Blogs > HNN > K. David Milobar: Review of J. H. Elliott's Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (Yale University Press, 2007)

Jul 9, 2007 12:49 am

K. David Milobar: Review of J. H. Elliott's Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (Yale University Press, 2007)

Historians have often examined empire as an extension of national history. In this context myths about national character have shaped scholarly judgments about rival colonial societies. Many Anglo-American accounts judge Spanish America with reference to the “Black Legend” contained in stories of conquistador atrocities towards native peoples. Interpretations based on the “Black Legend” exaggerated stories of Spanish “inhumanity” towards indigenous peoples and the role of state and Catholic Church in oppressing the people. Conversely British controversialists highlighted the themes of liberty, prosperity and religious tolerance in the colonial American experience.

More recent scholarship has embraced a more complex and nuanced interpretative framework but at the cost of a broad vision of empire. The various sub-regions of the British and Spanish Empires are often studied in isolation. J.H. Elliott brings his considerable expertise and scholarly judgment to a broader Atlantic world. While Elliott recognises the value of detailed study of individual colonies he also calls for recognition of the importance of viewing the Atlantic world through the prism of what he terms “Greater America.”

Further he makes a case for rejecting historical assessment of the two empires based on the “retrospective reading of the histories of colonial societies” in favor of trying to understand colonial societies “in the context of their own times.” Elliott attempts to lend clarity to his study of “Greater America” by dividing his work into three parts- “Occupation,” “Consolidation,” and “Emancipation.” Each of these themes relates to the chronological development of “Greater America” and overshadows the evolution of colonial societies at different points into their history.

The earliest efforts to colonize America were undertaken by the Spanish who were forced to grapple with issues relating to occupation that had no precedent in an American context. In this early period English colonial theorists embraced the Spanish belief that colonies’ interests must be subordinated totally to the fiscal and strategic needs of the metropolis. Elliott points out that in both cases sixteenth and seventeenth century elites pursued strategies aimed at how “to manage overseas possessions in such a way as to yield the maximum benefits to the mother country.” While their goals were the same, the Spanish empire was built on silver and gold, which in turn provided Iberian authorities suitable incentive to develop effective bureaucratic structures. The author sees early Spanish efforts being underpinned by more urbanized societies, large indigenous populations upon whom they were able to impose their cultural values and a homogeneous imperial structure supervised from Seville. English colonial economies were based on commodities such as fish, furs and tobacco, none of which provided an incentive to undertake the arduous task of asserting effective imperial rule. In this sense, the author notes, English imperial projectors “required a combination of circumstance, capacity and commitment” they did not possess.

In part two, “Consolidation,” Elliott attempts to show events of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries solidified the establishment of two distinct colonial cultures within the Atlantic world. British attempts to assert authority over its colonies failed because they were applied inconsistently and erratically and because of deep divisions within seventeenth century British political culture. Elliott contends that by the early eighteenth century the failure of British efforts to consolidate imperial control “set in motion a dynamic that, once unleashed, could mount a powerful challenge to the exercise power and privilege by a few” while “in the hierarchal society of Spanish America it is hard to detect such forces at work.”

In part three, “Emancipation,” the author studies the forces that led to constitutional separation of the “Greater American” colonies from their respective parents. His comparisons of British and Spanish colonists show that the former realised they had to go beyond overthrowing their imperial parents to create “a new political order” capable of balancing the need to defend individual rights with a central government capable of regulating matters of national concern and defending the state from external threats. Elliott notes the similarities between British and Spanish American arguments for independence but he concludes in the end separation from Iberian supervision did not have the same impact owing to international circumstances and a “political” and “psychological” colonial legacy that compelled them to re-establish regimes continuing a tradition of government interventionism, complex and often contradictory regulation and discrimination against the castes that eroded their societies and economies.
The scope of Elliott’s book demands that he draw extensively from secondary scholarly sources. His judicial use of imperial scholarship allows him to navigate a complex historiographical landscape to provide a challenging examination of “Greater America.” In this sense the main value of Empires of the Atlantic World is to create a tapestry woven out of a tangled web to reveal a broader pattern in which the similarities between the British and Spanish experiences are as important as the differences. He concludes factors most responsible for creating distinct Spanish and British colonial worlds. Spanish efforts at establishing an empire reflected sixteenth century European values and historical realities. The British and Spanish experiences were also shaped by the resources, environments and indigenous peoples whose territories they occupied. Elliott points out given different circumstances “the story could have been very different” not only for the colonies but for their metropolitan parents as well. Empires of the Atlantic is an essential addition to scholarship on the broader impact of imperialism in the Atlantic world.

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