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  • European Empires in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean World in the First half of the Eighteenth Century: An Introduction
  • Trevor Burnard

In 1743, José del Campillo, appointed secretary of the Spanish navy and the Indies in 1736, compared the mighty Spanish Empire to the rapidly developing French and British empires in the Atlantic World. Spain came off badly by comparison with its western European rivals. Indeed, Campillo argued, “a new method of government” was necessary for Spanish America so that “such a rich possession should give us advantages.” He noted that the small islands of Barbados and Martinique were more beneficial to Britain and France than all of Spain’s great empires. “Our system of government,” he lamented, “is totally vitiated.” Spain had neglected economics in favour of “political government” and its preference for power had led to trade being set aside. Britain and France, by contrast, had been much more economically aggressive and thus more successful. They had recognised the need to give their colonies “freedom and space, removing the shackles and restrictions oppressing their industry, and first giving them the means to enrich themselves before enriching their mother.”1

Campillo had a highly positive view of French and British imperialism in the first half of the eighteenth century, a view which was only sometimes shared by commentators in Britain and France. As Sophus Reinert has argued, every eighteenth-century European empire was engaged in fierce competition, stimulated by what Reinert defines as an ethos of emulation. Political economists, for example, were preoccupied with how trade could be a form of conquest and how political communities could best nurture and encourage their industries against foreign rivals. This emphasis on emulation tended to lead theorists in each nation to overstress the achievements of the imperial policies of other nations and to denigrate the imperial policies of their own nation. They did this, in ways similar to Campillo, though these discussions were usually initiated at a lower level of state bureaucracy than the ministerial level which Campillo had reached. What they wanted was to try and force a discussion about how imperial reform could be achieved. Thus, it was useful to depict other nations as succeeding where your nation was failing as a rhetorical strategy to argue for change in imperial strategies. The aim was to force imperial leaders to copy the ideas and practices of other places in order to move ahead in imperial expansion.2

Campillo’s treatise fits clearly within this discourse of emulation. J.H. Elliott summarises the position nicely when he notes that “it was one of the ironies of the 1760s that Spanish ministers should have taken Britain’s commercial empire in America as a model for their own at a time when the British themselves were becoming increasingly attracted by the idea of a more centrally controlled empire on the model of the Spanish.”3 Ideological competition was even fiercer between France and Britain, where each side was convinced of its own moral pre-eminence, especially as nationalism became a more urgent discourse in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, and their greater capacities to wage war and to establish and develop their colonies, at the same time as they envied the imperialists of the other country for what they considered were the superior imperial policies that they had adopted.4

Britain, for example had a long tradition in which imperial “fixers” criticised government policy as being unclear, inchoate and contradictory, allowing France, in their opinion, to take advantage of such incompetence by steadily advancing its interests in North America and even more so in the Greater Antilles. In 1721, Martin Bladen, the leading bureaucrat at the Board of Trade between 1717 and 1743, wrote a coruscating report, arguing for a close to complete overhaul of the colonial system in order to counter the French threat to Britain’s imperial possessions. Bladen built up France’s power until it was an existential threat to British security in the American interior. He argued that France wanted to extend “the French Dominions” from “north to south thro’ the whole Continent of America.”5

He also lamented the weakness of royal authority in British North America...


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