Thursday, November 29, 2007

Webb reviews Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830

J. H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (Yale University Press, 2006) is reviewed by Todd Webb, Department of History, Laurentian University on H-Canada. Webb writes, in part:
J. H. Elliott sets himself a daunting task in Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830. Comparing two empires, focusing on the individual, local, regional, and transatlantic contexts of European expansion, he aims to counter the "black legend" of Spanish imperialism. Elliott does not deny that the Spanish process of conquest could be, and often was, brutal. He argues, however, that the viciousness and chaos of initial contact were followed by something other than centuries of inept imperial management. According to Elliott, the Spanish empire in the Americas constituted a highly complex society governed by a generally effective colonial system. It was that very complexity and stability, he attempts to demonstrate, that made the Latin American wars of independence so destructive. In this, and in many other ways, the history of Spanish America differed from the history of British America; but that does not mean that the British were better empire builders. In comparison to Spain, Britain was often utterly hapless in its dealings with the settlers of New England, Virginia, and the Middle Colonies. That Elliott goes far towards making this case, while providing a detailed survey of the rise and fall of two European powers in the Americas, is a testament to the magnitude of his achievement.

Empires of the Atlantic World is divided into three parts, each focusing on a discrete phase of the settler experience in the Americas: occupation, consolidation, and emancipation. In the first part--occupation--Elliott begins by outlining the mindset and motivation of two archetypal adventurers, the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and the English captain Christopher Newport. In Elliott's reading, these two men possessed a similar mentality of conquest and both were motivated by the same zeal for wealth. Indeed, tales of Spanish success in the New World did much to whet the collective appetite of the founders of Jamestown, though, of course, their hopes of finding their own Aztec empire to overthrow and pillage were doomed to disappointment. Still, Elliott's main point is clear enough: in the beginning, the Spanish and British empires in the Americas were similar. Such differences as did exist between them--and Elliott is careful to point these out--had more to do with the varying contexts of Spanish and British settlement than with any hard-and-fast distinction between empires of conquest and commerce. This is an argument that Elliott drives home in his discussion of the impact of Spanish and British settlement on the geography, indigenous people, and resources of the Americas.
In part 2, Elliott deals with the consolidation of the European presence in North and South America. He concentrates on those political, social, and religious factors that tended to pull the two colonial societies apart, including the "relatively slow and haphazard British moves towards the imposition of empire" and Spain's incorporation of its overseas territories "within an effective imperial framework" (p. 119)....The final part of Empires of the Atlantic World concentrates on the breakdown of British and Spanish imperial authority in the Americas. Elliott's contention that the colonies were shaped by "a host of personal choices and the unpredictable consequences of unforeseen events" (p. 411) comes most clearly into play in this section.

There is much to praise in Empires of the Atlantic World. It serves as a model of how Atlantic history should be done. Drawing on a vast array of secondary material, Elliott more than meets the goal he sets for himself in the introduction: a comparative study of British and Spanish settlement that deals, in equal measure, with similarities and differences and that provides explanations and analysis calculated to do justice to both. And, though concentrating on the British and Spanish settler societies in North and South America, Elliott also effectively integrates Native American groups into his narrative.

The rest, including the quibbles, is here.