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Book Review


J.H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492–1830. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Pp. 516. $35.00 (Cloth)


     The traditional approach to history emphasizes the themes of cause and effect, change and continuity over time. The discipline of world history has provided the underscore of global and regional context along with cultural interaction and diffusion. J.H. Elliott's magnum opus Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 is a symphonic work that harmonizes all five historical themes along with providing a model for the comparative approach. The book follows a classic five-part structure with an extensive introduction that lays out Elliott's theses and arguments, a three-part body (each with four sub-sections) dealing with the pattern of conquest and settlement in the Americas--namely "Occupation," "Consolidation," and "Emancipation"--and a conclusion ("Epilogue") that summarizes and asserts the significance of the author's claims and interpretations. Elliott delves into and provides his own reading and answers to a host of questions and discussions about imperialism, the divergence of northern from central and southern America, the "Black Legend" of Spanish rule and its legacy, the European tradition and experience in American development, in addition to the economic and cultural links of the Atlantic World. Though the structure of the book provides a basic chronological narrative framework, the work itself proves to be a complex web of topics and arguments the context of which the reader must be aware of to fully appreciate. Empires of the Atlantic World is not an introduction to the topic, but rather Elliott's mid-stream contribution to a collection of wide ranging and on-going historical and historiographical issues.

     One subject that Elliott pursues that would prove useful as a topic of discussion, analysis, and evaluation in the classroom deals with the differences between the Spanish colonies of Central and South America and those of the English colonies to the north. The mainstream view holds that Spain established an "empire of conquest" while Britain maintained an "empire of commerce." As a result, the two empires and the experience of their builders and descendants were distinct and divergent politically and socially. Recently, this interpretation has been challenged by such historians as Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who sees a parallel experience in the early development of the two regions with their paths turning away from each other as a result of the industrial revolution. Elliott also finds similar broad patterns in the "universality of experience" shared in the development of the Spanish and British empires in America. Both the Spanish and the British empire builders took symbolic possession of their new discoveries, worked out relationships with the indigenous peoples they came in contact with, organized structures of community, law and polity, and dealt with providing for the needs and demands of the homeland/metropole while protecting their own interests (28). Despite these broad similarities of action, necessity and circumstance, the social, political, intellectual, economic and religious differences, as well as the diverse circumstances of the timing of the settlements and their environments, ensured that significant differences between the European-American societies would appear early on.

     Elliott locates the differences between the Spanish and English enterprises in the Americas in their origins as "proto-colonial powers" previous to 1492 (17, 49). The Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, Mexico and Peru continued the pattern of Reconquista as previously experienced in the Iberian Peninsula. This included military occupation of vast territories; subjugation and assimilation of the indigenous inhabitants to Spanish religious and social norms while providing labor in mines, fields and households (with the later importation of African slaves as disease destroyed the native Americans); intermarriage and the creation of a mixed race population; and, most significantly, the close supervision and involvement by the Old World Crown and Church in the patterns of expansion and the establishment of local administrations in the New World possessions. This created, in the Spanish Empire, despite the wider variety of ethnic differences in the region, "a greater degree of homogeneity to the Spanish colonial societies than was to be found in the British societies to the north" (176).

     The English settlers referred to themselves as colonists and "planters," and, for Elliott, this stems from the English imperial experience in Ireland. The English had practiced imperial expansion through settler colonies from the time of the Norman Conquest (or even before) in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In Ireland, in particular, English plantations (such as those in Ulster) brought English settlers in contact with Celtic peoples they considered barbaric and inferior, and this attitude continued as the Irish tenaciously held on to their Catholicism in the face of rising, if fragmenting, Protestantism amongst their English overlords. As in Ireland, English colonists settled amongst and on the lands of Native Americans they viewed as savages and established a variety of colonies reflective of the diversity of Protestant sects representative of the late sixteenth and seventeenth century religious situation in Britain. This, for Elliott, proves an early and marked contrast with the Spanish experience of empire building. Diversity rather than uniformity marked the British colonies religiously, socially and politically.  There never developed an English equivalent to the Spanish Council of the Indies that enforced and protected royal authority overseas and asserted the supremacy of one type of Christianity.

     Elliott points out the obvious by reiterating the story of harassed religious minorities in England establishing communities in America sanctioned by the Crown with little or no Royal supervision. Elliott, however, takes these well-known facts and explains their consequences, when attempts were made from the British metropole to govern and control the American colonists more directly along the Spanish model. These attempts at imperial reform came too slowly and too haphazardly to succeed in the face of resistance from colonists who had established self-governing institutions modeled on their memories and understandings of their rights as Englishmen (113). In the long run both Spanish and British Americans came to identify themselves (though with reluctance) as different from their homeland ancestors and became increasingly discontent with their relationship to the governments of those homelands. Elliott's comparative approach illustrates the way English and Spanish colonists (with some colonial/indigenous interactions) learned from and occasionally emulated each other at different times, in differing circumstances and in diverse environments, both in the founding of their colonies and in their struggles for independence.

     This is only one example of Elliott's far-ranging analysis in the book's 411 pages of text (along with sixty-seven pages of endnotes and a comprehensive thirty-five page bibliography). In particular, and extremely important for world history teachers to grasp and convey, Elliott describes the economic history of the Atlantic and, in particular, the roles of the Spanish silver economy, as opposed to the North American tobacco economy, extensively and as seminal to any understanding of the American colonial experience. One significant omission, only briefly referred to, regards the role the Asian economy played in shaping the decisions of the Spanish imperial bureaucrats and their policy in the Americas. While the title of the book refers, of course, to the Atlantic, a more extensive treatment explaining the interconnectedness of what had become a global economy would have explicated the Spanish emphasis on (obsession with?) silver production. Broadening the perspective, Elliott does provide chapters specifically on religious development (with all its application, uses and significance) in the Spanish and British colonies and an extended comparative essay on material culture (illustrated in color), both of which provide the world history teacher useful comparative examples for classroom use.

     The epilogue of the book (edited and abbreviated also as an essay in the August 2006 issue of History Today, and perhaps more useful than the book as an assigned reading for discussion with undergraduates and high school students) brings all the themes of the book together and explains their significance to an understanding of the Spanish and British empires in the Americas within an Atlantic context. However, the final paragraphs of this sustained effort prove somewhat disappointing, ending with a counter-factual about Henry VII that might prove useful for discussions about whether history is driven primarily by cultural or economic processes, but this finish seems weak after such a magnificent exposition. 

     Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America does not include any treatment of the Portuguese, Dutch or French colonial experience in America. However, the book is a model of comparative history and its treatment of the differing social, political, economic, cultural and environmental circumstances experienced by the Spanish and British colonists in pursuing their own American enterprises can be easily condensed, enumerated and/or categorized by classroom teachers in presenting its themes and supporting details to their students.

R.K. McCaslin is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Policy and Policy History at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County. He teaches Advanced Placement courses in world history and European history at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland and has served as co-author and editor of Taking Sides: Controversial Issues in World Civilizations, published by McGraw-Hill. He can be reached at


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