Approaching Public Engagement: Sharing Early Modern Women in a ‘Plus One’ World

This post comes from Gina G. Bennett, a fourth year doctoral student of Transatlantic History at The University of Texas at Arlington. Her dissertation, under the direction of Dr. Kenyon Zimmer, will focus on the influence of women and the degree to which they participated as migrators, producers, labourers, and investors for The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies in the transatlantic world in the early modern era. She holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in History from Texas A & M – Commerce.  Follow her on WordPress: or Twitter: @GinaGBennett


Gina G. Bennet (The University of Texas at Arlington)

Like many readers of the Gender and Work in Early Modern Europe blog, we each are occasionally called to step beyond conferences, lecture halls, and speak outside academia. Often these events take place at a museum or civic building and often include a meal.  People of two sorts are in attendance, the ones choosing to attend and the extra person who comes along as a favor to the first.  This unsuspecting person, a “plus one” on the RSVP card, is possibly less than eager to attend.  Let us call this place where they gather together a  “plus one” space.   Here, history is learned in a more casual way.  There is a reward in winning over the plus ones in this group.  I always jump at the chance to share my research on seventeenth-century Scottish women operating within the transatlantic world with anyone.  But I must admit that sometimes the occasion is a mixture of three parts elation and one part fear.  So let me share with you a compilation of questions that have surfaced from time to time after various presentations of Scotland’s transatlantic colonial venture in a plus one setting described above.

It generally goes something like this: first, after I explain how Scotland attempted to set up a colony in Panama in the 1690s the audience usually are surprised that a Scottish colony was attempted at all.  Mind you, I am an American living in the Southwest so the general knowledge of Scottish history is sparse and often based on geographic archetypical stereotypes. Secondly, someone usually asks, “Why Panama?” Here I can briefly touch on the history of Nova Scotia, sundry navigation acts, throne changes in the seventeenth century, and the overarching drive for status, goods, and revenue related to colonization.  Audiences seem most fascinated by the details of the individual Scottish women that I study, many of whom are central actors in my dissertation research.  They ask questions about these women’s lives and the listener’s faces reflect the intermingling of this new information meshing with their own understanding of early modern life.

Finally, a plus one, perhaps more cynical than the rest, raises their hand to ask, (get ready for that fear part, I mentioned earlier…) “Didn’t these women just take their husband’s money and invest it under their own name?”  I pause, smile for a moment, and jog my memory to pull more nuggets from the Darien documents to help further strengthen my case, hoping to sway the listener to my understanding of the sources. I know full well they potentially speak for other, less courageous, plus ones in the room.

I offer up the case of Andrew Urie and his daughters to explain that, yes, some purchased shares of the Scottish Company Trading to Africa and the Indies. This former minister of Muiravonside purchased £200 stock in the Company, and envisioning the return would provide an extra measure of comfort to his remaining years.  He also intended that his daughters, Anna and Elizabeth, should benefit from his speculation in the Company.[1]  History, in hindsight, assures us that the nest egg he dreamt of for himself and his daughters was less than desired.

More often than not, however, women acted as their own agents to economically support the venture.  Margaret Adamson saw a benefit in investing £100 Scots sterling. She acted independently of a spouse or father and the Darien ledgers record her as “eldest lawful daughter to deceased Patrick Adamson, Merchant at Kelso.”[2]  Elite women like Duchess Anne, who is renowned as the first in line to subscribe to the venture, pledging £3,000, in Mrs. Purdie’s coffeehouse in 1696.[3]

Clerks registered women providing services and merchandise needed to facilitate colonization to Panama. In August 1699, while Scottish colonists attempted to survive the Caribbean heat, entrepreneur Janet Weir closed a rather large business transaction with the Company, furnishing a long list of items, numbering over 1,000 items in total.  Thirty dozen ram horn spoons were so integral to the venture that even though the company could purchase less expensive (and perhaps lesser quality) spoons from James Witherspoon to make up the sixty-seven dozen that they required, the Directors opted to purchase 360 spoons from Weir. She was contractually obligated to, and financially rewarded by, the Company for her efforts. Weir’s trenchers, bowls, platters, and tumblers were so crucial that the Company hired a wagon, employed laborers to pack her goods, and transported the needed gear from Dougalson to the Glasgow port at their expense.[4]  Though Janet Weir never crossed the Atlantic, her merchandise made its way across the ocean to Panama.

A portion of goods provided by Ware or Weir
Image 1: A portion of goods provided by Ware/Weir (National Library of Scotland, Darien Papers, Adv.Ms.83.4.3)Enter a caption


ledger entry of Weirs goods
Image 2: A ledger entry reveals the logistics and expense of transporting Weir’s goods to Glasgow’s port. (National Library of Scotland Darien Papers, Adv.Ms. 83.4.3.)


Returning to my office after the presentation I was troubled by the possibility that a presentist perspective of women’s roles in society today, emerging from in the mid-twentieth century, are a roadblock to a more authentic understanding of women acting in history in the early modern era. It is as if the 1950s holds so much traction on the imagination today that there is no room to trust the written words of a clerk in Glasgow in the 1690s when he recorded women working and earning first hand.  Catterall and Campbell express the need to realign perspectives that “early modern Europe hardly represented a patriarchal monolith” despite the will of many to make it so.[5]  Historians of the early modern era are presented with fresh opportunities to reach the plus ones. Public history venues are useful spaces to broaden the context of women working in the earliest decades of the modern era.  Where can we each broaden our audience to include and inform in the ‘plus one’ space? Perhaps sharing our ‘plus one’ presentation experiences are useful tools for our peers.  What are some of the patriarchal monoliths encountered in your field?





[1] The Company Trading to Africa and the Indies, Darien Papers, Subscription Book: Lists of Subscribers of Capital with Signatures, 1696 (Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 2008), microfilm, 83.1.1.

[2] Darien Papers, Register of Share Transfers, with Signatures, 1697-1707, microfilm, 83.2.2.

[3] John Prebble, The Darien Disaster, (Great Britain: Pimlico), 58; George Insh, The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies (London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), 65.

[4] Darien Papers, Register of Share Transfers, with Signatures, 1697-1707, microfilm, 83.4.2.

[5] Douglas Catterall and Jodi Campbell “ Mother Courage and Her Sisters:  Women’s Worlds in the Premodern Atlantic” in Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500-1800 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 5.

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