In This Review

Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830
Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830
By J. H. Elliott
Yale University Press, 2006, 560 pp

In the hands of the erudite Elliott, we are swept through three and a half centuries of dramatic historical transformation during which relatively small numbers of determined Europeans conquered, depopulated, and reconstructed the Western Hemisphere. Rejecting one-dimensional causalities, this eminent British historian draws complex interactions among metropolitan traditions, local circumstances, geography, demography, and leadership skills, and his stimulating what ifs leave space for human choice. In masterly, fluid prose, Elliott is constantly comparing, juxtaposing, and interweaving the two stories of the British and Spanish empires; he persuasively debunks and blurs conventional distinctions, as between the alleged British Empire of commerce and the Spanish empire of conquest, finding instead fascinating points of resemblance. Still, notwithstanding his attention to complexities and his admirable efforts to be fair to the Spanish tradition and to draw attention to the innumerable horrors of British colonial rule, Elliott's main thrust is familiar: the British colonial institutions of representative government, civil liberties, and religious pluralism contrasted with Spanish authoritarianism, bureaucratic centralism, and militant Catholicism -- laying the foundations for the success of the United States and the frustrations of Latin America. George Washington could draw on an inherited political culture, whereas Simón Bolívar had to invent one.