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  • Crisis in an Atlantic Empire: Spain and New Spain, 1808–1810 by Barbara H. Stein & Stanley J. Stein
  • Jeremy Adelman
Crisis in an Atlantic Empire: Spain and New Spain, 1808–1810, by Barbara H. Stein & Stanley J. Stein. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. viii, 795 pp. $89.95 US (cloth).

For over a half-century, the duo of Barbara and Stanley Stein has been labouring on a massive history of the evolution of the Spanish empire, especially the complex interdependence between Spain and Mexico. This book is the last installment, the fourth volume of what must surely count as one of the great epics of the making of the modern world by Bourbons, their backers, and the swelling ranks of rivals and critics. This particular volume is a study of the feverish years between Napoleon’s invasion of Spain to the outbreak of the plebeian revolt in Mexico led by the provincial priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. After a century of struggles to reform and adapt to the internal and external pressures of an earlier globalization, the old empire finally entered the phase of its collapse. [End Page 580]

Recent scholarship of the Spanish empire has turned increasingly to the study of Atlantic cultural and religious exchanges. The earlier structuralist explanations of the Iberian empires — that emphasized the durable power of the alliance between monopoly merchants and ancien regime ministers — went by the wayside to be replaced by a different portrait of power. Drained of class interests, the new historiography accents the cultural dimensions of authority.

At first blush, this book appears to be a throwback. The underlying theme of the book — indeed the series — is that an empire ruled by a patrimonial monarch and backed by merchant-rentiers who thrived off protection of their privileges, forced sales to Indians, and a gamut of coerced labour could not possibly be serious about Enlightened reform. There was something intrinsically reactive, not to say reactionary, about the Spanish ancien regime. Why it did not collapse was because of the wealth extracted from the Americas, especially Mexico.

In fact, the Steins present a subtle account of a trans-Atlantic elite adapting to pressures and incentives, but only up to the limits of their self-interests and convictions. The strong impression one gets in this book is of an imperial ruling class — with some remarkable detail about the interlaced connections between private and public pursuits — with a powerful, pragmatic, élan. This class knew that at the bottom of the social pyramid lay landless peasants of Andalusia, growing Cuban slave populations, and “5 million mestizos, mulattoes, and ethnic Indians exploited by dominant whites, criollo and pensinsular” (p. 174). In this context, reform was a dangerous game and this book pulls the veil back on the memoranda and calculus of elites grappling with just how much they had to concede before letting events get out of control. Indeed, it provides a richly detailed account of behind the scenes debates about policymaking, one that demolishes misguided depictions of the Spanish regime as “absolutist” or blind to the threats that closed like a noose around it.

But it was not up to monarchs and ministers to dictate the whens and whys of imperial adaptation. While there was much internal dispute over whether to give in to the neutral trade demands of some colonial ports, or whether to adjust the avería tax administered by merchant guilds on behalf of the crown, it was ultimately the pressure from Paris that forced the hand of rulers. The book begins with a coup that saw Ferdinand VII overthrow his hapless father Charles IV and his aid, Juan-Manuel Godoy. What Godoy had cooked up was an emergency plan to rescue the monarchy by escaping to Mexico. His demise sealed the fates of the Bourbons; now there was no escaping. Sure enough, when Napoleon invaded, he attempted to seize all of the Spanish empire. The early part of this book is consumed with the plotting, conspiracies, and intrigue on all sides for the upper hand. [End Page 581]

The French invasion, instead of fastening Spain and its empire to Paris’s imperial ambitions, instead turned “liberators” into “occupiers...


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