Technologies of Trust: Marc Flandreau’s Examination of Financial and Anthropological Knowledge in Victorian Britain

Marc Flandreau. Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Victorian London can be seen as multiple cities at once: the imperial metropole par excellence, where different political visions clashed in the course of establishing and governing the British Empire; the thumping heart of global capitalism, busily circulating capital from one corner of the world to another through its formal securities markets and in private deal-making; and the origin point of the modern network of interconnected “learned societies.”[1] Flandreau, formerly of the University of Geneva and now the Howard Marks Chair of Economic History at the University of Pennsylvania, nimbly navigates the history of these three different Londons in Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange: A Financial History of Victorian Science.

In this study, roughly focused on the period from 1840 to 1880, Flandreau examines how the histories of these three Londons overlapped and influenced each other, and he demonstrates that the influence was not simply a matter of coincidence but rather of direct connections. His book is both a study of the history of knowledge and also a discourse on the uses of knowledge. In the present day, Flandreau suggests, changes in the way that knowledge is organized make it difficult for us to conceptualize connections that seemed natural at the time to the anthropologists, adventurers, financiers, and polymaths he studies. Meanwhile, back in the mid-nineteenth century, some of his actors worked very hard—using a variety of publicity skills that were themselves a form of knowledge—to obscure these connections in order to further schemes that depended on the provision of objective, disinterested knowledge. His study is thus as much an investigation into how modern scholars understand the history of the organization of knowledge as it is a history of knowledge that has at its core an examination of the manipulation of truth, trust, and scientific fact.

Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange   is illustrated with an impressive variety of materials, including drawings, maps, company prospectuses, and graphs. Perhaps the most striking illustration is a chart in the midst of chapter 10, at page 239. Here, Flandreau graphs two similar time series illustrating the swelling and bursting of financial bubbles and invites the reader to see them as two sides of the same coin. One tracks the income of the Anthropological Society of London between 1866 and 1870, the other the market value of Honduras bond certificates from 1870 and 1874. Not only was the same person, a jack-of-all-trades named Hyde Clarke, a prime mover in both collapses but Clarke, surprising as it may seem, engineered the two events using essentially the same bundle of tricks and techniques. In both crises, the successful manipulation of what Flandreau describes as “technologies of trustworthiness” (126) helped shape what people thought they knew and thus how they responded. Such efforts, he argues, were critical components in the emergence of both modern science and the modern capital markets in nineteenth-century London.

For historians of knowledge, Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange  should rewrite understandings of disciplinary histories. While it may be well-accepted that the development of economics and anthropology in the nineteenth century were entwined with the unfolding of European imperialism, Flandreau argues that these disciplinary histories should also be seen as inextricable from each other.[2] Scholars who were integral to what is defined as the emergence of anthropology were also ardent backers of schemes to whip up public interest in purchasing and trading foreign securities, while bankers and others who wrote important tracts of political economy were also invested (literally and metaphorically) in the production of ethnographic knowledge about the territories where they hoped to make money.

Flandreau argues that an important feature of the Victorian era emerged when financiers and scientists first recognized the potential multiplier effect of linking their projects to generate knowledge together. Anthropological knowledge about a particular place was considered imperative to making that location a suitable target for economic investment, while financial commitments in a particular corner of the globe turned that region into a valid site for scientific investigation. Anthropologists provided “the legitimation of science” that led outsider investors to assume that boosters’ financial projects had the sanction of disinterested cultural experts (103). Outright bribes and the more subtle distribution of money for publishing contracts and research junkets helped financiers win the endorsement of foreign projects by learned societies and their leaders (110–11).

Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange  examines several interlinked episodes in the history of British finance, imperialism, and anthropology between the 1840s and 1870s in pursuit of this story. In addition to the rise and fall of the Anthropological Society of London and the establishment of what is now the Royal Anthropological Institute (62–76), these events include attempts in the late 1850s and the 1860s to raise money to build a railroad in the region of eastern Honduras and Nicaragua that British financiers called “Mosquito” (146–88); efforts to respond to the various foreign debt crises that culminated in the creation of an oversight body called the Council of Foreign Bondholders (90–93, 252–69); and the co-optation of scientific knowledge into formal imperialism by the British government.

