The English East India Company and Dutch United East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) have been central to recent historical understandings of the ‘global turn’. Both companies moved swiftly from their foundational purpose in the early 17th century to trade ‘beyond the Cape of Good Hope’ towards violent colonial conquest, the aggressive establishment and protection of trade monopolies, and the controlled movement of free and enslaved peoples. Recent studies have emphasised the non-linearity of these changes, drawing attention to the importance of cross-cultural interactions, indigenous agency, and the need to situate the local back into these transnational histories. The ‘world’ which these changes created, however, has largely been understood through the lens of male experience. Unlike the simultaneously-emerging ‘Atlantic World’ - where correspondence, diaries, and legal records written about and by women as part of a wider migratory experience have survived in greater quantity – the relative paucity of women’s writing and presence within and across these Companies’ operations has meant that such spaces remain essentially male in the historical imagination.
In this paper, I will employ three interpretations of ‘seeing’ to interrogate the essential ‘male-ness’ of these spaces: first, the historiographical mode of ‘seeing’ which has privileged archival engagement and narratives which are often blind to women’s presence in these spaces; second, institutional ‘seeing’ in the form of Company record-keeping, litigation, and control which kept women at the margins of these stories; and finally, through discussion of rare first-hand accounts by women in the early-18th century, what women ‘saw’ and ‘didn’t see’ when their voice appears in the historical record: their embodied experiences, emotional rhythms, and emergent conceptions of race. In doing so, I aim to complicate the gendering of these emergent global spaces beyond the Atlantic by centring the experiences of women travelling across them.
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