UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Information as politics in turbulent times : colonial government and the councils of trade and plantations, 1660-1696 Tomar, Balie


In contrast to human judgement, which is fallible and inscrutable, numbers claim to speak for themselves and therefore reduce the potential for disagreement and conflict. Scholars have argued that quantification, as a method for achieving objectivity, emerges most often in situations of distance and distrust. In addition to distance and distrust, this thesis examines the use of quantification in the councils of trade and plantations in seventeenth century England to argue that the desire for economic stability also facilitates the emergence of objectivity. By the middle of the seventeenth century, England’s continuing civil wars were proving to be an impediment to England’s nascent commercial empire. As a result, colonial merchants and statesmen such as Thomas Povey and Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, proposed that a separate government based on the use of quantification and information be established for the colonies to keep both domestic and colonial politics from disrupting the seamless management of trade for the wealth and welfare of England. I argue that this body of government represents the emergence of a regime of quantification based on the desire to stabilize the economic domain and shelter it from the value-ridden and unpredictable domain of politics. I first show how the councils for trade and plantations were set up in the tradition of information collection and analysis, specifically that of political arithmetic, that had developed amongst English scientific and social reformers. I argue that the nature of information, as developed by reformers like Francis Bacon and Samuel Hartlib, allowed for the separation of the act of collection from the act of analysis and reserved judgement for those at the top of the information hierarchy. Using the example of Barbados, I show how this ‘objective’ information, as deployed by the councils for trade and plantations, became a tool for effacing political judgement and for transforming political problems into administrative ones. Ultimately, I argue that the regime of quantification and information that allowed for the separation of politics from economic management in colonial government prefigures the separation between economy and society that defines our contemporary political-economy.

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