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The Spanish Empire and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans: Imperial Highways in a Polycentric Monarchy.

Early modern empires like the Spanish, the British, the French, the Portuguese, and the Dutch were founded especially on their ability to protect long-distance trade routes. Sea and ocean waters were essential parts of these political entities. In order to extend royal sovereignty and maintain control of overseas possessions, empires needed to master the technology to navigate, explore, trade, and exploit the seas. Shipbuilding, cartography, sailing techniques, sea routes, naval warfare, and coastal defense were among the indispensable elements of, and everyday aspects in, the administration of early modern maritime empires. The Spanish empire, with colonial outposts as far as Manila in the Philippines in the Western Pacific, is a case in point as it spread over three continents and two oceans and linked Atlantic waters to the Pacific basin through dynamics of imperial power. But to see oceans merely as a tool by which early modern states established dominance over far removed regions and exploited the natural resources found therein only reinforces a center-periphery model that considers empire from the perspective of the center and does not account for regional particularities, relationships among peripheries, and the perspectives of areas physically removed from the core.

Instead, this essay seeks to understand the Spanish empire from the sea in order to argue not only that geographical distance from the European center left outlying areas with considerable autonomy but also that oceanic connections allowed processes originating in the peripheries to have unforeseen impacts on the metropolitan core. A polycentric monarchy model, with a European imperial core and a series of colonial centers that developed their own associations with colonial peripheries, provides an understanding of the dynamics and internal organization of early modern empires that elude us when we employ a centralized model of imperial organization. (1)

Oceanic frameworks have proven to be more suitable to explain material links and human movements that were not confined to bounded territorial states. In the empire "on which the sun never sets," Spanish authorities ruled over approximately 12 million square miles of which 50,000 were coastal territory. Imperial lines of communication stretched for 3,000 miles from Spain to the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean and about 10,000 miles in Pacific waters from Mexico to the Philippines. In this context, oceans were simultaneously an essential connective lifeline and a geographical barrier. In the sense that water transport was faster and cheaper than carrying goods and people long distances overland, sea lanes allowed Spain to create, extend, and maintain colonial relationships that connected the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas and the Philippines. The outlook is different, however, when we consider trans-oceanic networks not from the perspective of the mother country but from the point of view of the colonies. Indeed, the long distances of ocean that separated Spain from its possessions gave rise to propitious circumstances for colonial authorities to expand their own autonomy and act according to actual social conditions and local pressures rather than in full compliance with royal legislation. Maritime connections developed unpredictably and often times eluded the ambitions of the Spanish metropole to properly channel them--a challenge to which other early modern empires were not alien, either.

During the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Spanish Empire made highways of the Atlantic and Pacific waters for a wide range of intercontinental exchanges. In part due to the fact that early modern European empires traversed the Atlantic Ocean more frequently and more regularly than any other basin, trans-Atlantic links and the peoples, economies, societies, polities, and cultures that arose as a result have been a subject of intensive study. (2) In the Atlantic world, the most important exchange that Spain established was a commercial arrangement with its American colonies based on the annual periodicity of heavily protected and rigidly regulated fleets. A series of sustained interactions grew out of this trading connection. Many of these contacts were crucial for empire building overseas and, as such, they unfolded in a regularized, predictable fashion within a framework of regulation, taxes, and laws. Besides trading with a myriad of commodities, Spanish metropolitan authorities arranged for personal and official correspondence as well as royal decrees, orders, and provisions to be delivered and for soldiers, royal officials, missionaries, convicts, and African slaves to be transported back and forth across the Atlantic. These connections were based upon a relationship of dominance and inflicted enormous changes in the colonial realms.

