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  • Negotiating Space in the Spanish Empire:A review essay
  • Emily Berquist Soule
A Search for Sovereignty: Law and geography in European empires, 1400–1900. By Lauren Benton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire's Periphery. By Silvia Sellers-García. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.
Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas. By Tamar Herzog. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

How did the Spanish monarchs rule the world's most expansive early modern empire without ever setting foot in its most important overseas territories? This question is at the heart of understanding the longevity and reach of the Spanish imperial enterprise, both in Europe and abroad. In 2004, Alejandro Cañeque's The King's Living Image proposed a convincing approach to the problem by arguing that the ritualistic and performative aspects of Spanish political culture, especially their focus on the viceroy as an overseas stand-in for the king, sustained a sense of popular unity, group identity and political allegiance that embodied a "language of power that everybody understood."1 Cañeque's work remains a definitive interpretation of how the Spanish imagined and implemented the politics of governance throughout their empire. Yet in its wake, scholars have also begun to consider the opposite perspective, examining how the early modern Spanish Empire was, as Lauren Benton put it, "a fabric that was full of holes, stitched together out of pieces… politically fragmented [and] legally differentiated" (2). Benton's analysis of law and geography in imperial history centers on a series of "layered sovereignties" through which the Spanish negotiated with local leaders and geographical constraints to manage their overseas territories. More recently, Silvia Sellers-García and Tamar Herzog have approached the question of how the Iberians sustained their empires from a similarly complex perspective. Examining the fundamental questions of colonial rule as matters of space, distance and geographical delineation leads these historians to overturn the traditional colonial studies paradigm of "central" European metropolises and weak "peripheral" colonies. Although their methodologies differ, each work ultimately arrives at the conclusion that in the early modern Spanish Empire, the meaning of "center" and "periphery" was anything but obvious.

A Search for Sovereignty: Law and geography in European empires, 1400–1900 draws on archival material from the Spanish and British worlds in order to argue that early modern empires did not erect the mechanisms of modern imperial governance according to a teleological timeline. Instead, as the British, the Spanish, and other Europeans penetrated foreign coasts and soils in America, Asia and Africa, they brandished the geographical data and legal traditions familiar to them, making do with what they knew. The narrative construction of Benton's work cleverly mirrors this process: the chapters offer a loosely chronological assessment of how the Spanish and British Empires became global: with initial timid explorations into river estuaries; advances in the sea and settlements on islands; and in the "colonial enclaves" of interior regions that mitigated imperial authority with Native traditions.

Benton begins her analysis with river estuaries, coastal regions Europeans believed would lead them to untold riches—most often of precious metals or of human beings. Yet these riverine regions were notoriously difficult places to settle: they had bad water, poor soil and unpredictable weather. Most Europeans could only hope to pass through estuaries with the help of guides or intermediaries, but employing such go-betweens brought another host of legal problems—to whom were they loyal? Did they fall under the jurisdiction of their native governments or were they now European subjects? An oft-used concept in making this decision of sovereignty was the idea of treason. Benton shows how during the early modern period, treason "moved away from an emphasis on crimes against the person of the king toward a definition highlighting acts against the public order" (61). Somewhat paradoxically, however, in order to be guilty of acts against the public order, a vassal had to be considered part of the public order in the first place. Therefore, accusations of treason were almost exclusively reserved for elite Spanish subjects, individuals with a privileged view of the inside of the imperial machine. Once they transgressed...

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