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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 of Colonial and Global History. However, a differentiated pool of students is welcome (including other MA specializations in History or other Humanities, Law or Social Sciences subjects).

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

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations 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 subspecialisation 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;

  • in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: how global (political, socio-economic, and cultural) connections interact with regional processes of identity and state formation; hence insight in cross-cultural processes (including the infrastructure of shipping and other modes of communication) that affect regions across the world such as imperialism, colonisation, islamisation, modernisation and globalisation (in particular during the period 1200-1940);

  • in the subspecialisation Maritime History also: the development of maritime history from the 16th century onwards; insight into recent issues in the field.

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation 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 subspecialisation Economic History also: the application of economic concepts, research methods or models; insight into the argumentation of current debates;

  • in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: empirical research from a comparative and connective perspective;

  • in the subspecialisation Maritime History also: comparative research; archive research.

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.


The timetable is available on the MA History website

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.

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

Lectures: 13 sessions (2 hours weekly): 26 hours
Compulsory literature: 70 hours
Specific literature (including oral presentation): 50 hours
Research and reading literature for paper: 100 hours
Writing a paper: 34 hours

Assessment method

  • Written essay (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13-16

  • Oral presentation and participation in class discussions
    Measured learning objectives: 4, 5, 7, 8

  • Assignment 1 (Feedback session)
    Measured learning objectives: 9-10

  • Assignment 2 (Weekly reflection)
    Measured learning objectives: 6-7


Written essay: 60 %
Oral presentation: 15%
Assignment 1 (feedback): 15%
Assignment 2 (weekly reflection): 10%
The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Blackboard. A specification of these will be handed in by instructor on first meeting.


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

Exam review

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.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • course outline

  • communication of deadlines

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.

Weekly literature will be announced via Blackboard, at least 6 weeks before the start of the course.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Prof. Dr. Catia Antunes


Students are requested to read the compulsory literature before week 2 of the semester. Weekly readings will be assigned in the Blackboard at least 6 weeks before the start of the semester.