“[A] Continent…will be discovered and conquered by your means…and since you expose yourself to such danger to serve us, you should be rewarded for it.”

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

When the Black Death ravaged generations of Europeans throughout the late medieval period, many no doubt expected the world was at an end. As it happened, the plagues spared most of the population, stopping short of absolute destruction. The dramatic decrease of readily available labor, however, resulted in higher wages, lower rents to landowners, and a very real financial crisis for the aristocracy as a whole class. When coupled with massive, long‐​lasting, and epochal conflicts between major powers (England and France’s Hundred Years War, Spain’s Reconquista, and the Ottoman‐​Hapsburg Wars to name a few examples), the demographic crisis encouraged aristocrats to seek out new sources of revenue. European rulers and their sponsored cliques of merchant‐​capitalists turned their hungry gazes first eastward to India. Finding the land and sea routes to the Far East lengthy and costly (made all the more so by Ottoman tariffs), the various crowns sponsored voyages of westward discovery and colonization.

Beginning in earnest with our first document–Ferdinand and Elizabeth’s grant of “Privileges and Prerogatives” to Christopher Columbus–monarchs exchanged royal rights and privileges for the wealth and talents of a new, burgeoning class of colonial aristocrats and venture capitalists. Columbus is granted practically absolute rule over any and all conquered territories and to him alone are the privileges of rule accorded. A century later, Elizabeth I’s “Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh (1584)” shows the development of charter‐​granting at the turn of the early modern era: Raleigh is granted not only the right to explore, conquer, and rule colonies in the name of the Queen, but to go a‐​pirating against England’s enemies. Importantly, however, should Raleigh ever entertain the notion of rebelling against his queen, he should immediately be banished from the English nation and removed from Elizabeth’s royal protection.

From the first corporate charters granted by European monarchs to petty capitalists in the high medieval period to the almost standardized grants afforded early colonial agents, monarchs relieved themselves of both burdensome rights and duties to their subjects and offset the cost of plagues. The royals shed their prerogatives, feathered their imperial beds, and constructed royal absolutist or bourgeois‐​mercantile nation‐​states to replace medieval fiefdoms. In the next item of the series, we will explore the origins of corporate‐​capitalism and bourgeois imperialism in colonial North American charters.

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FERDINAND and ELIZABETH, by the Grace of God, King and Queen of Castile, of Leon, of Arragon…

Privileges and Prerogatives Granted by Their Catholic Majesties to Christopher Columbus: 1492

For as much of you, Christopher Columbus, are going by our command, with some of our vessels and men, to discover and subdue some Islands and Continent in the ocean, and it is hoped that by God’s assistance, some of the said Islands and Continent in the ocean will be discovered and conquered by your means and conduct, therefore it is but just and reasonable, that since you expose yourself to such danger to serve us, you should be rewarded for it…Our will is, That you, Christopher Columbus…shall be our Admiral of the said Islands and Continent you shall so discover and conquer; and that you be our Admiral, Vice‐​Roy, and Governour in them, and that for the future, you may call and stile yourself, D. Christopher Columbus, and that your sons and successors in the said employment, may call themselves Dons, Admirals, Vice‐​Roys, and Governours of them; and that you may exercise the office of Admiral, with the charge of Vice‐​Roy and Governour of the said Islands and Continent, which you and your Lieutenants shall conquer, and freely decide all causes, civil and criminal…as you shall think fit in justice, and as the Admirals of our kingdoms use to do; and that you have power to punish offenders…and that you enjoy the perquisites and salaries belonging to the said employments, and to each of them, in the same manner as the High Admiral of our kingdoms does…Concerning all which things, if it be requisite, and you shall desire it, We command our Chancellour, Notaries, and other Officers, to pass, seal, and deliver to you, our Letter of Privilege, in such form and legal manner, as you shall require or stand in need of. And that none of them presume to do any thing to the contrary, upon pain of our displeasure, and forfeiture of 30 ducats for each offence…Under which same, we also command any Public Notary whatsoever, that he give to him that shows it him, a certificate under his seal, that we may know how our command is obeyed.

GIVEN at Granada, on the 30th of April, in the year of our Lord, 1492.-


By their Majesties Command,

John Coloma

Secretary to the King and Queen.

Charter to Sir Walter Raleigh: 1584

ELIZABETH by the Grace of God of England, Fraunce and Ireland Queene, defender of the faith, &c. To all people to whome these presents shall come, greeting.

