How was the British Empire shaped by the empires of other European powers?

Historian Niall Ferguson says that the British Empire was not acquired in a “fit of absence of mind” as some imperial theories have suggested, but rather the British Empire was “a conscious act of imitation.”[1]  What he means by this is that the development of the Empire was shaped by copying other European powers in how they operated and organized their overseas empire, along with the imitation of some domestic institutions as well. The two biggest influences on the British Empire were the vastly powerful and expansive Spanish Empire, and the commercial empire of the Dutch. Thirdly France could count as an indirect influence as they were more interested in territory than capital, but their competition and wars with Great Britain allowed for Britain to acquire French Territories after France lost to Britain in the Seven Years War.

The Spanish was the first empire that Britain imitated in that their original hopes for acquiring territory in the new world is that, like the Spanish, they would be able to acquire vast amounts of precious metals such as gold and silver. Britain also saw the Spanish empire as a Catholic Empire and believed that it was a religious duty to build a Protestant empire in competition. Ferguson says, “The English sense of empire envy only grew more acute after the Reformation when proponents of war against Catholic Spain began to argue that England had a religious duty to build a protestant empire to match the ‘Popish’ empires of the Spanish and Portuguese.”[2]

The Dutch were the next great imitation, adoption may be a more fitting word, of Britain empire. The Dutch played an important role in the development of European capitalism in the early modern era. Ferguson says speaking of the Dutch East India Company that, “It was part of a full-scale financial revolution that made Amsterdam the most sophisticated and dynamic of European cities. Ever since they had thrown off Spanish rule in 1579, the Dutch had been at the cutting edge of European capitalism.”[3] The Dutch established a modern system of public debt that allowed the government to take out loans low interest rates, they had a simple and efficient tax system, and the Dutch East India Company was a very successful corporate organization.

While at first a rival of the English, the imperial business of the Dutch and the English eventually came together, in what Ferguson likens to a business merger, only a political merger instead. The Glorious Revolution in England brought about the ousting of king James II by English aristocrats because of his Catholic faith. Replacing James was Dutch Stockholder William of Orange whose reign allowed the English to adopt Dutch financial practices. Ferguson says, “Like the Dutch, England already had Protestantism and Parliamentary government. But what they could learn from the Dutch was modern finance.”[4]


Ferguson, Niall. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books. 2002.

Sources Cited

  • [1] Ferguson, Empire, Chapter 1
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.

Feature Image Source: “The Royal Prince and other vessels at the Four Days Fight, 11–14 June 1666 by Abraham Storck” Retrieved from