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Research project

European ‘Factories’ of the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800

The East India companies shaped the commodity trade from the 16th to the 18th century, organising their activities in Asia by building or taking over ports called ‘factories’. This project considers how these ‘nodes of capitalism’ functioned, and how commodities and information circulated.

Today a factory is a place of industrial production, but it owes its name to the pre-modern Asian trading ports headed by ‘factors’ where commodities for intercontinental trade were assembled, stored and shipped. This seed-funding project considers the connected system of 150 posts (‘factories’) controlled by the Dutch, English and French East India companies. These were the pre-modern hubs for the intercontinental movement of goods, people and information. This project asks what was the role of these European-controlled trading posts in forming an ‘archipelago capitalism’ well before the rise of 20th-century Special Economic Zones and world financial centres? This project asks: what were the economic activities and the commodities that passed through such factories? To what extent was this a mercantile ‘factory system’? How did such a ‘factory system’ emerge and develop over time? Who were the people involved in this network and how did they manage such a geographically articulated system? The factory system that underpinned European trade in Asia turned out to be remarkably long-lasting. Can we think of factories as ‘nodes of knowledge’ created by the movement of information, commodities and people? Did the trading factory system they developed carry other advantages such as those generated by ‘knowledge spillovers’ and ‘information flows’?

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