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.

February 02, 2010

A Frontier

Whenever I imagine a frontier, I imagine the borderline say between France and Belgium. Everyone knows where it is, there are checkpoints and border guards, there is the administration of the state and 1 cm that way, you are in the land of croissants and Voltaire, a cm the other way and its Tintin and Hercule Poirot. Of course that is not how frontiers actually work. In the United States one of the fundemental points in John Elliot's recent study is that in both British and Spanish empires the frontier was not a place but a zone. The zone might fluctuate- it might extend- in the British case normally through trade or colonisation, in the Spanish through the movement of missionaries particularly those associated with the great orders- the Franciscans, the Dominicans etc- or it might contract- as the Spanish or British abandoned places too expensive to defend and too exposed. There were pressures outwards like population pressure in the Eastern US seaboard, or pressures to contract like the Portugeese who moved on Spanish allied Indians in the Amazonian rainforest to recruit slaves for the plantations in India. Whatever it was though, we are incorrect to ever feel that the frontier was here and moved westwards or eastwards forever until European colonisation was complete: rather than being a neat line on a map, it was a zone, a status of uncertainty which permeated American life with the fear of conquest and the exhileration of religious expansion or agricultural opportunity.

January 31, 2010

The Historicity of King David's rise

The earliest parts of the Old Testament have always intrigued me as a historian. Obviously they have a religious meaning as well- which I will not discuss today. As a historian though, these texts are amongst the few that have survived from the era they document- the Iron Age- consequently when we read them, we are delving into a past that is almost completely lost apart from these texts. That of course brings with it another issue though: whether the texts can be relied upon. When I look at the reign of Oliver Cromwell in England, there are thousands of texts which attest to his Protectorate: all of which were written exactly at the time that Cromwell reigned. When I look at the world of David in Isreal, the issue is more complicated- as I will explain below there is evidence that the Book of Kings was not written at the time of David and furthermore the question of which parts of Kings actually reflect a real 'David' is a difficult one. Kings and Samuel contradict themselves as well: in the Bible it is notable that Goliath has two killers- in Samuel 21:19 the killer of Goliath is named not as David but as Elhanan. So we have a problem with these texts- even though they promise much about the world of David- can they fulfill what they promise.

What I am going to do in this essay is sumarise the views of two Israeli archaeologists, whose book I have just read, then enumerate by own criticisms of it. This is a field in which I am totally inexpert- so I ask for your charity in responding to mistakes I might make and also in the fact that I am sure there are criticisms that I will miss. I think though what they say is interesting.

So let's begin. Firstly there is good evidence that a 'David' did exist. In Dan, in northern Isreal, archaeologists found a stone which dates to the late ninth century (about 100 years after David probably lived based on Biblical geneaologies). The stone was carved by King Hazael, ruler of Damascus, and he writes amongst other things

And Hadad went in front of me, I departed from seven... s of my kingdom and I slew [seve]nty kin[gs] who harnassed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen. [I killed Jeho]ram son of Ahab, King of Isreal and [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin]g of the House of David.

This is the earliest document which confirms that anything in the Bible is 'true'. It provides reasonable proof that in the 9th Century BC people in Judah (the southern Kingdom of the Jews) were claiming that a David had led them in the tenth century: given that they were unlikely to claim this one hundred years after David was alive, if it was a lie, it seems to be a sensible inference to regard the existance of David as established. David was, as the Bible said, a king or chieftan who ruled in Judah and left a line of Kings who survived into the ninth century- one of whom was defeated by Hazael.

If so, what kind of world did David live in? Here the Bible does and can help us- allied with archaeology. According to Finklestein and Silberman there are two major constructions around Jerusalem, David's capital, in the iron age. One of those constructions dates back hundreds of years before David was alive, in the Biblical chronology, the other dates to the reign of David's heirs- particularly in the seventh and eighth centuries BC. If you look into your Bible though what you do find is that David spent a significant period of his career in Kings as a bandit- fighting sometimes with and sometimes against the armies of the Northern Kingdom of Isreal and sometimes with and sometimes against the armies of the Palestinians in Gath (significantly a city which faded from power after the 10th century). Given the topography of Judah at the time- a wild mountainous region with a few villages, both Finklestein and Silberman think that this is realistic. Evidence from the Amarna archives in Egypt, a couple of hundred years before David's life, confirms the pattern of politics in that region as being one where coastal and plain cities resisted the forces of the Apiru (largely landless and formerly servile rebels) living in the mountains. Jerusalem does seem to have been a centre for these people- and the account of David's rise to power therefore makes sense as an account of something that may have been in the origins historic.

Probably though it is not totally historical. We can see this if we turn to the account of Saul. Saul is mentioned in the Bible only in connection with northern sites within the highlands and the archaeological record suggests that those sites were more sophisticated than the southern sites that David inhabited. There were greater populations present. There was also a catastrophe during the 10th Century BC that we might conceivably link to the defeat and suicide of Saul at his battle with the Palestinians. Whatever we think of Saul and David, the archaeological evidence does not suggest a unified vast Kingdom stretching over both the north and the south: David may have defeated Saul and destroyed his power but he probably did not rule far to the north of Jerusalem. What we have, according to Finklestein and Silberman is the interweaving of two sets of folktales- one Northern about Saul and the other Southern about David (one from Isreal, the other from Judah) in a composite account that was written probably in the eighth century.

Its a fascinating account, and does make sense of the things that Silberman and Finklestein mention. I am sure there are other accounts though using the same evidence. And this is the major problem with looking so far back, anything we say is an induction that is supported by very little evidence. The likelihood is that there probably was a real David- if we accept the Dan inscription- the likelihood is that if so based on the archaeological evidence that the parts of the Bible concerning David's rise are the most accurate, but these are guesses and it is worth stating that these are guesses. It is unlikely that we can ever verify specifics in the Bible story: though lots of the lists of towns in the earliest parts of the Davidic rise make sense in a tenth century context (this is not true for the reigns of David or Solomon) as do incidents like David allying with Gath. Silbermann and Finklestein's book does move on to other parts of the David story which are fascinating- the weakness of their book is that they move further on to the perlocutions of the David story. They could have used that space to say more about David and Solomon and their connections to the archaeology- as a historian that fascinates me because as I said, irrespective of what you think about the religious context of these men, these stories are some of the earliest texts we have, talking about our ancestors (in the broadest sense) before they fade away into the mass of unwritten time.