Large historical problems are stimulating to debate but difficult to specify and answer in ways that might carry forward our long-standing discourses in global economic history. The papers which form the basis of our essay deal with a meta question and are focused upon the economic consequences (the costs and benefits) for those European societies most actively involved in territorial expansion, colonization, world trade, capital exports and emigration to other continents over the past five centuries. Our symbolic dates mark (rather than demarcate) the beginning and ending of European imperialism. Colonisation occurred in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages but between 1415 and 1789 European powers, particularly Britain but also Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and Italy, founded hundreds of colonies. Individual articles have concentrated upon periods of significance for particular countries and are, moreover, analysed within the context of an international economy, evolving through four eras (or orders) of mercantilism (1415–1846), liberalism (1846–1914), neo-mercantilism (1914–48), and decolonisation (1948–74). Our Introduction draws heavily upon six national case studies as well as discussions that took place at a conference in Madrid in 1997. We do not intend to cite particular contributions to the inferences and conclusions in this essay. Our views represent an elaboration upon and an interpretation of the articles that follow.