In the early 1770s, J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur, who won fame a few years later with his Letters of an American Farmer, wrote an unpublished `Sketch of a Contrast Between the Spanish and the English Colonies'. `Could we have a perfect representation', it began, `of the customs and manners of the Spanish Colonies, it would, I believe, exhibit a most astonishing contrast, when viewed in opposite to those of these Provinces. But they have kept their country so invariably shut against all strangers, that it is impossible to obtain any certain and particular knowledge of them." Yet Spanish obfuscation and his own ignorance did not inhibit Crevecoeur from delivering a series of summary judgments, which cast an unflattering light on Spanish America when contrasted with the British colonies to the north.
Crevecoeur's comparison, such as it was, paraded a cluster of stereotypes, with religion given pride of place. It was sufficient to compare a Quaker congregation with `the more gaudy, more gorgeous Spanish one of Lima, coming out of their superb churches glittering with gold, irradiated with the combined effects of diamonds, rubies and topazes, ornamented with everything which the art of man can execute and the delirious imagination of a voluptuous devotee can devise or furnish'. Instead of reading the biographies of so many saints `whose virtues are useless to mankind', the inhabitants of Lima and Cuzco should study the life of William Penn, who `treated the savages as his brethren and friends' when he arrived in Pennsylvania, `the Peru of North America'.
Writing more generally of British America, Crevecoeur found that `from the mildness and justice of their laws, from their religious toleration, from the ease with which foreigners can transport themselves here, they have derived that ardour, that spirit of constancy and perseverance' which had enabled them to `raise so many sumptuous cities', display so much `ingenuity in trade and arts', and ensure `a perpetual circulation of books, newspapers, useful discoveries from all parts of the world'. `This great continent', he concluded, `wants nothing but time and hands to become the great fifth monarchy which will change the present political system of the world.'
What, then, of Spain's American possessions? `The mass of their society is composed of the descendants of the ancient conquerors and conquered, of slaves and of such a variety of castes and shades, as never before were exhibited on any part of the earth, which it appears never can live in a sufficient degree of harmony, so as to carry on with success extensive schemes of industry ... In South America this oppressive government is not at all calculated to raise; 'tis more immediately adapted to pull down. It looks on the obedience of few as much more useful than the ingenuity of the many ... In short, that languor which corrodes and enervates the mother country, enfeebles also those beautiful provinces ...'
Crevecoeur's indictment of Spain and its American territories, which itself was no more than a banal encapsulation of the prejudices and assumptions of eighteenthcentury Europe, still resonates today. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of the republics constructed on the ruins of Spain's American empire only served to underline the flaws and deficiencies mercilessly singled out by Crevecoeur. The history of independent Latin America came to be seen as a chronicle of economic backwardness and political failure, while any achievements were underplayed or dismissed.
Some of the economic and political deficiencies identified by both foreign and Latin American commentators were a consequence of the international conjuncture and the balance of global forces in the two centuries that followed the winning of independence from Spain. Some were the consequence of the struggle for independence itself, a struggle so much more bloody and prolonged than that waged by North Americans against their British `oppressors'. Others derived from the distinctive geographical and environmental features of a vast and infinitely variegated land-mass, while still others can properly be traced back to the particular cultural, social and institutional characteristics of the colonial societies and their imperial ruler.2
It is one thing, however, to single out specific features of Spanish American colonial society, like endemic corruption, as casting a baleful shadow over the history of the post-colonial republics, and another to issue a blanket indictment of `the Spanish inheritance' as the root cause of their tribulations and failures. In many respects the indictment is no more than a perpetuation into the postcolonial era of the grand narrative of `the Black Legend', whose origins can be traced back to the early years of overseas conquest and colonization.' Constructed out of the atrocity stories that accumulated around the behaviour of Spain's armies in Europe and of the conquistadores in America, it subsequently received a powerful injection of anti-Catholic sentiment as Protestant Europe struggled to hold Spanish power at bay. During the course of the seventeenth century, as the image of a global power aspiring to universal monarchy was replaced by that of a vulnerable colossus, Spain acquired those connotations of backwardness, superstition and sloth that Enlightenment Europe took such delight in condemning. These were the images that impressed themselves on the minds of the leaders of the independence movements, who took solace in blaming the Spanish legacy for their failure to realize their own exalted ideals. For Bolivar, Spain had created societies that were constitutionally incapable of benefiting from the fruits of liberty.4