Knowe yee that of our especial grace, certaine science, and meere motion, we haue given and graunted, and by these presents for us, our heires and successors, we giue and graunt to our trustie and welbeloued seruant Walter Ralegh, Esquire, and to his heires assignee for euer, free libertie and licence from time to time, and at all times for ever hereafter, to discover, search, finde out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince, nor inhabited by Christian People, as to him, his heires and assignee, and to every or any of them shall seeme good, and the same to haue, horde, occupie and enjoy to him, his heires and assignee for euer, with all prerogatives, commodities, jurisdictions, royalties, privileges, franchises, and preheminences, thereto or thereabouts both by sea and land, whatsoever we by our letters patents may graunt, and as we or any of our noble progenitors haue heretofore graunted to any person or persons, bodies politique.or corporate: and the said Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignee, and all such as from time to time, by licence of us, our heires and successors, shall goe or trauaile thither to inhabite or remaine, there to build and fortifie, at the discretion of the said Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignee, the statutes or acte of Parliament made against fugitives, or against such as shall depart, romaine or continue out of our Realme of England without licence, or any other statute, acte, lawe, or any ordinance whatsoever to the contrary in anywise notwithstanding.

And we do likewise by these presents, of our especial grace, meere motion, and certain knowledge, for us, our heires and successors, giue and graunt full authoritie, libertie and power to the said Walter Salem, his heires and assignee, and every of them, that he and they, and euery or any of them, shall and may at all and euery time, and times hereafter, haue, take, and leade in the saide voyage, and trauaile thitherward, or to inhabit there with him, or them, and euery or any of them, such and so many of our subjects as shall willingly accompanie him or them, and euery or any of them to whom also we doe by these presents, giue full libertie and authority in that behalfe, and also to hare, take, and employ, and vse suflicient shipping and furniture for the Transportations and Nauigations in that behalfe, so that none of the same persons or any of them, be such as hereafter shall be restrained by us, our heires, or successors.

And further that the said Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignee, and euery of them, shall haue holde, occupie, and enioye to him, his heires and assignee, and euery of them for euer, all the soile of all such lands, territories, and Countreis, so to bee discovered and possessed as aforesaide, and of all such Cities, castles, townes, villages, and places in the same, with the right, royalties, franchises, and iurisdictions, as well marine as other within the saide lances, or Countreis, or the seas thereunto adioyning, to be had, or used, with full power to dispose thereof, and of euery part in fee‐​simple or otherwise, according to the order of the lawes of England, as neere as the same conveniently may bee, at his, and their will and pleasure, to any persons then being, or that shall romaine within the allegiance of us, our heires, and successors: resewing always to us our heires, and successors, for all services, duties, and demaundes, the lift part of all the oare of golde and siluer, that from time to time, and at all times after such discouerie, subduing and possessing, shal be there gotten and obtained: All which lances, Countreis, and territories, shall for ever be holden of the said Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignee, of us, our heirs and successors, by homage, and by the said paiment of the said fift part, resewed onely for all services.

And moreover, we doe by these presents, for us, our heires and. successors, giue and graunt licence to the said Walter Ralegh, his heirs, and assignee, and euery of them, that he, and they, and euery or any of them, shall and may from time to time, and at all times for euer hereafter, for his and their defence, encounter and expulse, repell and resist as well by sea as by lance, and by all other wayes whatsoever, all, and every such person and persons whatsoever, as without the especiall liking and licence of the saide Walter Ralegh, and of his heires and assignee, shall attempt to inhabite within the said Countreis, or any of them, or within the space of two hundreth leagues neere to the place or places within such Countreis as aforesaide (if they shall not bee before planted or inhabited within the limits as aforesaide with the subjects of any Christian Prince being in amitie with us) where the saide Walter Ralegh, his heires, or assignee, or any of them, or his, or their or any of their associates or company, shall within sine yeeres (next ensuing) make their dwellings or abidings, or that shall enterprise or attempt at any time hereafter unlawfully to annoy, either by sea or lance, the saide Walter Ralegh, his heirs or assignee, or any of them, or his or their, or any of his or their companies giuing, and graunting by these presents further power and authoritie, to the said Walter Ralegh, his heirs and assignee, and euery of them from time to time, and at all times for euer hereafter, to take and surprise by all maner of meanes whatsoever, all and euery those person or persons, with their shipper, vessels, and other goods and furniture, which without the licence of the saide Walter Ralegh, or his heires, or assignee, as aforesaide, shalbe founde trafiquing into any harbour or harbors, creeke, or creekes, within the limits aforesaide, (the subjects of our Realms and Dominions, and all other persons in amitie with us, trading to the Newfound land for fishing as heretofore they haue commonly used, or being driven by force of a tempest, or shipwracke onely excepted:) and those persons, and euery of them, with their shippes, vessels, goods and furniture to deteine and possesse as of good and lawfull prize, according to the discretion of him the saide Walter Ralegh, his heires, and assignee, and euery, or any of them. And for uniting in more perfect league and amitie, of such Countreis, lances, and territories so to bee possessed and inhabited as aforesaide with our Realmes of Englande, and Ireland, and the better incouragement of men to these enterprises: we do by these presents, graunt and declare that all such Countreis, so hereafter to be possessed and inhabited as is aforesaide, from thencefoorth shall bee of the allegiance of vs. our heires and successours. And wee doe graunt to the saide Walter Ralegh, his heires, and assignee, and to all, and euery of them, and to all and euery other person, and persons being of our allegiance, whose names shall be noted or entred in some of our Courtes of recorde within our Realme of Englande, that with the assentof the saide Walter Ralegh,his heires or assignes, shall in his journeis for discouerie, or in the iourneis for conquest, hereafter trauelle to such lands, countreis and territories, as aforesaide, and to their, and to euery of their heires, that they, and every or any of them, being either borne within our saide Realmes of Englande, or Irelande or in any other place within our allegiance, and which hereafter shall be inliabiting within any the lands, Countreis, and territories, with such licence (as aforesaide) shall and may haue all the priniledges of free Denizens, and persons native of England, and within our allegiance in such like ample manor and fourme, as if they were borne and personally resident within our saide Realme of England, any lawe, custome, or vsage to the contrary notwithstanding.