In the early modern period economic, social, and cultural bonds transcended the geographical limits of one body of water and spilled into adjacent oceans, enlarging imperial dominions while also increasing the prospects for local autonomy as distance from the core increased. As empires expanded to other domains, they replicated the colonial networks that they had established elsewhere. Immediately after a Spanish expedition seized Manila in the Philippines in 1571, the imperial machinery stretched to bring the region into the orbit of the Spanish crown. Shortly thereafter, the Philippines became a niche of unique strategic importance as a hub for commercial relationships with China and Southeast Asia, and the Spanish imperial economy ceased to be exclusively Atlantic. With the foundation of a trans-Pacific trade route, the Acapulco-Manila run, imperial oceanic circuits eventually became extensive enough to connect Spain to Asia. From 1571 until 1815 silver-laden galleons sailed out of Acapulco, in the western coast of the viceroyalty of New Spain, with annual frequency and returned from Manila with a precious cargo of silks, porcelains, spices, and other Asian goods. (3) A portion of this merchandise was transported across New Spain and loaded on Atlantic-crossing ships toward the Spanish markets. Likewise, recruits, military officers, criminals, merchants, sailors, bureaucrats, missionaries, and secular clergy who arrived in New Spain from the Iberian Peninsula continued their journey to Asia on board the Manila galleons.

In this manner, processes of commercial exchange, military recruitment, convict transportation, missionary enterprise, transfer of Castilian laws, and bureaucratization of colonial milieus connected the Spanish Pacific to the Spanish Atlantic and made this Iberian empire a truly global operation. By focusing on interoceanic connectivity the extent of imperial exchanges and the existence of not so apparent intracolonial connections become more clearly defined. Mobility across maritime spaces is also an important factor in shaping the unique nature of the different early modern dynastic states, as imperial networks built across large expanses of sea connected diverse regions and set in motion varying types of colonialism, some based on commercial outposts and others on outright colonial rule.

There existed movements between oceans that were not the outcome of a systematic government program of expansion--the flow of authority outward from center to periphery--but the result of other factors, like accidental occurrences and individual initiative. As such, these exchanges were for the most part unexpected, even unintended, and they sparked developments that do not easily fit in the model of a center dictating and a periphery receiving but that of a metropole and its colonies mutually influencing each other. A fundamental component of these encounters are the biological and environmental transformations that historian Alfred W. Crosby Jr. argued were the most significant consequence of 1492. (4) The process by which people, plants, animals, and pathogens almost from the start were moved across vast ocean networks drastically transformed not just colonial regions but metropolitan centers worldwide.

Besides foreign biological matter, ocean-going vessels carried information about the landscapes and peoples of what to Europeans were unfamiliar regions of the globe. In his influential book The Old World and the New, 1492-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), John Elliott inspired us to think about how Europeans attempted to comprehend this information and concluded that inherited organizing principles were inadequate to assimilate the new lands and peoples into the Europeans' consciousness. Further building on this discussion of the epistemological consequences of Europe's encounter with the Americas, historians have lately started to reflect on the new practices of science that emerged in the Spanish empire in part from materials and knowledge from the western side of the Atlantic. This has been a refreshing move given that historiographical works studying the relationship between science and empire have for decades primarily focused on the French, German, and British colonies. Recent scholarship has revalorized the role of the Spanish empire in the process of scientific exchange in the Atlantic World, and in so doing they are redressing the long-held historiographical assumption that the Scientific Revolution owed nothing to Spanish intellectuals. (5) We are told now, for instance, that the empirical information gathered in the Americas and transported in the fleets across the Atlantic Ocean was paramount to the evolution of empiricism and the establishment of institutions of knowledge-making in Spain. (6) The fact that Spanish America provided resources favorable for the development of empirical practices in the metropolitan core invalidates the premise that European scientific knowledge spread in a single direction from an imperial center to a colonial periphery. More relevant for this essay's argument, these findings point to the fact that colonial centers were important in defining the nature and direction of imperial developments.

