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Ivonne del Valle, Anna More, and Rachel Sarah O’Toole (eds) (2020), Iberian Empires and the Roots of Globalization

Noelle Richardson
p. 226-230

Iberian Empires and the Roots of Globalization [Ivonne del Valle, Anna More, and Rachel Sarah O’Toole (eds), 2020, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, 368 pp. ISBN 9780826522528]

Texto integral

1The edited volume Iberian Empires and the Roots of Globalization is a collection of essays that seek to analyze the mechanisms and consequences of Iberian imperial expansion whilst simultaneously demonstrating that the outcome of these processes resulted in the “roots” of early modern globalization. In their approach, the authors of this volume not only engage with the “global turn” that has characterized much of recent historiography, but they also follow recent efforts within the historical scholarship of the Iberian empires that have interrogated the dynamics of Portuguese and Spanish overseas expansion within the same frame of analysis. These approaches have sought to uncover and denote similarities between the mechanisms and consequences of Portuguese and Spanish empire building whilst remaining cognizant of, and sensitive to, their fundamental differences.

2In this vein, the editors of Iberian Empires and the Roots of Globalization are careful to stress that their core objective is not to present a “unified picture” but one that stresses the “globality” of both empires, and the “interrelatedness of some of their colonizing practices”. In emphasizing parallel factors such as the “multiple points of authority” of the Portuguese and Spanish empires, the “flexible configurations of the state”, and the fundamental role played by “faith” as a means of governmentality, this volume reveals the complex dynamics of early modern Iberian imperial expansion. Concomitantly, their overarching global perspective follows efforts to “decentre Europe” by going beyond the national and regional boundaries that have traditionally structured historical analysis into both empires. Crucially, however, this volume is not concerned solely with emphasizing the globality of both the Spanish and Portuguese empires, but the concept of globality in the early modern period more broadly. As such, a central claim posited by the authors of the volume is that early modern globalization itself emerged “from the expansive early modern Iberian world”.

3Indeed, this bold proposal is posed from the onset and made clear in the title of the volume which posits that the roots of early modern globalization in totalis lay in the process of Iberian early modern expansion. Given the inherent difficulties in engaging with a “chicken and egg” debate regarding the starting point of globalization in itself, the chronological scope of the volume marked by a particular focus on the sixteenth century as the key departure point is also contentious. The introduction and first chapter of the book are structured by a sustained discussion on the emergence of the silver economy in the Americas and its global linkages as a clear manifestation of a “newly globalized world”. However, it is unclear why the authors regard this development as a key starting point for the beginnings of early modern globalization as a phenomenon inextricably linked to Iberian imperial expansion and not, for example, the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta in 1415, an event widely considered to have marked the beginnings of Portuguese imperial expansion. Broadly speaking, much of the novelty attributed to the volume’s genealogy and characterization of the key dynamics of early modern globalization can be found in the earlier stages of Iberian imperial expansion and before the consolidation of an Atlantic economy centered on silver. Furthermore, the claim that early modern Iberian globalization accounted for globalization as a whole risks a teleological perspective that does not reconcile itself easily with one of the approaches of the volume which is its focus on the importance of local contexts and contingencies, as well as the importance of indigenous agency. A unifying theme linking all essays in the volume is the emphasis on the “adaptability” and response of the Portuguese and Spanish powers to local contingencies and a focus on how “local negotiations contributed to an extensive imperial network that transformed and linked regions”.

