Empires of the Atlantic World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

In Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830, J. H. Elliott describes how Spanish rulers who found themselves suddenly in possession of vast overseas territories discovered that the strategies for conquest on the Iberian Peninsula had to be modified to suit their new holdings. They had to find ways of conciliating the conquistadores, protecting the natives, assisting the Church, and still make the colonies profitableand do all this at great distance. Through new institutions such as the Council of the Indies and a centralized administration based on viceroys and governors, and close cooperation with both the secular and regular branches of the Church, they established traditions that would persist to the present day: power exercised from the top, bureaucrats regulating every aspect of economic and social life, strongly differentiated classes, and emphasis on justice, stability, and patronage. At the same time, they made successful efforts to include the diverse peoples in their political and religious systemsnot as equals but as represented. Whenever there were complaints, blame could be placed on the governors; credit for redressing grievances was given to the Crown.

It was very different, Elliott shows, in the British colonies. There was no opportunity to exploit conquered peoples or to mine precious metals. Because the British could not incorporate the Indians into their system, they removed them; early efforts to Christianize and “Westernize” them could not be called successfulIndian attacks could be warded off only by excluding them from settled areas, much like the Pale in Ireland. To survive economically, colonists had to find ways by themselves of developing the land’s commercial potential.

Land was available in the New World, not so much because there were no inhabitants but because disease cut the native populations so severely and because Spanish injustices in the Caribbean region created a labor problem that lasted well after the importation of slaves began. Sugar and other highly profitable crops required ever-more laborers, workers who, unlike whites, could not quit. There seemed no alternative to the institution of slavery.

Slavery required new codes as well as some difficult choices for the Spanish, as slavery was contrary to natural law, and Spaniards were used to thinking of everything in terms of natural law. Practices in Spain provided slaves with numerous rights. Therefore, once the early tragic decades of Caribbean slavery had passed, Spanish slaves were somewhat better off than British ones.

The British had no experience with slavery, so they adopted policies common in Brazil, practices developed by French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonists of the northeast coastlands. Even in British America, the fate of slaves varied greatly among the island sugar factories, the rice paddies of South Carolina, and the tobacco plantations of Virginia.

Diversity was the principal characteristic of the encounter experience. There were, first of all, the great variety of American Indians, then the various European arrivalsSpanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English. Each group had its different classes, its sometimes unique agriculture (quickly to become modified by local and imported products and animals), and strongly held religious beliefs. In the area of religion, there were not only Protestants and Catholics but also many distinct subdivisions. The Roman Catholics, though seemingly unified, suffered disputes between the secular and regular bodies and among the orders.

Racial mixing provided even greater diversity. The Spanish crown had arranged for those of European ancestry and Indians to have parallel systems of government, but what was the king to do with the colorful mixtures of subjects which were soon produced? According to British policies, people were either white or black, the former associated with freedom, the latter with slavery; yet reality did not quite correspond to that polarity.

In the Spanish world, Peninsulares (born in Spain and often sent to America for a few years as administrators, officers, or soldiers) enjoyed the highest status, then Creoles (of Spanish descent but born in the Americas), then American Indians, then blacks. Mestizos (of Spanish and Indian descent) had a difficult choice: If they identified themselves as Indian, they had to pay tribute; if they identified themselves as non-Indian, they were subject to...

(The entire section is 1832 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Foreign Affairs 85, no. 5 (September/October, 2006): 171-172.

Library Journal 131, no. 9 (May 15, 2006): 111.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 11 (March 13, 2006): 53.

The Times Literary Supplement, August 4, 2006, pp. 3-4.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 82, no. 3 (Summer, 2006): 264.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 129 (June 3, 2006): P8.