Empires, Privateering and the Sea: Reconceptualizing Early Modern Colonialism

Benjamin de Carvalho, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI)
Halvard Leira, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI)

Our paper aims to offer a novel framework for historical and comparative inquiry into the emergence of overseas empires by taking into account the importance of forms of seaborne violence in the period between c. 1500-1856. In so doing, we seek to challenge conventional macro-historical perspectives of political change by bringing the sea to bear on what until now has largely been understood as 'landed' processes. For, in spite of having been a key factor in Europe's colonial expansion, the sea itself and forms of seaborne violence are conspicuously absent from accounts of the emergence of empires. A key turning point in global history since the European 'discovery' of the New World was when northern European states supplanted the Iberian powers as drivers of imperialist expansion. By focusing on the contestation of the order sanctioned by the treaties of Tordesillas through privateering, we make early modern religion an intrinsic factor to the making of empires. For in fact, the conflicts in the wake of the European reformations are key to making sense of overseas imperial expansion. We will make the case that a focus on the practice of private seaborne predation under sovereign license known as 'privateering' can shed new light on this dramatic geopolitical shift and how the global spatiality of empires in the early modern period was reconfigured. Unlike piracy, privateering was neither inimical nor parasitical to state enterprises at sea, but an intrinsic part of these efforts. Privateering was a key to unlock the oceans for the northern European powers in the long sixteenth century; it then became the sinews of their respective empires until the mid-eighteenth century when the practice, adopted by emerging colonial states in the American Atlantic coast, spearheaded their independence and contributed to the demise of the European Atlantic empires.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 217. State-building in Modern Colonial Empires