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REVIEWS

J. H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 14921830 Yale University Press: New Haven and London 2006, 35, hardback 546 pp, ISBN 0 300 11431 1

Alistair Hennessy

IN THE ATLANTIC MIRROR


Ever since Hector de Crvecur posed the question, What then is this American, this new man? in 1782, North Americans have endlessly ruminated on their uniqueness. Yet they have rarely considered what they have in common with the Other America, the sister-continent to their south. Such has been the ingrained Protestant providentialism of Anglo-American thinking that Spains Atlantic empire has too often been consigned to the shadows of the Black Legend, according to which the greed and depravities of the Old World were visited on the New by Iberian conquistadors and viceroys. The same view is alive and ourishing: in his post-9/11 jeremiad Who Are We? (2004), Samuel Huntington deplores the erosion of Americas national identity by immigration, and the undermining of its culture of Protestant individualism by Hispanic bilingualism, multiculturalism and the denationalization of elites. Fortress America is today symbolized by the iron curtain erected on the usMexican border to exclude illegal immigrants. Asymmetries of power in the Americas are reected in asymmetrical historiographies. Spanish American historians, even those based in us universities, tend to concentrate on Spanish American topics, while exceptionalist views of us history have engendered a widespread parochialism that has survived the strictures of the eminent us historian Herbert Bolton, who in 1932 argued for a broader treatment to supplement the nationalist presentations to which we are accustomed. Few historians have the experience and staying

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power to overcome such prejudices and preconceptions. John Elliotts pathbreaking Empires of the Atlantic World assembles a formidable and fascinating array of material, testifying to an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge. Author of pioneering books on Olivares, the modernizing minister of Philip IV, Elliott has an unparalleled grasp of 17th-century Spain. After a long and distinguished teaching career at Cambridge, London, Princeton and Oxford, in 1997 he began work on the daunting project that has now been brought to a resoundingly successful conclusion: a comprehensive comparative history of the Spanish and British empires in the Americas. The strength of the book is the masterly way in which Elliott interrelates and compares the numerous different dimensions of British and Spanish policies in all their economic, political, religious and constitutional complexities. Covering the period from the arrival of the rst Spanish and English colonists in the 16th century to the end of the independence struggles (17761830), Elliott moves in broadly chronological fashion through a series of comparisons: differing patterns of conquest and settlement, distinct approaches to the indigenous peoples and material resources of the New World, contrasting visions of God, crown, state and empire. The result is a gripping and lavishly produced portrait both of the Spanish and British colonial projects, and of the widely varying social, political and economic orders to which they gave rise. The magnitude of Elliotts achievement must be seen in the context of a general reluctance among historiansunlike anthropologiststo undertake the exacting discipline of comparative analysis. They have too often been deterred by mundane professional considerations, such as the burden of retooling or the risk of criticism from resentful specialists. As Elliott pungently observes, where the history of the Americas was concerned, professionalization and atomization moved in tandem. The few who have attempted comparisons on a continental scale have done so in terms of obvious contrastsjuxtaposing Britains empire of commerce with Spains empire of conquest, for instance, or focusing on divergent mindsets, as in Claudio Vlizs The New World of the Gothic Fox (1994), which borrows Tolstoys metaphor, popularized by Isaiah Berlin, to set the Counter-Reformation rigidity of the Spanish hedgehog against the exibility and pluralism of the British fox. Elliott has little time for this ingenious but unpersuasive approach. Nor does he subscribe to the immobilities of fragmentation thesis put forward by Louis Harz, who argued in the once inuential Founding of New Societies (1964) that the salient characteristics of the metropolitan society continue to condition new social formations issuing from them. On the contrary, Elliott observes that changing ideas and priorities at the centre of empire were reected in changes in imperial policy, so that the third or fourth generation

