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.

But it helped, too, that invading Spaniards encountered complex indigenous societies whose leaders they could easily regard as royal or aristocratic. On the cover of Elliott’s book is a reproduction of a painting, Union of the Descendants of the Imperial Incas with the Houses of Loyola and Borja. The painting commemorates a double marriage in the sixteenth century between elite Spanish men and Inca women; and indeed some gorgeously bejeweled Inca grandees are portrayed in the background of the picture, smiling benignly, and equipped with heraldic shields. What is striking is not simply that cross-racial unions of this elevated sort took place. No less significant is the fact that a Creole nobleman in Cuzco, a descendant of these particular marriages, chose to commission this canvas in 1718. Even after two centuries of Madrid’s imperial rule, he wanted to flaunt his mixed (but uniformly high-ranking) ancestry.

With very few exceptions, like John Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas, the incoming English—and particularly the affluent among them—behaved differently. To be sure, they shared some qualities with their Spanish counterparts. Like them, for instance, the English took a providential view of their colonizing mission. The Massachusetts Bay Company, chartered by Charles I in 1629, famously chose as its seal an image of an American Indian, with bow and arrow, beseeching the settlers, “Come over and help us.” Like the Spanish, too, the English arrived in America with colonizing experience drawn from their own continent. Many early Spanish conquistadors had previously fought against and/or enslaved Moors in the Iberian peninsula or in North Africa. Cortés customarily referred to the Mesoamerican temples he stumbled across as “mosques.” In analogous fashion, Elliott points out, the English referred to their new settlements in America as “plantations,” the term that their countrymen applied to lands that were expropriated in Ireland.

The English though—like the Welsh, Scots, and Scots-Irish who joined them as settlers in growing numbers after 1700—were Protestants. A minority of them made intermittent, heartfelt attempts to convert North American Indians to Christianity. But neither the Church of England nor the various Protestant sects that sought independence from it were comparable in their proselytizing efforts to Spain’s Jesuits or Franciscans in manpower, funding, or commitment. Moreover, Elliott remarks, “Puritanism was an exclusive, not an all-embracing, form of religion,” so “there could be no [British] imitation of the Spanish policy of compelle eos entrare—’compel them to come in.'” Partly as a consequence of this, early Anglophone settlers in North America were far less likely to intermarry with indigenous people whom they could see in the main only as heathens lacking in civility.

Elliott may be right to detect in this reluctance to intermarry a certain insecurity (though Britons intruding into Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seem not to have been similarly inhibited). When the Spanish first invaded America they believed themselves to be the most powerful people on the globe. Like ancient Romans (who also intermarried with those whom they conquered), Spaniards could feel sufficiently confident in their identity and sense of grandeur. By contrast, English settlers in the 1600s came from what was at best a second-rate power, tormented by religious and political strife. It is possible, then, that intermarrying with those whom John Rolfe himself termed “strange people” seemed too much of a risk. English-folk certainly boasted of being God’s chosen, but they might also feel that their own position was less than assured.

The political and religious fissures in Britain in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which resulted in two revolutions and several changes of dynasty, shaped its empire in America in a further respect. The importance of New World mineral wealth to its domestic treasury and military power gave Spain an obvious incentive from early on to monitor and administer its American colonies closely, and a very strong desire as well to hold onto them. By 1700, the number of universities in Spain had risen to thirty-three, in large part so as to train the administrators and experts necessary for its substantial colonial bureaucracy. Often preoccupied with domestic divisions, Britain’s rulers by contrast were markedly slow to map and monitor their American territories. Nor of course did they have access to New World silver and gold with which to pay colonial bureaucrats and troops, or to foster their colonists’ allegiance. Even in 1710, by which time a more united and powerful Britain was seeking to strengthen its imperial grip, there were just forty-two customs officials at work in its American colonies. Hence what can seem the ultimate paradox offered by these rival empires: Spain’s administrative, clerical, and military control of its New World empire was always heavier and more pervasive than Britain’s hold on its American colonists. So why was it that the latter rebelled first?

The concluding section of Empires of the Atlantic World, which seeks to address this question, is less convincing than the rest. In part this is because Elliott is quintessentially an early modern historian, most at home in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. More fundamentally, though, it is impossible for a single volume—even such a commanding synthesis as this—to do adequate justice to all of the disparate forces, geographies, and protagonists that were involved in the (partial) ending of these two empires.

Superficially, to be sure, it might seem that there is a straightforward master narrative easily at hand. Empires, it is still often assumed, must by their very nature always be vulnerable to resentment and resistance from those living under their rule. Especially in view of the rate of social, cultural, economic, intellectual, and demographic change in the Americas by 1750, was it not inevitable that, sooner rather than later, both Madrid and London would be challenged by proto-nationalists chafing under their rule and eager for independence? If one takes this view, if one believes that the key element in the story is the inexorable emergence of a revolutionary generation, then the reason for Britain’s American colonists being the first to rebel may also seem a straightforward one. “If egalitarian notions were to take root in America, this was more likely to occur in the British than the Spanish settlements,” argues Elliott. Protestant Anglo-Americans were simply more independently-minded and recalcitrant. They possessed “a political vitality and religious effervescence that differentiated them from the Spanish American societies to the south.”

