In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Proprietary Colonies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Western European State Formation

Atlantic History Proprietary Colonies
L. H. Roper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0244


The character of early modern western European states determined that many “public” activities were undertaken by “private” persons or entities through governmental charters that set out their powers, rights, and responsibilities in exchange for a cut of the revenue that their endeavors generated. This arrangement was necessitated by the fitful interest of governments in overseas colonization and trade, which was invariably overridden by their habitual fiscal woes and limited bureaucratic capacity. Thus, any investigation into the history of the expansion of European overseas interests should incorporate a discussion of these recipients. Those interested in the history of European nation-states (“state formation”) may also be interested in the history of this concept and how it was employed. The concept of “proprietary colonies” derives directly from feudal devices by which medieval monarchies dealt with the problems of distance and government by creating ligaments that connected remote localities to the governmental center via the delegation of the administration and defense of remote parts of their realms to prominent persons on the ground, such as the bishops of Durham in England or the encomenderos in Castile. The adoption of this scenario was natural, given the even greater distances entailed in overseas colonization and trade even as centralization of state power in early modern western Europe tended to increase. Sometimes, the recipients of chartered rights and responsibilities would delegate those rights and responsibilities, in turn, to others, usually resident in the particular colony concerned. The term “proprietary colonies” as used in this article includes “proprietorships,” colonies founded by individuals or partners, which constituted one form of this vehicle, as well as the operations of the colonial agents who oversaw substantial tracts of territory, and by joint-stock corporations. This article contains references to work on proprietary colonies in general and to histories of particular colonies. Although these latter titles tend to omit discussion of proprietorships as such, they do offer treatments of the formation of these colonies, the intent and plans of proprietors, and their relationships with their colonists. The enduring popularity of these devices is apparent from their appearance in the history of an array of colonies set forth under Particular Proprietary Colonies.

General Overviews

Notwithstanding its centrality to the early modern expansion of western European interests, the concept of proprietary colonies has received little direct consideration from English-language scholarship in either general or particular terms other than in dismissive or otherwise scornful terms, although Osgood 1897 is something of a deviation from this rule. Thus, examinations of governmental relations between a metropolis and its colonies, such as Daniels and Kennedy 2002, concentrate on “negotiations” between colonial leaderships and imperial administrators. On the surface, such a view might be warranted because proprietorships usually proved unable to manage the political situations that often convulsed their colonies. Consequently, the government of these places accordingly reverted, sometimes quickly, to the control, albeit often reluctantly, of the central governments. In actuality, however, the traditional view fails to consider the enduring employment of proprietary forms, which stemmed from the endurance of the governmental limitations noted above, and its tone often, if not invariably, treats proprietorships as anachronistic and feeble. Roper and van Ruymbeke 2007 constitutes an exception to this rule.

  • Daniels, Christine, and Michael V. Kennedy, eds. Negotiated Empires: Centers and Peripheries in the Americas, 1500–1820. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

    Using a lens of center and periphery, this comparative treatment of early modern imperial development places proprietorships in an uncomfortable position between “negotiations” in terms of culture and politics between colonists and their empires.

  • Osgood, Herbert L. “The Proprietary Province as a Form of Colonial Government.” American Historical Review 2.4 (1897): 644–664.

    DOI: 10.2307/1833981

    Continued in American Historical Review 3.1 (1897): 31–55, 3.2 (1898): 244–265. Discusses the utilization of proprietary colonies in the English Empire but from an old-fashioned perspective. Limited to individual or partnership proprietorships and to the English case.

  • Roper, L. H., and B. Van Ruymbeke, eds. Constructing Early Modern Empires: Proprietary Ventures in the Atlantic World, 1500–1750. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    Offers an introduction to the subject of proprietorships, broadly defined. This comparative treatment of proprietary colonies from Brazil to New France considers the subject within the context of the history of early modern western European states and of colonization. Essays consider individual proprietary colonies and provide bibliographies of their own.

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