The infant United States, on the other hand, seemed destined to success from birth. Even before the British colonies broke free, Crevecoeur and his contemporaries were prophesying a glowing future for societies that appeared to meet all the criteria of the Enlightenment for the achievement of individual happiness and collective prosperity. Writing five years after the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Pownall, a former governor of Massachusetts who at first supported Lord North's policy in the House of Commons but subsequently became an enthusiastic advocate of the new United States, spelled out in his typically convoluted phraseology the characteristics of the new republic and its citizens:
In America, all the inhabitants are free, and allow universal naturalization to all that wish to be so, and a perfect liberty of using any mode of life they choose, or any means of getting a livelihood that their talents lead them to ... Where every man has the free and full exertion of his powers, and may acquire any share either of profit or of power that his spirit can work him up to, there is an unabated application; and a perpetual struggle of spirits sharpens the wit and trains the mind ... They are animated with the spirit of the New Philosophy. Their life is a course of experiments; and standing on as high ground of improvement as the most enlightened parts of Europe, they have advanced like Eagles, they commencing the first efforts of their pinions from a towering advantage.'
As the eagle began to soar in the nineteenth century, so the qualities identified by contemporaries as promising a spectacular flight for the fledgling republic were validated and reinforced. An idealized British America, whose indigenous and African peoples were too easily air-brushed out of the picture, presented a striking contrast to its earthbound Iberian counterpart. A relatively benign colonial legacy in one instance, and a predominantly malign one in the other, appeared the key to an understanding of their very different destinies.
The retrospective reading of the histories of colonial societies inevitably conceals or distorts aspects of a past that needs to be understood on its own terms, rather than in the light of later preconceptions and preoccupations. To see societies in the context of their own times rather than from the privileged vantagepoint afforded by hindsight is not to excuse or mitigate their crimes and follies. As the fate of the indigenous peoples and imported Africans makes all too clear, the records of New World colonization by both Britons and Spaniards are stained by innumerable horrors.
A scrutiny of the record of the two imperial powers in the light of contemporary, rather than later, assumptions, attitudes and capabilities suggests that Spain possessed both the advantages and the disadvantages commonly associated with the role of the pioneer. As first comers to America, Spaniards enjoyed more room for manoeuvre than their rivals and successors, who had to content themselves with territories not already occupied by the subjects of the Spanish crown. Since the lands seized by Spain included large settled indigenous populations and rich mineral deposits, this dictated an imperial strategy that had as its aim the bringing of Christianity and European-style `civility' to these populations, and the exploitation of their mineral resources, in line with the not unreasonable contemporary equation of precious metals with wealth.
As first comers, however, the Spaniards were faced with enormous problems, and had few precedents to guide their responses. They had to confront, subdue and convert large populations of whose very existence Europe had hitherto been unaware. They had to exploit the human and natural resources of the conquered territories in ways that would ensure the viability of the new colonial societies they were in process of establishing, while simultaneously ensuring a steady flow of benefits to the metropolitan centre; and they had to institute a system of government that would enable them to pursue their imperial strategy in lands that were spread over an immense geographical area, and were separated from the home country by a sea voyage of eight weeks or more.
Not surprisingly, the Spanish crown and its agents made massive mistakes as they set about their task. They first over-estimated, and then under-estimated, the readiness of indigenous peoples to assimilate the religious and cultural gifts they believed themselves to be bringing. The church compounded the error by rejecting the idea of a native priesthood, which might have facilitated the work of conversion. In matters of government, the crown's determination to create an institutional framework designed to ensure compliance by its officials and the obedience of its overseas subjects encouraged the creation of excessively elaborate bureaucratic mechanisms that tended to subvert the very purposes for which they had been devised. In its pursuit of financial benefits from its overseas possessions, the accordance by the crown of priority to the exploitation of the astonishing mineral wealth of its American territories introduced distortions into the development of local and regional economies, and locked Spain and its empire into a commercial system so heavily regulated as to prove counter-productive.
