The Frontiers of Finance is a research project that studies the financial and business history of the British Cape Colony. Funded partially through the South African National Research Foundation, the project examines the emergence of joint stock companies in the Cape Colony and Southern Africa from 1862 onwards.
“The economic historian of the future may assign to the nameless inventor of the principle of limited liability, as applied to trading corporations, a place of honour with Watt and Stephenson, and other pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. The genius of these men produced the means by which man’s command of the natural resources was multiplied many times over; the limited liability company, the means by which huge aggregations of capital required to give effect to their discoveries were collected, organised, and efficiently administered.”
The Economist, London, December 18th 1926.
CAPITALISM AT THE CAPE
The spread of the joint stock company with its multiple shareholders, limited liability and professional managers ushered in a period of rapid growth, globalisation and innovation. By digitising, transcribing and curating the largest joint-stock archive in Africa, this project investigates the emergence of early capitalism at the Cape Colony and Southern Africa from 1862 onwards. The Cape was home to over 3000 limited liability companies operating in multiple sectors and geographies.
We have collected the largest dataset of these early companies at the Cape Colony, of which several survive today. The dataset provides a wealth of information about the formation of early companies, the shareholders that invested in them, articles of association, intellectual property, human capital formation and multinational globalisation during a period in which there was tremendous turbulence and change on many fronts. Linking probate, migration, tax and household records allows us to estimate the scale of capital ingenuity on the financial frontier of Southern Africa.
By bringing together economists, historians, sociologists, genealogists and geographers, the project will systematically explore the links between early capitalism, businesses and the broader context of economic change in Southern Africa.
In 1861, limited liability legislation was introduced in South Africa’s Cape Colony. This provided a framework for the formation of joint-stock companies by means of which individuals could pool capital without ‘betting the farm’. Unbridled by fear of failure or the debtors’ prison, petit capitalists could now partake in the growth of the Colony by means of shareholdings in joint-stock companies. A new equality of capitalism emerged where farmers, clerks, teachers and land owners alike could invest small amounts. A wide range of businesses were formed, which in turn provided dividends for further expansion.
Foreign capital also sought returns in the financial frontiers of Southern Africa, attracting the first wave of multinational corporations and ambitious entrepreneurs. They brought with them extensive knowledge of shipping, engineering, prospecting, manufacturing, trading and farming, yet very little is known about their contribution to the growth of Southern Africa. For the economic historian, the new limited liability legal structure enforced greater statutory reporting requirements, thereby yielding valuable data about the companies, their agents, shareholders and customers.
AIMS OF THE PROJECT
The four core aims of the Frontiers of Finance project are to:
digitise and transcribe the largest collection of limited liability company records available on the African continent.
publish research at the frontier of the field utilising the rich archival material available.
act as a custodian of financial archives and data in Africa and other frontier economies.
promote business history research amongst the next generation of scholars, equipping them with skills from both the economics and history professions.
Ed is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Economics at Stellenbosch University and the principal NRF investigator on the FoF project.
Lloyd Melusi Maphosa
Lloyd is a PhD candidate who is currently completing his dissertation on the emergence of joint-stock companies in the Cape Colony.
Johan is an Associate Professor in Economics at Stellenbosch University and is at the head of the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa Past (LEAP), which is dedicated to researching and teaching quantitative topics in the field of economic history.
Oskar is a senior lecturer in Economic History at Gothenburg University. He has a special interest in financial history.
Cailin is a research assistant on the FoF project, and is completing her Masters dissertation in the History Faculty at Stellenbosch University.
Anton is the Chairperson of the History Faculty at Stellenbosch University and has a special interest in South African business history. He has published widely on topics such as banking.
Christie is a lecturer in Economics at the University of the Western Cape. She publishes widely on the topic of private credit transactions in the Cape Colony during the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Betty is an Honours student in Economics at Stellenbosch University. She is a research assistant and is completing a dissertation in economic history.