ERC Research Project 'Fighting Monopolies'

Cátia Antunes received the prestigious ERC Grant for her Research Project "Fighting Monopolies, Defying Empires 1500-1750: a Comparative Overview of Free Agents and Informal Empires in Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire."


How did “free agents” (entrepreneurs operating outside of the myriad of interests of the centralized, state-sponsored monopolies) in Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire react to the creation of colonial monopolies (royal monopolies and chartered companies) by the central states in the Early Modern period? This project will answer this question by looking at the role individuals played in the construction of what I have called “informal empires”, understood as a multitude of self-organized networks operating world-wide, whose main goal was safeguarding their  personal social and economic advantages, regardless of (and in spite of) state intervention. Even though self-organized networks were successful in fighting the colonial monopolies and in so doing defying empires, colonial states fought back in an attempt to create mechanisms of effective control.
At the outset, the objectives and working premises of this project are:

1. Free Agents

Definition of a free agent outside of the presumption that free agents are, by definition only involved in illegal activities. The team will work with the hypothesis that free agents used a multitude of behaviors and actions, not always outside the law, to fight monopolies and subsequently defy empire. If this premise is proved correct, free agency within Early Modern empires cannot be reduced to smuggling, privateering or illegal activities, and the concept will gain a dynamic complexity that expresses the social and economic interests outside of the borders of the monopolies.

2. Mapping Networks

Map the networks within which free agents operated and the necessary organization framework in which the cooperation and conflicts were resolved inside the networks. The underlining hypothesis for this objective is that free agents operated within self-organized networks. Self-organization demands a set of ‘rules of engagement’ between the participants, especially as many of them were spread out through different continents. It is my premise that  these ‘rules of engagement’, changed considerably depending on the socio-cultural background of the agents. That is to say, I expect considerable differences between the rules pertaining to the engagement of agents that belonged to the same family group, religious congregation, ethnic cluster, whether free or unfree, European, Asians, Americans or Africans when compared to free agents engaged in pluri-family, cross-cultural, intra-religions, multi-ethnic partnerships. If this premise is justified, mono-cultural and cross-cultural networks of free agents acted differently, although I would expect the latter to be more efficient when fighting monopolies and defying empires due to its natural composition and use of conflict-resolution mechanisms that could more easily exclude cheaters and defectors operating within the networks.

3. Fighting Monopolies

Signal the processes and mechanisms used by free agents operating within self-organized networks to fight the monopolies imposed by the state and by doing so defy empire. I start with the idea that free agency defied the monopolies by assuming a posture of outright opposition, sometimes cooperating, or, at other times, engaging in appropriation/representation. In the case of opposition, free agents might resort to illegal activities, direct defiance or litigation. In the case of cooperation, free agents might chose for shareholding, contracting or lobbying the monopolies. Finally, in the case of appropriation/representation, self-organized networks might use some of the free agents to work as employees of the monopolies or representatives of the central state in the colonial administrations, armies or religious missions. I will also advocate the principle that these three processes and nine mechanisms were not mutually exclusive and that they were broadly used in the Atlantic and the Asian context, by free agents operating within the Western European and Ottoman colonial orbits. If proven right, I suggest a thorough revision of the collective historical knowledge about colonial empires and the way they were actually built by states and not by individuals.

4. Reactions

Determine the processes and mechanisms by which monopolies and states reacted to the defiance by free agents. I hypothesize that monopolies and states took up punitive, collaborative or incorporative actions when confronted with the defiance of free agents. In the first instance, monopolies and states brought to court actions against free agency under the banner of punishment of illegal activities, conspiracy with enemy monopolies/states or religious/political subversion of authority. In the second instance, monopolies and states might chose to use free agency to their own advantage, by gathering or contracting capital and knowledge from the free agents or by including free agents in the political decision-making processes surrounding the operations of the monopolies. In the case of the incorporative options, the state might chose to bring to the fold of the monopolies already existing self-organized networks of free agents and by doing so ‘nationalizing’ an already existing structure, attributing, therefore, the status of ‘monopoly’ to a self-organized network. If this analytical grid can be supported by the primary sources, it will be possible to achieve an understanding of the action-reaction processes and mechanisms between the agents fighting the monopolies and the ones defending formal empires. However, I suspect that the processes and mechanisms differ in the Atlantic and in the Asian context, as well as between Northern European, Southern European and the Ottoman empires. These differences may be ascribed to specific characteristics of the different central states and the way they engaged in social and economic policies overseas. This latter assertion would have to be a research project in and of  itself and it might become one of the spin-offs of this overall research.

5. Intersection

Considering that free agents, their self-organized networks, the monopolies and the central state crossed paths in different manners and within different scales and scopes, the intersection of these historical actors will bring us to a re-definition of empire between 1500 and 1750. My premise will be that empire building cannot be seen as state-imposed, sponsored or controlled as an historical process and that the feasibility and success of the different colonial projects in Western Europe and the Ottoman world heavily depended on the interconnectedness between free agency, self-organized networks, monopolies and central states. If so, studying colonial empires from within nationally centered approaches (English Empire, French Empire, Portuguese Empire, Spanish Empire, Swedish Empire, Danish Empire, Ottoman Empire) is an historical fallacy supported by the(mis)use of the discipline of  history during the foundational  period of the nations states (beginning in the nineteenth century), whose crucial need for a unifying concept of national identity, rooted in loyalty and citizenship mystified the role of Early Modern empires as representations of nation-state building, cultural homogeneity and national goal setting.


This proposal will pioneer the study of empires in the Early Modern World by consulting primary sources that have now been used for about one hundred years to build a narrative of colonial empires based on the actions of central states and the monopolies they imposed overseas. By using the same materials, set against an entirely new analytical methodology, I propose to deeply change our understanding of empire by bringing to the fore of colonial narratives the individual as the enabler of free agency, clustered in self-organized networks that fought the monopolies and defied the central state. Highlighting the complexity of interactions between free agents within their networks and those networks and the monopolies and the state, this project will give a very significant contribution to the study of colonial empires and the replacement of historical categories that have been a hindrance to the full understanding of Early Modern colonial engagement. These overall goals will be achieved by making use of a theoretical approach rooted in a methodological grid of analysis applied to the primary sources that will be comparatively used to re-define the relationship between free agents and central states concerning empire. By doing so, this project will contribute to a redefinition of the concept of ‘Early Modern empire’ as one radically different from that which is supported by current historiography.

The team

This project will count on a team of 4 PhD students and one post-doctoral fellow. The PhD students will work on case-study dissertations about the Iberian, French, English and Scandinavian empires, while the post-doctoral fellow will do research into the Ottoman case. The project leader and the post-doctoral fellow will work towards a synthesis that may reflect a systematic comparison between the Western European and Ottoman experience.

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Last Modified: 09-12-2015