Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2024-2025)


In the 17th century, the opening of trade routes between England, the New World, the African Continent and India led to an ever-growing supply of new luxury goods from the colonies. With this came the need for a larger labor force working to supply these goods. 

Starting 1619, the City of London agreed to supply the Virginia Company, operating in North America, with labor by detaining and paying for the transport of hundreds of “vagrant” children to the New World as indentured servants. At the same time, the Viginia Company hired popular Puritan ministers to represent the new colony of Virginia as a landscape where the undesirable and “poor” of London could be turned into productive laborers and eventual colonists. These ministers also organized schools to convert Native Americans to Christianity and to work for the colony.

Except in a few well-documented cases, the lives of the children that were forced to migrate and their demographic make-up have not yet been studied. There is a gap in understanding the early aims of the English overseas expansion, in particular the justifications for forced servitude in Virginia for English and Native children as well as enslaved Africans. 

Project Description

This project traces how the discourse of commercial consumption and the labor needed to sustain Early Modern Markets is presented in the pamphlets, sermons and meeting records produced for and responding to the English Trading Companies. 

Since 2021, the team has been applying supervised machine learning techniques to Early Modern texts to explore premodern views of “ethical consumption” and global market relationships. For example, in 2023-2024, the team used sentiment analysis, topic modeling and word embeddings to examine how early modern writers responded to shifts in trade and consumption in their efforts to care for the “body politic.” 

In 2024-2025, team members will use two computational methods to analyze how the English trading companies and the ministers working with them promoted the forced migration of indentured children to the New World and the proselytization of Native American people. The team will adapt natural language processing (NLP) methods to digitized Early Modern texts found in archival databases. They will also use R-based Geographic Information System (GIS) tools to visualize supporting demographic data. 

The team’s primary goal will be to create an interactive map of the forced migration of “vagrant” children to the New World to serve as a public research aid. Team members will also conduct hands-on research in the Duke Library archives, hear from guest speakers in the humanities and visit archival resources at other universities.

Anticipated Outputs

Interactive map visualizing the forced migration of indentured children; conference papers and presentations

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 8 undergraduate students representing a mix of STEM and humanities disciplines. Undergraduate students with majors in computer science, statistics, math, English and history may be particularly interested. Graduate students with an interest in computational work are also encouraged to apply.  

Team members will gain traditional literary and historical skills (working with archival materials) and learn how these skills can be paired with Natural Language Processing approaches and other forms of data analysis. They will develop close relationships with faculty and other student team members. All students will travel to the University of Virginia to work with its archival resources. Students may also have the opportunity to present at a conference.

Emily Gephardt will serve as project manager.

See the related Data+ project for Summer 2024; there is a separate application process for students who are interested in this optional component.


  • Summer 2024 (optional): Complete Data+ work (separate application)
  • Fall 2024: Learn to work with archival materials; further computational analysis; visit the archival resources at the University of Virginia; prepare proposal for conference presentation 
  • Spring 2025: Finish conducting research; learn to write a conference paper; expand existing website; focusing on mapping demographic data


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See related Data+ summer project, Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2024), and earlier related team, Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2023-2024).


Map of land granted to the Virginia Company by the charter of 1609, according to the terms of the charter and current geographical knowledge, by anonymous cartographer, A History of the United States for Schools, 1919, public domain

Map of land granted to the Virginia Company by the charter of 1609

Team Leaders

  • Astrid Giugni, Arts & Sciences-English
  • Jessica Hines, Birmingham-Southern College

/graduate Team Members

  • Emily Gebhardt, History-PHD

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Katherine Collins, Duke Libraries

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Mairin Odle, Department of American Studies, The University of Alabama