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A Tale of Two Empires

The polymath and politician Francis Bacon wrote his “Short View to Be Taken of Great Britain and Spain” in 1619. At this point, Spain laid claim to the largest, most widely dispersed, and by far the richest empire in the world, but Bacon detected frailties in the giant. Philip III, king of Spain, might be “accounted the greatest Monarch of Christendom,” he argued, “yet if his estate be enquired through, his roots will be found a great deal too narrow for his tops.”

As Spain’s wealth and military power subsequently contracted over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this idea—that its stupendous imperial fabric had always been interwoven with characteristic failings—became a polemical commonplace, not least among Britons eager to define and legitimize their own rival empire. David Hume took it for granted that New World gold and silver had only vitiated Spain’s domestic economy, lured too many of its people into emigration, and rendered its government still more arbitrary and corrupt. Whereas British settlers in North America engaged in wholesome agricultural toil, the economist Arthur Young wrote in the 1770s, Spain’s colonists were easily bewitched by “mountains of precious metals… exchanging the small profits of industry for the imaginary great ones of idleness.” And whereas Britain had exported its ideas of political and religious freedom to its Atlantic colonies, Spain stamped its empire quite differently, with cruelty and backwardness. In Mexico, Peru, and Quito, claimed Thomas Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), “the tyranny, superstition, and vices of the mother-country were introduced in ample quantities among her children.”

As J.H. Elliott points out in Empires of the Atlantic World, such notions were already widespread among Britain’s American colonists before 1776. But as the new United States developed into an overland empire and an economic titan, the apparent unmitigated contrast with the warfare, political instability, and uneven development afflicting onetime Iberian colonies in the Southern Hemisphere gave additional currency to the belief that Spanish imperialism—unlike Britain’s—had been flawed and contaminating from its outset. Perhaps the fullest version of this thesis was R.B. Merriman’s four-volume The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and in the New.1 An eminent Harvard professor, from an English family that had crossed over to New England in the 1630s, Merriman sought to document how “Spain and its empire had failed because of their backward-looking religion and inhibiting, indolent absolutism, whereas Britain and its empire had succeeded because of their forward-looking religion and vigorous, liberating democracy.”2

That these Protestant and Whiggish pieties have been substantially modified in recent decades is partly the result of large shifts in power across the world, of the end of Franco’s regime in Spain, and of demographic and religious changes within the US itself. It is also the result of a historiographical revolution. Whereas Britain’s imperial record is now more often than not the subject of critical and disapproving scrutiny, Spain’s imperial experience has been reappraised, and in some respects—and especially by Spanish-based scholars—presented in a more positive light.3 Postwar historians of Spain have also produced more nuanced and flattering versions of its early modern domestic past, stressing for instance the ingenuity and ambition of the country’s bureaucracy, the rapidity of its urbanization, the vigor of its literary and artistic culture, and its capacity for pioneering industrialization.

In the US, this revisionism has been fueled by the growing size and power of the Hispanic population, and a resulting willingness on the part of American universities to invest more time and resources in the study of Latin American and thus, indirectly, in Spanish history. Yet it remains the case that probably the best-known and most influential historian of early modern Spain and its empire at work today is not Spanish or American, but British.

John Elliott was born in Reading, England, in 1930, and at one level his career has run along some of Britain’s most established grooves. A scholarship at Eton was followed by study and subsequently a lectureship at Cambridge University, and in 1967 by a chair in modern history at King’s College, London. Between 1973 and 1990, Elliott was on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; but he then recrossed the Atlantic to become Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, and was subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. By this stage, however, Elliott was already a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Alfonso the Wise, an honor conferred on him by the King of Spain for his work in transforming the understanding and appreciation of the early modern Spanish past. As this suggests, Elliott’s mind has been shaped by at least three countries—his own, the US, and Spain; though it would be more appropriate to say that his work has shown a preoccupation with two defunct empires, each of which sought to embrace the globe.

For as Elliott has acknowledged, his decision to focus on Spain’s national and imperial past was

influenced at some level by my sense, as an Englishman living in the aftermath of the Second World War, that the collective predicament of the last great imperial generation of Spaniards after the triumphs of the sixteenth century was not entirely dissimilar to the collective predicament of my own generation after the triumphs of the nineteenth and early twentieth.

Britons had frequently written about Spain as a means of writing about themselves. But whereas, in earlier centuries, Spain had served overwhelmingly as a malign and ossifying “other” against which British commentators could counterpoise their own country and empire, for Elliott it was different. Living through a period of perceived national and imperial decline in Britain allowed him to view “some of the characteristics of the Spanish condition” as “instantly recognizable”: as offering parallels to his own national experience, rather than as antithetical to it. Through a study of Spanish history, Elliott could explore, among very many other things, what was really meant “when we speak of a country in decline.”

