Book Review: Empires Of The Atlantic World

Empires Of The Atlantic World:  Britain And Spain In America, 1492-1830, by J.H. Elliott

This is the sort of sprawling, deeply insightful book that well deserves the adjective of magisterial.  Although the author himself freely admits that his comparative history of the Atlantic empires of England/Great Britain and Spain is selective and does not include a great deal of attention on important aspects of the worlds of both empires, this is still a work of incredible ambition and achievement.  In its skeletal framework, this is a classic work of comparative history, comparing and contrasting the fate of the English and Spanish empires over the long duration of time from the “discovery” of the Americas by Columbus in 1492 to the successful gaining of independence of the mainland Spanish Empire after the decisive battle of Ayacucho in 1824 and the subsequent division of the successor states into the smaller nations of Spanish Latin America that we are still familiar with today.  To be sure, many readers will be familiar with aspects of this story [1] from reading other books that look at part of this story or look at it with less detail, but few authors attempt the sheer scope of chronicling the fate of two Empires that were somewhat intertwined even if politically distinct and even hostile over much of their history.

This book of slightly more than 400 pages is divided into three parts and twelve chapters of comparison and contrast between the British and Spanish Atlantic empires.  The first four chapters examine the process of occupation (I) in the two empires, with a discussion of the contrast between Cortès and Newport and their motives and methods for intruding into Mexico and Virginia, respectively (1), along with a discussion of the occupation of space symbolically, physically, and through effective settlement (2), the confrontation through coexistence and segregation between European settlers and indigenous peoples (3), and the exploitation of native resources in a transatlantic economy (4).  The second part of the book discusses the consolidation of both empires (II) with a discussion of the framework of the empires and the nature of central authority and local resistance (5), followed by a discussion of hierarchy within the colonial societes as well as concerns over social antagonism and the ambition of emerging local elites (6), a look at the Americas as a sacred space with discussions of providence, religious plurality, and the relationship between church and state (7), as well as an examination of the question of empire and identity and the balance between transatlantic and local identities among settlers in both empires (8).  The third and final part of the book consists of a discussion of emancipation in the two empires (III) with chapters on expanding societies on the move and importing slave labor (9), the drive for reform in the eighteenth century in both empires that sought to redefine imperial relationships (10), the crisis that was contained in Spanish America but which led to the rupture of the British empire (11), and the search for liberty and the end of the Spanish empire that led to a new world of independent American states in the making (12).

In reading this book, one gets a sense of the author’s interest in the relationships and ramifications of behavior.  Overall, the author seeks to avoid sprawling cliches and shows himself to be a master of a lot of relevant and somewhat obscure sources that include imperial archives as well as matters of local governance in the Spanish and British empires.  The author is, moreover, an astute student of intellectual history, noting that different Enlightenment thinkers were favored in the two empires–I think the United States lucked out by having its founders not be fond of Rousseau, but others may disagree–and that the salutary neglect of the British for the colonies over a long stretch of time made the conflict between the two all the more severe when rupture came in the eighteenth century in the aftermath of the French & Indian War.  Of particular note, though, the book is full of a sense of tragedy in that the Spanish and British empires could not manage to effectively manage the hopes and expectations of settler populations for being fully respected citizens of the empire, and those same local elites were caught in a bind that still remains between their demands for dignity and honor and their inability to deal successfully with their own role in fostering inequality within their own local provincial societies either under empire or in the period after successfully winning their independence.  This book does not perpetuate black legends against the Spanish empire or whitewash the problems of either imperial or settler societies, but it is full of complexity and leaves the reader with a great deal of deep and thoughtful questions about empire and how it went wrong.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/01/17/non-book-review-war-and-independence-in-south-america/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/02/24/book-review-headlines-in-history-the-1800s/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/01/20/book-review-warfare-in-the-eighteent-century/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2016/05/05/audiobook-review-the-politically-incorrect-guide-to-the-british-empire/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/08/03/book-review-the-peopling-of-british-north-america-an-introduction/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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