Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Government and Governance of European Empires, 1450-1800

Book Cover

Book Title

Government and Governance of European Empires, 1450-1800. Vol. 21, Part I. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2000


Russell-Wood, A.J.R. (ed.)


This volume is part of a series which aims to examine European overseas presence on a global stage, and to present a multi-continental dimension to European activity between 1450 and 1800. The volume reflects the historiography of colonial administration in Portuguese, Spanish, French and British empires, and is less interested how or whether they worked. Russell-Wood provides a detailed introduction to the similarities and differences shared between the four primary European maritime empires’ metropolitan and colonial institutions. Following this, there is a compilation of analytical essays focusing on the systems and structures implemented by each empire and their transformations over time.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Russell-Wood’s introduction examines at length metropolitan institutions and the institutions established overseas, while the essays focus on colonial institutions. He notes that historiography has been uneven across the four empires in question—for instance, the literature available on one aspect of colonial governance may be rich in its discussion of one empire at the expense of others. Thus, as an editor, he chooses to provide a detailed overview, a starting point to colonial governance, in his introduction, rather than attempt to thematically link the articles in the compilation that follows.

Russell-Wood acknowledges the impossibility of examining all aspects of colonial government in all four empires, and zooms in on the institutions central to crown government, leaving out ecclesiastical administrations and the Inquisition in particular, which was limited only to Goa and Spanish America. However, he chooses to include European trading companies. Although they were ultimately profit-minded and prioritized commerce, he points out that they had strong administrative dimensions and made significant political and diplomatic contributions. Thus, the compilation of essays provides discussions on the Dutch and English East Indies Companies. Geographically, the essays cover Portuguese India and Brazil, Spanish America, New France (Canada), and British India and America. Part I of Volume 21 encompasses the former two, while Part II follows up with the French and British. Some selected essays remain in their original language, for instance, Spanish and French.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Russell-Wood identifies four main aspects of colonial governance: political, judicial, fiscal, and military, and draws attention to the impressive breadth of these objectives. He points out that even though these empires were built against different political backdrops, they also shared similarities. For example, none of the colonial institutions were complete duplicates of their metropolitan counterparts even though the initial imperial strategy was to attempt to reproduce tried and tested institutions in new colonies: A key common theme of the essay compilation is the extent to which institutions were adapted to local conditions. Other important themes include the effects of geopolitics and local geography on colonial governance; territorial contiguity versus discontinuity; and imperial reactions to indigenous polities and rulers.

Russell-Wood emphasizes the diversity of colonial institutions across the four empires. There were many different forms of colonial governance, ranging from shared rule with indigenous leaders, protectorate arrangements, trading company rule, and in some cases, the complete surrender of indigenous sovereignty to European representatives. The empires could be arranged on various comparative spectrums. The British empire, for example, had the widest array of arrangements and included crown colonies along with proprietary and chartered arrangements. In contrast, the French emphasized the uniform centralization of government. The Portuguese administrations were crude and simple, while the Spanish ones were extremely complex. The forms of governance reflects the degree of importance attributed to colonies by the crown: Spain, for instance, invested far more in the governance of its colonies than Portugal.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip