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Review - Elliott, John.H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492 - 1830[]

Are nations imprisoned by their history? Economists as professionals are tempted to believe that tinkering with contemporary variables, for example the rate of interest can produce an optimum rate of growth - if they get it right. But what if the die was cast centuries ago and we cannot escape the mold/mould? Travellers passing from Texas to Northern Mexico, on observing the startling disparities in income and wealth between the two areas, often put this down to the different cultural heritages: the 'anglo' versus the 'hispanic' and that the roots of this difference lie deep back in the colonial past. So it is surprising that so few comparative texts have been written on the experience of the Spanish and British empires in the Americas. Sir John Elliott is the doyen of British hispanists and in turning his pen to writing "Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492 - 1830" he has produced a work which is selectively encompassing but not (fortunately) encylopaedic. 338 years, 24 republics and 546 pages, all for £13.99. Energy prices may be hitting the roof but books are surely getting cheaper.

The structure of the book[]

Elliott, perhaps inevitably, uses a three-part structure. The first section looks at what is called occupation. The second covers the differing periods of colonial and imperial consolidation and the third deals with ‘emancipation’. Many other texts use emancipation to refer to the end of slavery but in Elliott the word of course refers to national independence - freedom from metropolitan domination for those called "criollos" in Latin America. Blacks, native inhabitants (Indians) and women would have to wait some time or indeed are still waiting.

Elliot’s comparisons[]

Elliot attempts, where possible, to provide direct comparison. For example in pp391 to 402 he contrasts the experiences of the wars of independence. First the author asserts that independence could not have come to Latin America without the prior (by 34 years) American (US) Revolution to the north {in time for but without apparently affecting the course of the Tupac Amaru insurrection in the Spanish vice-royalty of Peru} quoting George Canning (British Foreign Minister) that the following ‘of that example sooner or later was inevitable’. But it took the (almost complete) loss of Spanish sea-power in 1805 and then the virtual surrender of the Spanish monarchy to the forces of Napoleon in 1808 to provide the spark which ignited insurgence. The centre having collapsed the periphery was not set free overnight and it took a long drawn-out campaign to finally liberate – in favour of the creoles at least – the loyalist heartlands in Peru (1824) and Upper Peru (Bolivia – 1825). In many areas further civil wars between various (internal white) factions protracted the agony for the ‘new Americans’.

In the main Elliott goes along with the prevailing critique of the Black Legend (that the Spanish colonial system was in general not more repressive, corrupt, inefficient than the British). However right from the start of the period of emancipation, the degree of savagery exacted on the civilian population in the north (British America), Elliot maintains, was less than on the south (Spanish America) – for example the brutality exercised by the Spanish royalist commander Juan Domingo Monteverde in Venezuela. For Latin America these were the progenitors of many repressive campaigns where colonial, neo-colonial and then generally unelected administrations have sought to impose their will on unwilling subjects.

In the north radicals and dissenters proposed and puritan conservatives disposed providing remarkable stability whilst at the same time creating an innovating, can-do environment. The process of emancipation, if anything, enhanced these tendencies. Savagery was unleashed not, in the main, upon one another but upon the Indian and the Slave. In Latin America ‘both sides armed the slaves and Indians formed the majority of the soldiers in the royalist army in Peru . . . The British crown made no concerted effort to mobilise Indians or blacks.’

Two Americas or one[]

Elliot’s book is timely, coinciding with progress in the integration of the previous institutes of Latin American studies and United States studies in London and an effort by British academia to escape from the mindset which treats US studies as family history and Latin America as an exotic development problem. The book, written in classical British-historian style, i.e. immediately readable, nevertheless succeeds in getting beyond the purely British perspective - incorporating indigenous, criolla, Spanish visions of the continent.

Elliott notes that British America - in spite of being tiny geographically (see map page 354) compared to Hispanic America - was administratively fragmented into the famous fourteen (sic) colonies, if you include Florida which became British after 1763. Whereas until the Bourbon reforms of the mid-eighteenth century Madrid ruled its immense landspace in the Americas stretching from Patagonia in the South to San Francisco in the North through just two viceroys - one in Mexico City and the other in Lima. That, says Elliot, posed for Simon Bolivar (South America's Washington) an insuperable problem upon independence: no state assemblies already functioning which could be bonded into a successful continental federation. Indeed Bolivar had no Congress to refer to, nor was there any press which could be used to fan the flames of freedom nor it seems writers of the ilk of Thomas Paine and Jefferson who could and would produce tracts that rewrote the constitutions of virtually the whole world - eventually. When Bolivar condoned "presidents for life" (i.e.virtual dictators) the MP for Southwark (one of Bolivar's English allies) attempted to censure him via the House of Commons.


Octavio Paz once famously said that Latin Americans, Mexicans are the ‘children of the enlightenment and the counter-reformation’ but they are also the heirs to and bear the marks of a ‘historical conflict’ which took place in the Americas between the British and Spanish ‘Empires’. It produced an historical fault-line which for several centuries separated the ‘anglo’ from the ‘hispano / latino’ and today still exists - running from the Alhambra district of East Los Angeles to the backstreets of Elephant and Castle in London.