Movements of Asian population that enriched the cultural diversity of Spanish America and Spain are another case in point in relation to the variable, non-state-planned flows of empire. They also support the idea of a mother country being shaped by processes that emanated from the outer realms of the empire. Historians have paid much attention to the new local cultures that were formed in the Atlantic world through the integration of European, American, and African peoples, cultures, and traditions. (7) This is less true, however, for the interethnic communities of Asian roots that were also founded in the Atlantic region. Two seemingly unconnected historical chapters exemplify the bonds that interoceanic shipping lanes created between Spain and the Pacific World. One is the presence of slaves of Asian origin in the Iberian Peninsula. Immigrants from China, Japan, India, the Philippines and Malacca who arrived in New Spain during the colonial period typically crossed the Pacific on board of the Manila-Acapulco galleons as sailors, servants of Spanish passengers, slaves, and merchants. Many of them stayed in the viceroyalty and married local native American and mixed-raced women, but the Asian migratory flux eventually crossed over to the Atlantic world with Asian slaves appealing for their freedom to the Council of the Indies in Spain in the 1600s. (8)

The other example of how ethnic communities with an Asian heritage came into being in the Spanish Atlantic is the Keicho Embassy, a diplomatic mission that Date Masamune, a daimyo in northeastern Japan, sponsored in 1613 to Spain and Rome by way of Mexico. (9) While Date's hopes to obtain from the Spanish King Philip III an agreement to establish direct trade between Japan and Mexico bypassing the monopoly of the Manila galleon were frustrated, the cultural and ethnic repercussions of this enterprise in New Spain and Spain are fascinating. Out of the 140 Japanese samurai, merchants, and attendants who departed Japan, only about a dozen returned to their home country in 1620. Today a couple hundred residents in Andalusia identify themselves--Japon is their surname--as descendants of the members of the Keicho Embassy. (10) These two episodes illustrate how a process that evolved far away from the Iberian Peninsula and largely beyond its control--the establishment of an annual commercial relationship between New Spain and the Philippines--created the conditions for the far-reaching tentacles of Asian culture to touch the shores of Spain.

In this story of intercontinental and transoceanic exchanges, the Mexican viceroyalty functioned as a communication bridge through which peoples, goods, ideas and religions travelled between Europe and Asia. Furthermore, New Spain also played a dynamic, autonomous, and flexible role in managing these interactions in lieu of the metropole. To be sure, while oceans might have facilitated the establishment of imperial power over remote populations, they remained insurmountable obstacles for a central state to maintain and consolidate said power. This is illustrated by the fact that communications between Spain and the Philippines took significantly longer than between Mexico and the archipelago. Maritime transport from the southern coast in Spain to one of the ports in the New World usually took about two months. To continue the journey to the Philippines from New Spain--the Spanish did not regularly use the route around the Cape Horn until 1785--required an additional 40-50 days of overland journey from Veracruz to Acapulco and about three months for the completion of the Pacific crossing from Acapulco to Manila. Inevitably, inter-colonial relationships thrived in the Pacific Ocean, the nature of which Spain was not always in a position neither to anticipate nor to have ascendancy over.

The annual sailings of the Manila galleons did generate a dense web of networks in the Spanish Pacific world that were conducive for New Spain to behave as an extension of the Spanish empire's core and exert more influence in the Philippines than Spain did. The viceregal office of Mexico City supplied Manila with financial resources and enjoyed a great deal of oversight of Philippine political and ecclesiastical affairs. The seemingly never-ending silver production from the northern Mexican mines gave wholesale merchants from Mexico City the means to infiltrate themselves in the Philippine commercial organization and eventually assume the control of trading activities with Manila. Furthermore, because Spain could not effectively assist the archipelago, the responsibility of a well-fortified and supplied Philippines rested with New Spain. Starting on the 1570s, the viceroyalty regularly dispatched Mexican recruits and convicts to Manila to replace dead soldiers and deserters. In the late eighteenth century, viceregal authorities began to conduct annual anti-vagrancy campaigns in Mexico City and other provincial capitals to fill the replacement quota for the Philippines. But punishing individuals who had no military training to serve as soldiers in a place from which many never returned bespeaks more a social cleansing campaign in response to perceived rising levels of delinquency and moral misconduct among Mexican plebeian sectors than an intention to actually provide Manila with manpower. (11) Distance from the center of government in Madrid and regular maritime communications with the Philippines enabled New Spain to establish its own satellite and maintain and define trans-Pacific connections not always to the satisfaction of Spain but often to the viceroyalty's advantage.

