January 23, 2010

Why did Britain conquer the Americas so much more slowly than Spain?

By 1600, Spain was in possession of most of South America. By 1700, the English colonies merely hugged the Atlantic coast- spreading from New England in the north to Virginia in the south but scarcely penetrating further inland. One of the great questions about American colonization by European powers is thus, why the English in North America were so much slower than the Spanish in South America at conquering the continent? What the Spanish had acheived by 1600 was barely achieved in the United States by 1900! Its a question worth answering because what it brings to light marks a crucial distinction in the Americas that the Europeans faced in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

I am resting this entirely on Sir John Elliot's perceptive discussion on his recent comparative history of England and Spain in the early modern period- but in this I think he is right. There was a key dynamic that pushed the Spanish in a way that they did not push the English to conquer the entire continent. The first dynamic was the type of state that they conquered. The Spaniards conquered the empires of the Aztecs and Incas and were able to sit themselves upon the thrones of the conquered peoples. The English arrived to find tribal confederacies but no empires- the lands they took over were sparcely peopled (thanks in part to European diseases making their way up from the south in the course of the 16th Century). When the Spaniards took destroyed Montezuma, they became his successors. When the English took over from the Powhatten confederacy, they did not fully control the Atlantic coast. In a sense just as in 1066, the reason that the Spaniards like the Normans succeeded to conquer the entirity of other states lay in their predecessor's successes at creating empires.

There are other things we could mention: the differing attitude to evangelic missions for one- but I think it is worth stressing how the different natures of the societies that were conquered effected the type of conquest that was possible for the European colonists.


Matthew Sinclair said...

Couldn't the difference also be driven by the manner of settlement?

I've read before that, to generalise, the British settlers of North America tended to bring their families, settle down and farm whereas the Spaniards in the South were adventurers after gold or other riches. The former will move slowly as a family will settle once in a colony then stay there farming tobacco, and the colony will only expand with new families, whereas the other will constantly be looking for new opportunities and move on more quickly.

James Higham said...

I hate to say this but you're right in this. :) The disease factor in particular is sometimes discounted.

Rumbold said...

Natural resources are another factor. South and Central America had massive amounts of silver (and some gold), and a climate similar to Iberia's. Northern America and Canada were much harsher, lacked easily exportable precious metals, and so it was difficult to attract settlers there.

Gracchi said...

Matthew I'm not sure that Eliot would support that interpretation- the British early on had problems bringing women over. Only in New England were 40% of migrants before 1650 female. In the Chesapeake region, in the 1630s the proportion was still 6 men to one woman, and even in the 1650s, it was 3 to 1. An annual death rate in Colonial North America of 10% has also to be factored in. The difference is largely that the English colonies required more colonists because there were fewer Indians- so around 530,000 Englishmen crossed over in the seventeenth century, about four times the Spanish rate in the 16th century.

I think in a sense that answers some of Rumbold's point- I think the relation of resources to pull is definitely true. Part of the reason that the English government were just less interested than the Spanish- but also on the other side the English colonies did require and get more colonists largely because there were fewer others.

James thanks!

Claudia said...

This post is making me understand better why France neglected its vast New France territory from 1758 to 1762. Voltaire wrote with disdain, "Quelques arpents de neige." (A few acres of snow). I guess there was nothing worthwhile in the colony to keep France interested. Not even enough to send supplies, arms and soldiers to help Montcalm to defend Quebec when attacked by Wolfe. In 4 years, France had lost all its possessions.

The other point, you're helping me to understand, is why the British colonists were so politically lenient with Lower Canada. It seemed (according to what I read here) that Upper Canada had problems attracting colonists.

In Lower Canada, the French colonists, having lost support from France, still continued to thrive without any obstruction from England. They kept the language and the Catholic religion alive, and they multiplied. In Quebec, we call this, "La Revanche des Berceaux" (The Revenge of the Cradles.) It put us (by sheer numbers) on an equal basis with the English colonists. And when both colonies merged into one, we had a strong voice (George Etienne Cartier) in the forming of the Canadian Constitution. That's why we have two official languages in Canada.