4Importantly, the emphasis on indigenous agency in order to create a “space for inquiries into the non-European peoples who fashioned the economic regimes, religious belief, social structures and moral codes of the European empire” is one of the strongest aspects of the book, making it a valuable contribution to our understanding of Iberian imperial expansion. Despite their attempts to reproduce European metropolitan models of authority, the Spanish and Portuguese were forced to adapt to local realities they encountered and collaborate with local agents who maintained a degree of agency. It could be argued, therefore, that the Iberian powers were forced to become globalized themselves during the complex process of their global expansion. As the editors of the volume state, one of their key intentions is to look “into globalizing processes as constitutive and constituted by the earliest global imperial models of Spain and Portugal”. However, it is unclear whether they consider the imperial model to have been more constituted by globalizing processes, or if Iberian imperial expansion was truly the constitutive driving force of early modern globalization. In short, the greater weight often attributed by the authors to the local context and, consequently, the reality that the Portuguese and Spanish empires were necessarily globalized is therefore tricky to reconcile with the core assertion of the volume that early modern globalization was unequivocally the product of Iberian imperial expansion. In other words, the question still remains as to the extent to which Iberian empires effected globalization, as the authors definitively claim from the onset, or if they were primarily affected by globalization.

5The volume comprises of 11 chapters broadly structured on the themes of the economic history of Iberian imperial expansion; the role of “religiosity” as driving force of the civilizing mission of empire and the “local effects of missionary diplomacy”; “culture” as explored through the circulation and local adoption of texts, the diffusion of ideas and forms of material culture; the role of Jesuit networks in imperial expansion; and the demographic and social transformations associated with slavery and the “political economy of African enslavement”. The volume then finishes with an epigraph that once again sets the two empires in the same analytical frame to reflect on the civilizational and exploitational tendencies and consequences of Iberian imperial expansion, exploring the question as to “whether racializing processes in one region of the Iberian empire were analogous to those of others; and whether the Spanish and Portuguese empires can be considered under one rubric”.

6In chapter one, Bernd Hausberger in his essay “Precious Metals in the America’s at the Beginning of the Global Economy” continues with the initial focus on the pivotal role played by the production and circulation of silver in undergirding the emergence of a global economy as elaborated in the introduction. In doing so, the chapter privileges “the role of Latin America in this transition from a world of many connections to a globalized order” and tries to reclaim Latin America from the “periphery” of world history. In chapter two, “A New Moses: Vasco de Quiroga’s Hospitals and the Transformation of Indians from Bárbaros to Pobres”, Ivonne del Valle shifts the broad perspective to a more local context by demonstrating the complexity of the civilizing mission of Spanish imperialism through the expansion of Christianity and its socio-cultural consequences. In analysing the founding of the two hospitals named Santa Fé, she demonstrates how these institutions acted as a site for a civilizational project and a corrective to “native barbarism” which sought the conversion of “Indians” whilst simultaneously transforming them into a labour force. The role of “faith” in driving the civilising missions of Iberian imperial expansion, and the simultaneous production of new social categories to order and define local populations are also the focus of chapter three, “Religion, Caste and Race in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires: Local and Global Dimensions”, by María Elena Martínez. Notwithstanding certain problematic claims – the Portuguese in Goa did not, for example, “create” a new version of “caste” by producing five Christian castes from the pre-existing system –, the chapter nevertheless draws important parallels in the manner by which the Spanish and Portuguese ordered local and imperial societies, and the importance of racializing ideas such as limpieza de sangre in both imperial contexts.

7The role of local contexts and agents in shaping the contours and actual implementation of the civilizing mission is also underscored in chapter four, “The Portuguese Inquisition and Colonial Expansion: The ‘Honor’ of Being Tried by the Holy Office”, by Bruno Feitler, which explores how “the logic of the inquisitorial institution functioned” when it was “confronted” by local populations. The manner in which the “local and imperial coincided” through networks and the importance of missionary activity in justifying and regulating slavery are the core focus of chapters five, six and seven which emphasize how the “economic” system of slavery was also undergirded by intellectual and religious ideas. Anna More in “Jesuit Networks and the Slave Trade: Alonso de Sandoval’s Naturaleza, policía sagrada y profana (1627)”, for example, argues that Jesuit treatises coupled with the scope of the network of the Jesuit order provided a new perspective with global pretensions that afforded a singular view for the construction of a new framework for transatlantic slavery at the moment when the trade was quickly becoming inextricable from the global economy.

