Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Project Details



Aims of Europe's Trading Centuries: Trading Eurasia 1600-1830

The twenty-first century has seen a new Asian ascendancy: Europe has lost those manufacturing catalysts of textiles, ceramics and metal goods back to Asia. This project seeks to understand Europe’s new challenge of Asia by charting the history of that first global shift between the pre-modern and modern worlds.

The project will engage Professor Maxine Berg, three postdoctoral fellows, a PhD student and a museums consultant in a comparative study of Europe’s trade with India and China in quality textiles, porcelain and other fine manufactured goods. The researchers will draw on the records of Europe’s East India companies, records of private traders, and major museum collections, and conduct comparative case studies including the English, Dutch, French and Scandinavian companies.

The project will compare Europe’s trade with India in high quality textiles and other fine manufactured goods with its trade with China in porcelain and other consumer and luxury goods using the records of Europe’s East India companies and major museum collections of export-ware objects. The Principal Investigator will research the English East India Company together with a PhD student, and will lead three postdoctoral fellows in comparative case studies on other European companies, especially the Dutch, French and Scandinavian companies.

Back to top

Framework and background

The global has become the dominant paradigm of the social sciences and historical enquiry during the past ten years. Historians are now asking just how unique, how distinctive, is our current condition of an intense interlinking of economies and polities, and we are re-thinking our histories in relation to those of others in the wider world. Braudel first set a framework for thinking about Europe and the wider world in the projects of the Annales School. Global history has returned to those early aspirations, but has taken these in new directions. Global history started during the past ten years with a focus on large scale ecological change, on paradigms of ‘divergence’ and ‘convergence’, or on world networks of trade, capital and peoples. Books such as David Landes’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations and Eric Jones’s The European Miracle threw down the gauntlet of European exceptionalism. Answered by Asia-centred studies such as Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence and Andre Gunder Frank’s Re-Orient, new global frameworks for analysing the roots of industrialization became key questions for the beginning of the Twenty-first Century.

That global agenda for historians has now extended far beyond those fundamental economic issues. History and social theory now focus on concepts of ‘connectedness’ or ‘cosmopolitanism’, of ‘entanglement’ and even ‘ecumenae’; in so doing we seek to identify and assess those connections that impacted on Europe’s and Asia’s cultures and development. But ‘global’ has also become a brand, and it is in danger of losing the vigour of the big questions with which it challenged the postmodernist perspective of the last decade.

‘Europe’s Asian Centuries’ will return to those big questions by addressing the part played by mercantile trade with Asia in the origins of the Industrial Revolution. It will certainly engage with those new perspectives on global connections between Asia and Europe, but it will do so by investigating the products traded, how they were made, marketed and distributed in Asia, en route from Asia and in Europe. It moves the subject beyond the economics of trade flows and the politics of colonial domination to analyse the exchange of material culture and the transmission of knowledge, including that of skills, design and materials. It brings together the study of trade, of consumption and of production. It draws on transnational histories of ideas and material culture, and it sets these alongside the economic histories of different development paths.

The current history of the world economy (whether in recent years of boom or now in recession) is one of China’s and India’s economic ascendance. Europeans’ anxieties about their economic place in the world make it a priority for us to understand the long history of Europe’s connections with Asia. Issues now raised by world recession open new questions about the location of global manufacturing and the fates or prospects of industrial workforces. We cannot now write our histories of Europe’s industrialization without understanding both the extended comparative history of Asia’s economic growth, and the long history of connections between these regions of the world.

The global agendas of my study challenge the established divide between Europe and Asia in our history writing. Its methodological agendas challenge another great divide between economic history on the one hand and cultural and social history on the other. Economic histories of early modern Europe and its colonial empires are still separated off from social and cultural histories of consumption and material cultures. Jan de Vries set out to unite these histories in his concept of the ‘industrious revolution’. His pan-European study connected household behaviour with macro-economic labour and capital markets. De Vries opened the gates of economic history to questions of consumer desire, taste and sentiment that changed households and fostered incentives to large-scale productivity growth. He also linked consumer cultures in Europe to encounters with wider-world material cultures. It is now time to pursue the possibilities he opened up; to connect up those divided histories, to work at the interface of those histories of consumer and material cultures and the big questions asked by economic historians.