Access to print and to the ideas it propagated was undoubtedly far more widely available in the thirteen colonies than elsewhere in the Americas. Only after 1808, and still more after the abolition of the Inquisition in 1812, was the press in Spanish America able to express markedly open oppostion. It is likely, too, that representative assemblies in British America allowed white males more extensive and sustained access to political debate than did the town councils, the cabildos, of Spanish America. Yet the central and essential argument of Elliott’s book—that the British and Spanish Americas are more usefully studied in tandem than apart—applies emphatically as well to the respective although partial endings of these two empires. In regard both to British America and Spanish America, it was less the outbreak of resistance from below that determined the course of their respective crises than the onset of transcontinental warfare on an unprecedented scale, and the outbreak of civil wars.4

Ironically, Spain might just possibly have deferred these explosions. If, at the very outset of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), it had combined its troops and navy with those of France, the latter might have been able to limit Britain’s subsequent rampage across seas and continents. As it was, Spain’s belated entry into the war only succeeded in damaging its own finances and reputation, while Britain was able to conquer extensive tracts of land in North America, Bengal, West Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia, territories that it then had to work out how to administer and rule.

In the aftermath of the war, as Elliott writes, both London and Madrid tried to reorganize their respective American colonies so as to increase their commercial profitability and fiscal contributions, and this swiftly provoked resistance in both empires. In 1765, settlers in Boston were objecting to new imperial regulations concerning trade and taxes; but so, too, were rioters in Quito. And while it was the thirteen colonies that erupted first into large-scale rebellion and civil war, resistance in parts of Spanish America in the 1770s and 1780s was also formidable. In the Andean Rebellion of 1780–1783, provoked again by fiscal and administrative “reforms,” some 100,000 Indians and 10,000 Spaniards were killed.

Yet, argues Elliott, “in Spanish America, unlike British America,” this particular phase of imperial upheaval “was contained.” This contrast is overdrawn, however, since—in its own terms, and the vocabulary of the time—London also succeeded in containing the scale of its imperial crisis. “British America” in 1776 signified not only the thirteen colonies and the Floridas, but also Canada, Nova Scotia, and Britain’s Caribbean colonies; and these territories still remained firmly part of George III’s imperial dominions after 1783. Moreover, even in what had been the thirteen colonies, the American Revolutionary War was at times far more of a civil war than a concerted protonationalist uprising. A majority of blacks and Native Americans sided in some ways with the Crown. A substantial minority of white settlers were loyalists, and even more of them preferred to remain, if they could do so, glumly neutral.

The destruction of Spain’s mainland American empire happened later and over a longer span of time, but in this case, too, the driving force and irritant was international, intercontinental warfare on a vast scale. From 1793 almost without a break until 1814, Spain was caught up in the struggle between Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and its various European opponents. French legions threatened Spain overland, while the Royal Navy harassed it at intervals at sea, severely disrupting its transatlantic trade with its New World colonies.

The crisis came in 1808 when French troops moved into Madrid, and the Spanish king Ferdinand VII was forced to abdicate. Cast adrift, colonists in Spanish America responded first with widespread protestations of continuing loyalty to the Bourbon kings, but then—in the continued absence of imperial authority—with growing demands for reform, greater autonomy, and ultimately for secession. From 1810, first Caracas, then Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Cartagena, and Santa Fe de Bogotá rebelled against their Spanish governors; and by 1830, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only remaining parts of Spanish America. For much of the intervening twenty years, though, Spain’s onetime New World was convulsed with interregional warfare, bitter ethnic divisions, and civil strife.

In this respect, the experiences of British America and Spanish America were indeed very different. The birth agonies of the United States had also been accompanied by civil war and lethal ethnic divisions; but Americans seeking independence here were able to secure powerful European allies, above all the French, with their professional standing army and considerable navy. Partly as a result, the armed struggle against the British was over within eight years; and many pre-war structures of law and administration in the former British colonies survived the conflict intact.

Spanish Americans were less fortunate. Their civil wars over independence proved far more protracted, ruinous, and divisive, because they took place over a larger region, and at a time when the European superpowers were either distracted by fighting in their own continent or too exhausted from it to intervene decisively elsewhere. And when the independent Spanish American states did finally begin to emerge, they had to confront a new kind of empire, the United States, which had a vested interest in keeping them weaker and more divided than itself.

This is perhaps the sharpest irony emerging from Elliott’s profound study of pan-American empire. Many Anglophone commentators on both sides of the Atlantic believed for many years that Catholic empires were peculiarly prone to trample political liberty, religious liberty, and legal rights. Yet in practice, after 1650 it was Protestant powers, not their Catholic rivals, that proved the more effective and relentless imperialists. Forced to give up a substantial portion of their American empire after 1776, Protestant Britons promptly moved on to seize large stretches of Asia and Australasia. Simultaneously, newly independent Protestant Americans swarmed westward across their continent at a much faster rate than their onetime British colonial rulers had previously sought to do. Between 1836 and 1854 alone, half of Mexico was incorporated into the US. The colonists of Catholic Spain, wrote Thomas Jefferson on one occasion, were “habituated from their infancy to passive submission.” How far, one must wonder, did the conviction that Protestant faith, by contrast, was richly productive of freedom make it easier for its adherents to seek out and secure the political capitulation and amalgamation of others?