In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Spanish Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Places and Routes
  • Circulation of People
  • Trade and Circulation of Commodities
  • Circulation of Science and Technologies
  • Circulation of Political and Economic Ideas

Atlantic History Spanish Atlantic World
Federica Morelli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0394


The Spanish Atlantic world cannot be understood as identical to the Spanish Empire or the Hispanic monarchy but is something that encompasses and transcends them at once. Considered in its horizontal dimension rather than its vertical one, this world does not reflect the territory of the Spanish monarchy since it puts in relation regions and areas—from Europe to Africa and the Americas—that did not belong formally to the empire. Furthermore, it is not a world made only of Spanish people, i.e., people born on the Spanish territories, but also of foreigners, people coming from other countries or empires. Their role in the conquest of the New World under the patronage of the Spanish Crown has been widely underlined by historiography; still their economic, political, and cultural activities in the Spanish Atlantic world did not end with the conquest but they continued in the following centuries. This space was indeed characterized by multiple transnational networks (German miners, engineers of Italian origin, and the capital of the Genoese, among others) that contributed considerably to its survival and efficiency in the long run. Another important characteristic of the Spanish Atlantic world is that it was not built on a vertical and bipolar relation of metropolis-colonies, but on a high level of provincial autonomy, to the extent that some scholars have talked about polycentrism in this particular aspect. Not only these autonomous areas shared linkages and complementarities which did not necessarily pivot on the metropolitan center, but sometimes they maintained strong ties with regions belonging to other empires. As some scholars have argued, all Atlantics are hybrid since they are the product of multiple “entangled histories”; consequently, no place in the Atlantic world contains a past that can be said to belong neatly and exclusively to one or another empire. Finally, and most essentially, it is a space that was shaped between the 16th and the 19th centuries by circulations of people, commodities, technologies, ideas, and information. Even though most works on the Atlantic Spanish world center on its maturity and decline, certain characteristics of this world had emerged since the 16th century. Following these assumptions, the entries of this bibliography, after having identified some key places and routes of the Spanish Atlantic, are not based on chronological or spatial divisions, but on what most characterized the Atlantic space in the early modern period, circulations and entanglements. This can help the reader look at the Spanish Atlantic world in a broader perspective, not limited to a formal and imperial-centered approach. At the same time, many of these concepts are strictly interrelated and in one section of this article we can find entries that are related also to other sections. However, the inclusion in a certain section agrees with the main focus of the works listed there.

General Overview

The political, economic, and social processes produced by the Columbian encounter in the Spanish Atlantic world have been studied in detail, especially with regard to navigation, trade, politics, and their impact on the formation of the early modern world. The emphasis on economics and politics is explained by Atlantic studies’ links to post–World War II conceptualizations of broader regional approaches to present and past geopolitical concerns. Economic and political historians helped forge a field that looked to the past for clues about the implications of the movement of people and objects throughout the Atlantic basin. By the 1980s, the geopolitical impulse of those initial inquiries gave way to a broader focus on social and cultural phenomena. Although much research in this arena still focuses on the impact of Europe on the Americas, recent work, such as Elliott 2006 and Cañizares-Esguerra 2018, has explored the rich possibilities for understanding the flow of ideas and culture throughout the Atlantic. These works have demolished the idea of an essential backwardness of the Spanish Empire, showing different trends of development through time and space and drawing attention to a circum-Atlantic community which consists of continuously fluctuating relationships along both an east-west and a north-south axis. While the works more focused on economic issues tend to identify a specific Spanish Atlantic (Martínez Shaw and Oliva Melgar 2005, Stein and Stein 2009), the other comprehensive studies on the subject do not sever the Spanish Atlantic from the Portuguese one (Adelman 2006, Cardim, et al. 2012, Gruzinski 2004, Yún Casalilla 2019). The reasons for this “iberianization” of the Atlantic is to be found not only in the period of the union of the two monarchies between 1580 and 1640, but also in the multiple entanglements between the two empires—both in the peninsula and in the New World—from the 16th to the early 19th century. A good part of these general works on the Spanish Atlantic focus on the late colonial period, when the Atlantic dimension of the Spanish world attained its apex, not only for the intense circulation of goods, ideas, and people in this period but also for the consequences produced by wars and inter-imperial conflicts. The age of the Atlantic revolutions represents from this point of view the moment in which the entanglements, circulations, and connections between the Spanish world and the other spaces became more evident, as shown by Thibaud Clément, et al. 2013. Although some connections between Spain and its former colonies in America survived after independence in the 1820s, the Spanish Atlantic ceased to exist in the early 19th century (except for Cuba and Puerto Rico), when most circulations and entanglements were radically reconfigured.

