Trade

This is a term that recurs across museum exhibits describing historical relationships of economics, exchange and acquisition. However, the use of the term in museums to signal the commercial and cultural histories (and contemporary realities) of the Empire is somewhat disingenuous. Used without more detailed context, the term obfuscates inequitable power relations between coloniser and colonised, the unequal nature of which formed the basis of economic extraction on which colonial might was predicated. The term ‘trade’ implies parties of an equal standing mutually exchanging goods, services or resources, however, as we know, this was not usually the case. 

Despite this, it is also important to remember the agency that colonised peoples did manoeuvre and exert within these contexts of unevenly weighted power relations. It is certainly the case that colonised peoples engaged in cultural, economic and labour-based mutual exchanges, however these pockets of agential navigation are relatively infrequent occurrences within the wider landscape of an over-arching exploitative system. The term ‘trade’ simplifies the power relationships underscoring these, creating a narrative of false equivalence that contributes to the myth of benevolent imperialism.

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