8The adaptation of “universal” religious ideas to local contexts is also explored by Jody Blanco in her chapter “Barlaam and Josaphat in Early Modern Spain and the Colonial Philippines: Spiritual Exercises of Freedom at the Center and Periphery” in which she underscores how a section of this important text reflects the role played by the “political theology of the Counter-Reformation and Catholic missionaries (particularly the Jesuits) in the Philippines and Asia”, once again underscoring the importance of “faith” to the political project of empire overall. This is a similar approach pursued by María Eugenia Chaves in her chapter on “The Reason of Freedom and the Freedom of Reason: The Neo-Scholastic Critique of African Slavery and Its Impact on the Construction of the Nineteenth-Century Republic in Spanish America” which, through a comparison of two texts concerned with abolition and gradual manumission revealed the “political denial on which the colonial global order was structured” and how this denial “continued to guarantee the function of slave systems”.

9In keeping with one of the core objectives of the volume, which is to stress the resilience and agency of indigenous actors, Rachel Sarah O’Toole in “Household Challenges: The Laws of Slaveholding and the Practices of Freedom in Colonial Peru” explores the legal activism of enslaved and freed Africans in claiming freedom whilst actualizing connections between the “global institution of Spanish law and the colonial judiciary” once again stressing how the intersection between the “global” and the “local is key”. Finally, the confluence of local and global influences as they manifested in material and visual culture is explored in chapters nine and ten. In “The Iridiscent Enconchando” Charlene Villaseñor Black explores how the enconhandos of viceregal New Spain are perhaps so globalized in their mode of production and resulting form as to become untraceable or “unfixable” to any one geographical context. Moreover, this intersection of local and global influences, a process also driven by the agency of native agents is explored by Elisabetta Corsi who, in her chapter on “Idolatorous Images and True Images: European Visual Culture and its Circulation in Early Modern China”, notes how key aspects of European visual culture transmitted to foreign Catholic missions were “partially adopted by natives and readapted in contexts that differed from those that missionaries expected”.

10The diverse methodological approaches, rich variety of themes and sources presented in this collection of essays reflect the complexity of the myriad political, economic, religious and socio-cultural configurations that characterized the dynamics and consequences of Iberian imperial expansion in the early modern period. However, the volume’s relative neglect of the Indian Ocean world – a region crucial to the Portuguese overseas empire –, coupled with an undeniably greater emphasis on the Americas and the Spanish imperial context(s), undercuts the extent to which it can claim a truly global perspective. As a result, it is not fully convincing if the volume adequately accounts for early modern globalization as a phenomenon linked to Iberian expansion. Nevertheless, it is a solid contribution to our understanding of the “mechanics” and consequences of Portuguese and Spanish overseas expansion, one that consistently reminds us of the importance of the local context(s) and the “dialogue between the local and the global”, as well as the resilience of indigenous agency in this process. In this regard, the authors of the volume are successful in answering their question as to “how the concept of globalization first became manifest in Iberian empires”. As a result, the “global consciousness” and scope of the Iberian empires as demonstrated in this volume provides a strong counterpoint to prevailing tendencies in the debates regarding “the rise of the West” that have privileged the role of the Northern European powers and the Anglophone imperial world as the driving processes of globalization and the emergence of a world economy in the modern era.

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Noelle Richardson, «Ivonne del Valle, Anna More, and Rachel Sarah O’Toole (eds) (2020), Iberian Empires and the Roots of Globalization»Ler História, 77 | 2020, 226-230.

Referência eletrónica

Noelle Richardson, «Ivonne del Valle, Anna More, and Rachel Sarah O’Toole (eds) (2020), Iberian Empires and the Roots of Globalization»Ler História [Online], 77 | 2020, posto online no dia 30 dezembro 2020, consultado no dia 25 janeiro 2021. URL:; DOI:

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Noelle Richardson

Utrecht University, The Netherlands

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Ler História está licenciado com uma Licença Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional.

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