Early Modern Empires


European expansion during the early modern era went hand in hand with the development of absolute monarchies. The establishment of empires demonstrated the political and symbolic power of the new absolute monarchs. Mercantilism arose as a new economic system to manage the developing empires. Discussing the creation of early modern empires prepares students to study imperialism in the nineteenth century, as well as examine the origins of the global impact of European culture.

The objectives of this lesson are:

  1. To understand the social and political consequences of European expansion upon indigenous populations during the early modern period.
  2. To understand the development of a new economic system—mercantilism—and its impact upon the European and worldwide economy.
  3. To understand the cultural and political importance of establishing an empire for European monarchs. Would a monarch's authority be considered absolute without an empire?

Preclass Preparation

Each student should read one narrative of European expansion during the early modern era. Possible choices include Bartolomé de las Casas, Pedro de Cieza de Léon, Hernan Cortés, and recorded accounts from the Aztecs for South America; Samuel de Champlain, Edward Haies, and Richard Hakluyt for North America; and St. Francis Xavier, Hsu Kuang-chi, and Père du Halde for Asia, among others.

The students should write up a brief description of the narrative, discussing the attitudes and perceptions of the Europeans and the indigenous populations for each other.

Then have the students prepare for an in-class debate on mercantilism. Half the class can be assigned to read documents written by supporters of mercantilism (such as Thomas Mun, Josiah Child, John Locke, or charters establishing early trading companies), while the other half of the class can be assigned to read documents from critics of mercantilism (such as Adam Smith or material from the Tulip Craze or South Sea Bubble).

I. European Expansion

The purpose of this section is to understand the varieties of European exploration and conquest. Students should gain an exposure to political, religious, and economic motivations for expansion and see different European reactions to the indigenous populations in the Americas and Asia.

Group Assignment

Divide the students into three (or more) groups according to what region of the world their narrative covered (North America, South America, Asia). Each group should discuss the similarities or differences in the narratives they read. Do all Europeans share the same ideas about the indigenous populations they encounter? Were there differences? What motivated European expansion, according to the sources that they read?

Each group should choose a spokesperson to summarize their discussion for the whole class. The whole class can then discuss similarities and differences in European expansion in the different parts of the world.

Discuss with the students the positive and negative aspects of using these types of historical sources. Can one picture of European expansion be drawn? How do these sources correspond with the lessons they learned of European settlement into the U.S., such as in Jamestown or Plymouth?

II. Mercantilism

The purpose of this section is to understand the positive and negative aspects of mercantilism. For the European powers, mercantilism created a mechanism for both controlling their colonies and providing material benefits for the mother country. For the colonies, mercantilism was an exploitative and punitive system that limited the colonies' independence and development.

In-Class Activity

Have the students prepare for a debate about the nature of mercantilism. Split the class in half, with one side supporting the pro-mercantile position of the European powers and the other the anti-mercantile position of the colonies. The students can use their preclass readings as the evidence for their position.

Moderate a debate between the two positions.

As a class, discuss the benefits and costs of mercantilism. How effective was mercantilism in managing the economic production of the empire? Was there an alternative that could have been pursued?

III. Empire and Absolute Monarchy

In both of the previous sections, the costs and the benefits of managing an empire have been discussed. The purpose of this section is to understand the necessity of possessing an empire for early modern monarchs.

As a class, discuss the nature of European empires as a matter of geography. It would be helpful to have a map of the world in 1650 or 1700 to show the class; one possible map is suggested below. Was there a country in early modern Europe that failed to possess an empire? Was there a relationship between the size of a country in Europe and the size of its colonies?

As a class, discuss the connection between mercantilism and absolutism. Could mercantilism provide the revenue to finance absolutist reforms?

Have the class discuss the question of whether it was possible to be an absolute monarch and not have an empire. Was the establishment of a colony important for the demonstration of a monarch's power, or was the colony only important for economic reasons?

Additional Resources


Internet Modern History Sourcebook: "Colonial Latin America"
Material on expansion into Latin America.

Internet Modern History Sourcebook: "Colonial North America"
Material on expansion into North America.

Internet Indian History Sourcebook at Fordham University
Material on expansion into South and Southeast Asia.

University of Texas Library
A map of European expansion during the seventeenth century.


There are many good books discussing various aspects of early modern expansion, empires, and mercantilism. The following are just a few suggestions for further reading.

Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France, c.1500–c.1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492–1640. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Both of these books are important cross-cultural studies of early modern imperialism. Pagden provides a more general history of the changes in imperial rule from Rome to the early modern period, while Seed focuses upon the first contacts between European powers and the indigenous populations of the Americas.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants. Translated by David Jacobson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Tracy, James D., ed. The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long-Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 1350–1750. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Both of these books present important information about the impact of mercantilism upon the world economy as well as European empires. Schivelbusch examines the beginning of the trade in various valuable and addictive substances, and Tracy's volume focuses upon several different countries, regions of trade, and trade goods.