Study of consumption, production and world trade must also face another divide: the divide of area studies and of the barriers of imperial, and new imperial histories. The studies we have of world commodity trade lie mainly within the traditional imperial and colonial histories; new imperial histories have focussed on representations and texts, the discourses of empire. With these disjunctures we have also lost the issues which allowed historians to speak across the borderlands of Europe and Asia.

It is time to reinstate these issues by turning to the study of trade and exchange of material cultures. Trade has been analysed as quantitative flows, as commodity chains and as colonial power. Material cultures, in contrast, until recently have been the domain of the museum and of art history. The large volumes of valuable research published in all of these separate areas and in different historiographical traditions across Europe and Asia make it possible now to bring these approaches together, to take stock and to integrate these findings with new global approaches and interdisciplinary methods.

Back to top


Europe’s Asian Centuries’
returns to the big questions of economic and cultural transition by addressing the part played by mercantile trade with Asia in the origins of the Industrial Revolution. It asks the question: Just how did Europe’s pursuit of quality goods turn a pre-modern encounter with precious cargoes into a modern globally-organized trade in Asian export ware? This was a trade to Europe of nearly 5 million pieces of textiles between 1670 and 1760, and over 70 million pieces of porcelain between 1600 and 1800. What did this export-ware sector look like, how did it function and how was it achieved? Why did Asia’s export ware produce both European industrialization and Chinese and Indian displacement, the new great global divide of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

The project will focus on the major manufactured Asian imports, textiles and porcelain, but will also include other manufactures from brass and ironware to paper goods, lacquerware, furnishings and dyes. It will compare and connect European experiences of these goods, and the Chinese and Indian mercantile centres or ‘factories’ from which their production and distribution was organized. It will connect merchants and traders with manufacturers, designers and producers. The investigators will research how merchants, supercargoes (that is voyage and trading managers), East India companies, dealers and manufacturers transformed objects which once entered Europe only as oriental luxuries into an Asian export-ware sector of high-quality consumer products. As manufactures, these Asian consumer goods demanded complex skills, networks of information, communication arteries and nodes of knowledge, production and distribution. There was a large-scale organization of an ‘export ware’ product.

The development of these large-scale export-ware sectors was a Chinese, Indian and wider Asian achievement; it was also stimulated by, intervened in, and redirected by European merchants and companies. Study of these manufacturing and distribution centres has not, however, been connected to Europe’s own industrial development. Instead, Europe’s historians when looking outside their own borders for the sources of economic development have focussed on imports of colonial groceries – sugar, tobacco, tea, coffee and chocolate and the plantation and slave economies which grew these. They have not looked to the interlinking of Asia’s and Europe’s manufacturing economies.

To understand the division of labour, mechanisation and the rise of the factory system in Europe, we need to understand how manufacturing export ware sectors developed in Asia just before and during this period. Focused on delivering designs to meet European tastes, delivering high volumes and responding to new fashion, these export ware sectors met demands for quality, reliability, and standards. They also created a highly-charged competitive atmosphere of trade, product development and invention. We need to recover the Asian origins of the Industrial Revolution.

The project will draw on the secondary sources, the many databases and research expertise on the early Portuguese and Dutch ascendancy in the Asian trade. But the core of the research will focus on the Asian trade in consumer goods of Britain, France, the Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands and Scandinavia as this developed at parallel points especially from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries.

Back to top


The research team on the project will focus on five subject areas.

1. Asian Goods in the Political Economy of Europe

The project team will survey the economic and mercantilist writings on imports of Asian goods, including economic treatises, pamphlets and state and company debates on trade with Asia. We will investigate perceptions of Asian goods in Europe’s improving societies, including colonial and projecting policies. We will explore attitudes to Asian commodities, policies for adapting them, building European markets for them, and ideas on alternative sources of supply or substitute products.

2. Asian Goods and European Consumer Cultures

We now have a strong core of studies of the material culture and consumer practices of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe – studies which demonstrate the deep penetration of Asian-sourced goods into everyday life across Europe – in Holland, the Southern Netherlands, in Britain, in France, in Spain, in Scandinavia, and Central Europe. But we know a great deal less about how these goods passed from ships and warehouses to cupboards and bodies. This theme will also investigate the role of merchants and East India Companies in developing the markets through introducing new practices of sociability as well as retailing and advertising practices.

