February 06, 2010

Review: Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830

It is the obvious comparison. British national identity has been built for centuries upon the rejection of universal monarchy in Europe: Spain whether under the Habsburgs, the Bourbons or Napoleon has been the victim and instigator of some of the great moments of that identity's creation. Part of the legend of the power of Phillip II was his innumerable fleets carrying silver across the Atlantic from the Indies to Seville and Cadiz to fund his foreign wars. The British Empire in America developed in emulation of the Spanish empire and by the eighteenth century the Spanish empire developed in emulation of the British. The Bourbon reformers of the late 18th Century looked to British America to see what they wanted for Spain: a commercial empire that would extend the economic reach of old Europe. Sir John Elliot's study of this topic covers so many centuries and regions of the world that it stuns the reader with its grasp of detail and its coverage of events. Elliot has had to rely upon numerous historians in coming to those judgements and he does so from his perspective as an acute historian himself, someone in particular who has worked well and fruitfully with the Spanish archives.

Elliot's study reinforces one of my most fondly held ideas about history itself- that it is accidental. We commonly counterpose the British empire in the Americas, resource poor and commerce rich with the Spanish empire which was the opposite. And yet, the Spanish were drawn to the Americas to emulate the Portugese by founding a commercial empire, the British were drawn by the promise of resources. The empires created were not those intended. Elliot shows how much of the histories of the Spanish and British North American empires were formed by where the two nations landed. Furthermore that feature influenced the way that the two empires' relationships with their homelands worked: the seventeenth century Spanish American empire was the foundation for a Spanish attempt at universal monarchy via its silver flows, the Stuarts did not find a bonanza in their empire and tended to leave it alone as they battled their own subjects at home. Again this led to an unintended consequence: the Spanish empire depended more upon elaborate links to its homeland, the British empire largely functioned outside of the attentions of Whitehall.

Elliot's analysis is powerful as he develops the contrasts between the ways that the histories of the two empires proceeded. He shows for example that though we might contrast and compare Bolivar and Washington, we would be doing so illegitimately: the Revolution of 1776 was caused because the British tried to control the empire that they had created, the Revolution of the early 19th Century was caused by the collapse of Spanish power after the conquest of the peninsular by Napoleon. The two revolts were different as well- the American revolution was shorter and less bloody than events to the south, and the Americans were easily able to start trading with the British afterwards whereas Spain closed her markets to her colonies. The United States was left alone as the Europeans concentrated on wars within Europe, the South Americans were not. We could go on multiplying the contrasts between the two empires as they developed both at the beggining and through their course- and Elliot does- drawing out these contrasts shows us how accident prone history is, how it is the product of factors that noone at the time could have anticipated and noone could have understood.

Elliot's acheivement is to draw all of this out and place it side by side. He proceeds deftly and pays the requisite attention to relations between the colonies and Indians and imported black slaves. There is so much detail here and so many good stories that his tale remains lively despite going on for over four hundred pages. What is really impressive though is the style- Elliot interweaves his narrative of Spanish and English development together meticulously, each thread winds round the other so that the stories he tells can be compared by any reader. This is hard to do, hard to keep the focus on both narratives at the same time- and sometimes in the midst of exciting events, Elliot does tell one story and not the other (during the American revolution for instance). However this work is a genuinely comparative work rather than being a work that tells two stories and just places them in the same book.

In my view the comparison does aid understanding- firstly it makes clear how much the patterns that we see in America whether Spanish or English were the consequence of Europeans arriving in a new world. So for example, both Spanish and English colonists were wary of two things- the government at home and the surrounding Indians and slaves. Conflict between centre and periphery began almost as soon as colonisation- but then so did conflict within the colonies. Secondly it shows how in both cases the causes of the development of the colonies were a subtle interweaving of traditions from Europe, the Americas, the environment and fortune. A fascinating topic is identity: Spanish American patriotism was earlier than British American patriotism- partly because the Spaniards came from within a composite monarchy at home and so were used to the idea of provincial patriotisms (the Englishmen in North America believed that they were English and entitled to English liberties), partly though it was also created by the Spanish from materials that they had available- like the Mexican symbol of the Eagle- materials the British who excluded their smaller Indian population just didn't have. The way that Elliot tells the story brings out the complexity of the relationships between these phenomena. Thirdly it makes the stories of both the English and Spanish empire contingent: we see how native traditions, Indian traditions, geography and accident combine to lead the two empires down different tracks. As Elliot asks, how would the history of Europe have changed had Henry VII employed Columbus and the English monarchy grown absolute on a diet of South American gold?

We will never know the answer to that question, but the merit of good comparative history in this form is that it makes us realise that that is a question.


edmund said...

good review of what sounds like a veyr interesting book...

A piont that seems pedancit but i think is a bit deeper is this

He shows for example that though we might contrast and compare Bolivar and Washington, we would be doing so illegitimately: the Revolution of 1776 was caused because the British tried to control the empire that they had created, the Revolution of the early 19th Century was caused by the collapse of Spanish power after the conquest of the peninsular by Napoleon. "

but surely the latter is an explanation of the contrast- it just menas it has to be a wider contest-and suggests in many ways one can learn a lot from it!

Interein on the less bloody point- i wonder if it was also less eixsles-it was 5% exile I think -which is huge bigger than French Revolution-does elliot deal with this?

this "earlier" patriotim how true it is if one just looks at peole bieng in colony for cerina % of time -ie breaking down european settlment by % who are first , second etc- given how the spanish colonies became substantial quite early were they really "quicker" to develop provincal patriotism?