Jul 5, 2007

Book Review: The First America: The Spanish Monarchy, Creole Patriots, and the Liberal State 1492-1867

D.A. (David Anthony) Brading
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 761 pages

Brading was a Professor of Latin American History at Cambridge until 2003, when he retired after 30 years. Prior to that, he taught at University of California-Berkeley and at Yale University. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995. For this book Brading acknowledges a relative dearth of secondary sources; he claims that he “concentrated on reading primary sources, only citing those studies which positively assisted” his understanding. This text is largely, though not exclusively, concerned with intellectual history, and Brading spends a great deal of time charting the ideas that shaped the New World holdings of the Spanish. He most focuses on the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru, and sets the two up as contrasting models of intellectual traditions. His title, First America, is a not-so-subtle reminder to Anglophiles that the Spanish beat the British to the New World by nearly a century.

The author builds a tripartite model for the evolution of the Spanish Empire in the New World, beginning with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Bahamas in 1492. He terms the first phase of this presence “Conquest and Empire,” which at first glance meshes with the traditional historiography. However, he reinterprets the motivations of a number of the principal players in the early years of the Spanish conquest. For example, Brading argues that the primary motivation of Columbus was not material gain or the glory of God, but his fixation on connecting with the Grand Khan. The development of an eastern ally and the opening of a second front in the ongoing war with the forces of Islam was, according to Brading, the primary purpose of the Columbian voyages. This, of course, brings the author much praise from this reviewer, who has a long-standing research interest in matters Prester John, Grand Khan, and El Gran Can.

The second phase of the Spanish presence in the New World is what Brading subtitles “Strangers in Their Own World.” Brading develops a model of criollo (American-born Spanish elite) patriots that clash with the peninsulare (Iberian-born aristocrats) elites, who are sent by the Crown to the New World viceroyalties as administrators. I will use the Spanish term criollo in this review, rather than Brading’s “creole,” because of the confusion that the latter creates for American readers, who are likely to make Caribbean or Louisiana Bayou connections with the word. This criollos / peninsulares conflict forms the crux of Brading’s analysis.

The author finishes his analysis with a subsection entitled “Revolution and Reconquest.” He further delineates the growing rift between criollos and peninsulares, arguing that the Napoleonic disruptions of the Iberian monarchies created a power vacuum that was never fully regained by the returning Bourbon and Bragançan kings. Brading argues that this period was the true blossoming of the ideology of creole patriotism, as the distinct intellectual traditions of the criollos broke away from their European models. Arguably, Brading might be advocating a sort of neo-frontierism, in that, like the American model proposed by Frederick Jackson Turner, the New World environment of the Americas and the Old World philosophies of the criollos clashed to provide the impetus for the evolution of a unique philosophical tradition.

Dominican priest and Spanish chronicler Bartolomé de las Casas Left: Dominican priest and Spanish chronicler Bartolomé de las Casas

At times Brading overstates his case with his attempts to provide a general intellectual undercurrent to particular writers and events. In his chapter on Bartolomé de las Casas the author invokes sixteenth-century thinkers as diverse as Sir Thomas More, Machiavelli, and Girolamo Savonarola to paint a picture of the Dominican friar as a man who was “haunted by the remembrance of a living Utopia wantonly destroyed by the advent of the Prince.” This is grand rhetoric, and would sound melodramatic oozing from the mouth of Alistair Cooke, but this statement belies the true nature of Las Casas; he was concerned first and foremost with the abuses perpetrated against Native Americans by the lower elements of the conquistadores, and hoped to bring these injustices to the attention of Charles V, for whom he displayed great respect. Las Casas was much more concerned with the failure of Spanish administrators to carry out their evangelical mission to the Indians than he was with political reform. However, there is merit to Brading’s argument that the writings of Las Casas influenced later criollo writers by an implicit questioning of the legitimacy of the Spanish American empire.

Brading also includes a number of chapters dedicated to the traditional American and British historiography about the Spanish New World Empire. He devotes considerable space to William Hickling Prescott, and delves into the world that produced this historian. He argues that Prescott was the product of a “deep-seated Puritanism which found immediate expression in their aversion to the liturgy, monastic ideals, and hierarchical principles of the Catholic Church.”

Reviewers have generally praised the book, although Peter Bakewell of Emory University took Brading to task for the “central ambiguity” of his central subject. In Brading’s defense, though, this is intellectual history, and what can be more ambiguous than an attempt to generalize the philosophies of thousands of historical actors? I found that the chapters worked well as small vignettes of individual writers and historical events, and that there was thematic continuity from chapter to chapter. The book also follows a chronological scheme, and it is relatively easy to navigate through its pages. There are also a wide variety of obscure paintings, maps, and document covers that add visual spice to the occasionally dry narrative.

No comments: