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Department of History

Exploring the Asian origins of global capitalism

The ERC project "The Asian Origins of Global Capitalism: European Factories in the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800" (CAPASIA) is under way. Principal investigator Giorgio Riello and Senior Research Fellow Michael O'Sullivan outline in an interview their ambitions and the challenges ahead.

10 February 2023 | Research

View of the harbor of Surat in Gujarat India, anonymous, c. 1670

In late 2022 the five-year ERC Advanced Grant CAPASIA, based at the EUI, unveiled its website, and the project team is busy planning the first scientific meetings. In an interview, History Professor Giorgio Riello and Senior Research Fellow Michael O'Sullivan outline some key features of the research.

In a nutshell, what is the mission of this project?

CAPASIA aims to chart the path towards modern, industrial capitalism that was generated by the commercial structures of the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The focus is on the trading posts – or 'factories' – in Asia that acted as hubs for the intercontinental movement of goods, people, and information.

Through a study of these factories, we hope to construct a new global history of the origins of modern capitalism. Our story puts Asia centre-stage, and therefore complements and challenges the dominant interpretations of capitalism centred on the Atlantic world.

What exactly is a ‘factory’, in the context of this project?

These were the forerunners of modern-day industrial sites that bear the same name, but they were sites for a range of economic activities beyond production of manufactured goods. In the period we cover, 175 to 200 factories were established by European merchants across maritime Asia. Some factories were fortified settlements and others merely rented houses. Commodities were procured from the hinterland and shipped out from these places to other parts of Europe and Asia. Invariably their profiles were shaped by the structure of regional commerce, the relative power of local political authorities, and their place in intra-Asian trading circuits. Many existed for generations, and others only briefly.

ERC grants reward innovation. In what ways does your project innovate?

We see four main innovations. First, CAPASIA shifts the emphasis away from Europe–Asia connections to the less-studied, but perhaps more significant, intra-Asia trading connections. Second, we expand dramatically the narrative of economic globalisation beyond the recent past to incorporate the early modern period. Third, we modify the usual narrative about capitalism’s development from something inside Europe that goes global, to a polycentric story: we show, in fact, that for several centuries Europe was basically the 'apprentice' of Asia. Finally, we want to separate the story of European factories in Asia from their parent companies in Europe; this will attest to their Asian dimension in a novel manner.

What are your main data sources and your methods?

Our archival research will draw on the enormous repositories for the East India Company at the Indian Office at the British Library, the Dutch East India Company Archives in the Netherlands, and various holdings in Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, and Austria. We also intend to incorporate various Asian archives into our remit. These will require work in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, China, and Japan.

The size of these collections is absolutely enormous. Traders and producers kept detailed records, most of which have never been investigated by scholars. In the Netherlands alone we found that the stored documents cover 1.7 kilometres of shelves. We will conduct digital analysis of these materials and construct a series of databases for use by the scholarly and lay community. Among the promised deliverables are databases that catalogue, and can present visually, such things as commodities, locations, and commercial information (prices, contracts, modes of payment, interest rates).

A rudimentary step in this direction is already on our project website, in the form of an interactive map. It provides a panoramic view of the rise of the factory system in early modern Asia.

Where did you take your inspiration for this research?

Several historiographical developments cleared the ground for CAPASIA. The first were dramatic shifts in the study of capitalism over the past two decades, predominantly associated with Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence and the 'New History of Capitalism.' The Great Divergence revised entrenched narratives of European exceptionalism by arguing that parts of China and England were neck-and-neck in their economic indices until the eighteenth century. Then, the New History of Capitalism – predominantly a US and Atlantic-centric field – brought capitalism back from the sidelines of academic studies. The question remains how our arena of study, the early modern Indian Ocean, meshes with and departs from these paradigms.

Another, more subtle, historiographical development was a shift in perspective in histories of capitalism. No longer do industrial production, labour, and distribution set the parameters for what capitalism is. Increasingly, historians have zeroed in on social relations, networks, merchant capital, and other metrics as integral to capitalism's global history. For us, the factory is a grab bag institution where all sorts of economic phenomena and relations coalesced in a single space. It supplies a pivot for us to move into new thematic and geographical directions when writing histories of capitalism.

How does this project benefit from being at the EUI?

First of all, the EUI is a haven of faculty, researcher, and visiting scholar talent. A broad range of expertise you find here is necessary to make an ERC project like this live up to its ambitions.

Moreover, a grant from the Institute's Research Council helped us to prepare a convincing and feasible project plan, as well as sharpen our empirical focus in line with our conceptual goals. We were able to conduct a census of possible research locations and chart the structure of the various archives. We decided which aspects of production and interaction were important for our focus, for example resources and training, not just manufacture or distribution. Also, we were able to design the prototype database and pilot an interactive map.

At a general level, our research intersects with other EUI initiatives exploring how one can 'decentre' Eurocentrism, not just in history but in other disciplines and the ways in which we interact with scholars globally.


Giorgio Riello is Chair of Early Modern Global History. He joined the Department of History and Civilization in 2019 moving from the University of Warwick where he was Professor of Global History and Culture. He has published extensively on the economic and material culture history of trade and consumption in early modern Asia and Europe.

Michael O’Sullivan is a historian of South Asia and the Middle East. Prior to joining EUI, he was a fellow at the Center for History and Economics (Harvard University) and a fellow in Islamic Law and Civilization (Yale Law School). His interests focus mainly on the economic histories of Muslim communities living between the Balkans and Bali over the past five centuries.

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Last update: 10 February 2023

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