Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 
by J.H. Elliott.
Yale, 546 pp., £25, May 2006, 0 300 11431 1
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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.

It is not a comparative history of the reductive kind that tends to find either easy similarities or sharp dichotomies. The Spanish and British Empires were, in many significant respects, very different kinds of society. (And both were unlike the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese Empires, which intermittently shared the same Atlantic spaces.) Early modern Spain itself was large, multiethnic, overwhelmingly agricultural and Catholic. Early modern Britain was small, with a growing proto-industrial sector, and Protestant. And the new worlds into which the Spanish and the British blundered so uncertainly were also very different. In the south, the Spaniards encountered flourishing, powerful, centralised populations living in large city complexes, which exacted tribute from far-flung subject peoples and had, by all accounts, an elaborate hierarchal structure of government. These ‘empires’, as the Spanish called them, the Inca and the Aztec, may not have been quite the great barbarian civilisations that Cortés and Pizarro, always eager to overplay their own achievements in having conquered them, made them out to be. But they were quite unlike most of the loose, decentralised indigenous societies which confronted the British. Spanish America had been acquired through much publicised conquests, around which by the end of the 16th century a rich imaginative literature had grown up. Although the British Crown invariably described its American colonies as ‘lands of conquest’, this was only because in law such lands belonged to the Crown and were thus excluded from parliamentary jurisdiction. In fact, with the dubious exception of the Virginia of Powhatan, the British had only ever settled in territories that had been purchased or acquired by treaty from their original owners. In the south, the Spanish had encountered immense quantities of what they had originally gone there to find: precious metals. ‘Fortune,’ Adam Smith remarked dryly, ‘did upon this what she has done upon very few other occasions. She realised in some measure the extravagant hope of her votaries.’ The British (and the French), who had gone with the same extravagant hope, had come home empty-handed.

These differences inevitably determined the kinds of settlement that evolved in the New World. The North American colonies were populated, for the most part, by small farmers who finally displaced (or massacred) rather than integrated the indigenous populations. Unlike Spain, which for centuries had had ever-shifting ethnic and religious frontiers, and was accustomed to the need for an inter-cultural convivencia, Tudor and Stuart England had, as Elliott remarks, ‘no experience of dealing with substantial ethnic minorities in its midst’. The English preferred, in the words of the governor of Virginia, Sir Francis Wyatt, ‘to have no heathen among us, who at best were but thorns in our sides’. The Spanish south, by contrast, was colonised by aristocrats and would-be aristocrats, whose wealth and self-image relied heavily on the existence of a highly stratified native labour force, through whom they sought to create a world of feudal privilege of a sort fast disappearing in Europe itself. They entrusted local administration, and the all-important task of tribute collection, to indigenous elites, the so-called caciques. These men in turn rapidly adopted both the language and the social attitudes of Castilian society, as far as they understood it, referring to themselves as the ‘natural lords’ of the land, riding horses and carrying arms (privileges otherwise reserved for Spaniards), and even in some cases employing Spanish servants.

The force of the ‘black legend’, the tales of Spanish atrocities in America that so horrified Montaigne and Pascal and so delighted the Protestant powers of Europe, has obscured the high degree to which the Spanish were able to co-opt large numbers of the Indian population. Men like Alva Ixtlilxochitl, the brother of the ‘natural lord’ of the Mexican state of Texcoco, or the ‘Inca’ Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish father and an Inca princess, wrote eloquent histories after classical models to demonstrate how much the indigenous people had done to make the Spanish conquests possible; and petitions for recognition of the services they had rendered were still being made to the Spanish Crown up until independence. It is easy to overstate this, and it does not diminish the horror of the conquests, but it is the case that the native peoples of the former Spanish colonies lost far less by being incorporated into the Castilian Crown than the Indians of the north lost by being excluded from the 13 colonies. In some respects the Spanish conquest resembled less the British settlement of North America than it did the conquest of India.

The Spanish intermarried extensively with the natives, which the British hardly ever did, to create large mestizo populations which soon outnumbered both true ‘Indians’ and creoles. When independence finally came, the Spanish American colonies were slowly transformed into truly multiethnic republics, whereas the north remained and, despite steady immigration from southern and Catholic Europe and the Hispanic south, remains to this day – the alarmist protestations of the likes of Pat Buchanan notwithstanding – close to the political culture of its white, Puritan and overwhelmingly English origins. The Spanish settlements were never colonies, or, as the English called them, ‘plantations’ (before the attempted reforms of the late 18th century), but dependent kingdoms, or reinos de Indias, governed by a distinct body of law issued from the metropolis, and administered by a separate council of state. The British colonies, by contrast, were virtually self-governing, under such a bewildering variety of charters and concessions that, as one anonymous settler in Virginia complained in the early 18th century, ‘no one can tell what is law and what is not in the plantations.’

