Richard Robinson Business History Workshops

4th Biennial 

Richard Robinson Business History Workshop


Capital, Commodities, and Empire:
Doing Business at Long Distance

Portland State University

April 30 - May 2, 2020 | Portland OR



Long-distance business and cross-continental commerce have by nature of their transactional cost required capital investment and logistical forethought that outstripped those of more localized trade, often the model for our understanding of trade relations. Although current scholarship suggests such business and commerce—including the colonial trade of recent empires—often had a relatively small share in the overall activity of the national economies of their countries of origin, there can be little doubt of their disproportionate impact on the modern world’s commercial practices and ideas. Such trade exchanges created new consumer markets and introduced new commodities to existing markets, enabled the circulation of commercial ideas, practices, and people, and engendered new formations and techniques for mitigating risk and elevating profit. At times business people and their guilds and companies acted to spur the growth of empire and military expansion, as in the case of colonial possessions controlled by European joint-stock companies, or that of global energy companies in search of investment protection. At times merchants and their communities were adjuncts of imperial expansion, as in the case of the Central Asian and cross-border Russia-China trade that grew in conjunction to the Qing Empire’s pacification of its frontiers.

This workshop aims to explore the complex and fraught relationship between the investment of capital, the circulation of commodities, and the making and unmaking of empires. This workshop will assemble scholars interested in the social and cultural histories of commerce, trade, and business within colonial, semicolonial, and postcolonial contexts. How have commercial actors, practices, and ideas affected the emergence, extension, and decline of empires? How has business, in turn, been sculpted by the exigencies of long-distance trade and colonial or inter-state relations? We are interested in empires of all sorts: informal as well as formal, non-Western as well as Western, pre-modern as well as modern. We particularly welcome scholar focusing on Africa, Eurasia, and Asia. Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • New commodities: new markets, new tastes, new consumers
  • Diaspora businesses and commercial kinship across continents
  • Trading by sea and by land: fleets and caravans
  • Global banking and finance; international cash transfers; sovereign debt and sovereign debt crises
  • The slave trade and the business of slavery
  • Movement and circulation: business practices, capital and knowledge
  • Techniques and business formations: guilds, merchant associations, insurance, joint-stock companies, multinationals, and other tools of risk management and investment pooling
  • Customs unions, trade agreements, and economic blocs
  • Commercial actors on the move: merchants, tourists, and economic “missionaries”
  • Bringing the global economy back home: trade fairs and colonial expositions
  • What’s in a name? “Eurafrica,” “Eurasia,” and eliding continents
  • Capitalism and imperialism: new interventions in an old debate


Erika-RappaportKeynote Address | Thursday April 30th
Erika Rappaport (University of California Santa Barbara)

 “Aims of Industry”: Big Business and the Fight against Decolonization and Nationalization in Britain and the Commonwealth, 1940s-1960s"
This talk examines how large multinational corporations that had been invested in the manufacture, trade and sale of imperial commodities turned to and to a certain degree invented the new field of public relations during the political crises and transformations of the postwar decades.  In particular, it explores the early history of “Aims of Industry,” a new PR firm started by the sugar, auto and steel industries that actively shaped the political economy and cultural understandings of decolonization between the 1940s and 1970s. 
Papers selected for the workshop will be pre-circulated and discussed in plenary sessions on Friday, May 1 and Saturday, May 2.

Paper proposals, consisting of a one-page CV and a 500-word abstract, should be sent to the workshop organizers, Thomas Luckett (Portland State University), Chia Yin Hsu (Portland State University), and Erika Vause (St. John’s University), at by December 16, 2019. Accepted proposals will be notified by January 15, 2020.

Presenters will receive lodging for three nights and meals, as well as their air travel or other comparable travel to and from the Workshop. There will be no charge for conference registration.


Past Conferences: