History is not a statement of fact, but an exploration of evidence. With this as a foundation, we sought to analyze the charters, letters, and maps concerned with Great Britain’s colonial ventures, often termed acts of “sovereignty.”
The concept of sovereignty is not easily defined or understood; does a sovereign oversee his immediate subjects, and does this include the land they inhabit? If they travel, does the sovereignty extend to their new lands and ways of life? In pre-nineteenth-century terms, sovereignty concerned itself with territorial holdings in addition to claims on subjects, trading rights, and regulations. With the expansion of empire to distant locations, questions arose regarding a monarch’s authority beyond immediate realms, and the concept of subjective sovereignty emerged, wherein select individuals had legal authority to possess land and rights under a sovereign nation-state. Although the jurisdiction for acts of colonization ultimately rested with the British Crown—each letter patent required permission via royal charter—the manifestation of sovereignty through representative individuals fundamentally changed its appearance. Still today, the evolution and development of sovereignty makes it an “incomplete process.” It is with this opinion of sovereignty as malleable and uncertain that we attempt to visualize the “irregular, porous, and sometimes undefined borders” of British colonial claims.
Using historical documents as pieces of evidence rather than fact, we set out to discover the truth behind the word sovereignty—what were its intentions, applications, and manifestations. In titling our project ‘Mapping Sovereignty,’ our aim was not to map direct lines as issued by the British crown in its many different imperialistic endeavors. We were more interested in the process of describing and maintaining the borders of a territory—often a territory with conflicting claims. The purpose was not to believe the sources but to question them without expecting any specific answer.
As we began our research and moved through the various phases of our project, we developed a comprehensive thesis that could combine all of our work. Though we focused on diverse geographic areas and different types of sovereignty, we unified our projects by realizing the fluidity of sovereignty. Regardless of the charters’ supposed status as clear, enforceable documents, we found them to be just as flexible as the idea of sovereignty itself.
Every team member’s research was different, and yet each held the same opportunity for discovery concerning the topic of sovereignty. With each problem that arose, so did information about the difference between our assumptions of sovereignty and our actual findings. Despite our collective intention to develop a final product, one through which we could explain each of our different findings in a way that was both visually and academically informative, we realize that our project is never complete. Although we have developed these regions of land into ones whose borders seem to function with some degree of certainty, there is always room for greater exploration into the plans, choices, and contradictions that shaped today’s world.
Our projects were all geographically diverse, but they all focused on British colonialism in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. British colonialism in this time period was unique in its reliance on private entities for proposing charters and ventures, which shaped sovereignty for the rest of the world in later historical periods. Charters were granted to individuals or groups of powerful men. In the case of the South Sea Company—an example of corporate sovereignty—independent corporations were granted virtually free reign to explore and develop vast regions of the world, diffusing power from direct royal rule to proprietary authority. This stands as a fascinating way of projecting influence over the world, one that has not been matched in other periods of colonial history.
While we focused solely on British sovereignty, the English were far from the only group attempting to project colonial power over the world. The French, Spanish, and Dutch Empires—among others—were also looking to control vast areas of the world, and these competing claims played a part in British territorialism. Interestingly, the charters that we studied often did not directly address the idea of competing claims for sovereignty. The implications of this are discussed in detail in each individual section, but the writers of British charters were almost certainly aware of competition with other European powers. The fact that this was ignored is striking and significant for our examination of sovereignty.
 Lauren Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 37.
 Ibid., 3-5.
 Ken MacMillan, Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World: The Legal Foundations of Empire, 1576-1640 (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 79.
 Benton, Search for Sovereignty, 4.
 Ibid., 2.
For more, visit our resources
Benton, Lauren. A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
MacMillan, Ken. Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World: The Legal Foundations of Empire, 1576-1640. Cambridge University Press, 2006.