How to Run an Empire: Early Modern Style

L.H. Roper

Dr C. Annemieke Romein recently offered a very helpful discussion here of how the habitual misunderstanding and misuse of nineteenth-century characterisations of ‘-isms’ and ‘the state’ continue to obscure our understanding of the nature and history of European government prior to 1789. 

With Dr Romein’s permission and assistance, this post will extend her insightful analysis, to critically reconsider the nature and history of early modern overseas empires and their offshoots.

Can an overseas empire exist without a state?

It seems counter-intuitive, at the least, to consider the history of European overseas trade and colonisation without privileging the role of the state. After all, we habitually think of ‘empire’ in terms of large swaths of a ‘long nineteenth-century’ globe, colour-coded to mark the colonial boundaries set by European nation-states.

Figure 1. Pownall, Thomas,  and Sayer, Robert.  “A new and correct map
of North America with the West India Islands.”  Map.  1777.  
Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center,

Dr Romein and others, however, have overhauled our understanding of how early modern polities functioned. Lacking the bureaucracy and other trappings of modern nation-states—and with no intention of creating such trappings—these ‘dynastic agglomorates’, as John Morrill has characterised them, policed their domains through ‘normative rules’ that rulers and their advisors devised, sometimes in response to petitions in accordance with the reciprocal ideal that bound these hierarchical societies.

The absence of bureaucracy, combined with the weight of ordinary business and factional distractions, meant that these polities customarily delegated responsibility for the conduct of ‘public business’, such as constructing roads and lighthouses, to what we conceive of today as ‘private interests’. Often, this delegation came in response to a proposition brought to advisors from those interests as in the case of Christopher Columbus, or even ex post facto as in the case of the Conquest of Mexico.

Under these circumstances, how did Europeans engaging in overseas trade and colonisation prior to c. 1750 (and even after) go about it? Those engaged in such ventures were always  merchants or aristocrats, members of, as we would call them today, ‘private’ networks.  These actors would almost always pursue their initiatives in some sort of ‘collective’ sense, given the human and fiscal resources required to conduct such enterprises on any sort of scale.

Seeking to legitimise their endeavours, such networks would contact a connection in the government who arranged for the issuance of a licence—if based in the Iberian Peninsula—or a charter affixed with the seal of the Crown or other ultimate authority if in England, France, the Dutch Republic, Denmark-Norway, Sweden, or Brandenburg. Otherwise, they would go ahead and do what they wanted and worry about ‘legitimacy’ afterwards.

A charter, which was often ‘boiler-plate’, confirmed one’s engagement in the public interest by employing mariners, conducting diplomacy overseas, cultivating and important helpful commodities, and ‘peopling’ new domains. Thus, the group received official imprimatur to conduct trade with ‘Guinea’ or ‘the Indies’, to colonise some part of America, or to engage in ‘privateering’.

This arrangement reflected the circumstances of polities that lacked the resources to conduct overseas activities, even if their leadership had the interest and resources to undertake these schemes. Thus, polities only intervened in overseas affairs if and when the parties concerned solicited their involvement.

Forming early modern overseas colonial societies: Anglo-America

Figure 2. Portrait of Martha Washington (1731-1802)

In addition to operating capital, overseas activities required management on the ground. Intercontinental networks exercised responsibility for these remote interests as other authorities, such as bishops of Durham in the English case, or the governor of the Habsburg Netherlands did, but with the additional tier of the recipient of chartered powers between them and the sovereign.

Colonists achieved pre-eminence in their ‘new world’ pretty much in the same way they would have done in the old one, had the opportunity presented itself: through the acquisition of landed estates that constituted the socio-political measure of socio-political status. They also cultivated patrons, both local and metropolitan-based, who assisted their careers and, in turn, attracted their own clients.

This scenario was encouraged through incentives such as ‘freedom dues’ awarded to servants upon the completion of their indentures, and the creation of local institutions such as the Virginia House of Burgesses, created by the Virginia Company in 1619, whereby planters managed local affairs as their counterparts in England did.

A famous difference between the ‘Old World’ and the ‘New’ was the lack of an American titular aristocracy. Nevertheless, an untitled aristocracy certainly emerged in Anglo-America; these ‘colonial-imperialists’ constituted both an elite ‘horizontal connection’ within and across their colonial bases and a ‘vertical connection’ in an imperial sense that bound them and their localities to the Crown as in the case of the Ohio Company (chartered in 1748).

The trans-Atlantic slave trade and the establishment of Anglo-America

All of this has a particular bearing on conceptions of the history of the United States, which is generally considered in terms of ‘modernity’.

It remains a commonplace, even in aftermath of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ in Massachusetts, to regard English North America as a place created by migrants from Northwest Europe, who overcame an alien environment to establish a society that became distinctively—not to say uniquely—devoted to principles of liberty.

Figure 3. Reproduction of a handbill advertising the
auction of enslaved people, 1769.

At the same time, the seemingly paradoxical centrality of the trade in enslaved Africans to the formation of Anglo-America has gained long-overdue and increasing purchase in both academic and public forums in the U.S. and Britain driven, most recently, by the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of African people in Virginia also in 1619. The attendant emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has stressed both the centrality of colonialism to European histories, and the importance of people of African descent, both enslaved and free, in the histories of Britain and other European societies who were involved in the enslavement of Africans as well as in colonial societies such as the United States.

Yet, both the ‘the peculiar institution’ in Virginia, and ‘Pilgrims’—and by extension, the United States—emerged from the wider contexts of the conduct of the trans-Atlantic and inter-colonial slave trades, and the migration of early modern Europeans in response to uncertainty. The crucial connection to the formulation of Anglo-America came from the realization that social, political, and economic success was best guaranteed through the control of slave labour.

Slave Voyages, a database that tracks the trafficking in enslaved Africans in the Americas demonstrates this reality and also makes apparent that Barbados (founded in 1627 pursuant to the pattern described above) constituted both the model and transit point for effecting that model by the 1640s. Thus, no ‘slavery-freedom paradox’ existed for the people connected to the enslavement of Africans in the seventeenth century—other than those enslaved.[1]

L.H. Roper is SUNY Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York—New Paltz (USA). The author or editor of seven books, he most recently edited The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth Century (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2018). He tweets @RoperLou.


[1] The idea that America was created in terms of this paradox derives from the vastly influential book, Edmund S Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: WW Norton, 1975)


Figure 1. Pownall, Thomas,  and Sayer, Robert.  “A new and correct map of North America with the West India Islands.”  Map.  1777.  Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center,  (last accessed 20 July 2020). Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library.

Figure 2. Portrait of Martha Custis Washington as a young woman. Image sourced via Wikimedia Commons (last accessed 20 July 2020) and understood to be in the public domain.

Figure 3. Reproduction of a handbill advertising the auction of enslaved people, 1769. Image sourced via Wikimedia Commons (last accessed 20 July 2020) and understood to be in the public domain.

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