We aim to investigate how markets in Europe were made for Asian-sourced goods, and to understand how these goods were designed, acquired and distributed in such quantities to enter into the everyday lives of at least one third of the populations of Europe and the Atlantic world. This was a major step in making the industrious revolution that preceded and coincided with the industrial revolution.

3. Asian goods: Making and Distributing

This Asian export-ware sector developed key characteristics of quality, reliability, standard goods and delivery to replace the sporadic appearance of the surprise parcels of the cabinet of curiosities. This was world-class production of fine, but affordable consumer ware, marked by diversity, taste and fashion. This part of the project will investigate the technologies and industrial organization of Indian and Chinese production of export ware, especially those areas of India’s fine chintzes, focussing on the Coromandel coast and Gujarat, and China’s porcelain centre of Jingdezhen, in both cases as these were accessed through European factories in Madras, Negapatnam, Pondicherry, Tranquebar, Surat, and Canton. It will assess European writings and perceptions of these Asian production processes. There is a separate history of the ships, companies and trade which brought these goods to Europe. But this is a history also sub-divided among different European historiographies, maritime and colonial histories. We will connect up these histories to put together a more comprehensive view of how these goods were acquired, and the practices and customs by which they were distributed.

4. Asian Goods and the Transmission of Knowledge

An important part of the research will address the nodes of knowledge exchange, notably those Asian ‘factories’ in Bombay, Madras and Canton, and those in the London metropole, for example the London Customs House and the auction houses. The postdoctoral fellows will investigate parallel nodes for the other European cases. We will study how ships that took 18 months to complete their journeys could fill their orders in their Indian factories and Canton within 4-5 months, meet the special orders of private trade, and respond to fashion demands, and return in time to meet the unyielding demands of the September auctions in London, Lorient, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Where possible we will explore the exchange of knowledge en route through a number of individual experiences of East India Company and private traders. We will also investigate the extent to which sales and auctions became places of research and knowledge transfer among Europe’s new consumer goods manufacturers. French and British cotton manufacturers such as Oberkampf always attended the auctions in Lorient and London; Robert Peel and Samuel Oldknow attended those in London.

5. Asian Export Ware, Industrious Revolution and Industrial Revolution

This section will assess aspirations, successes and failures in connecting consumer goods production in Asia to European demands. It will survey quantitative findings and develop qualitative case studies. It will assess the hypothesis that mercantile trade to China and India underpinned the development of industrious and industrial revolutions in Europe.

The project must be pan-European, drawing on sources from merchants and companies as well as sources on material culture and consumption characteristics. It must also be pan-Asian, drawing on materials on sites of production and of trade and distribution in China and India. It will follow the experiences and writings of individual consumers, producers, merchants and projects. It will, therefore, rely on a team of researchers as well as networks of existing knowledge.

Back to top


A research team is necessary to accomplish this broad European and Asian project. While it draws on the expertise and findings of older generations of national colonial historians and that of more recent historians of India and China, it is also a project developing in the new directions of global history. It will be led by the Principal Investigator who will work with a team of new researchers (3 postdoctoral fellows, one PhD student) who will compare and connect across borders within Europe and also across the divide between Europe and Asia. Each member of the team will produce a monograph or thesis.

The team will:

  1. Conduct a comparative literature survey: drawing together literatures written from singular disciplinary approaches – histories of trade, of colonial domination, of ceramics and textiles specialists, of experts in chemistry and dyestuffs, of art and design historians and of cultural historians.
  2. Develop a knowledge exchange for advice by developing networks of scholars and specialist workshops.
  3. Develop a quantitative data store from existing databases of trade flows. To note discrepancies and to reconcile differences.
  4. Develop a website repository of literature surveys, network and workshop reports, quantitative data sets, and stores of visual sources.
  5. Develop case studies of Asian export ware sectors as these developed in Britain, France and Scandinavia. All developed their Asian textiles and ceramics sectors at a similar time. They will draw on the extensive secondary sources and further primary research on the earlier Dutch case.
  6. Study the September and March company auctions including organization, correspondence, goods sold, dealers attending. Study private and privileged trade.
  7. Sudy factory organization, warehousing and distribution in Asian factory nodes – Madras, Bombay, Negapatnam, Pondicherry, Tranquebar, Canton.

Case studies on Britain will be conducted by the Principal Investigator and a PhD student.

Case studies on the Netherlands, France and Scandinavia (Danish and Swedish East India Companies) to be conducted by three Postdoctoral fellows.

Back to top