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Atlantic History Iberian Empires, 1600-1800
by
Jane Landers

Introduction

By 1600 Spain had completed the conquests of the core areas of its vast empire and established an elaborate network of administrative, legal, religious, and commercial institutions. Viceregal capitals in Mexico City and Lima and hundreds of smaller municipalities attempted to recreate Spain in the New World. Persons born in the Iberian Peninsula were accorded the highest social status, but wealthy Creoles formed a local elite. From first contact, Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans created new mixed-race peoples in the Americas known as castas. American societies were further transformed in the 17th century by the decimation of native peoples and the resulting expansion of the African slave trade to the Spanish colonies. Elaborate naming and legal systems failed to enforce racial separation because factors such as education, wealth, and patronage networks could modify racial categories. Some form of Catholicism connected all the varied groups, although indigenous and African religions proved resilient. Portugal, meanwhile, established a royal colony in Brazil, headquartered in Salvador da Bahia, while also maintaining smaller trading posts (feitorias) scattered along the coasts of Africa and Asia. On the death of King Sebastian during a North African Crusade in 1578, Spain assumed control of the vacant Portuguese throne and held it from 1580 to 1640. The Atlantic consequences of this union were many. Dutch forces attacked and seized formerly Portuguese areas of Brazil and Africa. Dutch, French, and English corsairs also attacked Spanish silver fleets and cities around the Caribbean. In 1640, Portugal launched a war of independence against Spain, and in 1655 the British seized Jamaica. Over the course of the disastrous 17th century, a terrible cycle of droughts, famines, and epidemic diseases decimated remaining indigenous populations in the Americas, silver revenues dropped, and Spain entered a period of severe economic depression. Brazil also suffered economic decline after local forces finally ejected the Dutch from northern Brazil in 1654 and the Dutch transferred their sugar technology, investments, and slaves to the Caribbean. The Brazilian economy only revived at the end of the 17th century, when frontier slave raiders (bandeirantes) in search of indigenous captives discovered gold and diamonds in what is now the state of Minas Gerais. In 1700, Charles II died without an heir, and the War of the Spanish Succession ended with a French Bourbon ruling Spain. The Bourbon kings launched a major economic, administrative, and defensive overhaul of the weakened Spanish Empire, designed to enhance royal control and revenue flows. From 1750 to 1777 Portugal’s Minister of the Kingdom, the Marquis of Pombal, launched enlightened reforms similar to those of Spain, designed to centralize, modernize, and rationalize the administration of Brazil.

General Overviews

General works on this period often focus on the general decline of the Spanish economy, the decimation of indigenous populations, and resulting economic decline in the colonial economies, as well as the Bourbon and Pombaline reforms. For a general overview one should begin with The Cambridge History of Latin America (Bethell 1984–2008), a collection of essays by the top scholars of Latin America. Other excellent general treatments by senior scholars include Lockhart and Schwartz 1983 and McAlister 1984.

  • Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America. 11 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984–2008.

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    This is the place to start for research on Latin American colonial history. Essays are by top scholars of Latin America and include critical bibliographies. Volumes 1 and 2 cover colonial Latin America, and both are now available online.

  • Lockhart, James, and Stuart B. Schwartz. Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. Cambridge Latin American Studies 46. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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    Sophisticated volume by two of the foremost scholars of colonial Iberian America. Probably best suited to upper-division classes. Includes a useful annotated bibliography.

  • McAlister, Lyle N. Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492–1700. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

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    Elegantly written survey that covers institutional and social history of both Iberian nations and their New World colonies.

  • Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

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    A deeply researched work that was among the first to integrate histories of the Spanish frontiers across what is today the United States. Useful for thematic classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199730414-0056

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