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  • The Peninsular War: A New History
  • Timothy E. Anna
The Peninsular War: A New History. By Charles Esdaile . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Plates. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. xv, 587 pp. Cloth, $40.00.

The war known in Britain as the Peninsular War and in Spain as the War of Independence or the Napoleonic War (1808-14) deserves to play a bigger role in Latin Americanists' understanding of Spain's history. It was the first foreign conquest of nearly the entire Iberian Peninsula in over a thousand years. Spain and Portugal's incredibly bitter struggle against the French invaders, joined by the British expeditionary forces under the Duke of Wellington, was a profoundly destabilizing turning point for them and for their American imperial possessions. Charles Esdaile has already published several books on this subject and handles the present sweeping study with the authority and compound focus that you would expect from a leading specialist. This is a "big" book in every sense—a military history of the war that fully incorporates Spanish political affairs as well.

Characterized by dense narrative, the book is traditional in method, following a generally chronological order with occasional separate chapters to cover some specific issue. Esdaile contrasts his approach with those of Charles Oman and [End Page 557] Miguel Artola—the first criticized for being too focused on military affairs, the second for being too focused on politics. He achieves his prime objective, which is to integrate both political and military narratives. All his perspectives are distinctly critical; in fact, it is not clear if there are any modern studies he would recommend to the reader.

Indeed, Esdaile's treatment of most of the historical characters in the story is just a little short of disdainful. There are no heroes at all, which is fair enough, but his attempt to avoid praise for great characters such as Wellington or Napoleon means the reader is shown a rather acerbic view of the story. And if the demigods fall short of true Olympian stature, the mere mortals—Ferdinand VII, Spanish liberals, Spanish guerrillas, French commanders, British officers—come in for more disapproval. Singled out for particular criticism are the Spanish nobles and landowners, the Cortes of Cádiz, and the church hierarchy, although Esdaile does not always say why he dismisses them. The constitution of 1812 receives only a brief discussion.

The situation in the peninsula no doubt warrants a sense of pessimism. Esdaile shows that the war was vicious and that civilian populations were abused by all sides—French invaders, Spanish guerrillas, even the British allies. Wellington intensely disliked the Cádiz government and constitution and contemplated a military coup, but gave up the idea. The British sacked San Sebastian, Ciudad Rodrigo, and Badajoz; the French slaughtered civilians in Madrid and Zaragoza and elsewhere; the Spanish guerrillas were not freedom fighters but bandits. The price for British support to Patriot Spain was entry into the American colonial trade, to which no Spanish government could assent. The Spaniards who rose in the Dos de Mayo and other uprisings were malcontents. Spanish liberals were opportunists. Spanish elites shirked their duty; corruption and base motives reigned on all sides. Napoleon never took Spanish resistance seriously and undercut the efforts of his brother Joseph, who he imposed on the throne of Spain.

The book, in short, is strongly opinionated. Of course, most of Esdaile's judgments may be valid, but his considerations of some key questions are discursive and conflicting. The prose may be described as in the style of an extended tutorial, loquacious and at times contradictory. So many sentences are interrupted with multiple parenthetical thoughts that it makes difficult reading. The whole discussion seems characterized by a certain guardedness about the eternally corrupt Spanish and their inability to get things straightened out. I do not want to leave a false impression. In fact, Esdaile is sympathetic to the Spaniards and fully incorporates Spanish sources, but he is also very British. His interpretations are so personal that in places they verge on being impenetrable. The American colonial dominions are only briefly mentioned, chiefly as sources of revenue for the metropolis rather than as agents in...


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pp. 557-559
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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