I'm probably simplifying things here. But I never understood why Lower Canada (after the conquest) was allowed to retain its cultural identity. I guess we were very much needed, specially in the Anglo-American 1812 War. I'm very grateful for it! Love to be a proud Canadian from French Quebec.

Gracchi said...

I'll get on to that Claudia at some point but there may be a lot in what you say. Its also worth commenting that when peace was made in 1763, the British were furious at swapping Guadeloupe for the whole of Quebec and therefore the whole of Canada. It seems ironic now given the subsequent history but then it seemed like a very bad deal.

Claudia said...

Thank you for your attention. Considering that half of the Quebec population, in the last 20 years, created many problems to English Canada, with one referendum after another on Separation and Sovereignty, the old British-at-heart might still wish they had cut them off in 1763. Or just told the French colony , "You lost the war. Speak English, or else...".

Gracchi said...

Yes indeed- they were probably too busy scheming about how to get back to Guadeloupe!

I find the whole Quebec issue very interesting though- its one that I should investigate.

Claudia said...

I would truly appreciate your attention on the subject. Reading a book here, a book there, each with different interpretations, has left me dissatisfied, and even more puzzled about Canada and Quebec. I grew up very French, truly believing that we were a two-nation-country. I lost that feeling when I moved to English Canada. But many people in Quebec still believe that. Hence their repeated demands for equality or independance.

Thank you again.

edmund said...

Claudia i think keeping Quebec loyal after the "war of independnece" was a huge reason ( there's some evidence resenment at concessoin to it helped spark of the revolution ) then the big battle became with revolutianry France- and Quebec was ultrta anti revlution-and so concessions to them would prevent this changing. (their oppostion to revolution i think came from the linked reasons of the popularity of the Catholic Church and the fact they were mostly from normandy-then and now a bastion of the French right).

I also think the British once they had a large group of colonists wiht a different language and religon found it hard not to give them lots of concessions - you can see this with the Dutch in South Africa as well-i think there's a lot of paralles in the first few decades of history there-warfare when in (or a) separate state concessions when swallowed.

not an expert on this so treat with salt!

edmund said...

Gracchi very interesting post- i don't know whether this is tupid enough but woulda big reason be money- the spanish made huge reveneus for the state from gold which the English colon ies did not- so that both gave th;em finance for expansion and made the colonies more of a priority?

Also what about areas like Argentina, Columbia etc wern't they outside the empires and also "colonised" much more quickly

Claudia said...

Edmund - Interesting viewpoint. Very true that the French Colonists were anti-revolution. Most of their leaders were Royalists. And many of the missionaries who arrived, after 1789, were fleeing the French civil bloodbath.

Thank you for your comparison with the Dutch in South Africa. I never thought of looking elsewhere at what had happened in similar situations.

When I look at my country and try to understand those early years, I usually conclude that the British loved the French colony's spirit and considered it an asset. They tried very hard to keep the people happy so they would join peacefully into forming the new country. At times, they still do more than it's humanly possible to keep Quebec in Canada. I hope they succeed.

Gracchi said...

Edmund- yes I think that the contrasting wealth of the two colonies does have an impact- I think the British were disappointed by North America in a sense. Though they could have pushed inland which they didn't really do- I think there are a combination of factors and wealth must be one of them, particularly in an age where imperialism was often privatised!

I also agree with your response to Claudia. Thinking about it, the distances involved must have made the British reluctant as well to antagonise the colonists too much. One of the features of British history in the Americas in contrast to Spain is that they never really got a grip on how to govern the American colonies well- leading in part to the War of Independence- but also in the seventeenth century to Bacon's Rebellion for example in Virginia. That difficulty of governing must be part of the reason why they would make concessions to Quebec.