In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Elites

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Landowners, Planters, and Miners
  • Estate Management
  • Merchants
  • Planters’ Wives and Merchants’ Daughters
  • Power and Authority
  • The Pen, the Sword, and the Cloth
  • Urban Oligarchies
  • Native Elites
  • Polite Education and Genteel Life
  • From Empires to Independences

Atlantic History Elites
François-Joseph Ruggiu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0132


“Elites” is a sociological concept born at the beginning of the twentieth century and defined especially by Vilfredo Pareto. The concept has been employed and specified by the most prestigious sociologists, such as Max Weber, Raymond Aron, Robert Dahl, Talcott Parsons, or Charles Wright Mills. It commonly designates the group situated at the top of the social ladder of a society, and who dominates this society in every domain. It may also be used to identify the persons who dominate a social group whatever its place in the social ladder. In this last meaning (often called “pluralist”), it is possible to identify the elite of subaltern groups such as the workers, peasants, or, in the colonial context, natives. “Elites” is particularly in favor with social historians of the early modern period: it allows escaping the debate “order” versus “class”; it avoids being misled by the specificities of different kinds of upper groups (administrative, commercial, religious). It facilitates thinking on the diversity of the dominate groups of the society in economic and social terms as well as in gender terms. Elites is a particularly convenient term for describing the upper classes of the colonial societies during the early modern period. The European hierarchies based on ranks and degrees were often blurred in colonies because upward and downward social mobilities were high, especially at the beginning of the settlements, and because whiteness was often seen as a unifying element, especially in the Caribbean. As in Europe, elites in British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish Atlantics 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 subordinations. Violence and coercion were especially aimed against white indentured servants; Amerindians, even if forms of native nobility were often acknowledged; 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, on the British Empire, or Soares da Cunha, et al. 2005, on the Iberian empires, are partial exceptions. Roper and van Ruymbeke 2007 focuses on the proprietors of colony, a specific kind of elite all around the Atlantic world. Monographs on Atlantic or imperial elites are numerous —see Ponce Leiva and Amadori 2006—but these works use different perspectives, especially political, economic, or cultural. The similarities between the elites of different European empires, for example, in terms of their composition or their relations to power, tend then to disappear under local variations. Historians of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires have been 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 analysis 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 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).

    DOI: 10.4000/nuevomundo.1178

    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 sixteenth to the twentieth 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).

    DOI: 10.4000/nuevomundo.1576

    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 and their evolution.

  • Soares da Cunha, Mafalda, Nuno Gonçalo Monteiro, and Pedro Cardim, eds. Optima Pars: Elites Ibero-Americanas do Antigo Regime. Lisbon, Portugal: Imprensa das Ciências Sociais, 2005.

    A collection of papers devoted to various kinds of elite in Spain, in Portugal, and in their colonies during the ancien régime. Three contributions evoke the Portuguese colonial elite, especially a prosopography of the higher ranks of the administrative elites of the Portuguese Atlantic during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Shows that the empire was an arena where elites struggled to obtain royal graces in order to consolidate their social status.

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