Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Challenging monopolies, building global empires in the early modern period

How did free agents in the Dutch Republic react to the creation of colonial monopolies (VOC and WIC) by the States-General? This project answers this question by looking at the role individuals played in the construction of an informal global empire parallel to the institutional empire devised by the States General and enabled by the chartered monopolies.

2012 - 2016
Catia Antunes

Even though traditional historiography underlines the role institutionalized monopolies played in building empires, the paper trail produced by central states, colonial administrations, commercial Companies and notaries reveal an alternative narrative of empire. Even though commercial monopolies were the cornerstone of empire building during most of the Early Modern period, monopolies were permanently challenged, adjudicated, rented out, co-opted or simply hijacked by free agents (the Spanish asientos, the Portuguese contractos, the English East India Company or the French royal monopolies and Companies are cases in point).

Free agents came into conflict with the Companies from the very beginning of the monopolies. We hypothesize that the interactions between free agents and the Companies took different forms, from open conflict, to cooperation and, at times, even representation resulting in an informal empire.

The informal empire brought about by the individual choices of free agents and their networks was a borderless, self-organized, often cross-cultural, multi-ethnic, pluri-national and stateless world that can only be characterized as global. How does the Dutch experience of informal empire building compare to the same sort of process taking place in Portugal, Spain, England and France? This comparative approach will bring to the fore the extent to which Dutch empire building followed general Early Modern trends. It will also analyze what those trends mean for our broader understanding of empire building, in general, as an aspect of state formation/centralization and the transition from an Early Modern into a Modern society.


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