- Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830
Eliga Gould and others are constructing an approach to early modern Atlantic world studies that focuses on the entanglements inherent among the various competing European empires as they colonized the Americas and the Caribbean. This approach does not embrace or sanction traditional comparative histories emphasizing political differences between empires. Nevertheless, its adherents recognize that traditional analyses have helped historians discover the need to go beyond national narratives and discover the effects of metropolitan policy on peripheral people thousands of miles away. For the new Atlantic historians, empire is complicated by cultural as well as political interplay. J. H. Elliott engages this [End Page 485] approach in his ambitious synthesis Empires of the Atlantic World by trying to disentangle the threads of each empire’s influence upon the other. He examines both similarities and differences between the early modern world’s most prominent imperial forces, but he does so without falling into the trap of nationalist narrative.
Indeed, without ignoring or dismissing it, Elliott works against the entire traditional comparative historiography. He recognizes that Spain and Britain each had unique ambitions and policies that created unique empires, and he uses the features of traditional historiography as a starting point to understand the ways in which imperial policy was conceived and implemented in the separate peripheral political spheres each nation dominated. But Elliott also recognizes the distinct limitations that such an approach to comparative history features, one that focuses on national mythologies and legends, for instance, and allows early modern nation–states to create the very notion of uniqueness necessary to much traditional comparative history. He argues that any “comparison of the history and culture of large and complicated political organisms that culminates in a series of sharp dichotomies is unlikely to do justice to the complexities of the past,” but he also points out that an emphasis on too many similarities would be equally “reductionist” (xvi). Thus, writing a comparative history that does justice to the whole is akin to playing the accordion, Elliott suggests. “The two societies under comparison are pushed together, but only to be pulled apart again” (xvii). The trick for the historian is to end up with music.
Elliott creates a symphony. The book is organized so as to recognize the effects of cultural miscegenation. Beginning with the occupation of North America by Spain and Britain, he continues on to the consolidation of the empires by means of authority and hierarchy and the ways in which resistance to consolidation changed the composition of culture. Finally, he analyzes the social and cultural dynamics that led newly minted Americans to emancipation from empire.
As a scholar of seventeenth-century Spain and, later, of the Spanish empire in America, Elliott begins on familiar territory. He discusses the ways in which Spain asserted its perceived authority over a variety of people in North America, first conquering native peoples and then inserting settlers to do the work of colonization. Elliot contends that the English, on the other hand, “were always ‘planters’, not ‘conquerors’ ”—at least publicly. But Richard Hakluyt the elder and others recognized the success of the Spanish model and the opposition posed by [End Page 486] Natives, and came to the conclusion that conquest would likely have to precede planting (9).
After the imperial intrusions in the New World, Elliott shows the ways in which both empires created productive colonies. Monarchs devised the methods of establishing law and order and the means by which they could supervise the structure of society. Elliott argues that the full integration of church and state in the Spanish empire overcame difficulties created by the Council of the Indies, which seemed to create “built-in conflicts between competing authorities” and “the numerous opportunities of procrastination, obstruction and graft” (129). It was a system the Stuart monarchs would envy as they struggled “to bring a few thousand recalcitrant settlers within the framework” of empire (130).
Elliott shows that as the...