In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonial Governance in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Document Collections
  • Contemporary Accounts
  • Imperial Thoughts
  • Ruling from Afar
  • Administrative Structures at the Ground Level
  • Fiscal Governance
  • Religious Interactions
  • Ruling the Subaltern Majorities
  • Asian Parallels and Connections
  • 18th-Century Reforms
  • Colonial Governance in the Age of Revolution

Atlantic History Colonial Governance in the Atlantic World
Thiago Krause, Pedro Cardim
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0280


From the beginning of the European overseas expansion into the Atlantic in the 15th century onward, Europeans had to figure how to govern the newly conquered lands and peoples across Africa and the Americas. Western European polities transplanted to their Atlantic territories forms of governance already tested within the European context, but institutions of colonial governance were built in fits and starts and constantly adapted to local demands and characteristics. American elites sought and sometimes achieved a relationship with the imperial center that could be similar to the one experienced by European local elites. However, Old World models of government were deeply transformed by distance, by environmental conditions, and, above all, by the variety of peoples that were under European rule. Atlantic governance involved the (often violent) seizure of substantial portions of the American and (in a much lesser scale) African and Asian lands, along with the transfer of people of European descent to settle the conquered lands. Local populations were often forced to labor for their new overlords and were gradually dispossessed of their lands and institutions, while sub-Saharan Africans were compulsorily transported across the Atlantic to work as slaves. As a result of racial prejudice and power relations, they were assigned a subaltern status that deprived them from many civic and political rights, becoming a subaltern majority. This posed new problems that transformed templates brought by European colonizers, such as the patterns of government developed in the Iberian Reconquista and in the English domination of Ireland. All empires dealt with similar problems in the Atlantic: the need to establish its own authority, to defend the settlements, and to produce enough revenue to pay for it all. A high level of flexibility was needed at first because European authorities had little knowledge of Atlantic realities. Afterward, the slowness of communication and the need to obtain local cooperation to achieve any goal, from the conquest itself to defense and taxing local production, required collaboration, not only from colonists of European descent but also from Native Americans, sub-Saharan Africans, and the multiethnic populations that grew throughout the Early Modern era. Colonial governance should not be understood, therefore, as a top-down imposition from Europe to Africa and the Americas, but as a contested struggle between many opposing groups and factions. Recent historiography has been increasingly cognizant of temporal and spatial differences, but there is still need for a deeper engagement between different linguistic traditions. Atlantic expansion was a multinational endeavor, and so should be its study.

General Overviews

There is no account that both covers the whole Atlantic world and brings together all themes that can conceivably be thought of as colonial governance. The book that comes closer to meet these criteria is Paquette 2019, which is valuable both to students and to specialists. Many other syntheses are available for each empire, as well as comparative studies. Canny 1998 and Marshall 1998 can be profitably used in the classroom to study the British imperial endeavor. Bowen, et al. 2012, a far more recent and updated volume, is useful for the same purpose. Elliott 2006 is a major work that weaves together two empires (the Spanish and the British) and contrasts them at every turn. Yun-Casalilla 2018 is a new synthesis that integrates early Iberian experience in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Beyond its many qualities, Lockhart and Schwartz 1983 merits applause for not subsuming the Brazilian experience under the better-known Spanish case. Fragoso, et al. 2013 goes beyond the Portuguese Empire to insert Brazil in a wider Atlantic picture. Cardim, et al. 2012 is a useful introduction with short articles on Iberian Empires, above all for its effort to connect the conquest of the New World with European political and constitutional culture. Other Atlantics—such as sub-Saharan Africa and its inhabitants—have been neglected for a long time, but Havard and Vidal 2014 offers a compelling and complex picture of French North America, while Klooster 2016 (cited under Ruling from Afar) is an excellent starting point to understand the Dutch Atlantic.

  • Bowen, Huw V., Elizabeth Mancke, and John G. Reid, eds. Britain’s Oceanic Empire: Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, c. 1550–1850. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    Featuring some of the most recent scholarship on the British overseas rule in the Early Modern period, this collective volume examines the imperial endeavors in the Atlantic and in Asia in an interconnected way. This comprehensive book is divided into four main parts (natural conditions, governance, diplomacy and military interactions, commercial relations) and has the additional advantage of covering the period that goes from the mid-16th century to the mid-19th century.

  • Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 1, The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Apart from its comprehensive character, another advantage of this collective volume—thoughtfully edited by Nicholas Canny—is the fact that among its contributors are many of the historians responsible for renovating the field of Atlantic history. Featuring a variety of approaches (from political history to cultural analysis, economic history, network analysis of trade, and so on), this particular volume is mostly devoted to the Atlantic, and regards in an interconnected way developments in Europe and across the Americas.

  • Cardim, Pedro, Tamar Herzog, José Javier Ruíz Ibañez, and Gaetano Sabatini, eds. Polycentric Monarchies: How Did Early Modern Spain and Portugal Achieve and Maintain a Global Hegemony? Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic, 2012.

    A collection that gathers Ibero-American, French, and Italian historians that emphasize the relevance of the Iberian empires in the early modern world. Collectively, their main innovation is the conceptualization of the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies as a network that connected various centers that collaborated in the making of empire.

  • Elliott, John H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    As Elliott is one of the major historians of early modern European politics, colonial governance is one of the main topics of the book. Thanks to Elliott’s deep knowledge of the European political culture, this book demonstrates that the history of metropolitan territories and the trajectory of the overseas lands are intertwined. He focuses, though, much more on the relationship between Crown and colonists than on the subaltern majorities.

  • Fragoso, João, Thiago Krause, and Roberto Guedes. A América Portuguesa e os Sistemas Atlânticos na Época Moderna: Monarquia Pluricontinental e Antigo Regime. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Fundação Getúlio Vargas, 2013.

    A recent overview of colonial Brazil that puts the Portuguese Empire in an Atlantic perspective, comparing it with the British and Spanish cases and emphasizing connections, similarities, and distinctions.

  • Havard, Gilles, and Cécile Vidal. Histoire de l’Amérique Française. 4th ed. Paris: Flammarion, 2014.

    Originally published in 2003, this work of synthesis offers a full and nuanced portrait of colonial governance that includes metropolitan administration and its American representatives, but also deals extensively with slavery and interethnic relationships.

  • Lockhart, James, and Stuart Schwartz. Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    Despite being published in the early 1980s, it remains the sole work that gives Portuguese and Spanish colonization the same level of attention. Though more focused on economic and social history, political institutions are also expertly analyzed.

  • Marshall, Peter J., ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    This collective volume presents a comprehensive overview of the British imperial expansion from the Glorious Revolution to the early 19th century. Although a few contributions are somewhat outdated, the ensemble of the book continues to be effective for instructors.

  • Paquette, Gabriel. The European Seaborne Empires: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Age of Revolution. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvgc61x6

    This new synthesis is a connected and comparative history that both narrates European imperial expansion in the early modern world and analyzes main themes such as colonial governance, political economy, and labor regimes. It is the only overview written by a leading historian that manages to weave together the global history of the Iberian, English, French, and Dutch empires.

  • Yun-Casalilla, Bartolomé. Iberian World Empires and the Globalization of the World, 1415–1668. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    A new synthesis by one of the foremost scholars of the early Spanish Empire, this book emphasizes the outsized role played by empire (both in Asia and in the Americas) in the making of Early Modern Iberian monarchies. It pays much attention to political economy, thanks to the author’s background as an economic historian.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.