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The Business of Empire: Colonial and Imperial Entrepreneurship, 1415-1974


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


The European maritime expansion overseas started in 1415 with the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta (North of Africa). Since the very beginning, the exploration of exotic places and different peoples went hand in hand with the exploitation of overseas resources. The Business of Empire looks for answers for the questions of who, how, when and where were colonial and imperial enterprises organized. Participants in this course will be making their acquaintance with a body of literature and sources regarding the different European colonial and imperial enterprises for a period of 500 years, in search for patterns of continuity and change in the way European corporations (firms, companies, joint stocks and banks) and their non-European partners ran shipping and trading routes, infrastructural investments (railroads, harbors, roads, water management projects, etc), cash-crop agricultural concerns (plantations), mines and transformative overseas manufacturing industries. This course offers a broad and diversified transnational analysis, including all major Western European empires (Danish, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish), in an attempt to foster comparative approaches and cross-student exchanges. The course is directly opened to (RES)MA students following the tracks of Economic History and as optional course to all other students.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 3) The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subtracks as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    -in the specialisation Cities, Migration and Global Interdependence: the manner in which migrations (of people, goods and ideas) between and within states have led to shifts (in cohesion, ethnic composition, policies, imaging, culture, and power relations) in the period 1600-2000, with a focus on (urban) networks (within and across borders);
    -in the subtrack Economic History also: the origin and outcomes of the Great Divergence, developments in political economy since ca 1600, increasing global interdependence throughout the centuries, the development of global governance in the twentieth century, as well as the most important debates in recent Economic History.

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subtrack in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    -in the specialisation Cities, Migration and Global Interdependence: the interdisciplinary approach (application of theories and methods from social sciences), the comparative perspective (diachronic and synchronic) and working with a large variety of primary sources;
    -in the subtrack Economic History also: the application of economic concepts, research methods or models; insight into the argumentation of current debates.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student

  • 13) Gains knowledge and insight into Early Modern and Modern theoretical approaches to entrepreneurship

  • 14) Gains knowledge and insight into Early Modern and Modern approaches to the study of colonial and imperial entrepreneurship in the exploitation of overseas resources

  • 15) Gains knowledge and insight into continuitiy and change across time and empires (comparatively) of modes, systems and mechanisms of entrepreneurial deployment and behavior (based on social network analysis)

  • 16) Develops a comprehensive understanding of the implications of entrepreneurial choices in the rise and fall of empires and its direct implications for state formation and democratization processes

  • 17) (ResMA only) – Develops the ability to interpret a potentially complex corpus of sources; the ability to identify new approaches within existing academic debates; and acquires knowledge of the interdisciplinary aspects of the specialization.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13-16

  • Oral presentation and participation
    measured learning objectives: 4, 5, 7, 8, 11

  • Assignment 1 (feedback session)
    measured learning objectives: 9 (ResMA also: 10)

  • Assignment 2 (weekly reflection)
    measured learning objectives: 6-7, 12 (ResMA also: 17)


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Oral presentation and participation: 15%

  • Assignment 1: 15%

  • Assignment 2: 10%

  • Assignment 3: %

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficent.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.

Reading list

  • Casson, M. and Casson, C., The entrepreneur in history: from medieval merchant to modern business leader. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2013.

  • Casson, M. C. (2010) Entrepreneurship: theory, networks, history. Industrial dynamics, entrepreneurship and innovation. Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, Cheltenham, 2010.

  • Bowen, H. V., The Business of Empire. The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756-1833, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Prof. C.A.P. Antunes