History 231 Reading Guide

The Age Of Discovery And The Expansion Of European Empires

  • Patricia Seed, “Taking Possession and Reading Texts:  Establishing the Authority of Overseas Empires,” William and Mary Quarterly (WMQ) 3rd ser. 49.2 (1992): 183-209.  JSTOR


Patricia Seed offers a cultural perspective for comparing the methods and rituals by which England, Spain, and Portugal established their sovereignty and authority over the New World and its inhabitants, and examining the conflicts over methods (especially between the English and Portuguese and the English and Spanish).

  • How does she describe the methods and rituals by which Portugal, Spain, and England established their right to take possession of and rule the New World? What were the “sources” of authority on which each country relied in order to take possession?
  • According to Seed, what do the different methods by which each country “took possession” suggest about their visions of empire and their cultural priorities?
  • In what ways were the cultural and linguistic concepts of what constituted the right to rule colonial territory incompatible? When and how did these differing concepts lead to disputes?
  • For all of the differences that she emphasizes between these imperial objectives, what overwhelming similarity does she also emphasize?
  • Should we assume that imperial expectations, as these were articulated by high-level administrators and courts, were actually so implemented by the appointed officials in the colonies? To what extent do post-colonial histories of English and Spanish colonies reflect these imperial expectations and motivations?