Magazine article The Spectator

Hemispheres of Influence

Magazine article The Spectator

Hemispheres of Influence

Article excerpt

EMPIRES OF THE ATLANTIC WORLD : BRITAIN AND SPAIN IN AMERICA , 1492-1830 by John Elliott Yale, £25, pp. 546, ISBN 03000114311 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Comparisons between AngloSaxon and Spanish America go back a long way, and usually Latin America comes off worse.

In the Black Legend the Spaniards are crueller. Though he knew next to nothing about them, the 'American Farmer' Crèvecoeur, writing in the 1770s, had no doubt that 'could we have a perfect representation of the customs and manners of the Spanish Colonies, it would ... exhibit a most astonishing contrast, when viewed in opposite to those of these Provinces'. A half century later Alexis de Tocqueville, deeply enamoured of the New England Town Meeting, would from time to time let his prejudices rip about the benighted inhabitants of the southern half of the hemisphere, who had enjoyed no such apprenticeship. This lazy and judgmental tradition, in which North Americans pass and South Americans fail, is by no means dead: economic historians seeking to explain North American wealth and South American poverty often prefer muttering about 'path dependence' and 'institutions' -- this last term can now mean practically anything -- to having a good close look at the whole gamut of possible analysis. They rarely if ever compare the more successful regions of Latin America with the less successful parts of the United States, say, Argentina with Alabama, or central Chile with West Virginia. Spanish America as a whole would no doubt still come off worse in this sort of contest, but the odds would be fairer. Likewise, in many exercises in comparative hemispheric history, slavery in the USA and its long enduring political and social consequences tend, in John Elliott's phrase here, to be 'airbrushed out'.

This is an extraordinarily balanced and learned survey, always lucid, always patient with the facts and with the reader. Though he has passed most of his professional life in Princeton, Elliott is primarily a historian of Spain, and this has given him a rare capacity to resist the narcissistic tone of so many North American histories of the 13 colonies and the new republic, which are rarely modest even when they are emphasising modesty. He is, as one would expect, a master of the metropolitan Spanish side of things, and for Spanish America he has certainly read what used to be called 'the best authorities', though not all the most immediate, entertaining. He apologises for not covering Brazil as well, and for saying little about the West Indies. Though he has taken on quite enough, this last is a pity, because for comparative imperial studies -- Spanish, British, French, Dutch -- if not a level playing field, the West Indies do at least offer some level plantations. A Canadian may notice that he has also virtually left out Canada, but then that is nearly always the case with that happy country.

'The movements involved in writing comparative history, ' he writes, 'are not unlike those involved in playing the accordion. The two societies under comparison are pushed together, but only to be pulled apart again. Resemblances prove after all to be not as close as they look at first sight;

differences are discovered which at first lay concealed.' This conveys well the controlled seesaw of the book. The major themes are all here: the primacy of the Spanish conquest and its rapid success, the mines the Spanish found and the English did not, just as keen though they were to find them; the great differences in cultures and in numbers of the native societies that the two nations encountered; the uniform evangelising, conversion and extirpation of idols carried out by the Spanish missionary orders, contrasted with the scrappy and unco-ordinated efforts of the English Protestants; the splendours and ceremonial delights of the baroque South, the austere plain beauties of New England, the vigorous political press of the North, where Tom Paine gets to sell 120,000 copies of Common Sense in three months, the lack of numerous subscribers to anything in the South. …

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