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  • AHR ForumEntangled Histories:

    Borderland Historiographies in New Clothes?


    THE THREE ESSAYS IN THIS AHR FORUM make a very persuasive case for understandingthe histories of Spanish and British America as an entangled whole. Each demon-strates the futility of studying historical phenomena that were transatlantic, hemi-spheric, and transnational within the limits of national narratives. This is a worth-while endeavor that could easily be expanded into national histories of thenineteenth and twentieth centuries.1 However, although the examples offered hereare valuable, they are also limited, because most of them describe interactions at themargins, not at the core. An alternative version of entangled histories is neededone that grapples with quintessentially American narratives. One such narrativeis the construction and origins of seventeenth-century creole Puritan identities.

    JAMES EPSTEIN FOCUSES ON GENERAL THOMAS PICTON, who was brought to trial inLondon (18031807) for having ruled the island of Trinidad (17971803) in the samedespotic, brutal style as the former haughty, tyrannical Spanish overlords, includingthe summary execution of a number of slaves by decapitation and burning and of aBritish soldier by hanging. Trinidad was taken by the British from Spain in 1797. Theexcuse for the trial was Pictons torture of the mulata Luisa Calderon in 1801. Hewas found guilty but never sentenced. The defense argued that Picton was within hisright to torture Calderon, because until the Peace of Amiens in 1802, when Trinidadwas legally transferred to Britain, the island remained under Spanish law. Moreover,Trinidad was a tropical place of corruption, sexual promiscuity, and violence in needof discipline. The prosecution and the republican popular press, on the other hand,strove to cast Picton in the role of a Latin villain in the Gothic fiction then popularin England: a master of dungeons, a torturer of a defenseless, suffering beauty, anda sexually corrupt aristocrat. The trials of U.S. soldiers for misconduct in Iraq cometo mind here. There are parallels in the breach of the rule of law, in the misplacedvoyeuristic public attention to the spectacle of torture and the details of a singularcase, and in the construction of an alien other against which to judge an alleged

    I thank Jim Sidbury for offering references and ideas on how to reorganize previous drafts of this essay.1 See Erik Seeman and Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, eds., The Atlantic in Global History, 15002000

    (Upper Saddle River, N.J., 2006).


  • imperial humanitarian self. And in the end, Picton, like most American GIs, enjoyedimpunity. In Epsteins essay, Spain hovers like a ghost, an inverted mirror image ofwho the British aspired to be, a source of villains and dungeons for the RomanticGothic mill. Never mind that the defense was never able to prove that Spanish lawin Trinidad sanctioned judicial torture. For all his fascinating analysis, Epstein doesnot probe more deeply into the larger history of how the British used Spain (orCatholic France in the eighteenth century) to construct an imperial self.2 TyrannicalSpain (which in some circles stood for the Antichrist itself) shaped the British ide-ology of empire from its very beginnings as an antithetical other.3 But the interac-tions run deeper and are not only negative: for all the criticisms of the greed andplunder of the conquistador in Protestant sources, Iberian epics of conquest de-fined how the hero as privateer was hailed in Elizabethan England.4

    Unlike Epstein, who focuses on the imaginary interactions of the British withSpain, Rafe Blaufarb explores the many interacting geopolitical interests during theSpanish American Wars of Independence (18081824): the British, the French, andthe U.S. Americans, each wary of the intentions and the military and commercialstrategies of the other; each aware of the high stakes of asserting control over theresources, markets, trade routes, and military strategic territories of the southernpart of the Western Hemisphere (New Orleans and Florida); each uncertain of thebenefits of having a clear winner in the draw between Spanish American rebels andthe Spanish monarchy. It is in the context of this kaleidoscope of mutually opposinginterests and often self-contradictory imperial impulses that the final outcome of thewars needs to be understood. Britain benefited from the stalemate; the United Statesneeded Florida (and thus the Spanish monarchy) to keep the British from attackingNew Orleans and thus the trans-Appalachian trade; the French sought to do awaywith British control of free trade during the wars but feared just as much the returnof Spanish mercantilism and monopolies. Both the Spanish American patriots andthe Spanish monarchy skillfully pitted the opposing parties against each other to gainlogistical or political support. Blaufarb argues that the historiography on the warshas paid little attention to this larger geopolitical context. He uses the often over-looked naval history of the conflict (of swarming insurgent privateers) to demon-strate the Atlantic and even global dimensions of the struggle for Latin AmericanIndependence. In a delicious irony, Blaufarb turns the whole of Spanish Americainto a borderland, a contested space not firmly controlled by any empire, in whichopposing local native populations manipulate imperial rivalries to their own advan-tage.5 Blaufarbs model could lead into a mutually enriching dialogue between the

