The US 1619 project is aimed at making visible the erasure of Black history and contributions of Africans to early America. Seldom noted, it was the Virginia Company that directed the labour of Africans first arriving on the White Lion that year – Virginia was not merely a generic ‘English colony’ as it is typically called. And when Harvard University released a report into its own connection to slavery, relevant colonizing companies like the Massachusetts Bay and Providence Island Companies were omitted. Likewise, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission ‘Calls to Action’ mainly focus on church and state roles in settler colonial atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples, ignoring the 200 years in which Hudson’s Bay Company was the principal colonizing actor in what later became western Canada – not only developing the fur trade, but also negotiating private treaties with Indigenous peoples, most notably the 1817 treatybetween Hudson’s Bay shareholder Lord Selkirk and Saulteaux Chief Peguis, and 14 treaties between Hudson’s Bay Chief Factor James Douglas and Coast Salish peoples in the 1850s – all of which were penned prior to the formation of Crown colonies or sovereign domestic states.
From Eric Hobsbawm’s Introduction to Marx’s Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, we learn that to know capitalism one must understand its predecessors; similarly, the origins of North American capitalist states and settler colonialism today cannot be understood without reference to progenitor company colonies. Landholding colonizers like the Virginia and Plymouth Companies (1606), Newfoundland Company (1610), Somers Isles Company (1615), Council for New England (1620), Massachusetts Bay Company (1629), and Hudson’s Bay Company (1670) launched many of the key political-economic institutions of contemporary capitalism through their market making, law writing, legislature launching, land disposing, and labour directing activities.
Beyond being strange seventeenth century oddities or quirky historical trivia, company colonies are significant in ways both theoretical and political today. The early days of capitalism in English North America unfolded in a reverse sequence than what a Eurocentric account would otherwise predict. England’s capitalism emerged through the privatization of politics as feudalism gave way to private appropriation by a bourgeois class shorn of any responsibility for meeting social needs. Yet when English North American company colonies were dissolved, colonies’ investor-dominated political structures were nationalized, replacing company government with the imperial and settler state.
For Ellen Meiksins Wood, capitalism features a unique separation of economics and politics, the ‘historical reality’ of which requires asking “how and in what sense essentially political issues like the disposition of powers to control production and appropriation, or the allocation of social labour and resources, have been cut off from the political arena and displaced to a separate ‘sphere’.” For North American capitalism, this history can only be parsed through an understanding of the law making and legislatures of for-profit colonial stockholders, company initiatives to found settlements on common company ownership of staple exports (like tobacco, fur, sugarcane), provisions for indentured labour indexed to race, and proprietary settler colonialism through unequal exchange, violence, and reliance on Indigenous peoples, including private treaty-making.
North American proto-capitalist states and markets emerged as real estate transactions. Way before the British red coats, company estates were developed for commodity production and trade through royal charter-enabled land grants for huge swaths of unmapped and ceded territory. Part common company land and part private plantations, holdings in the ‘New World’ were not only stolen from Indigenous peoples through colonial logics like terra nullius and rights of first discovery, or Lockean notions of waste and improvement, within-colony land was acquired by purchasing company shares. With companies empowered to make their own laws, feudal forms of land tenure like tithes and quitrents were simplified to make way for unfettered forms of fee simple ownership. Company land ownership was either dissolved through the expropriation of private land by royal colonies, or the purchase of private land by burgeoning settler states.
Children, orphans, vagabonds, criminals, and the dispossessed were often targets of company colony settler labour schemes. White unfree settler labour was imported by private companies and landlords just as Black unfree labour was. However, their terms of indenture varied according to racist distinctions: white servitude offered the possibility of eventual land ownership, Black servitude terminated in eventual slavery. Indigenous labour was both relied upon for trade and exploited or excluded through violence. Even for the Plymouth Pilgrims of American fame, getting to providence was an expensive proposition – financing for their 1620 Mayflower voyage came with the requirement that they work as bonded labourers for seven years.
Complex inter-class finance and company governance relations bridged royalty-gentry-bourgeoisie divisions, with investors from towns and cities in England frequently holding stock in multiple chartered companies. Within colony, legislatures and laws were made by company men and landowning stockholders, with gendered, racialized, and propertied exclusions. Far from appendages of the Crown, companies like Virginia, Massachusetts Bay, and Somers Isles had chronically fractious relationships with their respective English monarchs (James I, Charles I, and Charles II). In a paper for Review of International Political Economy, I call this a complex mix of historical layering featuring hybrid feudal-capitalist modes of production, proto-capitalist stockholding and freehold land, transient unfree labour, and dynamic legal forms.
And yet the company colonies of the seventeenth and nineteenth century are often obscured even in the anti-colonial political struggles of today. Perhaps for this reason, a parallel effort of broader political agitation for ‘Land Back’ has emerged, concretized in the in April, 2022 transfer of a six-storey, 94-year-old Hudson’s Bay Company department store in downtown Winnipeg to 34 First Nations of the region. The Bay building, one of six flagship stores in Canada, symbolized both the company’s economic primacy in settler colonialism after Confederation and the company’s autonomous political role in importing white settlers and ways of life into the region through the privately owned Red River colony. Founded by Lord Selkirk in 1812 through a 116,000 square kilometer Hudson’s Bay land grant appropriating parts of present-day Manitoba, Minnesota, Ontario, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and South Dakota, this private plantation, more feudal fiefdom than the wider burgeoning industrial capitalist era would suggest, embroiled Métis and First Nations peoples in the ways and means of company concerns. Land Back must resist the march of contemporary forms of capitalist reconciliation just as it ought to recognize the historical significance of company colonies.
By taking a view from the colonies that pushes back to the very origins of proto-capitalist land acquisition, it becomes clear that joint-stock royal charter companies were doing a lot more than typically recognized, and that the reach of company colonies often exceeded the grasp of English state power. Company colonies developed their own logics and were not simple projections of the English Crown. Adaptation, contextualization, and transformation are key to theorizing the early days of capitalism in North America. Contemporary political struggles to recover history and advance reconciliation can only benefit from a better understanding of the for-profit origins of settler colonialism that shaped the capitalist state as we know it today.
Heather Whiteside is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, and a Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
This article is based on Heather Whiteside, “Company colonies and historical layering: understanding the Virginia, Somers Isles, and Hudson’s Bay Companies,” Review of International Political Economy, published online September 28, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2022.2120524
Image: Selkirk-Peguis Treaty Map, 1817, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives E.8/1 folio 11