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of settlers might well nd itself operating within an imperial framework in which the assumptions and responses of the founding fathers had lost much of their former relevance. Moreover, British and Spanish America did not remain static but changed over time; not only did the two sets of colonists interact with the conditions and circumstances in which they found themselves, they were also well aware of each others presence. The Atlantic colonies were not two self-contained cultural worlds, but parallel projects which borrowed from and inuenced each other. There were important precedents for the conquest and settlement of the New World. Elliott notes that Castile and England were both proto-colonial powers long before they set out to colonize Americathe former engaged over centuries in the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula, the latter having subjugated Wales and Scotland, and planted colonists in Ireland. In many cases, techniques of conquest were transmitted across the Atlantic, along with the accompanying preconceptions. Hence, for instance, Corts tended to refer to Mesoamerican temples as mosques, and in making his alliances with local Indian caciques . . . resorted to strategies often used against the petty local rulers of Moorish Andalusia. To the north, one British observer concluded that the wild Irish and the Indian do not much differ; Elliott points out that it is no accident that the Elizabethans most active in devising the rst American projectsSir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Walter Raleigh, Ralph Lane, Thomas Whitewere deeply involved in the schemes for Irish plantation. Nevertheless, the Americas presented the arriving colonists with entirely new, and dissimilar, constraints and opportunities. Where Mesoamerica was densely populated by hierarchically organized peoples, and rich in gold, silver and other plunderable wealth, the indigenous groups of North Americas eastern seaboard were smaller in number and more thinly spread; British America was initially altogether less promising in economic terms forcing on the settlers a developmental as against an essentially exploitative rationale. But Spanish colonists faced an imperative the British lacked: the papal bulls of 149394 that had granted Ferdinand and Isabella dominion over newly discovered lands west of Brazil also imposed an obligation to Christianize their inhabitants. Catholic theologians conceived the New World as a utopia where the evils of the Old World would be purged, but there were also intense debates on the legitimacy of subduing native peoples. There is no English equivalent to the discussions at the School of Salamanca, or to the moral pressure exerted by certain scholars and theologians on Castilian monarchs to codify the legal status of indigenous peoples. The 1512 Leyes de Burgos classed the indigenous inhabitants of Spanish America as vassals of the crown; they were given the right to own property, and had to be remunerated for their labour. Though the encomienda system provided a way round this, the indigenous demographic collapse wrought

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by conquest and European diseases made imported slave labour increasingly attractive. By 1640 there were some 150,000 of African descent in the Viceroyalties of New Spain (present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the bulk of the southwestern us), and 30,000 in that of Peru (stretching from Panama to Tierra del Fuego, though later subdivided into three ViceroyaltiesNew Granada, Peru and Ro de la Plataand the Captaincy-General of Chile). The British Caribbean and Chesapeake settlements also imported enslaved Africans to meet labour shortages on sugar and tobacco plantations; by 1710, one fth of Virginias population were slaves, while Barbados, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands had absorbed 250,000 slaves from Africa by the beginning of the 18th century. Elliott describes the slave trade as uniformly barbaric across the Americas, but suggests that African slaves in Spains American possessions seem to have enjoyed more room for manoeuvre and more opportunities for advancement than their counterparts in British AmericaSpains longer experience of slavery, and the consequent higher degree of codication, paradoxically providing some mitigation of their lot. Elliott covers well the different regimes of slavery that obtained in British and Spanish America, which have attracted more comparative work than other aspects of the colonial experienceperhaps because they can be set alongside similar phenomena in other continents. Frontiers have likewise been the basis of cross-continental comparisons, and are also given sustained attention by Elliott. It was at the 1893 Chicago Exposition for the quatercentenary of Columbuss voyage that Frederick Jackson Turner rst enunciated the frontier thesisarguably the most inuential paper ever read at a historical conference. In Turners view it was the frontier that transformed Europeans into Americans, a myth that would be absorbed into popular culture through the Western. One difculty with the frontier thesis, as many critics have shown, is that of denition. In Latin America there is no Turnerian mythological frontier, but only various frontiersmining, cattle, coffee, missionaryeach with its own distinctive settlement pattern involving different inter-group situations. These can serve to draw together migrants through shared experiencesconfronting daunting spaces, strange and forbidding ora and fauna, impenetrable forests, impassable mountains, strange peoples speaking unintelligible languages and worshipping fearsome gods. But Elliott is too experienced and able a historian to reduce his analysis to a single formative experience, however varied its expression. Instead, he draws a distinction between frontiers of inclusion and exclusion that underlines the fundamental difference between the two empires.
While the Spaniards tended to think in terms of the incorporation of the Indians into an organic and hierarchically organized society which would

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enable them in time to attain the supreme benets of Christianity and civility, the English, after an uncertain start, seem to have decided that there was no middle way between anglicization and exclusion.

