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  • The Spanish Empire and Atlantic World History
  • Scott Eastman
Staying Afloat: Risk and uncertainty in Spanish Atlantic world trade, 1760–1820. By Jeremy Baskes. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.
Visible Empire: Botanical expeditions and visual culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. By Daniela Bleichmar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Slavery and Antislavery in Spain’s Atlantic Empire. Edited by Josep M. Fradera and Christopher Schmidt-Nowara. New York: Berghahn, 2013.
Distant Tyranny: Markets, power, and backwardness in Spain, 1650–1800. By Regina Grafe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World. By María M. Portuondo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World. By Christopher Schmidt-Nowara. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

Reviewing books on the Iberian Atlantic world published between 2003 and 2006, Matthew Restall wrote: “Surely the notion of Spain as an empire in perpetual decline long ago became a paper tiger.”1 Close to a decade later, however, the trope of the Black Legend still generates considerable discussion in scholarly circles. Regina Grafe, for example, emphasizes historians’ struggles with the notion of “Spain’s double ‘failure’” (xii). According to this thesis, the Spanish Monarchy never developed along the lines of other Western states and did not conform to their economic and political models. Despite successful conquests and the creation of a vast empire, Spain did not draw the same benefits as their rivals did from imperial expansion. Of course, contemporaries likewise noted Spanish declension, with Nicholas Masson de Marvilliers describing Spain as the most ignorant nation in Europe and Voltaire asserting that Spain remained as unknown as the most savage parts of Africa. As early as 1580, William of Orange decried the traits he argued were immutably associated with the Spaniard: religious fanaticism as embodied in the Inquisition, greed, militarism and cruelty. Scholars may want to move beyond the paradigm of the Black Legend, but it still looms large over current historiographical debates. Accordingly, Josep M. Fradera and Christopher Schmidt-Nowara caution against viewing the Hispanic world through the lens of “inertia, traditionalism, or political, cultural, and religious continuities” (8). One of the avenues leading away from this trap brings Spain’s legal and administrative culture into focus. Each author under review here attaches importance to a tradition of legalism and rationality that undermines impressions of Spanish difference. Thus these books collectively combat preconceived notions and prejudices that informed and continue to inform interpretations of Spanish Atlantic history from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries.

Both Daniela Bleichmar and María M. Portuondo recover a spirit of scientific inquiry that has, until recently, seldom been associated with early modern Spain. Portuondo’s magisterial book on Spanish scientific practices describes a state bent on the mastery of cosmography, a field that utilized astronomical and nautical observations in order to chart its New World territories and to establish a rigorous curriculum in its universities and academies. Portuondo argues that cosmographical education at Spanish universities “was on par with, if not slightly ahead of, that at other European universities” (48). For instance, Salamanca was the only sixteenth-century university in Europe to include Copernicus in the curriculum. Tycho Brahe cited the Spanish astronomer Jerónimo Muñoz’s observations of comets. Portuondo asserts that the trajectory of the key intellectual figures followed in the book falls “squarely within the tradition of Italian and English mathematical practitioners considered by some to be the first exponents of a nascent Scientific Revolution” (21). With the shift in Western perceptions of time and space, Spanish cosmographers pioneered some of the quantitative methods associated with modernity and moved beyond some of the highly qualitative aspects of cartography that had been prevalent in the Middle Ages. While narration still had a place in geographies of the later sixteenth century, the scientific method began to take on increasing importance. Francisco Hernández, with a cosmographer at his side, was sent by Philip II to the Americas in 1570 to catalog latitude and longitude, the latter calculated by observing lunar eclipses. He also was ordered to study medicinal plants and to conduct trials to ascertain their usefulness. Other scientific missionaries traveled...

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