As Elliot points out in his work, Empires of the Atlantic, Spanish and English colonization of the America’s conveyed astounding differences. It was the differences of timing, Church, private and crown involvement, treatment of indigenous and African slaves, and the construction of race that shaped the organization of these two colonial societies in North and South America.
Although only separated by eighty-seven years, the difference in timing between the Spanish and English arrival and colonization efforts in the Americas proved to dictate the shape of their colonial societies in very distinct ways. Hernan Cortes successfully landed on the Caribbean coast of what is modern day Mexico in 1519 and as Elliot points out laid the foundation of Spanish Empire in South America. It was not until 1607 when the Englishman Christopher Newport put ashore on what would be the Jamestown colony, marking Britain’s foothold in North America. While the English held the advantage of being able to take Spain first as a model, and then as a warning[i], the Spanish conquistadores did not bear the luxury. As the first Europeans to come to the Americas, the Spaniards enjoyed more room and freedom to acquire lands, than their successors who were forced to content themselves with territory not already occupied by subjects of the Spanish crown.[ii] As well, with the Spaniards also came their 16th Century assumptions about the promotion of the civil and religious values of Christendom and their ideas of the nature of non-European peoples, both of which were products of the Reconquista and expulsion of the Moors from Spain. During the Reconquista, the Spanish state unified under the monarchy of Ferdinand and Isabella successfully exterminated the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. In doing so, it fostered a mentality of radical Catholicism and religious fervor within Spanish society. Upon the arrival of Columbus to Hispanola in 1492 and later Cortes to Mexico in 1519, the feverous ideals of the Reconquista were very much engrained in Spanish colonization. Pursuing an imperial strategy aimed at exploiting indigenous labor, the Spanish persisted to colonize South America by vigorously attempting to convert large populations found within its regions, and save indigenous peoples from damnation. On the other hand, the English experienced a much different development. The English using its colonization of the British Isles as a stepping off point, attempted to colonize in a different manner than the Spanish. While the Spanish were interested in conquering new territories, the English primarily planted new settlers in new lands. By the time the English reached North America, the Protestant Reformation had already swept through Europe, leaving behind in England transformations in both society and politics. Among the most important was the result of individual and local decision-making. So rather than a centrally directed imperial strategy like Spain, the English enjoyed the creation of a number of differing colonial societies, sharing the fundamental features of representative assemblies and a plurality of faiths.[iii] As the English would bring to light, political consent and religious toleration proved to be a successful strategy. So while Spanish colonization persisted on the path of dictates from the crown, English colonization took a much more independent approach.
The role of the Crown versus private companies is another key difference in the two colonization projects that shaped the organization of societies in each respected territory. While ideologies of the time influenced colonization efforts, so to did funding. Spanish exploration and colonization was dictated and funded solely by the state. The crown in search of mineral resources in the form of precious metals, aspired to gain wealth from the new world. The Spanish crown’s determination to create an institutional framework designed to ensure compliance by its officials and the obedience of its overseas subjects encouraged the creation of bureaucracy’s in accordance to crown priority to the exploitation of wealth.[iv] In essence, the Spanish crown controlled every aspect of colonization from exploration through settlement.
In contrast, primarily private companies initiated British colonization. Although the British crown did sponsor the voyage of John Cabot, who founded the fisheries around Newfoundland, royal interest waned when mineral resources were not found. In the crown’s absence, private merchant based companies moved in to fund colonization efforts. Unlike the Spanish, English colonizers were granted funds to settle in North America. Instead of revenue from America returning to the state, it went to the investors and stockholders of the private companies. While the Virginia Company sponsored the voyage of Captain Christopher Newport in return for the revenue that would be created from the new colony of Jamestown, charters were granted to those fleeing religious persecution as well. Building on the ideals of religious toleration sparked by the Enlightenment, the Massachusetts Bay Company, Puritans, was granted a charter in 1629. Also in 1632, Lord Baltimore was granted a charter to colonize Maryland as a Catholic colony.[v] The granting of charters through private companies reflects directly on the absence of mineral deposits in North America. The English crown feeling no urgency to make its claim in North America made little imperial strong holding in the colonies. In reality, the lack of imperial presence by the English also goes to display the effect of Reformation ideals and the changing balance of political forces it entailed.
At the same time when the Spanish crown was dominating the colonization of South America, the English in North America were colonizing under a loose set of imperial restrictions. Because the English crown largely stayed out of colonial affairs, the colonies were left to their own mechanisms for survival. They developed a rich diversity, which in turn fostered a shared political culture centered at the right of political representation and Locke’s idea of a common law.[vi] Thus, the colonies shared a common interest and enabled them to unite for independence, which occurred much later. It is important to note that the crowns lack of administration planted the seeds of independence.
The role of religion and the Church in colonial North and South America played key roles in the development of colonial society. While both the English and the Spanish saw their mission in the Americas to “reduce the savage people to Christianity and civility[vii]”, the English were not as aggressive as the Spanish for the cause. Riding high off the ideals of the Reconquista, the Spanish saw it as their duty to convert and save indigenous populations from eternal damnation. The conversion of indigenous peoples into Catholics served as the justification for Spanish claims to the new world. Under the Alexandrine Bulls, issued by the pope, of 1493 gave the monarchs of Castile dominion over any land discovered, on condition that they assumed responsibility for protecting and evangelizing the indigenous inhabitants.[viii] By violence and example they managed to catholicize large sections of the indigenous populations and force them to be subjects of the crown. Through the forced conversion and labor of indigenous peoples, the Spanish successfully organized colonial society under the pretext of inequality. The Church recognized that indigenous peoples were inferior to Spaniards and thus exploited the idea. Thus, in Spanish and Crown worked side by side in colonization. While both disagreed on many issues, the Church served to justify the actions of the state.
