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Crisis in an Atlantic Empire: Spain and New Spain, 1808-1810.

Crisis in an Atlantic Empire: Spain and New Spain, 1808-1810, by Barbara H. Stein & Stanley J. Stein. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. viii, 795 pp. $89.95 US (cloth).

For over a half-century, the duo of Barbara and Stanley Stein has been labouring on a massive history of the evolution of the Spanish empire, especially the complex interdependence between Spain and Mexico. This book is the last installment, the fourth volume of what must surely count as one of the great epics of the making of the modem world by Bourbons, their backers, and the swelling ranks of rivals and critics. This particular volume is a study of the feverish years between Napoleon's invasion of Spain to the outbreak of the plebeian revolt in Mexico led by the provincial priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. After a century of struggles to reform and adapt to the internal and external pressures of an earlier globalization, the old empire finally entered the phase of its collapse.

Recent scholarship of the Spanish empire has turned increasingly to the study of Atlantic cultural and religious exchanges. The earlier structuralist explanations of the Iberian empires--that emphasized the durable power of the alliance between monopoly merchants and ancien regime ministers --went by the wayside to be replaced by a different portrait of power. Drained of class interests, the new historiography accents the cultural dimensions of authority.

At first blush, this book appears to be a throwback. The underlying theme of the book--indeed the series--is that an empire ruled by a patrimonial monarch and backed by merchant-rentiers who thrived off protection of their privileges, forced sales to Indians, and a gamut of coerced labour could not possibly be serious about Enlightened reform. There was something intrinsically reactive, not to say reactionary, about the Spanish ancien regime. Why it did not collapse was because of the wealth extracted from the Americas, especially Mexico.

In fact, the Steins present a subtle account of a trans-Atlantic elite adapting to pressures and incentives, but only up to the limits of their self-interests and convictions. The strong impression one gets in this book is of an imperial ruling class--with some remarkable detail about the interlaced connections between private and public pursuits--with a powerful, pragmatic, elan. This class knew that at the bottom of the social pyramid lay landless peasants of Andalusia, growing Cuban slave populations, and "5 million mestizos, mulattoes, and ethnic Indians exploited by dominant whites, criollo and pensinsular"(p. 174). In this context, reform was a dangerous game and this book pulls the veil back on the memoranda and calculus of elites grappling with just how much they had to concede before letting events get out of control. Indeed, it provides a richly detailed account of behind the scenes debates about policymaking, one that demolishes misguided depictions of the Spanish regime as "absolutist" or blind to the threats that closed like a noose around it.

But it was not up to monarchs and ministers to dictate the whens and whys of imperial adaptation. While there was much internal dispute over whether to give in to the neutral trade demands of some colonial ports, or whether to adjust the averia tax administered by merchant guilds on behalf of the crown, it was ultimately the pressure from Paris that forced the hand of rulers. The book begins with a coup that saw Ferdinand VII overthrow his hapless father Charles IV and his aid, Juan-Manuel Godoy. What Godoy had cooked up was an emergency plan to rescue the monarchy by escaping to Mexico. His demise sealed the fates of the Bourbons; now there was no escaping. Sure enough, when Napoleon invaded, he attempted to seize all of the Spanish empire. The early part of this book is consumed with the plotting, conspiracies, and intrigue on all sides for the upper hand.

The French invasion, instead of fastening Spain and its empire to Paris's imperial ambitions, instead turned "liberators" into "occupiers" (p. 44). In May, 1808, Madrid and the provinces famously rose up against the invading modernizers. Meanwhile, the news of an Iberian meltdown struck panic among the potentates of Mexico. Who was going to rule in the absence of a Spanish king? Much of what follows in Crisis in an Atlantic Empire were conspiracies and jockeying in Mexico City, an echo of what had been happening in Spain the previous year, as creoles and peninsulars, the viceroy Jose de Iturrigaray and powerful Spanish merchants, fought over what to do. The struggle ended with another coup d'etat as New Spain's merchants slammed their fists down on any concessions to their power and privilege.

Readers follow the double-crisis of an empire unfolding simultaneously at its core and in the richest of its colonies and the ricochet effects back and forth between the two sides in response to an external shock of invasion and war. With each coup and conspiracy, though, rulers compounded the problem of how to govern and how to legitimate ancient privileges. To avoid a full-scale civil war, Spanish potentates finally conceded to their colonies that they were equal parts of a Spanish nation or monarquia. The cat was now out of the bag. This licensed "liberals" to make claims to representation and to free rights to trade with neutral or friendly nations. Reform, in this sense was the consequence of an imperial crisis, not its cause.

But reform, instead of solving the problems, revealed the limits of emergency management. Its advocates could never be happy with the pace and depth of change. Recalcitrants, meanwhile, were furious that too much had been conceded. Mexico's Bishop-elect, Abad y Queipo of Michoacan, sized things up in May of 1810, two years after the popular uprising against French troops in Spain. He warned that something equally, if not more, ominous was stirring in Mexico. The colony, he warned prophetically, was poised for "una insurreccion general" (p. 626). Sure enough, a few months later, the much-feared alliance of creoles, mestizos, Indians and others rose up against the plutocrats of the capital. The rebels would eventually be crushed. But Mexico would never be safe again for Spain.

Stein and Stein leave us a fascinating account of the entangled relations between money and power, between Europe and the Americas on the eve of economic liberalism. This meticulous study of policymaking under duress may have an underlying structural argument about the brittleness of the Spanish ancien regime, but it never loses sight of the contingencies and complexity of rulership.

It is a tour de force.

DOI: 10.3138/CJH.ACH.50.3.007

Jeremy Adelman, Princeton University
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Author:Adelman, Jeremy
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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