It should be said at once that few of these essays bear directly on Hispanic America; only 4 out of 14, actually. In chapter 10, Geoffrey Parker uses the occasion of the coronation of Philip II at Tomar in 1581 to reflect on the perils inherent in imperial expansion, concluding that “the empire on which the sun never set had become a target on which the sun never set,” with the consequences we all know.
This theme recurs in the later part of Peter Bakewell’s chapter on “conquest after the conquest,” which attempts again to explain how a very small number of Spaniards could not only conquer vast kingdoms, but also retain them. For Bakewell, what is important is not only the establishment of an elaborate administrative system —the well-known story of the audiencias, and so forth —but also the imposition of new and vastly more efficient techniques in economic life: paper and printing, wheeled carts and sailing ships, mills for grinding grain and pumping water. A fresh influx of Europeans came to operate these marvelous machines, confirming European headship of indigenous societies but also, eventually, giving rise to a creole sentiment that would expel the peninsular presence.
In his chapter on “Heeding Heraclides,” Anthony Pagden also tackles the problems of expansion. He shows that contemporary Spanish political commentators were well aware of what was going on and of how all empires pose a threat to the true nature of the parent country. As one writer put it, if the Romans had remained in Italy, their empire would have endured forever. The Castilians decidedly did not remain on the Iberian peninsula, and by the late eighteenth century could have retained their empire only through some form of extensive devolution of power, as imagined by Campomanes.
No Spanish government, however, could bring itself to accept such a devolution; the great provinces therefore seized independence in the early nineteenth century. As Josep Fradera shows in the final chapter, this left only the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico; and even they could not be brought under the “special laws” that might have retained their allegiance. The four “American” chapters in this book provoke the gloomy reflection that human societies often seem incapable of taking the measures that would allow them to survive, even when many thinkers in the society clearly see what needs to be done. It is refreshing to turn from these sad stories back to the book’s opening, where its editors offer us an affectionate and even informative account of Sir John Elliott’s life and work at his 65th birthday.