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Debate en torno al colonialismo
Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Imperial and Colonial Encounters: Some Reflections


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Latin America

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18th century
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1The past few decades have seen no lessening in the intensity of debates and discussions concerning the place of empires in the early modern and modern worlds. These debates have if anything been aggravated, and at times grown more confused in their conceptual terms, partly because of the advent of the current known as ‘post-colonial studies’, in which historians of India have played a quite significant part. Three issues seem to be central in these debates, and I shall address each of them in turn, in the hope of allowing a possible dialogue to emerge between historians of different parts of the world (and more particularly Latin America and South Asia) who work on the period between the late fifteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. The three issues that I shall consider in turn are as follows.
- The ‘synchronic’ problem, namely how to reconcile the very different trajectories followed by societies in Asia and America, in the face of European empire-building projects.
- The ‘diachronic’ problem, namely the conceptual relationship between the empires of the early modern period (say, 1450-1750), and those of the later period, which is sometimes read as a shorthand for the relationship between the Iberian empires and those of France and Great Britain.
- The issue of the passage from empires to nation-states, and the consequent reflection on the ‘modernity’ or ‘archaism’ of empires themselves as a political form.
But before entering into them, it may be useful to look, if only briefly, at two recent and contrasting books that address the question of empires. The first is a relatively brief essay of some two hundred pages by Anthony Pagden, Peoples and Empires: Europeans and the Rest of the World, from Antiquity to the Present (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001); the second, a collective enterprise that is over five hundred pages long that is the outcome of a conference, and simply entitled Empires , edited by Susan E. Alcock et al. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001). In the first of these works, Pagden begins by attempting to define what an empire is, noting that “today, the word is generally used as a term of abuse, although one that is often tinged with nostalgia”. Eventually preferring a description to a rigorous definition, he nevertheless notes that from the time of Tacitus, anyone who alluded to ‘empire’ usually had in mind an allusion “as much to its size as to its sovereignty, and ultimately it would be size which separated empires from mere kingdoms and principalities”. Pagden goes on to note that “because they have been large and relentlessly expansive, empires have also embraced peoples who have held a wide variety of different customs and beliefs, and often spoken an equally large number of different languages”. We are thus already edging somewhat closer to a definition, and this is confirmed by the statement that “because of their size and sheer diversity, most empires have in time become cosmopolitan societies”, structures of political authority in which rulers “have generally tolerated diversity [but] … have also inevitably transformed the peoples whom they have brought together”. The key elements can now be brought together in a sort of definition: an empire is a large sovereign state, which is relentlessly expansive, embraces a wide variety of different customs and beliefs, and peoples who practise a vast array of languages; the imperial society tends to be cosmopolitan and the political system is tolerant of diversity, even if “empires have [also] severely limited the freedoms of some peoples”.
Pagden’s purpose here is to permit a broad and inclusive notion of what the category of ‘empire’ means, one that can allow him to run the gamut from Alexander the Great and the Romans, through the Safavids and Ottomans, to the Habsburgs, and as far as Queen Victoria. The editors of the second volume (Alcock et al.) chose however to limit their temporal ambit in order to explicitly exclude empires from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While stating that they considered the division between the ‘early’ empires, such as the Achaemenids, the Satavahanas, the Assyrians or classical Rome, and the empires of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to be artificial, and noting their “scepticism concerning the intellectual legitimacy of this divide”, they nevertheless preferred to reiterate that the Iberian empires (which are represented by several contributions, including one by the present author) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were quite distinct from the British or the French empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I shall return to this problem briefly below, in discussing the problem of the ‘colonial empire’, which is usually schematised as a particular type of empire that is fundamentally characterised by exploitative economic relations between an imperial core and a subject periphery. An empire may possess all the characteristics set out by Pagden, and yet not be structured in a fashion that permits systematic unequal exchange, or tributary economic flows towards the imperial centre.
