Trading Companies and Travel Literature are hot. Joining these two foci of historical and literary analysis works even better. This is the short conclusion from the overwhelming success of the Hakluyt Society Symposium, the first of its kind, held at Chatham Historic Dockyards on 11-12 September 2017. Entitled Trading Companies and Travel Literature, this international event, sponsored by the Hakluyt Society and organised in collaboration with PEIC of the University of Kent, brought together more than fifty historians, literary scholars, and members of the public for two days of rich interdisciplinary exchange. In this blog, one of the symposium’s organisers, Guido van Meersbergen (University of Warwick) looks back on the symposium and its outcomes.
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One month after the Hakluyt Society Symposium in Chatham, I look back on the event with great pleasure and satisfaction. Run by Edmond Smith (PEIC), Aske Brock (PEIC), and myself, and financed by a generous award from the Hakluyt Society’s Harry & Grace Smith Fund, the symposium was a resounding success. This was due not only to the stunning environment of the Historic Dockyard in Chatham – and particularly the magnificent Royal Dockyard Church – which provided #Hakluyt17 with the best possible historical and maritime framing; but above all to the consistently high academic quality of papers presented and collegial and constructive discussion held over the course of two stimulating days.
As always in these matters, the people mattered most. In addition to sizeable delegations from both the Hakluyt Society and the University of Kent, the symposium welcomed a large number of attendees from institutions all over the UK as well as places further afield, including the US, India, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, and Ireland. All together, Trading Companies and Travel Literature attracted over fifty delegates, some twenty of whom students and Early Career Researchers. Participation of the latter group was generously supported by financial support from the Hakluyt Society and the Society for Renaissance Studies. The Hakluyt Society also awarded a total of six Bursaries covering travel expenses for early career speakers.
These circumstances combined to ensure that even a Chatham-wide power outage on 12 September, which caused some degree of confusion on Day 2 of the symposium, did little to disrupt the event’s good humoured collegiality.
For a pictorial impression of the event, Hakluyt Society Symposium 2017 in 100 Images, check out our Facebook page.
Trading Companies and Travel Literature
Aimed at examining travel literature and trading companies within the same framework of analysis, the symposium’s seven panels focused on critical issues ranges from the production and uses of travel literature, the way travel writing was employed to promote trading companies and colonial or imperial projects, to approaches to non-European voices and the materiality of information. Questions addressed included:
- How did Companies and non-corporate groups (private merchants, missionaries, diplomats, Crown-sponsored colonial enterprises) gather, collect, protect, promote and utilise travel literature?
- In what ways do the manuscript and printed material created by companies serve as lenses through which to understand the early modern ‘globalising’ world, and how do they obscure, distort, or limit this understanding?
- How did ideas originating in manuscript form within Company administrations come to circulate in print and what were its consequences for the circulation of ideas and images about the world within Europe and beyond?
- How did travel literature emerging outside the Companies shape and affect Company policies?
- What were the roles of non-European voices and agency in (the production of) Company sources and travel literature?
- What were the implications of secrecy, forgery and fraudulent material for corporate and non-corporate colonial operations?
- How did the materiality of information affect its message and uses?
On the evening of day 1, the keynote address was delivered by Professor Jyotsna Singh (Michigan State University), whose work on the Global Renaissance has dealt extensively with early modern travel writing and East India Company accounts. Her stimulating lecture, chaired by Hakluyt Society President, Professor Jim Bennett, was entitled The East India Company and English Encounters with Islam in Mughal India.
The symposium also featured a Hakluyt Society Editorial Workshop, led by Professor Will Ryan and Dr Katie Parker, which offered attendees first-hand experience of the attractions and challenges of editing primary accounts to the standards required by the Society.
Rather than simply relishing the memory of a successful event, steps have already been taken to ensure a positive follow-up. Encouraged by the outcome of the Kent symposium – which met the Society’s principal aims of 1) increasing the public awareness of historical travel, exploration and worldwide cultural encounter; 2) generating exposure for the Society’s activities; and 3) stimulating interdisciplinary conversation, engaging younger scholars, and creating a bridge between academic and lay audiences – the Hakluyt Society is committed to establishing its symposia on a biannual footing.
First preparations for a 2019 Hakluyt Society Symposium to be held in Leiden are already underway, following an agreement of principle between the Society’s President, Jim Bennett, its Symposium Coordinator, Guido van Meersbergen, and Professor of Maritime History of Leiden University, Michiel van Groesen. One reason to particularly look forward to a 2019 symposium in Leiden would be the intended participation of the Linschoten-Vereeniging, our Dutch sister society.
However, the most tangible future output of the Hakluyt Society Symposium will be a collection of essays edited by the symposium organisers and including chapters from a selection of speakers. This book will present the first focused investigation of the multifaceted relationships between European trading companies and the ways in which they collected, curated, protected, and utilised material relating to travel and exploration across the early modern world. Edmond, Aske, and I intend for this edited collection, on which we will work over the next year or two together with our excellent speakers, to appear as a volume in the Hakluyt Society Extra Series.
Finally, we will produce a conference report for the Society for Renaissance Studies (SRS), which generously supported the symposium with a conference grant. This report is due to appear in the Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies.
Dr Guido van Meersbergen is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick, where he is a member of the Global History and Culture Centre. Since 2013 he has been a Council Member of the Hakluyt Society, and he is currently acting as the Society’s social media manager and Symposium Coordinator. Guido’s research and teaching focuses on early modern global history, particularly cross-cultural diplomacy, ethnographic discourse, and the Dutch and English East India Companies in South Asia. Guido received his PhD from University College London (UCL) and has previously held the Max Weber Fellowship at the European University Institute (EUI).