Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

All in the Family? Reflections on Colonial Ibero-America in an Atlantic Frame

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

All in the Family? Reflections on Colonial Ibero-America in an Atlantic Frame

Article excerpt

The field of Atlantic history has grown up over a relatively short period of time, a teenager among older historical concepts and narratives that deal with the interrelated histories of Europe, Africa, and the Americas.1 Enthusiasm for the field has yielded conferences, seminars, textbooks, peer-reviewed journals, and a growing bibliography of articles and monographs on specific topics within the field, to say nothing of a substantial bibliography of its own historiography. Growth of the field has been so extensive that a recent assessment of it noted 'that no comprehensive bibliography can be compiled' (Bailyn and Denault 2009: 2). We also have a growing number of articles challenging various articulations of an Atlantic history paradigm and several book-length collections assessing both Atlantic history and its historiography.2

Historians of British North America tended to predominate among the field's early enthusiasts and still seem to find Atlantic history most congenial, while historians of Europe, Africa, and Latin America have had a more mixed response.3 Usage of an Iberian Atlantic framework in anglophone historio- graphy to date has been modest for several reasons, among them, the wider field's anglophilic origins and the linguistic, national, and imperial boundaries that still constrain it.4 Organized efforts to evaluate the potential of an Iberian Atlantic framework within the larger Atlantic history paradigm are fairly recent and still mostly written in English.5 This essay explores the definitions, utility and limits of an Atlantic perspective for historians of Ibero-America to consider the following questions: Was the early modern Atlantic world really one big family held together by common progenitors and related histories? Was there a distinct Iberian Atlantic the analysis of which reveals something new or do historians simply need to better integrate Iberians into an Atlantic family saga? Does it make more sense to treat Spaniards and Portuguese separately in their Atlantic endeavours or is there enough of a family resemblance to justify studying them together? And finally, would an Iberian Atlantic history merely reproduce European chauvinism and imperialism, silencing or obscuring other important histories along the way, as some critics have said of Atlantic history? To address these questions this essay will consider how the term 'Iberian' has been and could be defined, examine some of the recent assessments in the wider field of Atlantic history and Iberians' place therein, and then analyse some recent scholarship explicitly located in an Iberian Atlantic to reflect on some of the topics and themes that can be usefully examined through that lens, though the conclusion is that the overall utility of an Iberian Atlantic framework has significant limits.

Definitions

We should begin with some reflections on terminology. For the purposes of this essay we will accept that the Atlantic world was a site of sufficient historical significance and coherence to be conceptualized as such by present-day histo- rians, though debate continues about the extent of its significance and coherence as well as the temporal expanse of that world. The bibliography cited herein also contains sufficiently critical examinations of the limits and problems with such a designation to forego reviewing all of it here.6 The term 'Iberian', on the other hand, deserves some discussion based on the criteria of coherence and significance.

In one sense at least, the Iberian península has formed a discrete geographic unit since ancient times. The Pyrenees separate the peninsula from the rest of Europe; seas and oceans surround the rest, but within these boundaries Iberia and Iberians diverged at least as often as they cohered. Since there was and is sufficient geographic, climatic, and cultural diversity on the peninsula, most of its inhabitants would not now, nor in the past, readily or primarily identify themselves as Iberians. …

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