Empires of the Atlantic World

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

David Frum calls J.H. Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World a stupendous work of scholarship with a theme — 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.

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