This week we hosted Andrew Fitzmaurice and Stephen Press, both interested in the recognition of the Congo Free State at the Berlin Conference. Both acknowledged this moment as the “resurrection” of corporate sovereignty after a long period of dormancy under liberalism. Press came to the question from an interest in German imperialism and in why the carve-up of Africa had happened so suddenly and at the time it did. Fitzmaurice was somewhat less articulate on what brought him to the Berlin Conference in speech than he had been in writing, where he had endorsed a personalistic approach to intellectual history incorporating insights from cultural history and from the tools of biography. His loss of articulation largely had to do with the intellectual developments associated with his most recent paper, which centered the downfall of Sir Travers Twiss’s wife almost to the exclusion of other causal possibilities in Fitzmaurice’s account of Twiss’s 180-degree turn on the corporate sovereignty question in the years leading up to his work with Leopold at the Conference. Although Fitzmaurice couched his interest in Lady Twiss in the standard vocabulary of gender history, there was also a weird moralistic overtone to his argument. The Twisses had taken advantage of a “liberal moment” and they had failed, Lady Twiss essentially sold to Leopold and confined for life, just as the Congo Free State had ended in mass violence. Yet there are two conflicting definitions of liberalism operative in Fitzmaurice’s account. One is the liberalism which had prioritized states, reducing corporations to Hobbesian parasites, until the Conference. The other is the Victorian interest in self-formation and meritocracy correlative with the elevation of the middle class. The common factor might be the civil service, but too many steps are missing for this to be confirmed or denied.
This was further complicated by Fitzmaurice’s major piece of evidence for Lady Twiss’s instrumental role in her husband’s change of commitment being the fact that the latter had spent much of his premarital career arguing for “third-world” inclusion in international society. Is this not another kind of liberalism, and furthermore one more reflective of the Victorian Pygmalion complex than his Leopoldine turn? Press’s account of corporate sovereignty, meanwhile, drifted away from questions of corporate personhood, the carve-up of Africa formulated as a neo-mercantilism inspired by that of the United States, corporations only as important as they had been in the first mercantilism, and as malleable and dependent as the EIC had been. Despite widespread suspicion of the corporate arrangement on the ground at home, the corporate-state symbiosis attained in the early twentieth century still models today’s diamond extraction. Fitzmaurice and Press’s accounts of anticorporate rhetoric at home tended to converge – Fitzmaurice’s “monstrous heresy” and Press’s “money for nothing” – but as our fearless leaders, Phil and Rachel, intimated soon thereafter, there was not much historicization of the theories behind this suspicion. Possible French origins were mentioned and dropped. And whether either historian endorsed this brand of moralism remained unclear. In response to Phil’s call for explicit moral stances, Press said that he personally found state-corporate devolution sinister but hedged that it is often popular with the colonized or neo-colonized, while Fitzmaurice called vaguely for transparency for institutions in general. Rachel’s question about private arbitration vs. public jurisdiction was never answered. This set of problems flared up again toward the very end in the context of James Chappel’s question about the mass violence inherent in imperialism and others about the moral presumptions of the mission civilizatrice, but Fitzmaurice and Press addressed these noncommittally. Perhaps inevitably, most of Press’s answers relapsed into German institutional history and most of Fitzmaurice’s into his own brand of cultural and gender history, which often came alarmingly close to taking Lady Twiss’s case synecdochically for feminism or gender concerns. The personal may be political, but in some ways Fitzmaurice was not personal enough, alluding to Victorian preoccupations in terms of zeitgeist without explaining the situation faced by the Twisses on the ground (the exception being how they pulled off their marriage legally), partly because the archival material on Lady Twiss is so scant. Press, conversely, was strongest on individual agency vis-à-vis preexisting norms, for example in his account of Oppenheimer’s takeover of de Beers or in that of Brooke’s negotiation of the laws of Brunei. These accounts came closer to answering Fitzmaurice’s call for an intellectual history which foregrounds the personal than did Fitzmaurice’s own account of the Twisses.