Academic journal article Hispanic Review

A Sea of Denial: The Early Modern Spanish Invention of the Pacific Rim

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

A Sea of Denial: The Early Modern Spanish Invention of the Pacific Rim

Article excerpt

In the prologue to his indispensable history, Imperial Spain, J. H. Elliott reflects upon the sudden transformation of that country, "a dry, barren, impoverished land . . . isolated and remote," into "the greatest power on earth" (13). Obviously, the full story of this transformation involves a number of interwoven plotlines whose characters include both individual actors and impersonal forces, prominent events and long-term trends, the high and mighty as well as the lowly and powerless. One of those plotlines follows transformations in the geographical imagination, and the sense of collective identity caught up with it. It is the story of how the bounded geographies and provincial identities of the late Middle Ages yielded to the expansive spaces and selves of early modern times, of how once-provincial Castillans came to think of themselves as members of a far-ranging, cosmopolitan Monarchy, of how once-provincial Europeans came to think of themselves as inhabitants, not of an insular orbis terrarum, but of a boundless terraqueous globe. When we turn to Spain's role in these transformations, we often focus on the opportunities and challenges presented to the geographical and cartographical imagination by Spain's experience in the New World. On a macro level, we read about the invention of America and its constituent parts, and on a micro level we read about various kinds of local mapping, particularly those that develop in the cultural mestizaje of the contact zone.1 Jerry Brotton, in Trading Territories, has provided an important corrective to this trend, by delving into European mappings of the African and Asian settings of Portuguese commercial expansion. I propose to offer another corrective, by discussing the cartographic invention of the Pacific world and suggesting something about its significance in the early modern reinvention of Castilian and European identities.

We already have histories that trace the emergence of the Pacific in European consciousness, either as a geography emerging from empirical exploration or, more recently, as an object invented out of the complex interplay of the data of experience with culturally contingent expectations.2 These recent treatments, however, tend to emphasize the insular contents of the Pacific Ocean, the many islands and the Terra Australis especially, that the European imagination projected onto its blank map of the world's largest ocean. By contrast, I emphasize the ocean itself, as defined by the opposing continental coastlines that enclose it. Long before anyone had ever coined the term Pacific Rim, Spanish mapmaking invented something very much like it.3

This invention merits attention for a variety of reasons. For one, attention to Spanish interest in the Pacific helps free us from the ways that latter-day metageographies inform our appreciation of early modern expansionism. Ralph Bauer reminds us that "the study of 'colonial' or 'early' (Latin) American literatures came about as the by-product of the invention of discrete national literary histories during the nineteenth century." In these histories, "the colonial periods had to provide the cultural origins - the documentary source materials about an American 'experience' out of which American 'literature' supposedly grew" (283). As a result, we tend to equate the study of Spanish expansion during the early modern period with the study of Spanish America, and tend to disregard Spanish interest in places that did not, in the long run, produce a Spanish-speaking nation-state. In doing so, however, we forget just how large Asia loomed in the early modern imagination, how important the traditional Indies were to early modern Spaniards, and how interest in them continued to fire Spanish expansionism well after the discovery of America, and even the conquest of Mexico and Peru. Economic historians interested in global history remind us of the importance of Asia to the emerging global economy of early modernity, and of the important role played by Spain's trans-Pacific trade in the formation of this economy. …

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