Academic journal article World History Bulletin

The Spanish Empire and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans: Imperial Highways in a Polycentric Monarchy

Academic journal article World History Bulletin

The Spanish Empire and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans: Imperial Highways in a Polycentric Monarchy

Article excerpt

Early modern empires like the Spanish, the British, the French, the Portuguese, and the Dutch were founded especially on their ability to protect long-distance trade routes. Sea and ocean waters were essential parts of these political entities. In order to extend royal sovereignty and maintain control of overseas possessions, empires needed to master the technology to navigate, explore, trade, and exploit the seas. Shipbuilding, cartography, sailing techniques, sea routes, naval warfare, and coastal defense were among the indispensable elements of, and everyday aspects in, the administration of early modern maritime empires. The Spanish empire, with colonial outposts as far as Manila in the Philippines in the Western Pacific, is a case in point as it spread over three continents and two oceans and linked Atlantic waters to the Pacific basin through dynamics of imperial power. But to see oceans merely as a tool by which early modern states established dominance over far removed regions and exploited the natural resources found therein only reinforces a center-periphery model that considers empire from the perspective of the center and does not account for regional particularities, relationships among peripheries, and the perspectives of areas physically removed from the core.

Instead, this essay seeks to understand the Spanish empire from the sea in order to argue not only that geographical distance from the European center left outlying areas with considerable autonomy but also that oceanic connections allowed processes originating in the peripheries to have unforeseen impacts on the metropolitan core. A polycentric monarchy model, with a European imperial core and a series of colonial centers that developed their own associations with colonial peripheries, provides an understanding of the dynamics and internal organization of early modern empires that elude us when we employ a centralized model of imperial organization. (1)

Oceanic frameworks have proven to be more suitable to explain material links and human movements that were not confined to bounded territorial states. In the empire "on which the sun never sets," Spanish authorities ruled over approximately 12 million square miles of which 50,000 were coastal territory. Imperial lines of communication stretched for 3,000 miles from Spain to the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean and about 10,000 miles in Pacific waters from Mexico to the Philippines. In this context, oceans were simultaneously an essential connective lifeline and a geographical barrier. In the sense that water transport was faster and cheaper than carrying goods and people long distances overland, sea lanes allowed Spain to create, extend, and maintain colonial relationships that connected the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas and the Philippines. The outlook is different, however, when we consider trans-oceanic networks not from the perspective of the mother country but from the point of view of the colonies. Indeed, the long distances of ocean that separated Spain from its possessions gave rise to propitious circumstances for colonial authorities to expand their own autonomy and act according to actual social conditions and local pressures rather than in full compliance with royal legislation. Maritime connections developed unpredictably and often times eluded the ambitions of the Spanish metropole to properly channel them--a challenge to which other early modern empires were not alien, either.

During the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Spanish Empire made highways of the Atlantic and Pacific waters for a wide range of intercontinental exchanges. In part due to the fact that early modern European empires traversed the Atlantic Ocean more frequently and more regularly than any other basin, trans-Atlantic links and the peoples, economies, societies, polities, and cultures that arose as a result have been a subject of intensive study. (2) In the Atlantic world, the most important exchange that Spain established was a commercial arrangement with its American colonies based on the annual periodicity of heavily protected and rigidly regulated fleets. …

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