As for the English, religion and the Church played a much smaller role. Influenced by the Reformation, English colonization exercised a fair degree of religious toleration, as evidenced by Catholic, Puritan, Protestant and Quaker groups in the colonies. Their policy towards the indigenous peoples was lenient as well. Failing to find large populations of indigenous peoples, like the Spanish in South America, the English viewed indigenous conversion as a futile effort. Lacking a large labor force to tap into, English colonizers saw conversion as an unnecessary risk.
So while religion was at the core of Spanish colonization, justifying the conquest of indigenous peoples and forcing them into labor, extracting revenue for the crown in return for salvation, it served as a tool to include indigenous populations into colonial society. In opposition, the lack of conversion efforts by a Church authority and central religion in the English colonies served to marginalize indigenous peoples from colonial society.
The relationship between the English and Spanish towards the indigenous populations of the Americas was vastly different and shaped colonial society in two distinct ways. Upon arrival to the Americas, the Spanish encountered large groups of indigenous peoples. Realizing there benefits, the Spanish forced labor upon the indigenous peoples, in return that the indigenous peoples would be catholicized. This system was known as the encomienda system. Under this system, indigenous peoples learned the atrocities of forced labor and many died from overwork and malnutrition. The encomienda system fostered attitudes of resentment towards the Spanish and colonial control. While the Spanish treated the indigenous populations brutally, they also included them in colonial society, albeit as fundamentally unequal.
In the case for the British colonizers, indigenous populations were shunned to the margins of colonial society. Faced with sparser indigenous populations that could not be mobilized as a labor force, the English adopted an exclusionary approach to the natives. While Cortes encountered an indigenous population of roughly ten million in Mexico, the English found a native empire consisting only of fourteen thousand.[ix]The English could not rely on the native population for labor and supplies, thus barred them from their communities. Unlike the Spaniards who made the indigenous a facet of colonial society, the English expelled the natives beyond the borders of their colonial societies.
The inclusion of indigenous peoples into Spanish colonial empire as subjects to the crown shaped colonial society into a rigid system of social and racial hierarchies. Levels of inequality, within a greater society all under Spanish law, led to many unhappy citizens who saw there place in society unrepresented and undermined. In effect, the workings of Spanish colonial government had to be performed with respect to indigenous peoples as well towards Spaniards. However, the English did not face the same problems as the Spanish. Because the indigenous populations were left out of English colonial society, it gave them more freedom to make reality conform to their imagination. Without the need to integrate indigenous populations into society, the English hath not needed to accept compromises with indigenous inhabitants like the Spanish.[x]
In both Spanish and English America, African slaves constituted the bottom wrung of society. As indigenous populations started dying off because of disease and over work, the Spanish turned to the importation of black African to meet their labor demands as slaves. African slaves in Spanish America most often worked in sugar plantations, agricultural production or as household servants. Socially, slaves were at the bottom of society, but as laborers in Spanish society, they were included in the colonial system. Slaves were granted some certain space in colonial society, such as the ability to buy their freedom. Slaves had the right to earn a wage, doing small menial tasks, as long as it did not interfere with their work for their owner.
As for the British, slaves were acquired to work on the vast plantations in the colonies. Like the indigenous peoples, slaves were granted very little space in English colonial society. Slaves in the English colonies had virtually no freedom and did not have the opportunity to buy their own freedom.
By making black Africans a part of their society, the Spanish affectively limited their maneuverability to construct Spanish America as they saw fit. Legislation and law had to account for Africans, indigenous, and Spanish persons and led to increased complexity in the workings of government. While the English colonists were awarded with more maneuverability in law and practice, their refusal to include Africans within their boundaries eventually maintained slavery as an institution longer than in South America.
Although in both colonial projects inequality played a major role, Spanish construction of race varied greatly from English construction of race in its colonies. Because indigenous peoples, black Africans and Spaniards were all subjects included in colonial society, this led to a rise in racially and culturally mixed populations through the mingling of blood. The outcome was societies composed of a variety of castes, or castas, and shades. In Spanish America, there were many categories of classification to distinguish race. There were creole Spaniards, peninsular Spaniards, blacks, Indians, mestizos, mullatos. Cholos, castizos and mambos. Society was organized based off race, in that Spaniards constituted the elite, and the more black someone was, the lower in society they were. Spanish construction of race is very complicated and is an ideal illustration of the inequality colonial society was based on.
In contrast, the English colonies remained much more Caucasian. By shunning black Africans and Indians from society, the English colonies did not encounter the same racial mixing as was developed in Spanish America. They saw Africans and indigenous peoples as an other group, did not mix with them. Because of this, white racism became much more widespread in the English colonies.
So while Spanish and British colonization enjoyed similarities, it was their differences that shaped the colonial societies of the two in very different ways. The Spanish colonized on the precept of conquest incorporating and integrating the newly discovered lands into the King of Spain’s dominion, There inclusion and Catholic conversion of indigenous peoples and black Africans shaped colonial society into a rigid hierarchical framework wrought with inequality and fissures. On the other hand, the more independent, private entrepreneurship of the English colonized on the basis of planting and sustaining a new life. Their exclusion of Indians and blacks from society and the lack of crown interest paved the way for diverse communities who shared a same common goal and idea about their place in colonial society.