From birth pangs to death rattle the Spanish Empire in America (ignoring island remnants) lasted three and a third centuries, and at full growth its kingdoms and provinces stretched from Florida to California on the north to Patagonia in the south. It is a prodigious task to write the general history of so vast an imperium from rise to demise with due regard to its physical and human diversity, to the metropolis that created and controlled it, and to the world that influenced it. In the English-speaking world, despite the meritorious efforts by scholars from William Robertson (1777) to C. H. Haring (1947), a complete history has not yet appeared. Now the able English scholar John H. Parry tries his hand at the assignment.
Let it be said at once that Parry’s book sets a new standard in perceptive and informed writing on this large and complex subject. It is well conceived, imaginatively organized, broad if not always even and deep in its coverage, and sound in the vast majority of its judgments. Since it is also generally tersely written and accurate in its facts, incorporating most results of the best and latest scholarship, I believe that it unquestionably provides us with our best interpretive synthesis to date.
Yet this is not to say that it pleases me in every respect and detail. It is not a balanced history of the Spanish Empire in America, for developments in New Spain, and to a lesser extent in the Caribbean, loom disproportionately large in it. Mexican experience, examples, and personalities are evoked so frequently as partially to obscure equally important developments in Spanish South America. One cannot glean much from this book about the peculiar evolution of such areas as Chile, the Río de la Plata (before the eighteenth century), Paraguay, Venezuela, and New Granada. Topically there is also unevenness: much on the Indian, little on the Negro; much on the English, less on the Dutch and especially the French in the Caribbean; much on the mendicants of New Spain, much less on the Jesuits (save in Paraguay). The frontier missions, from Texas to California, from Venezuela to Chile, are dismissed as peripheral phenomena.
The author essays the very difficult task of correlating Spain’s rise, decline, and revival in Europe and America; and the effort is very respectable considering the authorities upon which he relies. Nevertheless he could have considerably refined the result by utilizing the key works of Modesto Ulloa (1963) and Antonio Domínguez Ortiz (1960) on the Spanish exchequer under Philip II and IV respectively, and revisionist writing on the price revolution. There are a few errors of detail. The French sacked Havana in 1555, not 1556. Brazilian gold, really undiscovered until the 1690s, could not be a principal stimulating factor in the growth of European economic activity in the late seventeenth century. The Dutch West India Company’s capital of over 7,000,000 florins was not nominal but actual, and the concern, reorganized in 1674, survived, surprisingly prosperous, to 1791. Spain’s Pacific Coast armada, based at Callao, dates from about 1590, not the 1620s. In Hispaniola mobile lancer squadrons were not first employed against the cowkillers in the 1640s but as early as 1610. Also if the Jesuits, after pushing on from Sonora to Lower California, advanced later in the eighteenth century to Upper California, San Francisco is misnamed, and the sons of St. Ignatius after their expulsion found a most convenient asylum.
So this reviewer has had his little joke and, in the best tradition, proved an author not infallible, but he sticks to his original affirmation, that the writing of this wise book is a remarkable achievement upon which Professor Parry is to be congratulated. Written for a series designed to appeal to intelligent laymen, surely including college students, this volume is free of footnotes and all other scholarly paraphernalia except a list of useful published works following the text.