Flandreau notes that while these events have been depicted in various academic literatures in isolation, or only coincidentally concurrently, a closer examination reveals several individuals who were involved simultaneously in many of these projects. These linkages, Flandreau argues, have been mistakenly treated as “fact[s] to admire rather than as a riddle to solve” (24). It was of great significance, in other words, that the British banker John Lubbock was both a patron of the Anthropological Institute and a leader of the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders, and that Bedford Clapperton Pim, a naval officer who became the primary backer of the Nicaragua Railway Company, also published in geographical journals about Central American volcanoes and launched a career in politics with surreptitious aid from a firm of London bankers.

Thompson, G. (Gilbert), 1839-1909. Map and vertical section of the proposed Honduras Interoceanic Railway (Philadelphia, 1866) by Gilbert Thompson. Source: Map Collections from the University of Texas at Arlington Library, via The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth187374/.

For the historian of knowledge, Flandreau’s contribution lies on two levels. First, he sheds light on the different kinds of information and information-gathering techniques used by anthropologists and other social scientists in the mid-nineteenth century and among financiers, investors, and economists. Anthropologists, for example, used techniques that would now be described as ethnography, material culture study, and so forth. In finance, meanwhile, information was collected about various projects in the form of trade circulars, banking prospectuses, and other forms of documentation (88–89). Both groups, he argues, drew on increasingly global networks. British learned societies depended on their far-flung foreign correspondents (often diplomatic consuls) to send in papers for publication. Financiers and those in their orbit increasingly sent surveyors overseas and established relationships with foreign commercial societies in order to compile and publish various kinds of data intended to produce “a statistical charting of the world” (88) and reassure the public about the safety of its savings.

On another level, Flandreau examines how tracing the use of knowledge can illuminate the porousness between finance and science—between the stock exchange and the learned societies—in the Victorian era and how it was sustained. Flandreau argues that the critical heuristic in both fields was a “stock-exchange modality,” a stance towards knowledge that “has been and is primarily concerned with the problem of valuation” (8). Flandreau argues that anthropologists and stockbrokers used the same kinds of techniques because they were engaged in the same kinds of work. Modern-day techniques for the promotion, verification, or refutation of social scientific knowledge, in other words, grew out of practices linked to the mores of the stock exchange. The adoption of these techniques in the arena of social science, in turn, imbued them with intellectual legitimacy, which validated a further stage of their adaptation in the world of finance, setting in motion a vicious or virtuous cycle (depending on one’s viewpoint) that continued so long as the difference between the two arenas had not been firmly established.

At the core of the stock-exchange modality were the rituals of sociability that established an individual as a provider of “bona fide” information and constituted the techniques of “puffing” used to make a broader public aware of expert findings. These practices were necessary to transform gathered information into trusted, credible knowledge that could be used as the basis for action on future research projects or investment decisions. In the worlds of learned societies and finance alike, the prestige tied to these practices was also deeply rooted in British class prejudice. Only individuals with the right social background were assumed to have the requisite intelligence to undertake intellectual investigations and thus deserve access to society publications and meetings in order to communicate their findings to the broader educated public. It was likewise assumed among bankers and the respectable public that men who met a “gentlemanly” standard of behavior could be trusted to keep the promises they made publicly at shareholders’ meetings and published in investment prospectuses.[3] This standard, however, enabled well-mannered swindlers to fleece the gullible of their money and abscond. Thus, “reiteration and exhortations to adhere to gentlemanliness” in the period “best attest to the failure of gentlemanliness as a way of being” (130).

Scholars of Victorian science and finance, Flandreau suggests, have been too caught up in the self-serving rhetoric of gentlemanly science and capitalism. Instead, Flandreau suggests that it is more fruitful to focus on the “technologies of trustworthiness” that were used to establish an individual as a credible purveyor of information. Knowing how to stage a company directors’ meeting or the annual gathering of a learned society drew on similar kinds of skills, and these events were often managed by the very same people.