In this respect, the Iberian experience in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century America and Asia was obviously quite markedly different. From the second quarter of the sixteenth century, massive tribute in the form of precious metals flowed into the Habsburg imperial centre from its American possessions, first through de-thesaurisation and then through the exploitation of mines. The structure of empire, whether in New Spain or the Peruvian viceroyalty, remained deeply dependent on raising resources through systems of forced labour or corvée, and also in the case of some areas, on plantation systems that exploited slave labour. Whether one looks at the Spanish or the Portuguese possessions in America therefore, it is clear that their relationship to Iberia was a dependent and tributary one in economic terms. This did not mean of course that locally implanted elites – and even some descendants of native Americans -- did not also benefit. Nor did it mean that the net effects of these tributary flows were necessarily positive for the Iberian economies, where they produced inflation, the social redistribution of wealth, but not necessarily high rates of growth either in agriculture or artisanal production. Yet the contrast in the relationship with Asia at the very same period was striking. Trade on the Cape Route for the Portuguese was essentially a balanced, bilateral trade, with bullion and other goods being sent out to Asia, in order to purchase pepper, spices, indigo and textiles. The financial resources raised through fiscal means in Asia by the Portuguese Estado da Índia did not constitute a surplus that allowed the state to finance inter-continental trade on a tributary basis, and it is difficult to talk of systematic ‘unrequited flows’ from Asia to Iberia in this period. Even the Spanish presence in the Philippines did not permit the exaction of a net tribute that was sufficient to allow even a small proportion of trade between Manila and Acapulco to be financed thereby. Both Portuguese and Spaniards undoubtedly had imperial ambitions in Asia in this period. But the notion of empire that existed was based on ideas of extensive dominion, and layered sovereignty (an emperor being a ‘king over kings’), rather than a ‘colonial empire’ in the American sense. Obviously, this not exclude the possibility of relatively restricted and classic comparisons, such as between the Jesuits in Peru and China, or the workings of City Councils in Goa and Bahia. But such comparisons must take into account that the Jesuits in China – however glamorous they may appear as individuals -- were minor players in both a political and strictly missionary sense, pretty much at the mercy of the Chinese imperial system, while those in the Peruvian viceroyalty were not.
Thus, the synchronic problem of ‘empire’ poses itself directly when one attempts to think through the Asian and American cases in the same movement. For the moment when the Iberian colonial empires are being established, and take root, in America, is a moment of relative political impasse in Asia. Rather than the Spaniards or the Portuguese, the great territorial expanses are in the hands of the Ottomans, the Mughals, and the Ming and Ching dynasties in China. Far from being subject as passive victims to the imperial drive of the Iberians, these other powers often powerfully repulse them, and even if not, limit the extent to which the Spaniards and Portuguese can gain footholds in Asia. Now, the same synchronic problem poses itself in a reverse sense when one turns to the nineteenth century. For the great moment of de-colonization in America, and of retreat for the Spanish empire, is equally the moment when first the East India Company and then the British Crown extend their control over India and some parts of Southeast Asia and West Asia. The conquest of India begins in the 1740s and 1750s, accelerates around 1800, and is finally consolidated after the bloody events of 1857-58, when a major peasant and urban rebellion over much of northern India is brutally suppressed. This is rather difficult to explain, if one assumes like Joseph Schumpeter (in his “Zur Soziologie der Imperialismen” of 1918), that ‘empires’ were themselves archaic political forms, representing the carryover of atavistic impulses from an earlier era. Here then is what Schumpeter wrote, in a classic passage:
“Modern Imperialism is one of the heirlooms of the absolute monarchical state. The ‘inner logic’ of capitalism would have never evolved it. Its sources come from the policy of the princes and the customs of a pre-capitalist milieu. But even export monopoly is not imperialism and it would never have developed to imperialism in the hands of the pacific bourgeoisie. This happened only because the war machine, its social atmosphere, and the martial will were inherited and because a martially-oriented class (i.e., the nobility) maintained itself in a ruling position with which of all the varied interests of the bourgeoisie the martial ones could ally themselves. This alliance keeps alive fighting instincts and ideas of domination. It led to social relations which perhaps ultimately are to be explained by relations of production but not by the productive relations of capitalism alone”.
If this is the case, Britain, which is usually seen as the paragon of nineteenth-century industrial modernity, appears to be the laggard in comparison to the far more politically advanced Iberian world. In any event, leaving Schumpeter aside, the comparison of the Latin American and Asian cases can only lead to deep synchronic embarrassment of one or the other kind. This is a problem that the gurus of ‘postcolonial studies’ do not appear to have posed when suggesting that this category be transferred to Latin America from India. For, in any normal sense of the term, the post-colonial in much of Latin American must refer to the latter half of the nineteenth century, rather than to the events and processes after the Second World War.
