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Contrasting Empires

J.H. Elliott looks at the differences – cultural, religious, ethnic and economic – between the Spanish and British approaches to their empires in the Americas, and asks how they turned out, both for the mother countries and for the colonies and states that eventually emerged from them.

In the early 1770s, J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur, later to win fame with his Letters of an American Farmer, wrote an unpublished ‘Sketch of a Contrast Between the Spanish and the English Colonies’.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’– the colonies of British North America.


Crèvecoeur then set about drawing his contrasts, and gave religion pride of place. He contrasted the Baroque excesses of the churches in Lima with the sobriety of Quaker meeting houses. ‘How different, how much simpler, is the system of religious laws, established and followed in this country!’ Writing more generally of British America, he 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 per­serverance’ 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.’


The contrast with Spanish America was startling:


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