When treated as a category of historical analysis, oceans emerge as massive conduits for the circulation of commodities, germs, peoples, cultural practices, and knowledge. While some exchanges were subjected to strict regulation, others developed beyond the control of central imperial authorities and frequently yielded unforeseeable results. This essay has examined trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific relationships in the context of the Spanish empire by following these flows from the place they originated to where they had an impact in order to throw light upon a Spanish metropole with limited absolute power and colonial centers that exercised significant decision-making capacity. Specifically, the independence of New Spain from the Iberian core derived not only from distance from the center but also from the transoceanic links that were built in the Spanish Pacific world. That these connections could even hinder the execution of the Spanish crown plans further compounds the idea that each periphery was integral to the empire. Unlike a traditional core-periphery model based on coercion and centralization, the concept of a polycentric monarchy with multiple interlinked centers that interacted not only with the metropolitan core but also with each other provides a flexible analytical framework that is especially suitable for early modern empires that were structured around long-distance maritime connections.

Eva Maria Mehl, University of North Carolina Wilmington


(1.) Recent works that uphold the polycentric model are Pedro Cardim, Tamar Herzog, Jose Javier Ruiz Ibanez and Gaetano Sabatini, eds., Polycentric monarchies. How did Early Modern Spain and Portugal Achieve and Maintain a Global Hegemony? (Eastbourne, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2012); Giuseppe De Luca and Gaetano Sabatini, eds., Growing in the shadow of an empire. How Spanish Colonialism Affected Economic Development in Europe and in the World (XVIth-XVIIIth cc) (Franco Angeli: Milano, Italy, 2012). 2

(2.) The circulation of peoples, commodities and ideas among the continents that compose the Atlantic basin is one of the most important components of Atlantic history. A leading work in the field is David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (New York: Palgrave, 2002). Some of the latest titles in this thriving literature are D'Maris Coffman, Adrian Leonard, and William O'Reilly, eds., The Atlantic World (London and New York: Routledge, 2015); Nicholas Canny and Philip D. Morgan, The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Caroline A. Williams, ed., Bridging the Early Modern Atlantic: Peoples, Products and Practices on the Move (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009).

(3.) Arturo Giraldez, The Age of Trade: The Manila Galleons and the Dawn of the Global Economy (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

(4.) Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Wesport: Greenwood, 1972).

(5.) Emblematic authors and works in the reappraisal of Iberian science are Juan Pimentel, "Iberian Vision: Science and Empire in the Framework of a Universal Monarchy, 1500-1800," Osiris (2000).

(6.) Antonio Barrera, Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).

(7.) For a recent title on this subject, see John K. Thornton, A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(8.) Tatiana Seijas, Asian Slaves in Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

(9.) This delegation has not made its way into the standard narrative histories of colonial Mexico or the Spanish empire and remains an exclusive realm of specialists in the history of Japan and the history of Japanese encounters with other cultures. See for instance, Robert Richmond Ellis, They Need Nothing: Hispanic-Asian Encounters of the Colonial Period (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 46-51.

(10.) Juan Manuel Suarez Japon, Japones y Japoneses en la orilla del Guadalquivir (Seville: Fundacion El Monte, 2007).

(11.) Eva Maria Mehl, Forced Migration in the Spanish Pacific World. From Mexico to the Philippines, 1765-1811 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
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Title Annotation:World History Association
Author:Mehl, Eva Maria
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:0ATLA
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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