This leads us logically to considering the other major issue that we have set out at the outset, namely the diachronic relationship between the Iberian empires of the early modern period, and the British, French (and to an extent Dutch and Belgian) empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The common assumption here (shared by the editors if not the contributors of Alcock, et al., Empires), is that a radical break occurs somewhere in the eighteenth century, and that the ‘modern empires’ that exist after this date have a different character than those of the ‘early modern’ period. This break may be seen as primarily ideological in nature (post-Enlightenment empires being presumably different from their precursors), or primarily functional in character. A problem immediately arises though with respect to both the Portuguese and Spanish empires, since they in fact survived into the post-1800 period, and in the case of the Portuguese, was conserved until as late as the 1970s. The usual response to this problem is to state that the Iberian empires in fact reinvented themselves in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading to what has been termed the ‘second’ and the ‘third’ Portuguese empires for example. For instance, this conception is clearly present in a rather well-known work, namely W.G. Clarence-Smith’s The third Portuguese empire, 1825-1975: A study in economic imperialism (1985); this ‘third empire’ is hence assumed to have been reinvented after the Napoleonic wars, to have been modern in character, and also to have been conceived within the context of a form of ‘economic imperialism’. Yet, to state the contrast so baldly between early modern and modern empires may be somewhat abusive, and in fact may even mean that the historian is participating in the Whiggish view of history put out by apologists of the British and French empires in the nineteenth century. For, whatever the institutional and conceptual continuities between Iberian and northern European empires, it was characteristic enough for British historians, administrators and travelers (from Richard Burton to F.C. Danvers) to insist that their imperial mission civilisatrice had nothing to do with the half-breed empires of the ‘dagoes’. An etymological dictionary informs us incidentally that “dago comes from the Spanish given name Diego. It is nautical in origin and originally referred to Spanish or Portuguese sailors on English or American ships. This usage dates to the 1830s. The meaning eventually broadened to include anyone from southern Europe, before narrowing again and restricting usage to Italians”.
The issue of the nature of continuities (or the lack thereof) between the ‘early modern’ and ‘modern’ empires is brought starkly into focus if we consider the history of a particularly long-lived empire, namely that of the Ottomans. Emerging as a petty polity on the eastern fringes of a declining Byzantium in the early fourteenth century, the Ottoman empire truly came into its own only in the fifteenth century, after having suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the Central Asian conqueror Timur (d. 1405). It is thus possible to talk of a first phase of uncertain emergence lasting a century, and then a second phase of a century and a half, taking us from the time of Mehmed the Conqueror (in the mid-fifteenth century) to the close of the sixteenth century and the reign of Murad III (1574-1595). These three centuries to 1600 are taken then to constitute the ‘classical period’ in Ottoman history, followed by a phase which was once described as that of ‘Ottoman decline’, but which is now more generously termed ‘a period of transition’, leading first to eighteenth-century ‘decentralization’, and then to the ‘radical westernisation reforms’ of the nineteenth century, culminating in imperial dissolution after the First World War. Now the Ottomans have a curious place in the comparative history of empires. As Halil Inalcik and Donald Quataert, editors of the two-volume work, An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire (1994) state in their general introduction, “it can be said, without exaggeration, that the Ottoman superpower in the East substantially contributed to the shaping of modern Europe”, but the same authors also note that from the eighteenth century, the study of the Ottomans is largely one of “a traditional Muslim society trying to determine to what extent it should follow European ways”. This still leaves open the question of how the Ottomans compare to the Spanish Habsburgs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from the viewpoint of comparative imperial history. The parallels are clear in terms of the characteristics laid out by Pagden: elite cosmopolitanism, a multi-lingual culture, the protection of a certain sort of cultural diversity in the two cases, even if the Ottoman Sultans were aggressive Sunni Muslims and the Habsburgs aggressive Catholics. But certain stark differences also emerge. In the first place, the Ottoman Empire was almost entirely a contiguous state, which did not have separated territories with the exception of a few islands in the Mediterranean. Secondly, and this is a related point, the Ottoman state was during the greater part of its career not a state with a Turkish core and a non-Turkish periphery that was subordinate to it. Anatolia and Rumelia did not systematically exploit and draw in resources from the outlying territories, in the sense that Castile drew resources from its American territories. Further, the two empires witnessed contrasting processes of acculturation. If, as Serge Gruzinski and others have shown, the Spanish empire in the America was a case of the colonisation de l’imaginaire, no such conquest of minds took place in Ottoman Hungary or Iraq. There was no attempt at a comprehensive programme of the top-down imposition of an Ottoman Leitkultur, whether in the Balkans, Iraq or the Maghreb, even if we are aware that some forcible conversion to Islam did take place.
In this sense, the Ottoman empire stands apart from other empires, which were based either on programmes of economic exploitation, or cultural homogenisation, or both. Even if sixteenth-century observers often compared Charles V to Süleyman the Lawgiver, the empires that the two presided over were in fact fundamentally different. And no matter what measures of reform the Ottomans attempted in the nineteenth century, these were simply not designed to make their structure conform to something like the Habsburg or, after the accession of Philip V in 1700, Spanish Bourbon model. True, the slogan of the Tanzimat reforms of the years 1839-76 was centralization and westernisation, but this was paradoxically meant to transform the Ottoman empire into a sort of sprawling unitary state, rather than into a colonial empire in the European style.
