Exceptional and “European”? On Early Modern Empires

Gabriel B. Paquette. The European Seaborne Empires: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Age of Revolutions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 312 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978–0–300–24527–1.

What is an empire? Were the handful of islands, fortresses, ports, and inland corridors controlled by a few early-modern western-European monarchies “empires”? Were the dozens of ports-fortifications-trading posts the “Portuguese” held in West and East Africa, the Middle East, India, East Asia, South Asia, and coastal Brazil really “Portuguese” and all that “sovereign”? Were the empires of “Spain”, “Portugal”, “France”, “England”, and the “Low Countries” different and distinct from each other, mountains of Black Legend historiography notwithstanding? What was distinctive and novel about these loosely held structures within genealogies of empire? Did these “empires” really change the world? These are some of the explicit and implicit questions that animate Paquette’s impressive synthesis-textbook on the rise and fall of early modern “European Seaborne Empires.”

Paquette assumes from the start that these empires were not only strikingly similar and deeply entangled but also that they emerged hesitantly and unwittingly: The unintended consequences of Amerindian epidemiological catastrophes that allowed Western-Europeans both to exercise unparallel violence over “empty spaces” and acquire an overblown sense of sovereignty and power.

Implicit in this volume is the question of “European” exceptionalism: How different were these empires to those of the contemporary Mughal, Ottoman, Russian, and Qing? The latter were larger, far more populous, and richer. Yet within two centuries they proved to be no match to those Western Europeans had just created in America. The answers are scattered in the text and thus not easy to find. Yet they are all there. According to Paquette, three things rendered these Western-European empires unique and novel in global history:

First. These empires were held together by rival maritime-merchant and lay-religious bureaucratic networks. Literally, the empires were seaborne. Limits in technologies of communication and navigation created myriad heterogeneous societies strewn along maritime, commercial routes. Yet distance also stimulated statecraft innovation. It was the gathering and processing of information (what we call early modern science) what allowed these empires to grow, exploit key natural resources, map out local fields of power, coopt rivals, and gain allies.

Second. The surprising demographic encounter with America facilitated territorial penetration beyond coastal fortifications and unexpected access to land and labor resources that would have been impossible otherwise (not in Africa and Asia). As local indigenous societies collapsed due to epidemics, conquistador entrepreneurs were able to reshape new societies relatively unconstrained. The reengineering of “empty lands” included enslaving millions of “pagan” savages into service in mines, plantations, cities, and households. It also involved repopulating an entire continent with 12 million African slaves and their descendants. It also encouraged Europeans to move and resettle while creating racist ideas of natural supremacy. The power to shape social landscapes was reinforced as vast new markets and economies of scale triggered massive internal migrations of both surviving Amerindian populations and newcomers.

Third. The relentless competition among these empires constantly drove geopolitics, innovation in statecraft, and growth of armies and state bureaucracies. These were empires whose growth was predicated on aggression, competition, expansionism, and moral certitude. Inter imperial competition, in turn, led to emulation. Despite nation-state driven narratives of essential moral differences among these empires, all of them followed similar blueprints. Theories on alleged religious and political inter-imperial differences met an opposite praxis, namely, vast inter-imperial trading and smuggling networks. For every pirate raid, there were deep inter-imperial merchant networks. Piracy was often just a mask for smuggling.

Paquette devotes four chapters to the political history of inter-imperial competitions, from the 17th century to the Seven Year War. The rest of the book (seven chapters) is a fascinating analysis of common themes across empires. All of these empires witnessed the same political transformation that led to their undoing. As metropolitan masters faced the fiscal pressure of inter-imperial warfare by the 18th century, the polycentric, decentralized collections of territories of the 16th and 17th centuries experienced greater demands for legal uniformity and higher taxation. These pressures eventually sparked revolutions. All of these empires used millions of Native American and African slaves to set up myriad businesses. All of them developed as white supremacist societies predicated on socio racial estates. All of these empires were constantly negotiating sovereignty and territorial control over loosely held borderlands within and without. Conquest was an ongoing project without deadlines.

There are two chapters, however, that call into question a word in Paquette’s title: “European.” Paquette correctly identifies two traits of these empires that were exceptional. One is “hybridity” and the other the use of alliances and cooption.

On Hybridity. These empires were largely societies of nonwhite setters and slaves. Mestizos, castas, Blacks, Amerindians were demographically everywhere and the bulk of the populations. Moreover, the so-called Europeans created “creole” local societies with institutions and identities of their own that often emphasized their mestizo genealogies. Can we really call Goa, Macao, Manila, Lima “European”? These were societies doubly hybrid, not just because racial and cultural mixing became the norm but also because the scattered territorial nature of these empires encouraged inter-imperial trade and merchant diasporas (both legal and illegal).

On cooption. Was the conquest of, say, Nuevo Mexico, Panuco, Florida, Guatemala “Spanish” or that of Angola “Dutch”? The conquest of Panuco was everything but “Spanish.” The “Dutch” conquered Luanda with armies of Pernambucan free Blacks, Bahia Tupis, and Kongolese allies. This tendency to call things done by others “European” has to end.

One final critique: Paquette’s deliberate decision to cite only books in English is problematic. We need a collective reflection on the pedagogical impact of these choices. Paquette has made a career of bringing Latin American scholarship back into Anglophone academia. It is therefore jarring to encounter that the text itself fails to highlight non-Anglophone answers to the deep questions in this fascinating and impressive synthesis. Students would have learned explicitly that there are important academic communities in the global south too.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store