    2 Benjamin Schmidts Innocence Abroad: The Dutch Imagination and the New World, 15701670(New York, 2001) is a marvelous study on the role that the image of tyrannical Spain played in the Dutchcolonial imagination; for the similar role of Catholic France in the eighteenth-century British imperialimagination, see Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 17071837 (New Haven, Conn., 1992).

    3 David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge, 2001).4 Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 15501700 (Stanford,

    Calif., 2006), 5558.5 Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and

    the Peoples In Between in North American History, American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (June 1999):814841. For a critique of the blind spots in this historiography, see Claudio Saunt, European Empiresand the History of the Native American South, in Seeman and Canizares-Esguerra, The Atlantic inGlobal History, 6175.

    788 Jorge Canizares-Esguerra


  • traditional historiography on geopolitics and international relations and that onborderlands and middle grounds.

    Eliga Gould also offers a challenging essay. He lucidly and succinctly makes someimportant points, including his assertion that, far from being distinct entities, ascomparative studies usually suggest, the two empires were part of the same hemi-spheric system or community. This interconnected system, moreover, was funda-mentally asymmetric, with Spain, as the senior and historically preeminent member,often holding the upper hand. According to Gould, Spain loomed large in the Brit-ish Atlantic (and later in the early U.S. Republic): it defined the way Britain ar-ticulated discourses of territorial possession and expansion (by either imitation ornegative critique); it created a permanent class of legally ambiguous British col-onists in Honduras, Florida, and the West Indies, who organized into armed bandsconcerned solely with their own self-defense, often openly hostile to the interests oftheir motherland; it improved the leverage of slaves on British plantations (as itoffered refuge and granted rights to runaway slaves or Catholic Angolans) but alsopolarized race relations at the ports (the crews of the privateers that attacked BritishAmerican ships were Spanish American mulattoes and blacks); and it made it harderfor the British (and U.S. Americans) to expand into the Southeast and the trans-Appalachian West as it struck alliances with various Native American groups.

    Gould argues that his version of entangled histories is not just borderlands his-toriography in new clothes. Borderlands historiography, he argues, emphasizes in-teractions only in those parts of the British Empire and the United Sates that wereonce part of or immediately contiguous to the Spanish Empire. Yet this crucialpoint remains largely rhetorical, because most of the interactions he cites as ex-amples took place in the borderlands (either in the Southeast, the West Indies, orHonduras). His version of entangled histories thus remains a challenge and an openinvitation to explore deeper levels of interaction. The religious, patriotic identitiesof Puritan settlers in New England, for example, cannot be understood without firststudying theological and demonological debates in the Spanish Empire.

    EL ESCORIAL, ARGUED THE JERONYMITE JOSE DE SIGUENZA (15441606) in 1600, onlytwo years after the death of his patron Philip II, was the architectural fulfillment ofseveral biblical prefigurations: Like Noahs Ark, it saved countless souls fleeingfrom the deluge of the world. Like the Tabernacle of Moses, it kept the ark inwhich God Himself dwelled, protecting and disseminating His laws. Like the Tem-ple of Solomon, it specialized day and night in the praising of the Lord, the con-tinuous performance of sacrifices, the burning of incense, the keeping of perpetualfire and fresh bread in front of the divine presence, and the preservation of the ashesand bones of those now sacrificed for Christ.6 (See Figure 1.) Plastered on the walls

    6 Jose de Siguenza, Fundacion del monasterio de El Escorial (16001605; repr., Madrid, 1963), 6. Theliterature on El Escorial is vast. Pioneering in calling attention to the role of the Temple of Solomonas the organizing metaphor