Accumulation and Empire


Over the last two decades histories of imperialism have been invigorated by studies of “circulation”. Through a focus on circulation the webs and networks that enabled flows of people, commodities and ideas around the world have been productively uncovered to reveal the geographies and global interconnections of European empires. Through this fellowship I will argue that the comparatively neglected, yet intimately linked, concept of “accumulation” can have a similar effect on the field. I will develop the concept from its roots in critical political economy so that, as well as the accumulation of capital, it can shed light on the accumulation of ideas, texts, and objects in empires.

For political economists accumulation differs from mere hoarding in that it connotes the acquisition of capital for use in generating further capital. It is this reproductive and self-perpetuating aspect of this conception of accumulation that makes it a useful one for the study of imperialism. While accumulation has already been put to use to study the economic exploitation of colonies, it has analytical purchase for a wider range of imperial processes. The acquisition of objects and texts, and, more abstractly, knowledge and ideas, was central to the functioning of imperial regimes. By understanding these processes of aggregation as forms of accumulation, their dynamics and post-colonial legacies can be better understood.

This project takes as its case study the British Empire and its commercial connections with colonial and independent Myanmar. Using the hitherto under-used oil and timber company records held by the London Metropolitan Archive, the project will explore the histories of imperial accumulation within these collections, while simultaneously conceptualising this archive itself as a product of accumulation.

Project website