Alexander Ponsen



M.A. in History, Leiden University (the Netherlands)

Dissertation Committee

Antonio Feros (advisor)

Roger Chartier

Jeremy Adelman (Princeton University)

Pedro Cardim (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)

Research Interests

My research focuses on the history of the early modern Iberian world. I recently defended my dissertation, which focuses on imperial sovereignty in remote regions of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. My broader research interests include empires, global history, colonial Latin America, slavery, and the methodological and epistemological bases of history and the social sciences.


My dissertation, Conflict and Coexistence on the Edge of Empire: The Limits of Sovereignty in the Iberian Colonial World, 1450-1700, examines the relationship between theory and practice in the exercise of imperial sovereignty, including during the height of Iberian global hegemony in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. I focus in particular on remote regions of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.

I open the manuscript with an analysis of a range of influential treatises, chronicles, epic poetry, cartography, and iconography, which glorified, amplified, and aimed to legitimize the claims and aspirations of the Iberian rulers to imperium beyond Europe. These texts, I demonstrate, coalesced to form a common, uniquely Iberian discourse of empire, which crystallized around the turn of the seventeenth century, during the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns.

Then, through case studies on southern Brazil and the Río de la Plata, the Philippines, and the Zambezi Valley in Southeast Africa, I explore how complex jurisdictional layering, physical distance, and the power of indigenous and local settler groups created situations in which, beyond official centers of colonial power, the crown's effective sovereignty was diffuse, highly circumscribed, and constantly fluid in its geography.

Beyond highlighting this dissonant tension between ambition and effective rule, I demonstrate how, in different moments, local actors on the peripheries of empire rearticulated concepts of Iberian and broader European law and political theory, either to affirm their obedience and belonging within the larger imperial body, or to claim authority as sources of law in their own right and defend their autonomy against the extension of crown power.


I have conducted research in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and have won fellowships and grants from the Fulbright-Hays Program, Programa Hispanex, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Foundation for Luso-American Development, the Center for the Advanced Study of India, and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, among other sources. I am currently Penn's Brizdle-Schoenberg Fellow in the History of Material Texts.

Prior to entering graduate school I worked as a journalist in South America based in Caracas, as an editorial intern in the external relations department of the International Rescue Committee in New York, and as a carpenter and laborer for a general contractor in Philadelphia specializing in historic preservation. I was born and raised in Philadelphia and am a product of the city's public schools.