HST239: The Export of England: Seventeenth Century Trade and Empire

20 credits (semester 2) (semester 1 2016-17)

Module Leader: Dr Tom Leng



Pass in at least two level one History units.


Module Summary

This module considers the commercial and territorial expansion of seventeenth-century England. It examines how England’s commerce was transformed from the largely bilateral cloth trade with Europe conducted by mercantile corporations, to a multilateral commerce conducted under several conditions (the ‘navigation system’, ‘free trade’, joint-stock companies). These changes coincided with the foundation of North American and West Indian colonies, building on earlier experiences in Ireland, and the course will consider their developing relations with the metropolis. Throughout, the focus will be on whether these changes were a consequence of deliberate ‘mercantilist’ state policies, or of the initiative of thousands of individuals.

The course begins by discussing the nature and structure of England’s economy, and particularly its international commerce, at the start of the seventeenth century. We examine debates over the organisation of foreign trade and its contribution to the commonwealth, focussing on the call for ‘free trade’. Then we move on to consider the emergence of an English Empire across the Atlantic, looking for the motivations behind colonisation, and the forces shaping the development of colonies. After reading week, we turn to the relationship between overseas enterprise and political conflict in the emerging English Atlantic from the civil wars of the 1640s through to the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9. A particular theme here will be the development of England as a major slave-trading nation, paradoxically at a time when the liberties of the ‘free born Englishman’ were being asserted in England and its colonies. We will also look at other areas of English activity beyond the Atlantic, such as the Mediterranean and the far east. We close by considering England and its empire after the Glorious Revolution, when a ‘financial revolution’ associated with the foundation of the Bank of England transformed the fiscal capacities of the state allowing it to pursue ever more assertive policies overseas, prompting new debates about the importance of international trade for national power and prosperity.

Provisional lecture/seminar programme:

Week Lecture Seminar
1 Introduction. England's Turning Point? Introduction. The Tudor Common Weal
2 The English Economy, c.1600 Merchant companies and the 'free trade' movement
3 Contracting Markets, Expanding Horizons The discourse of trade in the early Stuart period
4 The Westwards Enterprise: The Beginnings of Atlantic Settlement Imagining empire and taking possession: ideologies of colonisation
5 Corporate Colonisation: Planting and Populating in the Jacobean Period Planting settlements: the case of Virginia, 1606-1624
6 The Development of Atlantic Networks: Caroline Colonisation Integrating: the development of Atlantic networks, 1625-1640
7 Reading Week
8 Trade and Empire in the English Revolution Merchants and colonists in Revolution
9 Freedom and Unfreedom in the Restoration Atlantic Slavery and freedom in the English Atlantic
10 Trade and Empire in the Restoration, c.1660-1675 Beyond the Atlantic
11 Trade and Empire in English Politics, c.1675-1698 The Glorious Revolution and the Empire
12 Conclusion: A commercial people? Political economy in the age of party


Module Aims

This unit aims to introduce students to the theme of early modern globalisation: the integration of different cultural zones through the influence of international trade and colonial settlement. It focuses on one particular nation-state- England- which over the course of the seventeenth century acquired a new global position characterised by imperial expansion and international trade, but it aims to consider England in its European, as well as international, context. The central theme will be the relationship between private actors and the state in the development of English trade and empire. It will also consider contemporary reactions to such changes, which increasingly took the form of public debates, which have been seen as the beginnings of modern economic thought. Students will gain an insight into the different forces that shape ‘economic history’, in a period which laid many of the foundations of our contemporary, globalised and markets-dominated world.


Teaching and Assessment

Lectures provide an efficient way of providing information, encouraging ideas and guiding students’ private study. They will be used to outline key chronological, geographical and theoretical themes. Seminars will provide opportunities for students to present their ideas and interpretations to the wider group, to analyse a range of primary sources, and to work cooperatively in groups.

Further guidance is provided in the module course booklet, available through MOLE.

Information on assessment can be found at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/history/current_students/undergraduate/assessment/level2


Course Assignment Information

There are numerous opportunities for assignments based on seventeenth century overseas trade and empire, as well as foreign relations more generally. You have the opportunity to examine English exploration, trade and settlement in many different parts of the world (the Mediterranean, the Baltic, France and Germany, mainland north America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, the Amazon basin, west Africa, India, and the spice islands to name but a few). You might focus on royal policies, or on the explorers, merchants, trading companies and colonists who undertook these ventures. You might look at the development of English interests overseas, but other possible themes might include English reflections on other cultures, including the writings of travellers and explorers. You can also focus on topics related to the development of the domestic economy (the emergence of new industries; the enclosure of common agricultural land; responses to the problem of poverty etc). Sources are widely available: Early English Books Online provides access to thousands of books and pamphlets published in early modern England, sources for political history are readily available online, whilst the volumes of the ‘Hakluyt Society’ are available in the library and include writings on travel, exploration and settlement.


Selected Reading

There is no compulsory preparatory reading for this course, but it is strongly recommended that you take the chance over the summer to do some reading. There is no single textbook suitable for the course, but the following list has been selected to include some readable/affordable books which you could take on holiday and enjoy on the beach (the book by Brenner would push you well over your baggage allowance, and is not the most readable, but it is a key text, so if you are looking for something more weighty this is the one for you).

  • Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities. Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, 1470-1750 (2002) [although not centrally concerned with overseas trade, this is an excellent and readable introduction to the main themes of British economic history in our period, and a useful book to read in preparation for this course]
  • Alison Games, The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660 (Oxford, 2008) [this book raises many of the questions which we will be considering in the course, and is a recommended preparatory read]
  • Karen Ordahl Kupperman, The Jamestown Project (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2007) [a readable discussion of the context behind the foundation of Jamestown; as Virginia will be a focal point of this course, this would be a useful introductory read]
  • Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery. A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2007) [a readable recent account of the horrors of the slave trade]
  • Charles Wilson, England’s Apprenticeship 1603-1763, 2nd edition (London, 1984) [perhaps a little dated, but still a very useful introduction to England's economic history/overseas trade in the period; not in print now but readily available second-hand; or you could try his Profit and Power. A Study of England and the Dutch Wars]
  • David Loades, England's Maritime Empire. Seapower, Commerce and Policy 1490-1690 (Harlow, 2000) [also out of print but useful if you can get hold of it, particularly on naval matters]
  • Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution. Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (1993) [major reinterpretation of the relationship between commercial and political change, which is available as an e-book]

This course will focus on overseas trade and colonization, but it would be useful to have some knowledge of the political history of seventeenth century England (this will be discussed in lectures, but fairly briefly). If this is a new subject to you, there are many textbooks available: you might try one of the following:

  • Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (2nd edition, 1994)
  • Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (1961 and many subsequent editions) [though note his Marxist interpretation has been widely critiqued in recent decades]
  • John Spurr, The Post-Reformation. Religion, Politics and Society in Britain 1603-1714 (2006) [good on the religious background particularly]


Intended Learning Outcomes
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