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The Turn toward the Iberian Atlantic


Debra Blumenthal, Enemies and Familiars: Slavery and Mastery in Fifteenth-Century Valencia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009).

Laurent Dubois and Julius S. Scott, eds. Origins of the Black Atlantic: Rewriting Histories (New York: Routledge, 2009).

J.H. Elliott, Spain, Europe and the Wider World 1500-1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

Matthew Restall, The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).

Stuart B. Schwartz, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

     J.H. Elliott's recent work typifies the turn toward the Iberian Atlantic. His essay was the lone contribution on Spain within an Atlantic fold to David Armitage and Michael Braddick's 2002 collection The British Atlantic World. Since then, he has published an important comparative study of the British and Spanish empires as well as the 2009 collection of essays titled Spain, Europe and the Wider World 1500-1800. One of the central goals of his work is to counter "the exceptionalism that bedevils the writing of national history" (xvi). Echoing the claim made by R.R. Palmer in his foundational study The Age of Democratic Revolution, Elliott insists that Atlantic history connects the stories of the vast array of peoples and states that touch its waters. Yet the very extent of its reach casts doubt on its abilities as an explanatory paradigm to elucidate the details and richness of such experiences rather than reduce them to broad patterns and generalization. In a panel sponsored by the Conference on Latin American History (CLAH) at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Historical Association in San Diego, a number of participants questioned the continued viability, as well as the utility, of the model of Atlantic World history. The vibrancy of such debates, however, is a testament to the strength of the field. Despite concerns over the possibilities of reductiveness, Atlantic history has been flourishing as of late, and conferences such as the ongoing 'Rethinking the Iberian Atlantic' project at the University of Liverpool and Bernard Bailyn's seminars at Harvard have contributed to its growth. Recent scholars have repositioned the Iberian Atlantic as the literal and figurative model upon which subsequent states drew in constructing empires. Eliga Gould, who gave a keynote address at the inaugural 2006 conference at Liverpool on "entangled histories," subsequently published the piece in an influential 2007 AHR Forum, in which both he and Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, in spite of methodological differences, foreground the Iberian Atlantic as a common template for Atlantic histories.1 Elliot likewise states that the Spanish composite monarchy "formed part of a developing Atlantic community that initially was largely its own creation" (xvi). Thus the (re)turn toward the Iberian Atlantic, both methodologically and historically, must be understood as part and parcel of the larger trend away from insular national studies and toward a more globalized vision of the early modern world.

     Ongoing investigation into one of the defining elements of Atlantic history—slavery—has produced a great deal of important work in recent years. In contrast to those who would emphasize the singularities of local experiences and cultures across the Atlantic World, Orlando Patterson has qualified much about slavery as universal, despite regional variation and divergent political contexts. Both Debra Blumenthal and Matthew Restall challenge Patterson's position and elucidate previously untold stories of slave societies in the Iberian world. Drawing on the records of hundreds of civil and criminal court cases from the city and kingdom of Valencia, Blumenthal introduces the possibility of Iberian origins of racialized thought in Enemies and Familiars. For example, stereotypes and cultural difference made the integration of freed people into local society much more difficult, and evidence suggests that miscegenation was frowned upon. Blumenthal offers a significant case study of early modern slavery in the Mediterranean, which an earlier generation of scholars had overlooked. Her work is situated at precisely the moment during which the slave trade shifted from a Mediterranean enterprise to an Atlantic-based commerce. For example, although the enslaved included Muslims, Canary Islanders, Tartars, Russians, Greek Orthodox Christians and even Jews, upwards of forty percent of the slaves in Valencia consisted of black Africans by the end of the fifteenth century.

     Local courts played pivotal roles as arbiters of the slave system and attempted to extract confessions from all prisoners prior to their sale. Deemed "captives of good war," and considered to be residents of hostile states, many of those brought before the bailiffs in Valencia had been captured by Christian privateers on land or at sea and did not contest the legitimacy of their seizure (23). Even if purchased from Portuguese or Castilian middlemen, courts generally sentenced Guanches, the indigenous of the Canary Islands, and West Africans as moros, indistinguishable from Muslims taken in border raids or by corsairs. Although few escaped servitude, Blumenthal describes Valencian slavery as a form of paternalism in which owners' responsibilities included education and "honorable" marriage for female domestics (143). Slaves represented a defining feature of the honor of a household and could enhance or degrade reputations within the community. Thus sexual relationships remained tempestuous, especially because female slaves who bore their masters' children were entitled to their freedom under the law. Blumenthal recovers cases in which masters and mistresses left significant sums of money in their wills to former slaves. Others were manumitted through the last wishes of the deceased. She balances such portraits with examples of violence in which some slaves resorted to murdering their masters.

     Blumenthal finds that blacks faced unique obstacles in the course of their daily lives. In complaints filed in court, many free blacks claimed that, due to the color of their skin, they were "mistaken" for slaves and sold into bondage (272). Contemporary documents also indicate that Valencians began to attribute mental deficiencies to those of African origin. Ultimately, Blumenthal tempers the correlation between physiognomy and "race" by noting that there certainly was not "any easy or 'neat' equation between skin color and status in fifteenth-century Valencian society" (274). Religion also represented a distinct marker of difference, as all slaves, regardless of ethnicity, were pronounced to be "enemies of the faith and Crown" (23). Countering the claims of Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Blumenthal concludes: "this was not the racialized slavery that subsequently developed in the Spanish colonies in the Americas and in the Atlantic World" (277).