  • Adelman, Jeremy. Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400832668

    This book aims at a broad interpretative account of the dissolution of the Iberian empires, conveyed through a long, close analysis of colonial relationships between Spain and Portugal and their Atlantic territories in South America. By taking as field for analysis a sector of the Iberian Atlantic that crossed imperial boundaries, Adelman helps to clarify what is similar and different in the crises of Portugal and Spain, and in the states that emerged from their imperial disintegration.

  • Andrien, Kenneth. “The Spanish Attantic.” In Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. Edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, 55–79. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    This chapter describes the main characteristics of the Spanish Atlantic system, emphasizing the its interconnections with global, regional, and local processes. It is organized chronologically and structured in three section: the beginning, the maturity, the reform and dissolution.

  • Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge, ed. Entangled Empires: The Anglo-Iberian Atlantic, 1500–1830. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.

    This collection emphasizes the importance of understanding connections, both intellectual and practical, between the English and Iberian imperial projects. Contributors argue that these empires were interconnected from the very outset in their production and sharing of knowledge as well as in their economic activities. African slaves, Amerindians, converso traders, smugglers, missionaries, diplomats, settlers, soldiers, and pirates crossed geographical, linguistic, and political boundaries and co-created not only local but also imperial histories.

  • Cardim, Pedro, Tamar Herzog, José Javier Ruíz Ibáñez, and Gaetano Sabatini, eds. Polycentric Monarchies. How Did Early Modern Spain and Portugal Achieve and Maintain a Global Hegemony. Brighton, UK, and Oregon: Sussex Academic Press, 2012.

    Divided into three parts—“Spaces of Integration,” “Spaces of Circulation,” and “External Projections”—this collection of essays proposes a new conceptual framework for understanding the unity of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the early modern period. At issue is the fundamental question of the mechanisms that permitted the Iberians to maintain globe-spanning empires for several centuries, in spite of the centrifugal forces of tradition and identity.

  • Elliott, John H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Through an impressive work of synthesis, Elliott demonstrates the changing patterns of the British and Spanish Atlantics, focusing both on their resemblances and differences. Although both expanded through institutionalized brutality, the encounter with silver mines and large settled indigenous populations allowed the Spanish crown to have the resources to develop dense lay and clerical bureaucracies. In the British Atlantic, on the other hand, the Crown lacked the resources to impose religious and political will, thus creating a more decentralized system.

  • Gruzinski, Serge. Les quatre parties du monde. Histoire d’une mondialisation. Paris: La Martinière, 2004.

    This book analyzes the Iberian world during the union of the two crowns of the Iberian Peninsula (1580–1640). It clearly shows that the cultural coherence of this first global empire, made of the Spanish and Portuguese possessions in America, Africa, and Asia, was obtained through the circulation of information, knowledge, and people. The analysis is also attentive to the dynamics of domination, miscegenation, and resistance that these processes entailed.

  • Kuethe, Allan J., and Kenneth J. Andrien. The Spanish Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century: War and the Bourbon Reforms, 1713–1796. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107338661

    Using a chronological approach and different case studies, the authors develop an account of how the Spanish Crown struggled to reform its empire. Set in an Atlantic context, the book analyzes the different political conflicts in which Spain was engaged during the 18th century and how these helped to shape the reformist policies that the Bourbon kings and their ministers tried to put into effect in America.

  • Martínez Shaw, Carlos, and José María Oliva Melgar, eds. El sistema atlántico español (siglos XVII-XIX). Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2005.

    This collections advocates for the existence of a specific Spanish Atlantic, shaped by the Iberian influence. The structure and the functioning of this system is analyzed from an economic, political, and cultural perspective, even though most contributors insist on the economic dimension of the Spanish Atlantic world and Spain as its epicenter.

  • Stein, Barbara H., and Stanley J. Stein. Edge of Crisis: War and Trade in the Spanish Atlantic, 1789–1808. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1353/book.3370

    This book is the last volume of a trilogy that documents the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. This latest volume deals with the last twenty years before the implosion of the Spanish Empire began in the mainland colonies as a direct reaction to the invasion of the metropolis through Napoleon’s armies in 1808. The Steins describe the structural forces that led to the ultimate disintegration of the empire and identify them in the Spanish dependency on silver.

  • Thibaud Clément, Gabriel Entin, Alejandro Gomez, and Federica Morelli, eds. La dimension atlantique des révolutions hispano-américaines. Paris: Les Perséides, 2013.

    This collection approaches the questions of the origins, character, and consequences of Spanish American independence from an Atlantic perspective. The essays, six in French, six in English, and eight in Spanish, examine facets of the non-Anglophone Atlantic world across the long phase of global change inaugurated in the 18th century.

  • Yún Casalilla, Bartolomé. Iberian World Empires and the Globalization of Europe, 1415–1668. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-981-13-0833-8

    This book analyzes the role that the two Iberian monarchies played in the globalization of the early modern period. Embracing a comparative and transnational approach, the author provides fine detail about the social, political, and economic evolution of these empires over time, giving a key role to the noble and commercial elites.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.