The same distinction divides Spanish and British attitudes towards sexuality. This was not simply a matter of sexual preferences, as Gilberto Freyre argued in the case of Brazil, but of demography, religion and economic pressures. In the early stages of the Conquest, Bartolom de las Casas had encouraged intermarriage as a means of creating one of the best republics and perhaps the most Christian and peaceful in the world, and friars on the mission frontier encouraged soldiers to intermarry with the locals. For conquistadors on the make, marriage to the daughters of Aztec or Inca notables also conferred a certain sense of rank. In British America, the mobile foraging and hunting life-patterns of the indigenous tribes would have made inclusion impractical. Moreover, for these settlers miscegenation tended to carry the assumption that it led to a degeneration of stock. This was reinforced by the application to the New World of Biblical metaphors of the wilderness, where temptation always lurked; the Puritan minister Cotton Mather even referred to Satan as that old usurping landlord of America. But whatever the strictures against miscegenation in the Puritan colonies, there were no admonitions in the Caribbean islands, where fornication was rife between planters and their slaves (as can be seen from the endless couplings recorded in the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, overseer on a Jamaican sugar plantation). The offspring of such unions remained illegitimate, leaving a long-term legacy of common law partnerships, and a sizeable mulatto class. In Virginia and the Southern colonies, by contrast, mulattoes were simply absorbed into the slave population, buttressing an exclusionary order founded on the supremacy of white over black. Spanish America gave rise to a social order of far greater complexity, in Elliotts words. Though creoles soon came to adopt limpieza de sangre cleanness of bloodas a means of social discrimination, miscegenation had distinctive social and cultural consequences. Among racially mixed Spanish American families, compadrazgoco-godparenthood, a form of ritual kinship brought over from Spainplayed an integral role in bonding between the races. Nothing illustrates more vividly the Spanish colonies wide variety of castes than the series of 18th-century Mexican paintings, four of which are reproduced in Elliotts book, attempting to establish a taxonomy for New Spains kaleidoscopic ethnic mix. Cultural fusion was also graphically expressed in the incorporation of indigenous craft skills and motifs in the building of Spanish American churches, whose baroque magnicence was in marked contrast to the modest, often wooden churches of New England.

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Yet though the British American colonies were culturally less sophisticated, they possessed a political vitality and a religious effervescence that differentiated them from the Spanish American societies to the south. In Elliotts view, the degree of popular participation in British America set in motion a dynamic that, once unleashed, could mount a powerful challenge to the exercise of power and privilege by the few. During the 18th century, Britains rapidly expanding eet and economy posed an increasingly signicant threat to both Spain and France. The Bourbon kings of these two countries were bound together by the Family Compact of 1761, sealed midway through the Seven Years War that would alter the balance of forces on the entire American continent. Victory presented the British with the problem of vastly extended frontiersnow stretching from Nova Scotia to Florida, the Atlantic to the Mississippiand correspondingly greater military expenses, which ministers in Whitehall attempted to levy on a resistant colonial populace. Less than twenty years later, the Thirteen Colonies would unite to overturn imperial rule. Spain, meanwhile, was confronted with a worsening scal position, and symptoms of its decline multiplied. Failure to recapture Gibraltar in the Great Siege of 177983 before an invited European audience was probably its greatest public humiliation of the century; worse was to follow in 1805 when the Spanish eet was virtually destroyed at Trafalgargraveyard of Spanish sea power, and index of Britains naval pre-eminence and technological advantage. The Napoleonic invasion of 1808 dealt a further, mortal blow, and inaugurated the processes that would culminate in independence for Spains American colonies. In sharp contrast to the imperial framework Spain had managed to impose on the Americas within a generation of conquest, British America exhibited a patchwork of different styles of government and jurisdiction. Within these, a contestatory civic culture developed that had no equivalent in Spanish America; cabildos were scarcely a match for the town councils of New England. Armed with a huge variety of books and pamphlets, including many from Paris, and a more sophisticated level of political debate, British colonists were better prepared than their Spanish counterparts both for constitutional conict with the metropole, and for the challenges of independence. The federal compact that bound the Thirteen Colonies together is a clear example of the differing political cultures of British and Spanish America. Of all the legacies bequeathed by the Founding Fathers, the federal principle was arguably the most important, and had far-reaching consequencesnot least the constant conict in the us over states rights that nally erupted in a devastating civil war, eclipsing anything to have occurred in Spanish America. Federalism was prominent in Spain itself in debates over the