And for asmuch as upon the finding out, discovering, or inhabiting of such remote lands, countreis, and territories as aforesaid, it shal be necessary for the safetie of al men, that shal aduenture them selues in those murnies or voyages, to determine to line together in Christian peace, and ciuil quietnes ech with other, whereby euery one may with snore pleasure and profit enjoy that whereunto they shall attaine with great Paine and perill, we for vs. our heires and successors, are likewise pleased and contented, and by these presents do giue and graunt to the said Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignee for ever, that tree and they, and euery or any of them, shall and may from time to time for euer hereafter, within the said mentioned remote lances and Countreis in the way by the seas thither, and from thence, inane full and meere power and authoritie to correct, punish, pardon, gouerne, and rule by their and euery or any of their good discretions and pollicies, as well in causes capital, or criminal!, as ciuil, both marine and other all such our subjects as shall from time to time aduenture themselves in the said iournies or voyages, or that shall at any time hereafter inhabite any such lances, countreis, or territories as aforesaide, or shall abide within 200. leagues of any of the saide place or places, where the saide Walter Raleqh, his heires or assignee, or any of them, or any of his or their associates or companies, shall inhabits within 6. yeeres next ensuing the date hereof, according to such statutes, lawes and ordinances, as shall bee by him the saide Walter Raleqh his heires and assignee, and euery or any of them deuised, or established, for the better government of the said people as aforesaid. So always as the said statutes, lawes, and ordinances may be as neere as conveniently may be, agreeable to the forme of the lawes, statutes, governement, or pollicie of England, and also so as they be not against the true Christian faith, nowe professed in the Church of England, nor in any wise to withdraws any of the subjects or people of those lances or places from the allegiance of vs. our heires and successours, as their immediate Soueraigne vnder God…

Provided alwayes, and our will and pleasure is, and wee do hereby declare to all Christian kings, princes and states, that if the saide Walter Ralegh, his heires or assignee, or any of them, or any other lay their licence or appointment, shall at any time or times hereafter, robbe or spoile by sea or by lance, or do any acte of unjust or unlawful hostilitie, to any of the subjects of vs. our heires or successors, or to any of the subjects of any the kings, princes, rulers, governors, or estates, being then in perfect league and amitie with us, our heires and successors, and that upon such injury, or upon lust complaint of any such prince, ruler, governoir, or estate, or their subjects, wee, our heires and successours, shall make open proclamation within any the Fortes of our Realme of England, that the saide Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignee, and adherents, or any to whome these our letters patents may extende, shall within the termes to be Emitted, by such proclamation, make full restitution, and satisfaction of all such inJuries done, so as both we and the said princes, or other so complayning, may horde vs and themselves fully contented. And that if the saide Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignee, shall not make or cause to be made satisfaction accordingly, within such time so to be limitted, that then it shall be lawfull to us our heires and successors, to put the saide Walter Ralegh, his heires and assignee and adherents, and all the inhabitants of the said places to be discovered (as is aforesaide) or any of them out of our allegiance and protection, and that from and after such time of putting out of protection the said Walter Rategh, his heires, assignee and adherents, and others so to be put out, and the said places within their habitation, possession and rule, shaL be out of our allegeance and protection, and free for all princes and others, to pursue with hostilitie, as being not our subjects, nor by vs any way to be avouched, maintained or defended, nor to be holden as any of ours, nor to our protection or dominion, or allegiance any way belonging, for that expresse mention of the cleer yeerely value of tile certaintie of the premisses, or any part thereof, or of any other gift, or grant by vs. or any our progenitors, or predecessors to the said Walter Ralegh, before this time made in these presents be not expressed, or any other grant, ordinance, provision, proclamation, or restraint to the contrarye thereof, before this time giuen, ordained, or provided, or any other thing, cause, or matter whatsoever, in any wise notwithstanding. In witness whereof, we haue caused these our letters to be made patents. Witnesse our selues, at Westminster, the 25. day of March, in the sixe and twentieth yeere of our Raigne.

(Both original documents have been modified and are available in full online thanks to the Yale University “Avalon Project.” For Columbus’ charter, see here; for Raleigh’s charter, see here.)