Review of Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830, by J.H. Elliott Yale University Press

Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830, by J.H. Elliott. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. 546 pp. ISBN: 0300114311

The act of comparison has a long history, as a useful tool for understanding and also as a rationale for intolerance. In his newest book, Empires of the Atlantic World, Dr. J.H. Elliott – keenly aware of those divergent possibilities – reexamines age-old debates about the Spanish and British empires to write a comparative history of the American colonial experience. Professor Elliott, a renowned historian of the Spanish Empire, attempts to go beyond the usual description of similarity and difference to juxtapose and interweave histories. The effort arrives at a fitting moment, with the study of empire once again recapturing the attention of historians. Elliott’s work, however, is sure to provoke both appraisal and critique from his colleagues.

In the 1920s and 1930s, another well-known historian of colonial America, Professor Hebert Bolton, asked his colleagues to explore the international aspects of history in the United States and Latin America. At the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in 1932 in Toronto, Bolton voiced his frustrations with current historiographical trends in a speech entitled the “Epic of Greater America.” He explained to the group of gathered historians that:
In my own country the study of thirteen English colonies and the United States in isolation has obscured many of the larger factors in their development, and helped to raise up a nation of chauvinists. Similar distortion has resulted from the teaching and writing of national history in other American countries…It is time for a change.

Despite Bolton’s early recommendation, the modern historical profession has overwhelmingly been characterized by provincialism and thematic specialization. Only recently have historians begun to return to some of Bolton’s ideas to study national histories within a broader, transnational context. Elliott’s work, which uses a comparative approach “to reassemble the fragmented history of the Americas into a new and more coherent pattern,”  is part of this renewed interest in the history of a “Greater America.” Emphasizing the local and global dynamics of colonization, Elliott argues that European precedents, combined with American environmental and demographic factors, led the British and Spanish American colonies to develop into societies distinct from their mother countries on the other side of the Atlantic.

Empire’s of the Atlantic World is organized into three parts, focusing on colonial experiences common to both empires (occupation, consolidation, emancipation). Rather than present new findings from archival research, Elliott synthesizes an immense amount of secondary literature to construct each section. This three-part format should make the work an accessible resource for teachers and students alike. The book can be read all at once or consulted in part.

In the first section, occupation, Elliott compares patterns of conquest and settlement. He explains that differing experiences in Europe caused the British and Spanish colonists to occupy lands in the Americas in ways distinct from one another. The Spanish experience with the Reconquista of Iberia (which ended the year Columbus set sail) was more fervent and centrally controlled at the time of American contact than English conquest precedents in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Elliott convincingly demonstrates that “from the vantage point of 1492 it was natural [for the Spanish] to think in terms of the continuing acquisition of territory and of the extension of the Reconquista beyond the shores of Spain.”  English conquest efforts in Europe, on the other hand, were still incomplete. The difficult campaigns in the British Isles continued to require the attention of the English people, consuming resources that could have been directed at colonization in the new world.

The Spanish had also traditionally cohabited with the Moors of Iberia, while the English sought to segregate themselves from their supposedly degenerative subjects: the Irish and the Scots. In this regard, Elliott’s main argument is similar to more classic interpretations of Spaniards focused on “conquest” and integration and British colonists interested in more exclusive “settlements.”

Differing forms of occupation were also reactionary products of local circumstance. Once in the Americas, British and Spanish colonists encountered vastly different environmental and demographic conditions. Spain quickly found lucrative incentives to maintain tight control over its new colonies. The gold and silver of the conquered Aztec and Incan civilizations supplied the Spanish monarchy with centuries of mineral wealth. British imperial authorities, however, had less motivation to do the same; colonists initially found no major sources of mineral wealth or large native populations to exploit, like those in central Mexico and Peru.

Taking into account that the Spanish arrived over one hundred years before the British, Elliott also describes how Spanish conquistador and religious encounters in the new world informed later English colonization in mainland North America. The translated accounts of Spaniards were extremely popular among English readers. Elliott argues, “the comparison, therefore, is not between two self-contained cultural worlds, but between cultural worlds that were well aware of each other’s presence, and were not above borrowing each other’s ideas when this suited their needs.”  Indeed, in this first section, Elliott comes closest to his goal of writing both a comparative and interwoven history.

The second section, consolidation, moves on to describe the various models of administrative and social control used by the Spanish and English after the initial conquest phase. Again, the combination of European precedents and localized conditions dictated the differing approaches of the Spanish and English.  Elliott argues, in short, that old world experience and new world realities forced the British colonists to build political and administrative institutions from the ground up. The Spanish monarchy, in contrast, worked to maintain control over its colonies from above and from afar. These differences in colonial governing, he argues, would have a lasting impact on the future of the Spanish and English-speaking Americas.

The third and final part then, emancipation, builds upon the foundation of the previous two sections to skillfully navigate the complicated workings of the Spanish and British American independence movements. In line with his larger argument, he concludes that differing colonial experiences set the two on diverging national paths. He explains that the sparks of revolution in Spanish and English America came from opposite directions: in the case of Spanish America, from the absence of imperial authority in the colonies during Napolean’s Iberian invasion in the early 1800s; and in English America, from the British crown’s attempt to assert its (historically latent) authority in the thirteen colonies.

Within these thick comparative descriptions, Elliott highlights a multitude of international and local conditions to explain how the Spanish and British came to form dissimilar political and administrative institutions in the new world. He uses the comparative theme of “authority” to describe an array of distinctions between the two colonial societies – ranging from Native American relations, religion, identity, race, land-use, labor, immigration, local governance, and the eventual struggles for emancipation. His many comparisons lead him to develop the overarching concept of Spanish centralized authority versus British de-centralized control.