Spanish policies were in line with early sixteenth-century European assumptions about the nature of non-European peoples, the nature and sources of wealth, and the promotion of the civil and religious values of Christendom. Once adopted, however, they were not easily changed. Too much work went into the initial setting of the course to allow for major changes of tack, as the Bourbon reformers would in due course find to their cost. Consequently, like one of the great galleons sailing on the carrera de Indias, the Spanish Monarchy and empire sailed majestically on its way, while foreign predators closed in for the kill.
Among those predators, although not initially in the forefront, were the English. Through a combination of choice and necessity, theirs was a smaller vessel, and easier to manoeuvre. Elizabethan and Stuart Englishmen also possessed the incalculable advantage of being able to take Spain first as a model, and then as a warning. If they sought initially to replicate Spanish methods and achievements, the very different nature of the American environment in which they found themselves, together with the transformations in English society and the English polity brought about by the Protestant Reformation and by changes in contemporary conceptions of national power and wealth, set them on their own distinctive course.
That course, which was the result of a multitude of individual and local decisions rather than of a centrally directed imperial strategy, led to the creation of a number of colonial societies that differed markedly from each other, although they came to share certain fundamental features. Among the most important of these were representative assemblies, and the acceptance, often grudging, of a plurality of faiths and creeds. As the Dutch Republic had already shown, and as seventeenth-century England came to discover, the combination of political consent and religious tolerance proved to be a successful formula for unlocking the door to economic growth. Shielded by Britain's growing military and naval power, the mainland American colonies confirmed once again the effectiveness of the formula as they moved in the eighteenth century at an accelerating pace towards demographic and territorial expansion, and rising productivity.
The visibly increasing prosperity of its colonies offered an obvious inducement to eighteenth-century Britain to capitalize more effectively on the expected benefits of empire. While the mother country had always looked on the American colonies as a potentially valuable source of products that could not be grown at home, it became increasingly apparent that Britain was spending more money on colonial administration and defence than it obtained in return. Adam Smith expressed the dilemma nicely when he wrote in 1776:
The rulers of Great Britain have, for more than a century past, amused the people with the imagination that they possessed a great empire on the west side of the Atlantic. This empire, however, has existed in imagination only. It has hitherto been, not an empire, but the project of an empire ... If the project cannot be completed, it ought to be given up. If any of the provinces of the British empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expence of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishments in time of peace, and endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.6
Modern attempts at cost-benefit analysis tend to bear out Smith's perception. Although the colonies provided a rapidly expanding market for eighteenthcentury Britain's industrial output, and the ratio of costs to benefits fluctuated over time, current estimates suggest that in the period just before the American Revolution, the thirteen mainland colonies, and possibly also the British West Indies, brought `no significant, if any, positive benefits to Britain'.7 The calculation, restricted purely to what can be measured and quantified, naturally leaves out of account such imponderables as the contribution of its American colonies to Great Britain's international power and prestige, and the range of alternative possibilities open to the British economy if there had been no American empire.
To appearances, at least, the ratio of costs to benefits for Spain was substantially more favourable. The massive silver resources of New Spain and Peru enabled it over the course of three centuries not only to cover the expenses of American administration and defence, but also to ship regular remittances to Seville or Cadiz that amounted to some 15-20 per cent of the crown's annual revenues in the reign of Charles III, just as in the reign of Philip II two centuries before. Spanish America, therefore, unlike British America, was self-sustaining, and did not of itself constitute a drain on the Castilian tax-payer.'