In this sense, the true heirs of the Spanish Habsburgs and Bourbons in the matter of empire may well have been the British in the late eighteenth century. Recent historiography, such as P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins’s two-volume work, British Imperialism (1993), admits that too much has been made of the ‘modernity’ of the nineteenth-century British empire, and prefers to see long-term continuities in terms of the ‘gentlemanly capitalists’ who presided over that empire. In a similar vein, C.A. Bayly in his Imperial Meridian (1989) has written of the British empire between 1800 and 1840 not in terms of its precocious modernity, that was imposed over a set of traditional societies elsewhere, but rather as a set of “proconsular despotisms”, which in fact “complemented features of a revivified conservative régime at home”. While Bayly agrees with Vincent Harlow, in perceiving a ‘Second British Empire’ that emerged after 1783, and the loss of the American colonies, he nevertheless argues that one cannot see British developments as sui generis in character, as exceptionalist historians have usually argued. The parallels with the empire of the Habsburgs are equally brought out, when Bayly notes that he “would agree with Hopkins and Cain that the economic value of empire to Britain continued to lie much more in its contribution to finance and services than to the emerging industrial economy”.
This view implicitly poses a challenge to the dogma of ‘postcolonial studies’, which sees Europe as a deus ex machina, and thus takes a curiously old-fashioned view of ‘modernity’, which is seen as first a European monopoly, and then a European export to its peripheries, which in turn explains the emergence of the nation-state from within the residue of empire. It could be argued instead that at least four distinct trajectories of the formation of nation-states can be detected in the past two centuries. The first case, the classic one, is of the coalition of smaller contiguous polities to form a nation-state, as with Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century. A second possibility is the fragmentation of a multi-ethnic structure – the empire – into national polities that claim a more or less unitary internal ethnicity and linguistic structure. Such a model may fit rather diverse instances, from that of Ireland, Malaysia, or Mexico, to that of Turkey, though we should naturally be cautious in assuming that ‘ethnicity’ is itself a natural category. The third possible trajectory is the case of the nation-state which is itself also the imperial centre, as in the instances of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain, and where national identity is produced simultaneously with empire rather than after it. The fourth and final case, often treated as exceptional, is where the nation-state continues to possess many key imperial features: multi-ethnicity, a variety of languages, a certain degree of cosmopolitanism, as well as large scale. Instances from the twentieth century can be found, ranging from the Soviet Union and China, to India, with the United States being a limiting case. Thus, just as we cannot assume a single imperial model in the early modern world (as the contrast between Habsburgs and Ottomans shows), we cannot assume a single mode of transition between the world of empires and that of nation-states. From an Indian viewpoint, the national boundaries between Chile, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela make little sense, for what separates these countries is certainly not more significant than what separates the states of the Republic of India. And if the Peruvian may detest the Argentine, the Tamil nurses his own negative stereotypes of the Bengali.
To conclude then, the purpose of this brief and rather disparate reflection has been to reopen a certain number of assumptions, and to question some pieces of conventional wisdom, with regard to the empires of the early modern period – and especially those with an Iberian centre. It provides far fewer answers than the questions that it asks, but it is based on the belief that the facile acceptance of fashionable slogans such as ‘postcolonial studies’ is no substitute for posing the difficult problems that a connected history of the early modern and modern worlds summons up. Nor will it do however, to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and insist on jettisoning categories such as ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’. If our discussion has demonstrated one thing, it is that all empires were not colonial empires, nor were they necessarily based on similar economic and cultural logics. This does not require us to jettison the concept of empire, only to employ it with greater caution and precision. Similarly, while the economic exploitation of the colonies by the metropolis does not sum up the totality of relations between the two, and while it certainly does not rule out the possibility of various forms of internal exploitation (for example, of slaves by free settlers), it is difficult to justify a vision of the viceroyalties of Mexico or Peru, or of the colony of Brazil, where these political structures are treated as similar to Tokugawa Japan or the kingdom of France. The tyrannies imposed by ‘political correctness’ are of course many; and one of them is to feel that one is obliged to be ‘politically incorrect’ even at the risk of abandoning commons sense.

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Sanjay Subrahmanyam, « Imperial and Colonial Encounters: Some Reflections », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Débats, mis en ligne le 08 février 2005, consulté le 26 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.433

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Sanjay Subrahmanyam

EHESS-Oxford University

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