Behind the Spanish monarch, scrutinising the activities of Crown and colonists alike, and frequently serving as a check on their worst excesses, was the Church, ‘all too often’, in Elliott’s words, ‘impervious to state control’. The various species of Protestantism that flourished in British America, though often dedicated to much the same ends, had none of the resources that centuries spent in converting pagans, suppressing heresy and fighting Islam had provided to the Catholic Church. As Elliott wryly observes, the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company of 1629, which depicted an Indian with a scroll emerging from his mouth bearing the legend ‘Come over and help us,’ boasted a ‘commitment to missionary activity which promised more than it eventually delivered’.

Mimesis has always played a crucial role in the formation of empires. Alexander copied the Achaemenids he had defeated and sought to replace. The Romans, at least by the second century ce, came to look on themselves as the more successful heirs of Alexander; and most subsequent European empires have struggled to replicate both the successes and the legitimacy of Rome. The ‘Spanish Empire’ of Charles V was, in effect, one part of a much larger polity at whose heart lay the Holy Roman Empire, the self-declared heir to Rome. This was something to which Protestant England could never hope to lay claim (although before the separation from Rome Henry VIII had made a somewhat forlorn bid to have himself elected Holy Roman Emperor). But if the British Empire could not hope to rival the prestige of Spain, it could compete on an equal footing in the Americas. As one spokesman for the Virginia Company put it, the English would ‘make good the common speed’, for they ‘are best at imitation and so do soon excel their teachers’.

Elliott brilliantly illustrates this early bid to overtake Spain by contrasting the conquest of Mexico by Cortés in 1519-22 and the attempt by Christopher Newport to ‘conquer’ Virginia 87 years later. In many respects these were very different kinds of venture, with very different outcomes. Cortés was, initially at least, the lieutenant of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez; Newport was the employee of a private trading company. Yet, just as Newport was ultimately acting on behalf of James I, so Cortés’s expedition had been made possible by private Spanish financiers. The ‘king’ Powhatan was clearly no Montezuma, and Newport’s attempt to crown him (with a copper crown) ended in farce. His ‘empire’ was no empire, and contained none of the wealth Mexico was rapidly seen to possess. Nor was Newport in any position to offer to make his monarch, as Cortés did his, ‘emperor of this kingdom’ as of the Holy Roman Empire (Cortés referred to it simply as ‘Germany’), ‘which your Sacred Majesty already possesses’. On the other hand, not only were Newport’s and Cortés’s objectives broadly similar, but the social composition of their forces was much the same (although Newport had even more supposed ‘gentlemen’ than Cortés), as were their motives, which, as one of the colonists of Jamestown put it, had been ‘to conquer this land’, which had ‘never been possessed by any Christian prince’, so that ‘you may yet live to see England more rich and renowned than any kingdom in all Europe.’ There was even, although it figured less prominently on the English agenda than it did on the Spanish, the same mission, in the words of one of Drake’s captains, Christopher Carleill, to ‘reduce the savage people to Christianity and civility’.

Time, the different political cultures of the two ‘mother countries’, and ever-changing circumstances slowly forced the two imperial projects apart. The differences between the indigenous populations made it inevitable that very different kinds of colonial society would soon emerge. In the north, the settlements remained, culturally and politically, very close to Britain until the end. The claim that ‘New England lies within England’ was a legal fiction, but a cultural reality. In Spanish America, however, within less than a century, new societies and new cultures had come into being. The Spanish creoles, while insisting always on their loyalty to the Crown, had by the mid-17th century evolved ways of life, forms of art and architecture, and a literature in both Spanish and Latin which, while evidently European in inspiration, were quite distinct from those found in Spain. They also developed a powerful language of patriotism, which drew heavily on a somewhat fictionalised indigenous past, and would serve them well in the subsequent struggle for self-determination. The cultural life of the 13 colonies, by contrast, remained an essentially simplified, impoverished version of what was to be found in England, and the only patriotism the English creoles knew before the mid-18th century was an attachment to all things English.

