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Empires of the Atlantic World. Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830
J.H Elliott

New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.
546 p., $50 hardback, $22 paper. ISBN-10 0300114311; ISBN 978-0300114317


Reviewed by Ellen Hampton



J.H. Elliott has written, in Empires of the Atlantic World, a tome to culminate his long and prolific career, one devoted to Spain, its empire, its Golden Age, and its art. Empires of the Atlantic World is his sixth major book, not counting the more than a dozen books he has co-written and edited, as well as collections of essays and addresses he has published, over a span of 43 years, during which he was a professor of history at Trinity College (Cambridge), King’s College (University of London), Princeton University, and finally, Regius professor at Oxford University.

If ever there was a historian capable of comparing the Spanish and British colonies, it was Elliott. Over the years, he has amply demonstrated the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his understanding and the unmatched elegance of his writing style. Elliott has a passion for his subject that he transmits to the reader, bringing into a sweeping overview just the telling detail that makes events of long ago and far away seem very much here and now. Empires of the Atlantic World benefits from that grace.

The book is divided into three parts—Occupation, Consolidation and Emancipation—in order to impose a chronological structure on a period that stretches from 1492 to 1830. He preferred, he explained in the introduction, to adhere not to comparisons by category, but to allow the narrative to flow and the comparisons to arise naturally. This has a softening effect that is perhaps easier on the reader, but also opens the door to the convenient, chanced-by comparison that trespasses on historical rigor. Elliott has declared himself a “committed comparativist,”1 and his stated goal in the introduction of Empires was to use comparison to “help to shake historians out of their provincialisms, by provoking new questions and offering new perspectives” [xvii]. The trouble is that Elliott’s comparison is a gentle nudge, rather than a good bone-rattling shake of the sort needed to loose early American history from its smug and cozy Anglophilia.
An example of a unhappy comparison is that of Hernan Cortés and Christopher Newport. These two men began middling lives, carved out some experience and adventure for themselves, and then stood as contenders in the biggest event this planet has ever seen. So far, so good. But Newport was the first captain to arrive with settlers for Virginia, while Cortés sprang from 15 years of colonial experience in Santo Domingo and Cuba to take the Mexican capital. They did not occupy the same position in the colonial process. Nor can defeating the Aztec empire be compared to getting a foothold in between the Tsenocomacans and the Paspaheghs, two small and unsophisticated groups of Algonquins the Aztecs would have crushed in a moment’s time. The scale of their achievements was not the same. The correct comparison would have been Columbus to Newport, and there, one finds haplessness, mutiny, starvation and massacre on both sides of the Anglo-Spanish coin. The comparison could also have been shifted to the later conquest, and Cortés examined next to John Winthrop. There, convergence occurs in the intense religiosity dominating an urban landscape both in Mexico and Massachusetts Bay, while divergence is evident in the English segregation from the indigenous people and the Spanish integration with them. To measure the distance between the English and the Spanish on this issue, try to imagine John Winthrop with an Indian lover.

The new perspectives Elliott seeks remain out of focus, as he skirts the essential question: were the English, coming to America 115 years after the Spanish, just as clumsy and cruel? Empires of the Atlantic World could have answered this question, but fell short. It seems to have tripped on a bit of cultural blindness, as evidenced in Chapter 8, “Empire and Identity,” when Elliott discusses the “romanticization” of Native Americans in English and Spanish cultures. The Spanish began to extol Indian virtues by the second colonial generation, but the English would take 200 years to do so:

Only during the course of the eighteenth century, as the Indian menace started to recede, would a few Indians begin to be silhouetted by the colonists on the skyline of their imagined American landscape, as exemplifications either of Roman martial virtues or of unspoilt natural man. [242]

The “Indian menace” of the English took the form of a few thousand people living removed from the English communities until settlers came closer and closer to them. Still, the English could not find a way of living peaceably with their native neighbors. The Spanish lived in the midst of millions of Indians, and did not see a “menace” or find their presence a constant threat. Both colonies experienced conflict and massacre with indigenous peoples, but the psychological effect seems to have loomed far larger for the English than for the Spanish. Elliott, rather than testing the comparison, takes the English at their word.