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1812 Constitution in the Cortes at Cadiz; indeed, with its king in exile in France, Spain had practically been a federal republic during the struggle against Napoleon, power residing in the numerous local juntas that directed the guerrilla war. But despite the explosive impact of the 1812 Constitution in Spanish America, federalism has had a slight and chequered history there: early failure in Venezuela, source of endless conicts in Argentina, Colombia and elsewhere. If Elliotts discussion of the issues and dilemmas thrown up by the Peninsular War lacks the density of Raymond Carrs analysis, this is amply compensated by Elliotts lucidity. As he wryly observes, the most effective gravediggers of empire are usually the imperialists themselves. The Cadiz Cortes did little to address the concerns of creole elites, who had realized after the Trafalgar disaster that Spain could not protect them, and welcomed the increased autonomy and opportunities for trade with the British afforded them by Madrids powerlessness. After the war, Spain opted to follow the centralizing Bourbon model, instead of the contractual principle which preceded it, in a bid to reassert controla decision which stoked tensions with the colonies still further. As Elliott puts it:
Six years of turmoil and constitutional upheaval in Spain itself, the breakdown of authority over large parts of America, the rise of a more informed public opinion with a new taste for liberty, and heavy pressure from Great Britain and the United States, eager to capture valuable American markets all this made a return to the past impossible.

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Rather than facilitating a reassertion of Madrids authority, the restoration of Ferdinand VII proved instead to be the catalyst for movements aimed at winning outright independence. Over the next two decades, war raged across almost the whole of Spanish America, as royalist forces battled insurgent armies from Chile to Venezuela. Here Elliott notes that the length and ferocity of the wars of independence in Spanish America can in great measure be ascribed to the absence of foreign intervention, which had made the struggles of the British American colonies comparatively shorter and less bloody. The edgling United States also gained considerably from the Napoleonic Wars, securing trade connections with a limping Europe and, through the Louisiana purchase, vast tracts of land from a France which valued European expansion over American possessions. On their emancipation, meanwhile, the new states of Spanish America were confronted with a considerably less favourable conjuncture: they found themselves on the fringes of an international trading community that wanted their markets but did not want their produce. They also found themselves overshadowed by an increasingly condent and assertive United States, to which Mexico would

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lose half its territory between 1845 and 1854. The parameters for an unequal hemispheric division of power and wealth had been set. What economic benets did Spain and Britain derive from their empires? Adam Smith was sceptical: the empire has existed in imagination only . . . it has hitherto been, not an empire, but the project of an empire. Elliott cites the work of Stanley Engerman, whose cost-benet analysis estimated that, because of high administrative costs and a standing armythe British did not trust militias, unlike the Spanish, whose soldiers were often of mixed race or blackthe mainland colonies and possibly also the British West Indies brought no signicant positive benets to Britain. It seems odd, however, to include the West Indies in this judgement, in view of the extraordinary prots from sugar imports which underpinned the growth of the symbiotic towns of Liverpool and Manchester, and given the numerous country houses built on sugar prots and marriage to West Indian heiresses. The large number of estates in Scotland is evidence, too, of success obtained through the British empire after the Union of 1707. In Elliotts view, the ratio of costs to benets for Spain was substantially more favourable: despite regular shipments of silver to Seville, Spanish America, unlike British America, was self-sustaining. But Elliott concludes that the ultimate gain may have lain outside Castile: The silver that . . . fell through the meshes of the Spanish sieve owed into the economies of Europe and Asia, generating in the process an international monetary system whose development did much to facilitate the global expansion of trade. Elliott wisely restricts his analysis to the two largest Atlantic empires. Othersthe French, Dutch and Portugueseare discussed only briey, where they impinge on the main analysis. But the exclusion of Brazil precludes consideration of a fundamental problem in the history of the Americas: why did Portuguese America not fragment? Not only did it not do so, it expanded at the expense of its neighbours. Elliott does explain fully and lucidly the reasons for Spanish Americas fragmentationgeographical breadth and diversity, historical particularities, the grip of creole oligarchiesalthough the failed 1826 Congress of Panama, and with it the demise of Bolvars pan-American vision, perhaps merited some discussion. But the complex and contentious matter of the New Worlds only 19th-century empire suggests further comparisons. The question has considerable contemporary relevance. How can Brazils current Great Power ambitions be reconciled with the Bolivarian dreamwhich in fact never included Brazilrecently resuscitated by Hugo Chvez, vaulting over the pessimism of Bolvar, who wrote shortly before he died that those who have served a revolution have ploughed the sea? The Caribbean, as Elliott admits, was also a casualty of hard choices he had to make. But one may regret the omission of the effects of the Haitian

