Atlantic History Elites
François-Joseph Ruggiu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0132


“Elites” is a sociological concept born at the beginning of the 20th century and defined especially by Vilfredo Pareto. The concept has been employed and specified by the most prestigious sociologists, such as Raymond Aron, Robert Dahl, Talcott Parsons, and Charles Wright Mills. It designates either the groups situated at the top of the social ladder of a society, and who generally rule it, or the persons who dominate a social group whatever its place in the social ladder of this society. In this last meaning (often called “pluralist”), it is possible to identify the elite of a subaltern social group like the workers or the peasantry or, in the colonial context, natives; the stress is not on power but on the capacity of each individual to shape his or her place in the society. “Elites” is particularly in favor with social historians of the early modern period because it allowed escaping the unproductive debate “order” versus “class” and not being misled by the specificities of different kinds of upper groups (administrative, commercial, religious). It is particularly convenient to describe the colonial societies, where the Old World hierarchies were often blurred and where upward and downward social mobilities were high. As in Europe, these elites exercised their authority on dependents and subalterns through political power, cultural superiority, and wealth. But the specificities of the colonial situation in the Americas and the Caribbean explained the fact that they developed harsher forms of subordination especially aimed against white indentured servants or Amerindian and African slaves.

General Overviews

There is no general synthesis on elites in the Americas or in the Atlantic world during the early modern period despite some calls for it, such as Langue 2005 and Laux, et al. 2009. Bowen 1996, which encompasses the whole British Empire, and Roper and van Ruymbeke 2007, which focuses on a specific kind of elite all around the Atlantic world, are partial exceptions. It is true that the number of particular works concerning the Atlantic or imperial elites is amazing—see Ponce Leiva and Amadori 2006—and these works can be approached through different perspectives, especially politically, economically, or culturally. The various bibliographies consist mainly of case studies, and the similarities between the elites of different European empires, for example, in terms of their composition or their relations to power, tend to disappear under local variations. There are also differences between historiographies. Historians of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires are particularly keen to study administrative or municipal elites, while specialists of the English Atlantic, or of the British Empire, tend to focus on merchants’ networks or on masters of plantations. Using the notions of social reproduction and social mobility, some historians are keen to explore the social frontiers inside the upper classes and between the upper class and the various forms of middle classes (Büschges and Langue 2005).

  • Bowen, H. V. Elites, Enterprise and the Making of the British Overseas Empire, 1688–1775. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230390195

    An example of a general reflection on the involvement of elites in the shaping of an empire. Encompasses the Atlantic colonies as well as East India Company’s territories. Assesses the attention devoted by metropolitan elites (landowners, merchants, and businessmen) to the overseas possessions and considers that they were deeply implicated in imperial growth. Analyzes the emergence of colonial and transoceanic elites and focuses on their political and cultural links with the mother country.

  • Büschges, Christian, and Frédérique Langue, eds. Excluir para ser: Procesos identitarios y fronteras sociales en América hispánica: Siglos XVII–XVIII. Estudios AHILA de Historia Latinoamericana 1. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2005.

    Along with a theoretical introduction, these six case studies try to articulate economic definitions of Spanish American upper classes with cultural definitions, which are based on personal or familial identities (including ethnic identities) and on collective values (nobility, purity of blood, honor). Emphasizes practices of social superiority, exercise of power, insertion in networks, and use of symbols of domination.

  • Langue, Frédérique. “Las élites en América española, actitudes y mentalidades.” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos (12 November 2005).

    Assesses a part of the recent production on elites in Spanish America. Outlines historians’ efforts toward new definitions of elites; focuses on Venezuela; describes new methodologies, especially prosopography and network analysis.

  • Laux, Claire, Ruggiu François-Joseph, and Pierre Singaravélou, eds. Au sommet de l’Empire: Les élites européennes dans les colonies (XVIe–XXe siècle). Brussels: Peter Lang, 2009.

    A book collectively encompassing all European empires from the 16th to the 20th century. The first two contributions define the notion of “colonial elites” and identify three different categories: metropolitan elites interested in the empire, administrative elites sent to the colonies, and Creole elites. Three papers address the issue of early modern colonial elites for the Portuguese Empire, the British North American colonies, and Quebec. A call for further comparative and integrated studies.

  • Ponce Leiva, Pilar, and Arrigo Amadori. “Élites en la América Hispana: Balance bibliográfico (1992–2005).” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos (31 January 2006).

    A useful list of 468 books and articles alphabetically classified. An introduction highlights the main trends of research. There is no equivalent for other parts of the Atlantic world.

  • Roper, Lou H., and Bertrand van Ruymbeke, eds. Constructing Early Modern Empires: Proprietary Ventures in the Atlantic World, 1500–1750. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2007.

    A collective book that rehabilitates an understudied phase of the colonization: a majority of early modern colonial settlements began as the private property of a commercial company, of a courtier, or of a syndicate of individuals. Makes, for each European empire, a survey of this specific phase of the colonies and its effect on their social structure.

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