In the third part of the book, “Emancipation,” Elliott examines the difference in population between British and Spanish America at mid-18th century. He notes that Spanish America had a far larger population, and offers an ethnic breakdown for New Spain and New Granada, but not for areas of British America. A comparison of the largest urban populations also reveals the heavier weight on the Spanish side: Mexico City had 112,000 inhabitants to Boston’s 16,000; none of the towns in British America came close to the size of Spanish America’s cities. Elliott points out that at mid-century, 7 to 8 percent of the English population in America lived in towns of more than 2,500, while 13 percent of the Spanish lived in cities of 20,000 or more. The reader could wish for an analysis here of urban vs. rural development, but in a panorama of this size, side trips must be sacrificed. Nonetheless, one structural reason for the weakness of the comparison is the length of time the book covers. Elliott is forced to discuss the evolution of society, immigration and politics in both empires, and he often ends up comparing the changes, and their underlying reasons, instead of the issues themselves.

Again because of the wide-angle viewpoint, Elliott touches on a comparison of Indian reactions to 18th century frontier expansion in the Orinoco and Ohio valleys, but doesn’t follow it through. In both cases, the indigenous people held back expansion through violence against attempted settlement, but failed to stop it in the long term. Elliott’s analysis goes little further than: “The Caribs, like the Iroquois, had learnt to play the European game” [268]. A stronger comparison could have looked at the English and the French, using the Iroquois and the Algonquins to counter each other’s moves in the Ohio Valley, just as the Spanish and Portuguese did with the Guaraní and Caribs in the northern Amazon.

Elliott hits his stride when the comparison shifts to space occupied by the two empires, particularly on their borderlands. He explains that the Spanish borderlands in the north part of New Spain tended to be sparsely populated with friars and soldiers, while the English borderlands along the Allegheny Mountains were settled by farmers developing self-sustaining communities. He also points out that the Spanish used religious workers as tools of “forced acculturation” of the indigenous people, while British religious workers almost exclusively served the European population:

The friars and Jesuits were the advance agents of a Spanish frontier policy that sought to be a policy of inclusion, absorbing and assimilating the indigenous population, in contrast to the frontier policy of exclusion that had become the norm among the British colonies to the north. [269]

In Chapter 10, “War and Reform,” Elliott constructs a vivid comparison of the Quito tax rebellion of 1765 and the Stamp Act protests in Boston 10 years later. While Boston was half the size of Quito, both cities had experienced an economic downturn that sharpened the effect of metropolitan-imposed tax reforms. Elliott takes the two events element by element to show how they were alike—mobs orchestrated by leaders, with metropolitan officials and elite targeted in attacks—and how neither London nor Madrid was able to quell the protests, although Madrid did eventually institute its desired reforms. This is an example of comparison coming alive and illustrating in a fine and detailed manner the similarities and differences between the two empires. He caps it off by noting that the different positions of the kings in England and Spain resulted in different paths of opposition to royal decrees, taxes and reforms. English subjects had rights rooted in the Magna Carta; the Spanish monarch had absolute authority.

There is a tremendous amount of excellent information in this book. Elliott covers an enormous range of developments in the various colonies, from immigration to economic activity, government administration and religious influence. From the beginning, he notes that the process of colonization was the same for Britain and Spain, in that both had to take possession of the land and work out a relationship with local inhabitants; sustain and develop communities within an institutional framework, and establish a balance between their needs and aspirations and those of the metropole. The differences occurred in the variables of time, geography, experience and culture. Such variables can render a comparison unwieldy, and, as Elliott put it in the introduction, “any sustained comparison is bound to be imperfect” [xvii]. If imperfect, Elliott still comes close to divine. Empires of the Atlantic World is a must-read for colonialists and a good read for nonspecialists.

1. J.H. Elliott, letter to the editor, New York Review of Books, October 1994. back


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