What a stupendous work of scholarship is JH Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World (April 2006)! A comparative history of the English and Spanish empires in the New World, with occasional nods to the Portuguese and French, sweeping over more than 300 years … well it’s just an amazing intellectual achievement is all that can be said.
Elliott is not at all an argumentative historian. Indeed, half a dozen years before publishing this opus, he delivered a lecture asking whether the Americas even had a common history worth writing together. Much of the delight of this book occurs in the unexpected contrasts that occur just by juxtaposing historical facts together: how the transition from a Habsburg dynasty to a Bourbon dynasty in Spain in 1700 passed almost without a hiccough in Spanish America, while the dynastic transition in England in 1688 generated conflict throughout British America – and something close to civil war in the colony of New York.
Yet Elliott does have a theme, and it is this: Since 1800, English-speaking America has had a much more successful history than Spanish-speaking America. As he points out, in 1800, New Spain (the future Mexico) had an economy probably about 50% the size of that of the independent United States. By 1870, the Mexican economy was barely 5% of the American.
Before that, however, by any measure it was Spanish America that built the more exciting and thriving culture. Mexico City had a population of 100,000 people at a time when Boston was home to 5,000; Spanish America had 20 universities before British America built its third.
Much of our English-language history of the hemisphere is devoted to self-flattering explanations for our post-1800 success. It’s our superior culture, you see, or our marvelous decision to eschew the destructive pursuit of the false wealth of precious metals in favor of honest non-feudal toil.
Elliott punctures these self-congratulatory stories.
If there had lived large Indian populations in the Chesapeake Bay area, he dryly notes, the English settlers would have gladly exploited them. Lacking them, they imported black slaves instead where slaves paid – and only relied on their own labor where the bleak local landscape left them no other choice, as in Puritan New England.
New Englanders’ fierce religious prejudices helped reconcile New Englanders to their unprofitable fate, by condemning the Indians as literally satanic. It is a very sobering reflection that New England’s egalitarian traditions rest on a firm foundation of militant religious and racial exclusiveness. Meanwhile, the aristocratic culture of Spanish America made far more room than I had ever appreciated for the surviving aristocracy of Mexico and, especially, Peru. Well into the 18th century, upper-class Peruvians took pride in proving their ancestry from the ruling Incas as well as the conquistadors. The Incan oligarchy in the city of Cuzco retained its hold upon lands and populations until the Tupac Amaru uprising of the 1780s.
Later patterns of loyalty and rebellion owe much in Elliott’s telling to labor exploitation. Where small white populations held large nonwhite populations in service – Cuba, Barbados, Peru – local elites clung to the colonial power for protection. Where white populations were large and nonwhite populations relatively small, demands for independence came early and loud: New England, the Rio de la Plata colony that became Argentina.
Elliott contrasts the reaction of the Virginia planters to the collapse of tobacco prices in the 1760s to the reaction of Venezula planters when cacao prices collapsed in the 1770s. Virginians, enraged at the deterioration in their terms of trade, were drawn to anti-British agitation. Venezuelans, equally angry, were quickly drawn back to the paths of loyalty as they contemplated the risks of instability in a region where slaves outnumbered masters by a much larger margin than in the Chesapeake Bay.
Not that Elliott neglects culture altogether.
As he points out, Spanish America was ruled by bureaucracy; British America, by legislatures. In time, that would mean that British Americans would conceive of “independence” as meaning replacement of the sovereignty of Parliament with the sovereignty of their own elected legislatures. Spanish Americans, by contrast, imagined “independence” as a state in which foreign officials were replaced by domestic officials.
Elliott reminds us of the violence and brutality of the American revolution. He estimates that America did not recover its 1776 level of per capita income until 1800. But in comparison to the violence in South America, the United States escaped lightly. War raged across Venezuela for more than a dozen years, killing perhaps one-seventh of the population, in a conflict in which racial antagonisms played at least as important a part as national aspirations. In Mexico, the independence movement was brutally suppressed – with the suppressors changing sides at the end and creating an independent “empire” with themselves at its head.
Like all great books, Empires of the Atlantic raises in the mind more questions than it answers. Why was the Virginia elite so much more cohesive than the Venezuelan? Why did Washington never have to contend with the challenges to his authority that pushed Simon Bolivar toward violence and tyranny? One could spend a rich lifetime thinking about the questions provoked by the great learning gathered here, as indeed JH Elliott has done. He has put half a world between hard covers. As for me, I finish the book with very much less certainty and far less complacency than I began it, with a much keener sense of how much the world holds to know.