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Revolution, and the subsequent foundation of the rst black republic, which defeated the armies of France, Britain and Spain. The example of Haiti hung like a thundercloud over the Americas, profoundly affecting rulers and ruled alike. It inuenced Bolvars attitude towards slaveryPtion making his assistance to the Liberator conditional on a promise of slave emancipation and offered a beacon of hope to other enslaved populations, for whom Haiti meant independence, liberty and equality. This was especially the case in the Caribbean, where for the rst time West Indians became aware of themselves as a people. By far the most important impact, however, was on Cuba. Britain could slough off the loss of American coloniestrade rapidly resumed, and increased as Adam Smith had predictedand despite the humiliation of the war of 1812, Canada was secured. In any case, Britain had an imperial future in India and Africa. Spain had no such option, except for the opportunity opened up by events in Haiti to promote Cuba as the worlds major sugar producer. Cuba beneted from the expertise of French Haitian planter refugees, who modernized sugar production as well as introducing coffee. The downside was the huge increase in slave imports which raised the threat of slave revolts; encouraged by the Haitian example, the free black Jos Antonio Aponte led one such rebellion as early as 1812. But Cuba was seen as an El Dorado by impoverished Spanish emigrants, whose remittances supported countless families in the metropole. More visibly, Cuban wealth underpinned the Catalan Renaissance of the late 19th century, and made fortunes for the patrons of Gaud or the poet Jacint Verdaguer. The riches of Cuba even fuelled visions of a revivied empire: after success in the Moroccan war of 1859, Spain embarked on a series of imperial ventures in the Dominican Republic, Peru, Cochin China and Mexico; all were failures. It was the eventual loss of Cuba and the Philippines in the SpanishAmerican war of 1898 that delivered the quietus to Spain as an imperial power. In view of the colossal political, economic and social consequences of the two empires, it is curious that neither Spaniards nor British should have produced an Atlantic epic. But Atlantic storms did have signicant, if delayed, cultural repercussions, above all on the way Spanish Americans came to regard their northern counterparts. In 1609, the Sea Venturer, belonging to the Virginia Company, was wrecked on the rocks of Bermuda in a hurricane. Remarkably, all passengers and crew were saved, some opting to stay on the island, others to return to London where Shakespeare, who invested in the Company, fashioned the wreck into The Tempest. Prospero, Ariel and Caliban were re-deployed as metaphors by the Uruguayan Jos Enrique Rod in 1900. With the Spanish-speaking world shaken by the defeat of 1898, and shocked at the prospect of the United States dominating the whole continent, Rod argued for the superiority of idealist, Spanish and classical values,

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represented by the ethereal spirituality of Ariel, over the crass materialism of the United States, represented by Caliban. Seventy years later, the Cuban Roberto Fernndez Retamar would instead claim Caliban as representative of Latin Americas mestizo culture, allowing him to shed his subservient position and speak up for the long-exploited colonial underdog. Even uctuating visions such as these can gradually solidify into stereotypes. Elliotts magisterial study makes an invaluable contribution to challenging such entrenched preconceptionsnot least in the wry counter-factual at the books conclusion, imagining the outcome had it been Englands Henry VII who had sponsored Columbus:
It is possible to imagine an alternative, and by no means implausible script: a massive increase in the wealth of the English crown as growing quantities of American silver owed into the royal coffers; the development of a coherent imperial strategy to exploit the resources of the New World; the creation of an imperial bureaucracy to govern the settler societies and their subjugated populations; the declining inuence of parliament in national life, and the establishment of an absolutist English monarchy nanced by the silver of America.

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While playful in tone, the parallel scenario serves to underscore once again Elliotts comparative method, and the consistency with which he brings together the contrasted but complementary branches of Western civilization. It will take a rare historian to produce a sequel encompassing the intervening centuries, and the disequilibria of the present, with comparable rigour and intelligence.