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Empires of the Atlantic World

Review by: Juandrea Bates University of Texas at Austin

Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in American 1492-1830 , J. H Elliottt (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 546 pages

Over seven decades ago Herbert Bolton made a now famous plea for historians to write an ‘epic of Greater America.’ Since then historians have revolutionized the historiography of both Latin American and the United States, but made very little progress in creating the kind of discourse between fields that Bolton desired. In his masterful work, Empires of the Atlantic World Britain and Spain in America 1492- 1830, J.H. Elliott weaves his extensive knowledge of the development and decline of Spain’s American empire together with an impressive synthesis of prior scholarship on British imperialism in the New World to provide the reader with a skillful comparative study and shed new light on the intersections of these great empires in the development of the Atlantic World. In doing so, Elliott encourages discourse between two spheres of inquiry that historians have traditionally viewed in isolation and, as a result, provides a model for future comparative studies of imperialism.

Elliott conducts this comparative study in three stages. He begins in Part I of his work by demonstrating how both the political and legal practices in the metropole and geographic and demographic conditions in the New World shaped development of the British and Spanish overseas empires. The abundance of silver and a large indigenous population in Spanish America combined with a legal tradition that gave the Spanish rights to the land and an obligation to Christianize indigenous populations, which created a colonial economy that sharply contrasted with that of British America. Royal interest in the profits that would be derived from those silver mines fostered a more penetrating imperial presence in Spanish America than in British North America where a lack of precious metal promoted imperial neglect.

In Part II of his work Elliott examines how these differences continued to shape the development of power relationships between the metropole and colonies as well as within the colonies themselves. In these chapters, Elliott demonstrates that Spain’s direct control over its colonies prevented the development of religious tolerance and political diversity within its colonies. In contrast, because British politicians constantly engaged in debates over freedom and representation, they did not present a united front in interactions with their colonies and promoted political diversity within these outposts. Elliott also argues that while immigrants frequently migrated to British North America, particularly New England and the middle colonies, in search of material improvement, the presence of large indigenous populations, whose labor colonists exploited, prevented immigration to Spanish America.

Elliott concludes his work in Part III by analyzing how these differences outlined in the two previous sections affected the deterioration of imperial relationships during the last half of the 18th century. Elliott demonstrates that the colonies of both Spanish and British America resented the increased tax burden their metropole imposed during the 18th century. However, the political freedom that Britain allowed its North American colonies encouraged them to seek independence first. Furthermore, Elliott argues that because Britain had a series of other colonial possessions, while Spanish America constituted the overwhelming majority of Spain’s overseas empire, Spain felt compelled to fight a much longer, bloodier, and more destructive battle to keep control of its American territories.

A main component of the book’s strength lies in Elliott’s attempts to create nuanced discussions of the various micro-worlds contained within each empire. As he cautions in his introduction, Elliott’s endeavors to encompass vast geographic spaces as well as such a large time frame prevent the work from including a truly comprehensive history of any area in the New World. Instead, Elliott provides glimpses into various colonial spaces throughout the period, such as the numerous viceroyalties of Spanish America or regional colonial groups in British North America. By conducting his study in this way, Elliott avoids the trap of many historians who essentialize vast geographic and demographic diversity into reductionist categories of British North America or Spanish America. This technique allows Elliott to unveil both the unique localized traits and larger overarching trends within each empire and throughout the Atlantic World.

Scholars of British North America and Spanish America will find very little new scholarship in the work, as Elliott’s strength lies primarily in his ability to synthesize existing scholarship into a comparative study. Furthermore, because the work focuses on settler societies, it almost completely ignores the experiences of indigenous groups or slaves in the Atlantic empires. Nonetheless, while readers can find multiple works on comparative slavery, Elliott’s text presents a rarity in that it puts forward a comprehensive and well written comparison of British and Spanish empires of the Atlantic World while providing valuable insights for students and academics interested in the colonies of America, imperialism, or the comparative study of empires.

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