Aug 31, 2012

My reading

I am reading John Elliott's book Empires of the Atlantic World for a Liberty Fund conference. I have only read until page 155 so far, but have definitely learned a lot. The book compares the British and Spanish Empires in America, and tells their similarities and differences. So far the book rejects intrinsic "English values" or "Spanish values" that could have been transplanted into their respective colonies. The patters of colonization and the consequences (today) responded to economic interests and historical circumstances. For example, a more democratic system in the US was due (among other things) to a less controlling British Empire. The British Crown was not as involved as the Spanish one because it was not in its interest. The English colonies in the north of America were not as rich as those in the south. 
There was a more "pluralistic" society in England than in Spain at the time of the conquest, and this was reflected in the way the colonies were managed.  This probably had to do with the religious differences between the two countries: protestantism/anglicanism in England, versus a more hierarchic Catholic Church in Spain [although I have no idea of the history of these countries at the time, besides the fact that England was in conflict with Ireland, and Spain was conquering -- or recovering -- its territories from the Moros]. 
While reading Empires of the Atlantic Word another book, Why Nations Fail, comes to mind. These two books are more similar than they are different. The authors of Why Nations Fail argue that nations fail because of historical explanations ("critical junctures"), which were events that shaped institutions into extractive and inclusive (very often some countries or regions were just lucky. For example Botswana was lucky to have a Seretse Khama). 
Another book that comes to mind is Eric Wolf's Europe and the People Without History that analyses the social and economic systems which were in place in America before the conquest, a topic that Elliott does not examine in depth (it would have been too much work!!!).   
I might have more to say about these books in a few days. In the meantime, take a look at a review of Empires of the Atlantic Word by Blake Scott:
In the first section, occupation, Elliott compares patterns of conquest and settlement. He explains that differing experiences in Europe caused the British and Spanish colonists to occupy lands in the Americas in ways distinct from one another. The Spanish experience with the Reconquista of Iberia (which ended the year Columbus set sail) was more fervent and centrally controlled at the time of American contact than English conquest precedents in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Elliott convincingly demonstrates that “from the vantage point of 1492 it was natural [for the Spanish] to think in terms of the continuing acquisition of territory and of the extension of the Reconquista beyond the shores of Spain.” English conquest efforts in Europe, on the other hand, were still incomplete. The difficult campaigns in the British Isles continued to require the attention of the English people, consuming resources that could have been directed at colonization in the new world. 
The Spanish had also traditionally cohabited with the Moors of Iberia, while the English sought to segregate themselves from their supposedly degenerative subjects: the Irish and the Scots. In this regard, Elliott’s main argument is similar to more classic interpretations of Spaniards focused on “conquest” and integration and British colonists interested in more exclusive “settlements.”
Differing forms of occupation were also reactionary products of local circumstance. Once in the Americas, British and Spanish colonists encountered vastly different environmental and demographic conditions. Spain quickly found lucrative incentives to maintain tight control over its new colonies. The gold and silver of the conquered Aztec and Incan civilizations supplied the Spanish monarchy with centuries of mineral wealth. British imperial authorities, however, had less motivation to do the same; colonists initially found no major sources of mineral wealth or large native populations to exploit, like those in central Mexico and Peru.
Taking into account that the Spanish arrived over one hundred years before the British, Elliott also describes how Spanish conquistador and religious encounters in the new world informed later English colonization in mainland North America. The translated accounts of Spaniards were extremely popular among English readers. Elliott argues, “the comparison, therefore, is not between two self-contained cultural worlds, but between cultural worlds that were well aware of each other’s presence, and were not above borrowing each other’s ideas when this suited their needs.” Indeed, in this first section, Elliott comes closest to his goal of writing both a comparative and interwoven history.
Scott continues:
His many comparisons lead him to develop the overarching concept of Spanish centralized authority versus British de-centralized control.
He follows the theme of authority to what seems like a logical conclusion: the lack of English imperial authority allowed its American colonists to construct, on their own, the foundations of an independent country. The Spanish model of authority, on the other hand, left its colonies ill equipped for independence. The long history of centralized Spanish authority, Elliott argues, had a debilitating effect on post-colonial Spanish America because it obstructed the colonies’ ability to develop homegrown institutions for democratic governing. Meanwhile, British America, neglected by its imperial possessor until late in the colonial era, was able to form a robust society prepared to manage itself as a republic.
Scott's review is here

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