This, however, should not obscure the enormous costs and consequences to metropolitan Spain arising from its possession of a silver-rich American empire.' While bullion from the Indies sustained the international position of the Spanish Monarchy between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries as the dominant power in the western world, it also encouraged the Spanish crown and Castilian society to live consistently beyond their means. Imperial ambition consistently outran imperial resources, and it was this situation that the Bourbons hoped to correct when they embarked on their programme of reforms. These were at least partially successful in that the increased income from America allowed the Spanish treasury to keep pace over some three decades with the escalating costs of maintaining the country's great power status. At a time when France and Britain were faced with a rapidly mounting public debt, Spanish public finances avoided running serious deficits during the reign of Charles III (1759-88), thanks to the enormous contributions made by the treasuries of New Spain and Peru. Even these, however, proved insufficient in the end. Solvency dwindled and disappeared under the pressures of almost constant warfare in the years after 1790.0
While regular injections of American silver served to keep Spanish royal finances afloat, over the long term the benefits of Spain's empire of the Indies accrued more to Europe in general than to the mother country. The initial stimulus given to the Castilian economy by the conquest and colonization of America tended to diminish as Castilian products lost their competitiveness in international markets as a consequence of inflationary pressures which can be at least partially attributed to the influx of American silver.i" Although America continued to generate some incentives to Spanish economic growth, it failed to propel the metropolitan economy forward, partly because so many of the profits of empire were devoted to sustaining foreign and dynastic policies that were inimical, or largely unfavourable, to development of the domestic economy. These policies in turn reinforced traditional social and political institutions and structures, thus reducing Spain's capacity for innovating change.
Unable to make effective use of the rewards of empire in ways that would enhance national productivity, Spain also saw those rewards slip from its grasp. `There is nothing more common', wrote a British historian of Spain's American empire in 1741, `than to hear Spain compared to a sieve, which, whatever it receives, is never the fuller.'12 The silver of the Indies poured through the sieve as Spanish consumers used it to finance their purchase of foreign luxuries, and the crown deployed it to fund its foreign wars. With Spain's domestic economy incapable of supplying the goods required by an expanding colonial market, the shortfall was made up by foreign manufactures that were either shipped in the fleets departing annually from Seville or Cadiz, or were smuggled directly into Spain's American territories in a massive international contraband operation that no amount of mercantilist legislation could prevent or control. The silver that, in consequence, fell through the meshes of the Spanish sieve flowed into the economies of Europe and Asia, generating in the process an international monetary system whose development did much to facilitate the global expansion of trade.13
Spain's American empire, however, was much more than simply a mechanism for extracting and exporting the precious metals that would replenish royal coffers and sustain global commerce. It also represented a conscious, coherent and - at least in theory - centrally controlled attempt to incorporate and integrate the newly discovered lands into the King of Spain's dominions. This involved Christianizing and reducing to European norms their indigenous peoples, harnessing their labour and skills to meet imperial requirements, and establishing on the farther side of the Atlantic new societies made up of conquerors and conquered that would be authentic extensions of the mother country and replicate its values and ideals.
Inevitably, this grand imperial design could only be realized in part. There were too many differences between the American environment and the more familiar environment of Europe; too many conflicting interests were involved in the enterprise to ensure the coherent application of a unified policy; and the presence of so many indigenous survivors of the pre-conquest societies inevitably shaped the character of the successor societies in ways that proved disconcerting to peninsular Spaniards, who were alarmed by the rise of racially and culturally mixed populations through the mingling of the blood of the conquerors with that of the conquered. Added to this was the importation of large numbers of Africans. The outcome of all this mingling was the creation of societies composed, as Crevecoeur disparagingly noted, `of such a variety of castes and shades, as never before were exhibited on any part of the earth'.
Given the scale and complexity of the challenges that faced them, it is surprising that the Spaniards realized as much of their imperial dream as they did. By violence and example they managed to Christianize and hispanicize large sections of the indigenous population to a degree that may not have satisfied their own expectations, but left a decisive and lasting imprint on indigenous beliefs and practices. They established the institutions of an American empire that lasted for 300 years, and - at enormous cost to their indigenous subjects and an imported African labour force - they reshaped the economies of the subjugated lands into patterns tailored to meet European requirements. This won for them a regular surplus for export to Europe while simultaneously creating the conditions that permitted the development of a distinctive and culturally creative urban-based civilization in their American possessions.
This civilization, of increasing ethnic complexity with each passing generation, was given coherence by the common institutions of church and state, a common religion and language, the presence of an elite of Spanish descent, and a set of underlying assumptions about the working of the political and social order that had been reformulated and articulated in the sixteenth century by Spanish neo- scholastics.14 Their organic conception of a divinely ordained society dedicated to the achievement of the common good was inclusive rather than exclusive in approach. As a result, the indigenous peoples of Spanish America were given at least a limited space of their own in the new political and social order. By seizing such religious, legal and institutional opportunities as were afforded them, individuals and communities succeeded in establishing rights, affirming identities, and fashioning for themselves a new cultural universe on the ruins of the universe that had been shattered beyond recall in the trauma of European conquest and occupation.
