Enlightened Narratives and Imperial Rivalry in Bourbon Spain: The Case of Almodóvar's Historia Política De Los Establecimientos Ultramarinos De Las Naciones Europeas (1784-1790)

By Paquette, Gabriel | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, April 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Enlightened Narratives and Imperial Rivalry in Bourbon Spain: The Case of Almodóvar's Historia Política De Los Establecimientos Ultramarinos De Las Naciones Europeas (1784-1790)


Paquette, Gabriel, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


The link between enlightened historical narratives and imperial rivalry in Bourbon Spain is the subject of this article. The primary focus is the Duke of Almodóvar's translation of the Abbé Raynal's Histoire Philosophique et Politique des Établissements et du Commerce des Européens dans les Deux Indes (1770), which bore only slight resemblance to the original in ideology, content, and structure. His five-volume work, which appeared as the Historia Política de los Establecimientos Ultramarinos de las Naciones Europeas (Political History of European Overseas Establishments), was published in Madrid between 1784 and 1790. It is the most distinguished Iberian contribution to the genre of the enlightened narrative,1 though it has been neglected by scholars.2 It provides an appropriate lens through which to observe the transmission, reception, and reconfiguration of foreign ideas in late eighteenth-century Spain.

The reception, translation, and dissemination of works of history, including Almodóvar's Historia, in Bourbon Spain were not passive processes. International rivalry provoked patriotic indignation which, in turn, engendered a genre of counterhistorical narrative which endeavored to reprove and contest the unflattering images of Spain promulgated by foreign writers. In addition, I contend, Spanish historians sought to glean practices of rival states which could be used either to vindicate existing policy or to provide support for a policy shift. Almodóvar's Historia sought to vindicate Spanish policy from foreign indictment neither by direct confrontation of the charges levied against it by purveyors of the Black Legend nor through effusive praise for Spain's conduct in its Atlantic dominions.3 Instead, he negatively depicted Spain's rival empires in the New World, especially that of Britain. Almodóvar's purpose, however, was not solely to deflect attention away from the ubiquitous Black Legend, but rather to prod Spain to renovate its empire through the critical emulation of its rivals.

Almodóvar's work is best appreciated against a broader historical panorama. In the final third of the eighteenth century, Spain's Bourbon monarchs were in the midst of a comprehensive reform of their peninsular kingdoms and overseas empire. The ministers who dominated policy making in the reigns of Charles III (r. 1759-1788) and his son Charles IV (r. 1788-1808) sought to replace the diffuse and unwieldy structures of governance inherited from their Habsburg predecessors. Striving to rejuvenate an imperial bureaucracy centered at Madrid, the Bourbon reformers revamped the state, equipping it with the revenue-generating devices required to restore the monarchy's prestige, to reestablish Spain as a leading force in both Atlantic and Mediterranean politics, and to defend its sovereignty over a scattered and porous empire against the relentless encroachments of non-Spanish commercial agents and predatory rival states.4

In pursuing these geopolitical ambitions, Spain accelerated rivalry with other European colonial powers, most notably with Britain. While such renewed competition inevitably would result in military clashes,5 it also had intellectual repercussions. Politically engaged commentators contributed to heightening interstate rivalry through intellectual production. One of the paradoxes of this interstate conflict, however, was that each nation sought to emulate the most successful practices of its rivals and to adapt them to local conditions. By critically copying its rivals, each state sought to surpass the competition and to dominate international affairs. Although the emulation of successful practices of other states was urged, failed or misguided policies also served as albatrosses, symbols of potential actions whose replication would prove deleterious to the pursuit of geopolitical greatness. Political writers, therefore, dissected, analyzed, and either lauded or repudiated the ideas, institutions, reforms, and character of rival empires. …

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Enlightened Narratives and Imperial Rivalry in Bourbon Spain: The Case of Almodóvar's Historia Política De Los Establecimientos Ultramarinos De Las Naciones Europeas (1784-1790)
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