     Matthew Restall similarly concerns his work with a group whose lives have fallen through the interstices of archival history: "Afro-Yucatecans." He reminds us that although "there were almost as many people of African descent as there were Spaniards" in colonial Yucatan, almost nothing has been written on them (1). Only fifteen percent of the millions forcibly transported across the Atlantic were sold in Spanish America, and most did not end up working on plantations but rather served in domestic settings or in cottage industries. In Yucatan, as in fifteenth-century Valencia, slaves arrived sporadically in small numbers, most often in groups of no more than a few dozen, which distinguished their experiences from those of their counterparts in much of the Caribbean and Portuguese Brazil. Dozens of tables offer data and comparative statistics on demography, social groupings, pricing and even marriage patterns. Meticulously analyzing evidence from archives and libraries in Europe, Mexico and the United States, Restall describes the previously elided "black middle," an arena of cultural sociability in which the growing number of free-colored families had access to the political and economic life of the region (4). He contends that the in the aftermath of several centuries of interaction, the Mayas and Africans essentially had coalesced into "Afro-Mayas," an argument which fundamentally transforms our understanding of past and present-day indigenous communities of Yucatan (5).

     Like Blumenthal, Restall's social history presents a synchronic study of Africans and slavery, providing accounts and anecdotes from the entirety of the colonial period. While Blumenthal covers the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Restall begins an early chapter with stories from the nineteenth century, while others start in the sixteenth century. Thus he paints a picture of continuity in the lives of the enslaved in cities such as Merida as well as in the smaller towns and communities of Yucatan. Overall, Restall posits: "justifications for slavery and the expressions of prejudice that accompanied them amounted to an ideology of race that was more incipient than coherent, and more about rank than race" (78). Unlike the case of slaves in English colonies, Afro-Yucatecans were not "being given diminutive, animal, or mock-classical names; rather they [were] named after owners or godparents, or simply given the most common Christian name in the Spanish world of the day—Joseph or María" (44). Both conclusions mirror Blumenthal's assessment of race and slavery in Valencia. Restall points to militia service as an increasingly important path of social mobility for Afro-Yucatecans, as it provided tribute exemption and fuero privileges. As the eighteenth century wore on, many units saw action in Belize, as it became a permanent British colony. Restall situates himself within larger debates over African culture and heritage by arguing that "Afro-Yucatecan communities were marked more by creolization than African retention" (228). Reasons for this include the low numbers of slaves imported, a high degree of intermarriage and a process of transculturation. And unlike the slaves of Saint Domingue on the eve of revolution, for example, they came from disparate parts of Atlantic Africa.2 Restall carefully distinguishes Yucatan as a society with slaves and not a slave society (233).

     In their edited collection on the Black Atlantic, Laurent Dubois and Julius Scott praise current scholars who have shown linkages "across regions and empires in exploring the many connections that existed between enslaved communities in the Americas" (2). In dialogue with such work, their book attempts to correlate and "comprehend how the enslaved and formerly enslaved imagined, reformulated, and transformed the political and legal contexts in which they lived" (2). A number of chapters engage directly with the Iberian Atlantic, including contributions by Richard Gray, Matt Childs and Rebecca Scott, among others. Childs reminds us that "Iberian slave societies have left a particularly rich documentation related to African ethnicity, compared to the Anglo colonies in the New World" (275). He emphasizes the cross-currents of Atlantic slave societies, exemplified by early nineteenth-century Aponte rebels in Spanish Cuba who "interwove emancipation decrees and powerful black Haitian imagery to create a political and cultural tapestry to resist their subordinate position" (306). His findings contrast with those of Restall, with his focus on the longue durée, in that he shows the impact of ideological changes by the nineteenth century that distinguish the period from the colonial era.

     Gray's microhistorical essay sheds light on the anti-slavery entreaties of Lourença da Silva, an Afro-Brazilian who successfully petitioned the papacy to condemn Atlantic slavery in 1684 and 1686. As a member of a Lisbon confraternity, Lourença da Silva's denunciation of the cruelties and injustices of the slave trade had an immediate affect on curial officials. The argument put forward was essentially religious in nature: "no one who has received the water of holy baptism should remain a slave, and all those who have been born or would be born to Christian parents should remain free" (110). Yet the relationship between Rome and the crowns of Spain and Portugal remained fraught, and the implementation of papal decrees was a complicated affair. Although no significant reforms were undertaken in the aftermath of Lourença da Silva's pleas, Gray effectively demonstrates that African voices resonated across the Atlantic World prior to the age of revolution.

