“The chartered companies active in Africa had an extraordinary impact on both African and European societies and economies. I am focusing on the position of director of a colonial/charter company to answer a key question: Is there a distinct ‘directorial authority’? ,” said Cătălin Avramescu of the Department of Political Science at the University of Bucharest. “I believe that the influence of the organisational culture of the colonial companies on the development of modern political theory is profound. The conceptions of modern executive authority have been shaped by the governance of the colonial companies.”
“History has focused on kings, emperors and republics. Directors have been overlooked by political theorists to some extent. The historical studies and theories that exist lack theoretical depth. This is an attempt to breach that divide.”
“Numerous theories are used to justify/legitimise modern executive authority,” he continued. “The goal of my research is to escape narrow interpretations and to come up with a global history – bringing together threads from different parts of the world to show how this has shaped modern executive presidencies.”
“I hope to advance a new interpretation of the history of the formation of ideas and institutions of the executive branch of government,” he said. “The working hypothesis is that the rise of a strong executive in the political culture and theories of the 17th and 18th centuries is connected to the theorising and functioning of the office of director of colonial/chartered companies. During my fellowship at STIAS my plan is to concentrate on the governance of the African chartered companies. This research will enhance our understanding of an important chapter in the development of political theory and offer new insights on the nature and functioning of the executive in the modern world.”
“Mapping the transformation and substance of executive authority is at the core of the project.”
Avramescu pointed out that most work in this area has focused on understanding the office of the US President. “But, in fact, the position was created and custom made for one individual – George Washington. Some considered it a reflection of the British monarchy, in fact it was strongly influenced by the New York Constitution which was unlike that of other colonies in that it did not provide for a strong executive.”
“The rise of the US Presidency must be seen in this context; it was a global not merely US phenomenon,” he added.
Confusing terms and roles
Both the English East India and Dutch East India Companies were headed by directors who were then called either governors or director/director general. In the colonial context the meaning of the terms varied substantially. Responsibilities also varied. “The position of director was managerial (like a modern CEO) with responsibility for personnel, money and merchandise but, at the same time, they were political actors often amassing mindboggling authority including being the head of the army and navy, responsible for developing laws and administering justice, and in charge of diplomatic relations. Their power was quite similar to that of European sovereigns.”
“Colonial government was not just about managing distant territories but was often based on the structure of authority of the mother country.”
Many of these companies were originally chartered by royalty so the link between mercantilism and political authority was inevitable.
Avramescu has traced the emergence of the director as governor terminology from the 17th century. “Some of the initial companies then folded in the 18th century with Africa being the exception with a new breed of companies like the Imperial British East Africa Company in Kenya and Tanzania, the Royal Niger Company in Central Africa and the British South African Company developing in territories that later became independent.”
According to Avramescu, the change in the business model in many of these colonies to extraction – mining – also changed the relationships. “The nature of the goods and markets impacts the nature of the government,” he said.
Contemporary theories on the nature of the supreme executive were complex and often hotly debated. “Adam Smith, for example, voiced his opposition to the idea of governments of merchants and his suspicion about monopolists in The Wealth of Nations in 1776.”
The link and power dynamic between director/governor positions and later presidents further complicated things with such titles sometimes consolidated in one individual or part of attempts at independence – such as in the Boer Republics in South Africa. In some cases the position of director remained the supreme political authority and the president had little executive authority.
“Fast and loose relations of domination were the reality of colonial governments,” said Avramescu. “This would have been the vision of a small, select group of gentlemen in the colonising country. The state apparatus was not distinct from that of the company, the difference between state and private was not clear cut, and there was an overlap between kingly and merchant authority.”
He also pointed out that it is important to understand that people of the 17th and 18th centuries did not behave according to modern electoral standards. “People at large didn’t elect anything. Colonial directors were elected by boards or assemblies which were small by our standards. The US President is elected by an electoral college, not directly by the people. This was the expectation.”
He also acknowledged that the role of the colonial peoples in all of this hasn’t been sufficiently examined. “Power structures were debated at an imperial level – very much Europeans clashing with other Europeans.”
He believes it’s important to fully understand the role of colonial companies in the formation of the modern political order as well as the ongoing impact of business interests in contemporary politics.
“No modern democracy can exclude money. Campaigns are financed by obscene amounts of money. Money plays a role in contemporary democracy whether we like it or not.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw