Imperial Relations: Families in the British Empire

A conference to be held at the Institute of Historical Research, London
5-6 September 2011

In the past decade, historians have increasingly turned to the family as a key site of imperial processes. This conference aims to bring together local and international scholars working on any aspect of British imperial family history between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Across the British Empire, the family was a social and economic unit at the heart of life. It operated as a site of economic strategy and capital accumulation; shaped identity formation; and structured political, gendered, generational and racialised power relations. By exploring these themes, the conference aims to provoke a conversation about the multiple and complex ways in which the family operated as a critical building block that shaped, enabled, sustained and resisted colonialism in a range of geographic and temporal contexts, from British Columbia to British India. In so doing, the conference aims to facilitate deeper connections and future collaborations between historians interested in different aspects of family history, from the family economies of colonial rule to the social histories of imperial education.

As part of the two-day programme, I will be presenting the following paper:

Affable Failures: Alexander MacAulay, Kin-networks and the Eighteenth-Century Bubble Market

Discussions of Glasgow’s eighteenth-century tobacco trade rely heavily upon early landmark works by Price, Soltow and Devine, who constructed a paradigm of sojourning factors who remained economically and politically loyal to Britain, leaving North America in the wake of the American Revolution and shifting their interests to other British markets. Indeed, the historiography has been particularly homogenous in regard to Scots in the Chesapeake, paying little notice to independent merchants and planter-traders who remain outside this general conception. Yet, the evidence suggests that these independent merchants, appearing late in the colonial period, had begun to develop semi-formal support mechanisms and exhibit a continuity of behaviour that counters the claim that these men were exception that prove a rule.

This paper will present the case of Alexander MacAulay, a merchant in the colonial tobacco-sundries trade, who at first glance acted contrary to wider socio-economic trends by repeatedly joining economic bubbles at their zenith, and remaining in them beyond their viability, only to miraculously obtain new sources of patronage and funding to start the cycle anew. Despite achieving very little success in the colonial tobacco trade, as a wartime military supplier or as an early republic land speculator, MacAulay’s experiences demonstrate how individuals reacted and responded to North America’s rapidly changing eighteenth-century economy and the role that kin networks played in reducing damage from suddenly collapsing markets. Moreover, it will show how MacAulay’s position within his expanding kin-network evolved and how this informal structure stretched, contracted and reshaped in a manner mirroring established British firms operating in colonial North America and the early republic United States. It will argue that his family network, cemented through a series of companionate marriages and enduring male friendships, lent MacAulay a level of flexibility and security in business far beyond that expected of ‘independent’ merchants.

More information about the conference can be found at the event website (

If you are in London area, I hope you will register and share your thoughts the role of family in the British Empire.

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