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  • No Longer Odd Region Out:Repositioning Latin America in World History
  • Lauren Benton (bio)

The history of Latin America has been instrumental to the rise of world history as a research field. Some of the seminal works of world history have highlighted Latin American -centered events, from William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples to Alfred Crosby's The Columbian Exchange. The region has also provided important subject matter for groundbreaking studies on topics that have become the bread and butter of global historians: diasporas, transnational movements, and the rise of global capitalism.

It might seem, then, that the relationship between Latin American history and world history has been a close one and that the two fields have informed each other more than they have developed in isolation. Yet the reality is both more complex and more troubling. In the main paradigms of world history, Latin America has been placed not in the foreground, but off to the side, inhabiting a space that is not so much insignificant as it is simply strange. Many comparative analyses have cast the region as a contrast to patterns of change that in turn take on the character of historical models. Together, the trends produce a tendency to view the continent as "odd region out"—home to anomalous processes and perpetually out of sync with global historical periodization.

Curiously, emphasis on the region's oddities is perhaps most muted in the historiography of the precolumbian period. Here, though we might expect exceptionalism to attach itself to representations of Aztec and Incan Empires as, at the very least, technologically different from their counterparts in other world regions, historians and anthropologists have instead operated largely within a comparative framework that emphasizes shared structures of symbolic practices, social hierarchies, and agricultural regimes.1 The treatment of later [End Page 423] periods departs from this pattern. The Spanish Conquest is seen as mainly atypical for its time. The formation of the Latin American republics is represented as an idiosyncratic mix of models of governance, popular politics, and elite rivalries. And twentieth-century development is measured—and comes up short—against industrialization in Europe and Asia. It is possible to read the region's history differently in global context, but to do so will require us to follow innovative leads in both regional and world historiography.

The view of Latin America as atypical will resist change, in part because it is founded on selective, but not completely wrong, historical observations. Consider first the history of Latin American conquest and colonization from a world historical perspective. The most strikingly "odd" feature of the conquest was that it happened at all. European interactions with Asians and Africans were evolving along a different trajectory. The Portuguese and Dutch limited their territorial and sovereignty claims and instead established a network of fortified posts in Africa and Asia to channel trade. This strategy was linked to older patterns of protected trade diasporas, including the model of Venetian trade in the eastern Mediterranean.2 The creation of a territorial empire places Latin America in a special category. In fact, the term "colonial," as applied to the sixteenth century, is usually reserved for Latin America and not used to describe either the enclaves of European control elsewhere in the world or the expansion of non-European polities such as the Mogal Empire.

The difference in chronology is important, because one of the favored rubrics of world history has been the global economy. European trade in Africa and Asia was structured around both fortified trading posts and participation in local, or "country," trade. Painted with a broad brush, this history is one of contact but not conquest—relations were often violent but were also characterized by negotiation and mutual regulation of trade. Further, European long-distance trade was still dwarfed by the volume of non-European interregional trade. The history of the Latin American economy can be interwoven with this narrative, but the economic story that has received most attention here is the transformation of labor and production. Thus, while the flow of silver is one that world historians suggest marks the origins of a truly global economy, the Latin American position within the global circulation of silver...


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pp. 423-430
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2004
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