Flandreau argues that following the use of knowledge can shed light on important subjects in British financial, scientific, and imperial history. He notes that “colonial policy was shaped very early on by learned societies” (212), which provided the intellectual infrastructure for the development of scientific racism and a venue for its perpetuation in service of various financial projects in Britain’s imperial domains. The floating of foreign financial ventures, Flandreau suggests, usually depended more on the promoter’s hopes of making a quick profit on selling shares to a gullible and greedy public than on the sober evaluation of the likelihood of completing a particular project or the realistic projection of a country’s ability to service the debt it took on. When such financial projects failed, however, bankers, by “controlling the flow of information,” managed to evade accountability for their poor choices. Instead, they used the language of anthropological science, “mapp[ing] credit and creditworthiness to the traits of borrowers” in order to argue that credit default exposed innate racial unfitness—“and race thus became naturally the concept of choice to discuss creditworthiness” (79).

Precisely because such arguments could be moved from the realm of financial disputes into the moral realm of empirically derived science, scientific racism could become a kind of knowledge that had the capacity to transcend British disputes over foreign debt and become available to other imperial powers seeking to define their mutual interest in the maintenance of “the color line.” Whereas scholars such as Emily Rosenberg and Peter Hudson have shown how twentieth-century financiers used contemporaneous ideas about “primitivism” and supposed differences in racial capacity to justify exploitative financial deals in Latin America and the Caribbean, Flandreau argues that many features of scientific racism grew directly out of efforts to justify particular financial entanglements.[4]

The extent to which the mechanisms of authority in both anthropology and finance depended on the subjective evaluation of character, and the even more subjective evaluation of reputation, have the potential to trouble each field’s modern-day understanding of itself and its intellectual history. Financiers and economists who cling to the hypothesis of efficient markets might be surprised to learn that securities pricing in the unregulated Victorian era depended more on a savvy public relations strategy rather than the wisdom of crowds about the future trajectory of the economy. Social scientists, on the other hand, might be worried by the idea that the establishment of the pantheon of early anthropologists may owe more to their social networks than their actual intellectual contributions to the discipline’s development.

In total, Flandreau’s provocative book opens a window into a methodology for using the history of knowledge to study a variety of fields—including not only the social and natural sciences but also imperialism and economics. If one of the important aspects in the propagation of knowledge was the performance of rituals of truth-telling (276), looking ahead, historians of knowledge might examine how “performance” was transmuted into the print culture of peer-reviewed academic journals and of accountant-certified corporate annual reports.

Anthropologists in the Stock Exchange  illustrates the importance of examining how   knowledge is shared within existing communities of practitioners and with a larger public of interested observers. At the same time, though vivaciously written, Flandreau’s selection of heretofore seemingly unconnected topics might make it difficult for some readers to find their way into the heart of the argument. The organization of the book—which begins with a preface, acknowledgments, an introduction, and then a first chapter in which Flandreau muses that “writing about the marginal or the interstitial is theoretically possible but very costly” (28)—shows the author himself wrestling openly with this challenge. Yet the reader will be rewarded with a story that leads in many fascinating directions and offers rich food for thought.

Atiba Pertilla holds a PhD in history and is a digital editor at the GHI Washington DC.


  1. For an overview of these multiple Londons, see Jonathan Schneer, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).  ↩
  2. In a similar vein, Robert Vitalis has argued that the appearance of political science in American universities was bound up with the question of “marshal the country’s burgeoning intellectual resources in support of the expanded empire” in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. See Robert Vitalis, “The Noble American Science of Imperial Relations and Its Laws of Race Development,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, no. 4 (2010): 909–938, quote 910.  ↩
  3. See George Robb, White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845–1929 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), esp. 94–146.  ↩
  4. Emily Rosenberg, Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy, 1900–1930 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Peter Hudson, Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).  ↩
Suggested citation: Atiba Pertilla, “Technologies of Trust: Marc Flandreau’s Examination of Financial and Anthropological Knowledge in Victorian Britain,” History of Knowledge, August 30, 2017, https://historyofknowledge.net/2017/08/30/technologies-of-trust/.