     In the prize-winning All Can Be Saved, which dissects religion, culture and class across the Iberian Atlantic, Stuart B. Schwartz successfully integrates the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds into a highly readable account on popular attitudes and the Inquisition. He emphasizes that the text "is particularly interested in the flow of ideas and practices from metropole to colony, and so its perspective is transatlantic" (8). As Jeremy Adelman has done in his study of the independence era, Schwartz examines an exhaustive array of archival materials from peninsular libraries in Spain and Portugal to manuscripts from Brazil and Spanish America.3 Modeled on Carlo Ginzburg's classic study of the iconoclastic miller Menocchio in sixteenth-century Friuli, Schwartz analyzes "hundreds of cases of people who expressed some kind of attitude of religious tolerance, relativism, universalism, or skepticism" (6). In doing so, he runs against the grain of histories perpetuating the narrative of an intolerant counter-Reformation Spanish Monarchy. He highlights contingency by noting that Philip II "considered the possibility of making concessions to religious dissent" (249). Furthermore, by looking at a cross-class spectrum of ideas on tolerance, he finds that "the idea of salvation outside the Church and relativist thinking about religions were . . . not limited to any one social group" (250). In sum, the book undermines the fundamental premise of the Black Legend, which emerged precisely during the course of the sixteenth century and the spectacular successes of Spanish expansion into the Americas. Expanding upon the thesis of Henry Kamen, who has maintained that sixteenth-century Spain did not persecute and murder its subjects to the extent that Northern European states did during witch hunts and repeated attempts to extirpate religious dissidence, Schwartz uncovers a culture of tolerance that existed across the Iberian Atlantic world.

     Elliot also contributes to a repositioning of the enduring myth of Spanish fanaticism and cruelty embodied in the Black Legend. In a chapter on the reciprocal relationship between the English and Spanish monarchies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Elliot traces the colonial aspirations of England as they sought to emulate Spanish practices and grow an empire. Noting the brutal policies employed by the English in Ireland, he writes: "Confronted first by the Irish, and then by native Americans, the English continued to express at least grudging admiration for the success of the Spaniards in 'reducing' their Indian subjects to Christianity and civility" (38). In spite of the polemics cast toward Las Casas' compatriots in Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which had been translated by 1583, many Englishmen ardently advocated a Spanish model of empire through the later seventeenth century.

     Schwartz discusses these cultural encounters in the New World and the emergence of syncretic forms of religious practice such as Santidade. He illustrates the convergence of tolerance and relativism in the intersection of faiths in Portuguese Brazil. In a case from the 1590s, one man told a friend that "there is a God of the Christians, a God of the Moors, and a God of the gentio" (188). Having lived for extended periods with the indigenous in the vicinity of Bahia, he "joined the ranks of the Spanish and Portuguese doubters who appeared before the Iberian tribunals accused of saying that there is only birth and death, and all the rest is false" (188). Just as Schwartz found that Conversos and Moriscos often expressed dissident views in the cross-cultural milieu of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Iberia, he concludes that "the Santidade movement in southern Bahia demonstrated that the contact of cultures could lead to new variations of old doubts and syncretism that moved in various directions" (188).

     Each of the books under review is premised upon the fact that the early modern Iberian Atlantic World was a place of ethnic, religious and ideological diversity. A plurality of worldviews and religious dissidence did not lead inevitably to great autos de fe, expulsions and intolerance; quite to the contrary, as Schwartz convincingly states, many common men and women shared a "vision of society in which each person was free to believe as he or she saw fit without threat of coercion . . ..They were in their way precursors of our world" (7). In many ways, the story of the Spanish Monarchy might be replayed as a contemporary morality tale, replete with what Elliott refers to as ethnic cleansing and what Irene Silverblatt has qualified as modern bureaucracies (the transatlantic offices of the Inquisition) in the service of the state (37).4 However, this would be at the expense of alternate narratives that explore syncretic cultures, give agency to the marginalized and offer examples of tolerance from a time in history too often glossed over as one simply characterized by political and religious violence.

Scott Eastman is Assistant Professor of History, Creighton University is Assistant Professor of Transnational History at Creighton University.  Research for his book, Preaching Spanish Nationalism Across the Hispanic Atlantic, 1759–1823 (forthcoming, LSU Press, 2011), was conducted in large part through a grant from the Fulbright Commission.  He has published on Spanish and Mexican national identities during the wars of independence and has contributed to Las Nuevas Naciones: España y México, 1800–1850 (Madrid, Fundacion MAPFRE, 2008), edited by Jaime Rodríguez.  His research interests include identity, colonialism and the intersection of politics and culture across the Hispanic Atlantic World. He can be contacted at


1 Eliga H. Gould, "Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery," The American Historical Review 112 (June, 2007), 764–786; Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, "Entangled Histories: Borderland Historiographies in New Clothes?," The American Historical Review, 112 (June, 2007), 787-799.

2 Most slaves in the late 1780s in Saint Domingue came from Lower Guinea or Angola. See John K. Thornton, "African Soldiers in the Haitian Revolution," in Laurent Dubois and Julius S. Scott, eds., Origins of the Black Atlantic: Rewriting Histories (New York, 2009), 196.

3 Jeremy Adelman, Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton, 2006).

4 Irene Silverblatt, Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World (Durham, N.C., 2004).


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