “there was no East India Company for women.”[1] Her contention was that when men faced economic, social, or legal challenges, avenues like the navy, army, or East India Company offered a fresh start. However, this assertion seemed at odds with the numerous subtle hints I encountered within historical documents. It is certainly true, that early modern trading companies employed few women directly. They were, for instance, housekeepers, or worked in more menial positions as, for instance, hot pressers. Even though few women were directly employed by the company, numerous women engaged with these companies, not merely as investors and domestic trading partners, but as individuals who actively conducted business and earned their livelihoods through these endeavors. They functioned as trading partners both domestically and globally, and even exerted pressure on the companies to ensure fair wages for their relations in the metropole. In periods when their male relatives and networking partners were away at sea or abroad, women interacted with the company, both in Europe and India, to ensure their economic sustenance and enhance the prosperity of their broader networks. The degree of women’s participation in international commerce was significantly influenced by the distinct cultural, social, and economic contexts of various regions during the early modern period. Furthermore, while some women were actively immersed in commerce, many faced constraints imposed by legal and societal factors, which limited their access to formal trade opportunities and property rights.

Hufton’s assertion had already been questioned by others, as they highlighted examples that nuanced her otherwise categorical statement (as exemplified particularly by the work of Pamela Sharpe [2]). However, it remained a challenge to uncover the precise roles, lives, and motivations of women as they interacted with trading companies. In my quest to gain a deeper understanding of this relationship, I chose to undertake the task of quantifying it. I meticulously recorded all instances of interactions between women and companies. A significant portion of these interactions in the early seventeenth century revolved around matters like wages for common sailors, seamen, and lower-ranking employees. As the company’s overseas presence solidified, discussions surrounding soldiers’ wages became similarly prominent. In essence, the company frequently engaged with women from plebeian families, yet these interactions were notoriously difficult to trace in other sources. Unfortunately, for the most part, my insight into the multifaceted economy within plebeian families remained fleeting.

My exploration, however, yielded more fruitful results when delving into the careers of middling sorts of women and those from the minor gentry. Women such as Martha Parker – the protagonist in my Journal of Women’s History article – Catherine Nicks, Elizabeth Dalyson, and the Lever sisters came into focus. Rather than being related or married to common sailors and soldiers, they were the wives, sisters, and mothers of captains, factors, or officers. Positioned uniquely within a social and economic context that straddled the elite and the working class, they found themselves presented with opportunities to assume roles as traders, intermediaries, and business managers in their own right. Often overlooked within conventional narratives, these women displayed remarkable adaptability and resilience. Navigating intricate trade networks, they established connections with foreign merchants, capitalizing on their social ties to facilitate international trade and improve their situation. Their participation across domains such as textiles, luxury goods, and maritime ventures not only bolstered their own economic empowerment but also contributed to the broader economic fabric of their societies. These women had other opportunities than the wives of common soldiers and sailors: they were better connected, wealthier and, at times, they undoubtedly had some sort of training. Nonetheless, their examples indicate a more universal social expectation that women should be able to challenge trading companies to sustain themselves and often improve their families’ lives.

To me it was surprising to find so many petitions from women and so much evidence of varied economic activity. My surprise was undoubtedly connected to the enduring perception of trading companies as masculine domains. The correlation between women’s agency and formal economic institutions, like trading companies, has long been debated, often highlighting institutional constraints on women’s economic autonomy. However, these institutions relied on their female stakeholders. The companies’ success wouldn’t have been the same without women actively contributing to the domestic economy, forging new connections abroad, and advocating for basic charitable support from the companies. This realization calls for a fresh scrutiny of a range of historical sources, helping to further our understanding of the intricate interplay between gender and global commerce, then and today. While the past might not furnish us with a precise roadmap for contemporary economic development, the exploration of women’s historical agency within global corporations underscores the significant role that underappreciated actors can play in shaping economies.

[1] Olwen Hufton, “Women without Men: Widows and Spinsters in Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Family History 9, no. 4 (1984): 355–76, 372.

[2] For her direct answer to Hufton’s claim, see: Pamela Sharpe, “Gender in the Economy: Female Merchants and Family Businesses in the British Isles, 1600-1850,” Social History 34 (2001): 283–306, 294.