Best at Imitation

Anthony Pagden

  • Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 by J.H. Elliott
    Yale, 546 pp, £25.00, May 2006, ISBN 0 300 11431 1

At the beginning of the 17th century, the combined Spanish and Portuguese Empires – from 1580 until 1640 they were under one ruler and known collectively as the ‘Catholic monarchy’ – included, beyond the Iberian peninsula, Italy, the Netherlands, parts of southern France, the whole of America from California to Tierra del Fuego, the shores of West Africa, the Philippines, and regions of India and Japan. It was the most powerful and by far the richest empire the world had ever seen. ‘How strange a thing it is,’ one English observer reflected in 1609, ‘that all the states of Europe have been asleep so long that for a hundred years and more the wealth of riches of the East and West should run no other current but into one coffer.’ But now England, he went on, having been locked for more than half a century in intermittent combat with this behemoth, was struggling hard to emulate it. ‘So let the sovereign Empire be increased,’ wrote a hopeful George Chapman,

And with Iberian Neptune part the stake
Whose Trident he the triple world would make.

At least until the early 18th century, it would be in America that the rivalry between the two global powers – three, in actual fact, since the balance between the two was as often as not decided by France – would be played out. When Chapman wrote his song to the still quasi-mythical land of Guiana in 1596, the challenge to the Iberian Neptune was mere braggadocio. A little over a century later, with the end of the Spanish War of Succession, and the extinction of the Habsburg monarchy in Spain, and the final loss of all its remaining European territories, it was arguably Britain, which by now had substantial colonies in Asia and Africa and had consolidated its hold over much of what is now the eastern seaboard of the United States, that could claim Neptune’s disputed crown.

The histories of the Spanish – Iberian would be more precise – and the English (and subsequently British) Empires were linked almost from birth, and their parallel evolution has continued to exercise a considerable influence over the lives of millions in the Western hemisphere to this day. Yet such is the nature of imperial history, both old and new, that it has persisted in examining each imperial experience very largely in isolation. Add to this the assumption of many US historians that the colonial past of their nation was the expression of a destiny, manifest or not, utterly unlike that of the ‘sister republics’ to the south, and it is perhaps not surprising that there have until now been few, if any, sustained or systematic analyses of what in the 1930s the American historian Herbert Bolton called ‘the epic of Greater America’. John Elliott’s long awaited book is just that. It not only fills an obvious gap – more like a chasm – but sets the pattern for a whole new historiography of the European colonial empires.

As with all Elliott’s books, the architecture and the scope are breathtaking. Empires of the Atlantic World covers almost every imaginable aspect of the imperial experience, from politics and economics to art and law, religion and literature, science and technology: all encompassed within a single narrative which takes us from discovery in 1492 to the eve of the final independence of the Spanish-American colonies in 1830. Inevitably, some aspects are treated in greater depth and with greater originality than others. It is not so much in the discussion of individual themes, however, that the strength of the book lies, as in the way these are woven together: now, maybe for the first time, it is possible to see that no single topic, no single dimension of the histories of the two empires can adequately be understood without the others. Empires of the Atlantic World is not only a comparative history of two immense and varied polities, but the portrait of an entire world over nearly four hundred years.

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