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Competition or Diversity? Rethinking European Expansion, 1450-1850

Regina Grafe 


National historiographies have long linked the emergence of European proto-nation states and European commercial and imperial expansion in the early modern period in a linear and teleological narrative. Inter-state strife within gave European societies the competitive edge that created the preconditions for European armies, administrators, missionaries or traders to prevail without.

Global historians have challenged this Eurocentric approach in Eurasian comparisons, showing that Europeans hardly held an advantage over many parts of Asia (and elsewhere) before the later eighteenth century. But that only compounds the historiographical puzzle. Why did this fragmented and fractured European continent become the most important driver of globalisation?

This paper focuses on the commercial side of European expansion in the Atlantic as a test case. It argues that a historiographical heritage of nation centred narratives combined in recent years with the methodological shift towards new institutional economics (NIE) trapped global historians in a futile search for the sources of competitive advantage, be they “superior” European institutions, or commercial techniques, or military might. The paper argues that the role of competition has been overstated in European’s precocious commercial expansion. Instead it argues that European merchants had access to a transnational pool of “known” institutional solutions to particular problems of long distance trade, such as the mitigation of risk, pooling capital and know how, training, or the reliability of trading partners and agents over long distances. This stock of knowledge was subject to a horizontal process of learning by doing and a flow of information about new solutions. Traders could emulate, choose and combine from a variety of institutional solutions that in turn were complementary and multifunctional.

European merchants used institutional and legal diversity to engage in a bewildering number of different ways of doing trade across the Oceans and to respond to a very diverse set of cultural, legal, religious, economic and socio-political circumstances. Diversity rather competition was the key to commercial expansion.


June 08, 2016