The mimetic relationship between the two Americas went through a curious evolutionary cycle. Even as late as the early 18th century, when Spain was visibly in decline, there were some, such as the political economist Charles Davenant, who regretted that nothing resembling ‘a constitution something like what we call the Council of the Indies in Spain’ had been created to administer Britain’s overseas dominions. By the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1713, the balance of power in Europe had shifted inexorably from the south to the north. It was Spain that now began to look towards Britain for a possible solution to its imperial malaise. Between 1767 and 1771, the ministers of Charles III, most notably the Count of Campomanes and the Count of Floridablanca, driven by Enlightenment conceptions of bureaucratic efficiency and ideas emerging from the new science of political economy, undertook an extensive programme of reform intended to turn the sprawling American dominions into an orderly modern empire, in which the older ‘kingdoms of the Indies’ were to become ‘powerful and considerable provinces’ of Spain. The administrative machinery intended to bring this about, and the political language now being used to describe the new enlightened Spanish monarchy, both at home and overseas, was overwhelmingly French; but the model was British.

The British Empire, which Adam Smith had denounced in 1776 as existing ‘in imagination only’, was, however, far from being the model of financial and administrative efficiency Campomanes imagined it to be. Victory over France in the Seven Years’ War had left Britain in possession of Canada and French India, and, for a while at least, it was the undisputed master of the Atlantic; but this had cost the Crown dear. Beginning with the notorious Stamp Act of 1765, the British initiated a series of policies intended to bring the increasingly assertive American colonies to heel and to compel them to shoulder a greater portion of the burden of imperial defence. The response of the settler population of both north and south to what they interpreted as unwarranted assaults on time-honoured rights and privileges was outrage that the mother country could betray the trust that had for so long existed between it and its subjects, followed by protest, insurgency and finally independence.

The circumstances which finally drove the ‘English-Americans’, as Jefferson called them, and subsequently the Spanish Americans, to the drastic measure of taking up arms against those whom, for all their disagreements, they still regarded as their fellow countrymen, were very different. When, in 1776, the North Americans declared war on George III it was because, although the king was their undoubted legitimate sovereign, he had, as Washington tersely put it, devised ‘a regular and systematic plan’ to destroy American freedom. When, in 1810, the Spanish Americans, from Rio de la Plata to Mexico, took their first step towards independence, they were rebelling against a state which was still largely controlled by the armies of Napoleon and whose only legitimate sovereign was living in exile. The crisis of legitimacy created by the Napoleonic invasion of Spain broke the long habit of loyalty to the Crown. And when the struggle for independence began in earnest it was seen not, as it was in the north, as a battle with a monarch who had betrayed a long and hallowed tradition of shared government, but as a bid, in Simón Bolívar’s words, to lift the yoke of ‘three hundred years of servitude’.

The courses of the two American revolutions were also dissimilar. The North Americans fought a brief, intense campaign; the South Americans endured more than two decades of bloody warfare. The 13 colonies transformed themselves relatively painlessly into the United States of America; the former Spanish colonies, after a short-lived attempt by Bolívar to create a Greater Columbia out of Venezuela, New Granada and Quito, dissolved into a number of mutually antagonistic republics. Whereas Washington managed successfully to disband the Continental Army once its job was done – one of the greatest if least noticed of his many achievements – the armies which had fought the Spanish fell into the hands of individual warlords. To attempt to govern America, Bolívar declared shortly before his death, was like trying ‘to plough the ocean’.

The outcome, as we know all too well, has been a divided, impoverished and generally backward south and a fitfully united, powerful and prosperous north. At the very end of his book Elliott allows himself a rare moment of counterfactual reflection. What if Henry VII, instead of turning Columbus away, had sponsored his voyages, and an ‘expeditionary force of West Countrymen had conquered Mexico’ for England? Would the flow of American silver, and the need to create the kind of bureaucracy Davenant so admired, have led in the end to the creation of the kind of absolutist monarchy which Spain, in fact, became? Elliott prefers not to answer. He is a historian, not a prophet. The shapes of the two great Atlantic empires were, he concludes, in the end determined by ‘personal choices and the unpredictable consequences of unforeseen events’.

But what if the much vaunted rights and liberties which flowed from Magna Carta, through the Commonwealth and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 into the America of 1776, had indeed been snuffed out in the mid-16th century by a hugely enriched Tudor monarchy ? What if this monarchy had then occupied the north, which it certainly would have done? Would Britain, unable to understand or control the economic consequences of massive imports of bullion, have gone the way of Spain? Or would the kind of universal monarchy David Hume came to dread have become a reality, spreading over all of America and much of Asia? And when independence finally came – as it would have – would the new state which emerged have fulfilled Jefferson’s hopes for a federation of states from the Hudson Bay to the Straits of Magellan? And what would the consequences of this have been for the modern world? The questions are worth asking not so much because we can ever have a sensible answer, nor because they can tell us very much about what actually did happen, but because they demonstrate, once again, how intertwined are the histories of the modern European empires and how inseparable from the history, not only of the indigenous peoples who fell under their rule, but of Europe itself.

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