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The Genesis of Informal Empires, 1415-1776


Admission requirements

BSA norm and a pass for both first year Themacolleges.


This course looks into the detailed actions of free agents when opposing colonial monopolies (territorial, economic, religious) during the Early Modern period and the way central states and monopolies reacted to this defiance. The actions of free agents will be considered within three categories: opposition (illegality, defiance and litigation), cooperation (shareholding, lobbying and subcontracting) and appropriation/representation (working for the colonial monopolies within the colonial administration, the army or religious missions). These processes of opposition, cooperation and appropriation/representation led to the construction of informal empires characterized by being borderless, self-organized, cross-cultural, multi-ethnic, pluri-national and stateless.

Even if states and colonial monopolies were permanently challenged, they did not stand idle against the actions of the free agents. The empire stroke back by using punitive actions (punishment of illegality, of conspiracies and political/religious subversion), collaborative endeavors (through the gathering of capital, contracting knowledge and allow for influencing political decision making) and incorporative actions (contracting personnel, institutionalizing monopolies and ask for consultancy/advice). The outcome of the state’s measures against free agency determined the limits of the formal empire with a clear territorial definition, institutionally organized, sectorial mono-culturalism, multi-ethnic, pluri-national and part and parcel of a process of central state building, as the formal empire became an extension of the state.

This course is part of a trilogy of BA courses (Fighting Monopolies, Defying Empires; The Genesis of Informal Empires and Religion and Trade in the Construction of Empire) and one MA Research Seminar (A Tale of Cross-Culturalism) dedicated to the study of the underestimated role of free entrepreneurship and agency in Early Modern economies and societies. Thematically the BA-course is linked to the Kerncollege ‘Global Connections’.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

    1. carry out a common assignment
    1. divise and conduct research of limited scope, including
      a. searching, selecting and ordering relevant literature:
      b. organising and using relatively large amounts of information:
      c. an analysis of a scholarly debate:
      d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.
    1. reflect on the primary sources on which the scholarly literature is based;
    1. write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the Themacolleges, including
      a. using a realistic schedule of work;
      b. formulating a research question and subquestions;
      c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
      d. giving and receiving feedback;
      e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.
    1. participate in discussions during class.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

    1. The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically of
    • in the specialisation Economic History the worldwide interaction of trading networks in the early modern period.
    • in the specialisation Social History the explanation(s) of differences between groups from a comparative perspective (local, regional or international; of class, gender, ethnicity and religion) and the role of individuals, groups, companies and (intenational) organisations (including churches) in processes of inclusion and exclusion from ca. 1400 to 1800.
    1. Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialisation, more specifically of
    • in the specialisation Economic History the use of economic concepts in history writing and insight in the interaction between policy and economy; the use of both qualitative and quantitative sources;
    • in the specialisation Social History the application of concepts from the social sciences and the acquisition of insight in the interaction in social processes ased on research in both qualitative and quantitative sources.
  • Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar*

    1. Knowledge and discussion of the theoretical premises of New Institutional Economics applied to the Early Modern World
    1. Knowledge and discussion of the theoretical premises of Social Network Theory
    1. Application of the principles of Social Network Theory to multi-ethnic, pluri-lingual, cross-religious and multi-gendered business networks worldwide during the Early Modern period
    1. Determine the relationship and causality between Early Modern mercantile business models an aspects such as religion, distance and cultural diversity


See Rooster Geschiedenis (in Dutch)

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load is 10 ec x 28 hours = 280 hours:

  • Tutorials 2 hours weekly for 13 weeks: 26 hours;

  • Oral presentations (preparation and presentation): 10 hours

  • Compulsory literature: 70 hours

  • Search literature: 20 hours

  • Study of specific literature for essay: 100 hours

  • Writing essay: 30 hours

  • Feedback session to fellow students: 24 hours.

Assessment method

  • Written paper (ca. 6000 words, based on historiography, including footnotes and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 2-4, 8-11

  • Oral presentation
    Measured learning objectives: 3-4, 8-11

  • Participation
    Measured learning objectives: 1, 5, 6-7

Written paper: 70%
Oral presentation: 15%
Participation: 15%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average combined with the additional requirement that the essay has to be sufficient.

Written papers should be handed in within the given deadline

The written paper can be revised, when marked insufficient. Revision should be carried out within the given deadline



Reading list

Xabier Lamikiz, Trade and Trust in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World: Spanish Merchants and their Overseas Networks, Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society/Boydell Press, 2010 (paperback edition 2013).

Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, A Nation upon the Ocean Sea, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Specific literature pertaining each session will be provided in the introductory session.


Via uSis

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


mr. K.H. (Kaarle) Wirta MA
ms. J.M. (Julie) Svalastog MA


Not applicable.