Trading Places

Monday, October 30, 2006

A review of Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492–1830, by John H. Elliott (Yale University Press, 2006).


Sir John Elliott concludes his magisterial comparative history of empire in the Americas with a striking counterfactual sketch, imagining a different royal patron for Christopher Columbus and a different fate for the New World:

If [England’s] Henry VII had been willing to sponsor Columbus’s first voyage and if an expeditionary force of [Englishmen] had conquered Mexico for Henry VIII, it is possible to imagine a . . . massive increase in the wealth of the English crown as growing quantities of American silver flowed into the royal coffers; the development of a coherent imperial strategy to exploit the resources of the New World; the creation of an imperial bureaucracy to govern the settler societies and their subjugated populations; the declining influence of parliament in the national life, and the establishment of an absolutist English monarchy financed by the silver of America.

Here is a “what if” to conjure with! A Tudor-backed Columbus might have done away not merely with Britain’s transition to parliamentary government—in large measure a consequence of monarchical poverty—but also with the United States of America, that lineal descendant of an English conception of liberty as it had been institutionalized in the seventeenth century.

But the tantalized reader yearns for more. If, indeed, it is possible to imagine England, rather than Castile, seduced into absolutism by the silver of the Peruvian mines, is it equally possible to imagine Castile, rather than England, planting the seeds of republican virtue in the north of the American continent? What if New England had been in Mexico and New Spain in Massachusetts? Might the nearest thing Spain had to a parliament, the assembly called the Cortes, have established the first constitutional monarchy in Western Europe? And might the United States itself have emerged from a crisis of Hispanic imperial authority, speaking Spanish from its very inception?

Chance took the Spaniards to Peru and Mexico, the English to Massachusetts and Virginia.

The mind reels from such visions of a parallel universe—and perhaps with good reason. For one of the great strengths of Elliott’s richly textured comparative history is that it shows just how improbable such an inverted outcome was. After 400 pages of meticulously researched and elegantly executed synthesis, the reader is left convinced that the differences between European empire in North America and in South America were more than merely circumstantial. They had deep roots in the contrasting cultures of English and Spanish governance.

A Tale of Two Americas

There were, to be sure, more similarities than historians have often allowed. Englishmen and Spaniards approached the New World with similar motivations. They sought gold. They sought power. They sought converts to Christianity. Their initial impact on the Americas was also similar. They bore diseases fatal to indigenous peoples, drastically reducing their numbers in the space of a few generations.

England and Spain also confronted the same problem in the wake of the demographic catastrophe they had caused: a chronic labor shortage. They solved it by similar means—inducements to new settlers, the coercion of African slaves. And in North and South America alike, European settlers sought to replicate Old World institutions. They established universities, that of Santa Domingo predating Harvard by nearly a century. And they attempted, with less success, to found new aristocracies.

Englishmen and Spaniards approached the New World with similar motivations. They sought gold. They sought power. They sought converts to Christianity.

Finally, both empires experienced crises in the late eighteenth century. The increased regulation of transatlantic trade and the high cost of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) paved the way for colonial revolts. Those that broke out in Britain’s American colonies in the 1770s had their counterparts in Peru (Túpac Amaru’s Andean Rebellion of 1780–82 and the “Comunero” revolt in New Granada in 1781).

And yet, and yet: For all these similarities, the differences are far more numerous and more striking. Elliott is properly wary of hoary old dichotomies between Spanish wickedness and English virtue, southern conquest and northern commerce. The contrasts he draws from an awe-inspiring knowledge of the scholarly literature are nevertheless both plentiful and illuminating.

Some contrasts were indeed circumstantial. Chance took the Spaniards to Peru and Mexico, the English to Massachusetts and Virginia. The Spanish possessions were more populous and urbanized, making it possible to adopt existing imperial structures for collecting tribute from an already subjugated peasantry. And the abundance of gold and silver created opportunities for rent-seeking similar to those that oil and natural gas create in some developing countries today (the so-called resource curse). The settlers and would-be conquerors who came to North America, by contrast, encountered nomads, not El Dorado. They had to plant corn to eat and tobacco to trade.

The result was, it might be thought, paradoxical. By 1700, Spanish America was a land of big cities: Mexico City had 100,000 inhabitants in 1692, at a time when Boston had barely 6,000. British America was mostly a country of farms and villages. Why, then, did the economic and political fortunes of the two empires diverge so dramatically thereafter?

The key lies in the cultures that the settlers brought with them. The Castilian monarchy conceived of its conquests as possessions to be ruled and exploited monopolistically through a central Council of the Indies and powerful viceroys. The English crown, by contrast, laid the foundations of its American empire by granting rights to trading companies. Although governors were royally appointed, it was assumed from the outset that the colonists should have their own representative assemblies.

Spanish rule meant Roman Catholicism, which was not all bad (the Jesuits were exceptionally enlightened in their attitude toward the Native Americans) but created a monopoly of another sort. North America became home to numerous Protestant sects; dissent and diversity were among the organizing principles of British settlement. This had its shadow side (the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692), but the benefits—personified by the tolerant Quaker William Penn—were dazzling.

Mexico City had 100,000 inhabitants in 1692, at a time when Boston had barely 6,000.

Thus when independence came to (some of) the North American colonies, it was the reaction of a self-consciously libertarian society of merchants and farmers against an assertion of imperial authority. When it came to South America a couple of decades later, it was a chaotic response to the sudden vacuum of power that followed Napoleon’s assault on Bourbon authority in Spain in 1808.

Elliott’s achievement is to identify with brilliant clarity the similarities and differences between British and Spanish America while embroidering his analysis with memorable details. He is especially good on the profound divergence that occurred between a society that accepted the reality of interracial unions, classifying their issues (mestizos, mulattoes, and zambos) in increasingly elaborate hierarchies, and one that sought to prohibit them or at least deny their legitimacy.

Perhaps my favorite vignette has the Bostonian Samuel Sewall breakfasting with the Massachusetts colony’s lieutenant governor on “Venison and Chockolatte”: “I said,” recalled Sewall, “Massuchuset and Mexico met at His Honour’s Table.” In truth, they could scarcely have been further apart in both politics and culture than they were at that moment in 1697. But to read Elliott is to recapture the startling taste of that long-forgotten breakfast—and to sense that, even then, the venison of the North had the advantage of the chocolate of the South.