He follows the theme of authority to what seems like a logical conclusion: the lack of English imperial authority allowed its American colonists to construct, on their own, the foundations of an independent country. The Spanish model of authority, on the other hand, left its colonies ill equipped for independence. The long history of centralized Spanish authority, Elliott argues, had a debilitating effect on post-colonial Spanish America because it obstructed the colonies’ ability to develop homegrown institutions for democratic governing. Meanwhile, British America, neglected by its imperial possessor until late in the colonial era, was able to form a robust society prepared to manage itself as a republic.

Elliott’s discussion of administrative and political authority is more about contrast than interconnected influence. Although he mentions that the Spanish paved the way for the British arrival, his analysis of the rest of the colonial period focuses mostly on the development of two distinct societies. The goal of interweaving and comparing histories is overtaken by a more traditional comparative approach. Interconnection is often described more tangentially.

Elliott’s last two sections, in particular, would have benefited from some of Eliga Gould’s insights laid out in “Entangled Histories, Entangled World.” In the essay, Gould argues that the British and Spanish Atlantic empires shaped one another well beyond the early colonial years. In their valuable edited collection, Tensions of Empire, Frederick Cooper and Laura Ann Stoler seem to agree, explaining that colonial systems continued to develop “transnationally, across imperial centers.”  The Spanish empire had a significant impact on the development of the British American colonies not only in the seventeenth century, but also in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The two colonies participated in the same Atlantic hemispheric system. And until late in the colonial era, the Spanish dictated the rules. British decentralized authority in North America, put in that context, might seem like a strategy to avoid antagonizing a powerful neighbor, rather than wholly the product of old world examples and local environmental factors.

Spain’s centralized form of power in the Americas was also influenced by the expansionist efforts of its European neighbors (notably the French and British), who hoped to capture a share of Spain’s new world riches. These international, though often privatized, threats to the Spanish American colonies motivated the monarchy to establish firmer administrative and military control over its prized colonies. As Bolton explains in his original 1932 speech, “in defense Spain adopted a commercial fleet system, formed a West Indian Armada, and walled her towns on the Caribbean coasts.”  An interconnected perspective, as Elliott initially proposes for the project, might have dedicated more analysis to these types of issues.

Investigative gaps are inevitable in a book as extensive as Empires of the Atlantic World.  Elliott’s use of a comparative analysis, though, may have interfered with his objective of also writing an interconnected history. Comparison can be inexact tool for the study of colonial America. Comparative history often stresses difference and therefore separateness, overlooking the ways that the historical development of the American colonies occurred in the context of continual imperial competition and interaction. At the same time, not all peoples and places merit comparison. In his discussion of Native American encounters, Elliott assesses that the natives of Virginia “seem to have been the nearest equivalent in North America to the Aztec empire far to the south, although in populousness and wealth it did not begin to rival that of Montezuma.”  What do such distant comparisons really reveal? Elliott’s theoretical jump from Bolton’s ‘Greater America’ to ‘comparative history’ may not be entirely appropriate. Bolton viewed the British and Spanish empires as part of a single history of America. He emphasized connections across imperial borders. Comparative history does something different; it tends to highlight distinction over interaction.

Imperfect comparisons can sometimes cause more harm than good. Generalizations of the British and Spanish colonies in America have brought perilous judgments about the quality and character of Latin Americans. Elliott acknowledges that earlier comparisons of British and Spanish America idealized the history of the English (or U.S Americans) and often vilified Spanish Americans. As scholars like Edward Said and others have explained, cross-cultural comparisons have worked to support a whole assortment of violent interventions and unjust acts against the peoples of the developing world. Elliott recognizes this past and attempts to distance himself from it, arguing that singling out specific features is different than condemning the entire ‘Spanish inheritance.’ The majority of the book’s conclusions, however, are more in line with previous comparisons than Elliott would probably like to admit. In the end, English American individualism and democracy is held up against the colonial excesses of a corrupt and bureaucratic Spanish America.

Henry Kamen’s Imagining Spain. Historical Myth and National Identity is an interesting counterpoint to Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World. Professor Kamen argues that Spain was never even an empire and thus never a centralized power in the Americas. Without necessarily agreeing with the entirety of his argument, historians should consider looking at Kamen’s analysis of Spanish monarchical power to help breakdown histories that interpret the Spanish American colonial experience (and legacy) as somehow universal. The vastness of the Americas made it impossible for the Spanish crown to effectively assert its control in all of its colonial possessions. As a result, many Spanish colonial subjects were left to make their own way, much like Elliott’s New Englanders.

Rather than telling the history of two empires and two societies, the history of the Americas might be better understood by comparing and interweaving a number of regional histories. At one point, Elliott briefly mentions that the British colonies located in today’s U.S south may have had more in common culturally and economically with colonial Spanish America than with New England. If comparative history is one’s analytical tool of choice, comparing the U.S. south with specific regions of Spanish America could prove more instructive than making broad statements about British vs. Spanish America.

Elliott’s methodological reaction against the extremes of historical provincialism is an important rebuttal. His sweeping response, however, resembles the very models that pushed historians into regional and thematic boxes. Between Elliott’s work and more provincial histories there is still a more precise middle ground that can hold onto the intimacy of local history and also account for a larger story. Until someone achieves that difficult task, though, Elliott’s work, which brings together over 500 years of Atlantic history into one accessible monograph, will continue to be an indispensable resource. Despite the criticisms mentioned above, Empire’s of the Atlantic World is an impressive achievement.

Reviewed by Blake C. Scott, University of Texas – Austin
Edited by Jodi R.B. Eastberg

(c) 2011 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 2, Spring 2011. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]