In wanting to examine Spain’s past in a broader setting, Elliott had affinities with a new generation of scholars, led by Jaime Vicens Vives of Barcelona University, who were eager at once to break away from the “black legend” of Spanish history and from approaching it only from a purely national perspective. Elliott’s The Revolt of the Catalans and Imperial Spain, 1469–1716, both published in 1963, and his Europe Divided, 1559–1598 (1968) examined the Spanish state in the light of power structures and fissures in other early modern European kingdoms; while his career-long fascination with the Spanish minister Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, which culminated in a magnificent biography in 1986, also resulted in a book comparing the Count-Duke with his more successful French contemporary, Cardinal Richelieu. Elliott’s conviction that studying Spain without “its American dimension” was “no more satisfactory” than ignoring its wider European context led him to write yet more books and essays: The Old World and the New, 1492–1650 (1970), Britain and Spain in America (1994), and Do the Americas Have a Common History? (1998). With his Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830, however, Elliott has engaged in comparative history on a much larger scale, and with a degree of authority, boldness, lucidity, and range that is quite remarkable.

The book’s twelve chapters fall into three sections—Occupation, Consolidation, and Emancipation—and are each organized around themes that bring out the similarities and divergences of the two empires, and propel their interconnected stories forward chronologically. Elliott insists at the outset that national and religious differences were less significant than “the universality of experience that brought” Spanish and British emigrants “three thousand miles or more from their European homelands to a new and strange world.” Yet he is far too sophisticated a historian to neglect the divergences that invariably were present. In all colonizing ventures, it is never merely the characteristics of the colonizers that determine the outcome. No less formative is the nature of the societies that are invaded, and the levels of colonizing effort that are brought to bear over time. Spanish and Anglophone colonizers certainly had more in common than their respective folk memories and national mythologies allowed. But the pre-colonial experience and geography of the respective regions they invaded differed substantially; and their invasions began at different times, and took —in some respects—different forms.

Hernán Cortés first made landfall on the Mexican mainland in April 1519; and by 1570, Spanish power and settlers were already unevenly distributed throughout Mexico, Guadalajara, Guatemala, Panama, Santa Fe de Bogotá, Quito, Lima, Charcas, and Chile. By contrast, the first English mission resulting in enduring settlements in mainland North America, led by Captain Christopher Newport, set sail from London only in 1606. The English for a long time clustered for safety along the eastern seaboard, encountering indigenous peoples whom they saw as nomads or hunter-gatherers. Incoming Spaniards were far more exploratory, and their early experience of New World peoples was much more diverse. There were, to be sure, hunter-gatherers aplenty in Spanish America, like the Charrúa people in what is now Uruguay. But Spain’s empire also extended over complex chiefdoms in Central America, and over the conquered Aztec and Inca empires in Mexico and Peru, with their large cities, stratified social systems, vast mineral wealth, sophisticated road and irrigation networks, and systems of slave labor and tribute, all of which the Spaniards were able to exploit.

The differences in the timing of these invasions, and in the nature and extent of the terrain initially seized, influenced how the two empires functioned throughout. Because they found cities already in existence on their arrival, and needed stable points of control as their settlers swarmed ever more adventurously over the landscape, the Spanish made early and abundant use of towns. This is likely to be one of the book’s revelations for Anglo-Saxon historians, who are accustomed to citing British, colonial American, and US rates of urbanization as showing marked economic development. Yet already in 1580, there were some 225 towns in the Spanish Indies; and by 1750, perhaps 13 percent of the population of Spanish America lived in cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants. By contrast, British America remained overwhelmingly rural. On the eve of the Declaration of Independence, only 7 percent of the population of the thirteen colonies lived in towns of more than 2,500 people.

Their perception of some of the peoples they overran as “advanced” influenced Spanish settlers’ behavior in another respect. Both Spanish invaders and British invaders killed very large numbers of indigenous people, by war, by terror raiding, and by infecting them with disease. Both empires also exploited native peoples as forced labor and as slaves, though the Spanish —wanting to mine the vast reserves of mineral wealth in Mexico, Peru, and what is now Bolivia—did so more systematically. But Spanish settlers proved more willing than most of their British counterparts to take indigenous and mixed-race spouses. The Spanish Crown formally permitted interethnic marriage in 1514. Moreover, the Catholic Church possessed an effective missionary wing in South America; so Spanish settlers who married across ethnic boundaries could usually feel assured that their spouses were coreligionists.

  1. 1

    Macmillan, 1918–1934.

  2. 2

    David Cannadine, In Churchill’s Shadow (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 192.

  3. 3

    See the essays collected in Interpreting Spanish Colonialism: Empires, Nations, and Legends, edited by Christopher Schmidt-Nowara and John M. Nieto-Phillips (University of New Mexico Press, 2005). See also Jeremy Adelman, Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 4.

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