After an uneasy period of cohabitation, the English settlers, faced with sparser indigenous populations which did not lend themselves so readily to mobilization as a labour force, chose instead to adopt an exclusionary rather than an inclusive approach, along the lines already established in Ireland. Their Indians, unlike those of the Spaniards, were shunted to the margins of the new colonial societies, or were expelled beyond their borders. When the colonists followed the Iberian example and turned to imported Africans to meet their labour needs, the space accorded their slaves by law and religion was even more limited than it was in Spanish America.
Although their refusal to include Indians and Africans within the boundaries of their imagined communities would store up a terrible legacy for future generations, it also gave the English colonists more freedom of manoeuvre to make reality conform to the constructs of their imagination. Without the impulsion to integrate the indigenous population into the new colonial societies, there was less need for the compromises that their Spanish American counterparts found themselves compelled to accept. Similarly, there was less need for the external mechanisms of control through imperial government adopted by the Spaniards in order to bring stability and social cohesion to racially mixed societies.
The latitude allowed by the British crown to the transatlantic communities to live their lives largely free of external restraints reflected the absence on the northern American mainland of the imperatives provided by the existence of mineral wealth and large indigenous populations that prompted the Spanish crown to adopt its interventionist policies. It also reflected the changing balance of political and social forces in Stuart England. The comparative weakness of the Stuarts gave free rein to groups of English men and women to establish themselves more or less as they wished on the farther shores of the Atlantic, with only sporadic and relatively ineffectual interference by the imperial government. As a result, eighteenth-century Britain woke up belatedly to discover that, in Adam Smith's words, its American empire had `existed in imagination only'.
Imperial weakness, if measured by the failure of the British state to appropriate more of the wealth generated by the colonial societies and to intervene more effectively in the management of their domestic affairs, proved to be a source of long-term strength for those societies themselves. They were left to make their own way in the world, and to develop their own mechanisms for survival. This gave them resilience in the face of adversity, and a growing confidence in their capacity to shape their own institutions and cultural patterns in the ways best suited to their own particular needs. Since the motives for the foundation of distinctive colonies varied, and since they were created at different times and in different environments over the span of more than a century, there were wide variations in the responses they adopted and in the character their societies assumed. This diversity enriched them all.
Yet, for all their diversity, the colonies also had many features in common. These did not, however, derive, as in Spain's American empire, from the imposition by the imperial government of uniform administrative and judicial structures and a uniform religion, but from a shared political and legal culture which gave a high priority to the right of political representation and to a set of liberties protected by the Common Law The possession of this culture set them on the path that led to the development of societies based on the principles of consent and the sanctity of individual rights. In the crisis years of the 1760s and 1770s this shared libertarian political culture proved sufficiently strong to rally them in defence of a common cause. In uniting to defend their English liberties, the colonies ensured the continuation of the creative pluralism that had characterized their existence from the start.
Yet the story could have been very different. If Henry VII had been willing to sponsor Columbus's first voyage, and if an expeditionary force of West Countrymen had conquered Mexico for Henry VIII, it is possible to imagine an alternative, and by no means implausible, script: a massive increase in the wealth of the English crown as growing quantities of American silver flowed into the royal coffers; the development of a coherent imperial strategy to exploit the resources of the New World; the creation of an imperial bureaucracy to govern the settler societies and their subjugated populations; the declining influence of parliament in national life, and the establishment of an absolutist English monarchy financed by the silver of America.15
As it happened, matters turned out otherwise. The conqueror of Mexico showed himself to be a loyal servant of the King of Castile, not the King of England, and it was an English, not a Spanish, trading company that commissioned an ex-privateer to found his country's first colony on the North American mainland. Behind the cultural values and the economic and social imperatives that shaped the British and Spanish empires of the Atlantic world lay a host of personal choices and the unpredictable consequences of unforeseen events.