[G.V. Scammell, Ships, Oceans and Empire, London, Variorum Reprints, 1995, pp. 502-521]
No part of the world, proclaimed that arch-conservative Samuel Johnson, ‘ yet had reason to rejoice that [Co1urnbus] found at last reception and employment’. Nor was this merely the dyspeptic rhetoric of an irascible sage. Great and glorious consequences have, with varying degrees of plausibility, been claimed for the voyages of Columbus and his contemporaries. But there was another side to the coin. Experience of empire, in which the Americas loomed so large, intensified or exacerbated a number of ominous traits long present in European civilization, most notably absolutism, racism, and intolerance. Absolutism can be roughly defined, without becoming entangled in the snares of philosophy and semantics, as the inclination and ability of those in authority to do unimpeded what they have a mind to, with the strong probability that there will be many to encourage them in such courses. Racism is the assumption that groups of humans differ in their values and social accomplishments solely as the result of biological heredity. It sustains the sinister corollary that members of such groups whose beliefs, behaviour and physical appearance do not approximate to those of some external authority or observer are undesirable, or inferior, or commonly both. Intolerance, of which racism is an integral ingredient, can be taken to mean the unwillingness, particularly of those in control of any state or society, to countenance opinions or conduct not to their liking, and their determination, as a rule, to eradicate them.
A comparison of the Europe of c.1500 with that of 1600 or even 1550 shows what was happening. In the lifetime of Columbus (c. 1451— 1506), antipathies based on colour — which underlie the most virulent racism were relatively insignificant. Africans, duly westernized, are depicted. and far from pejoratively, in Renaissance art. In late medieval Iberia, they could lead lives no different from their European counterparts. Those enslaved in Spain and Portugal enjoyed, if that is the right word, conditions far better than their compatriots were soon to endure in the Americas. In France, African girls could even be the mistresses of royalty. The Catholic church was reasonably tolerant. Attitudes to death were less fearsome than in the late medieval centuries. The ability, if not the will, of most European states to control and tax their subjects was limited. Imperial rule, where it existed — in, for example, the possessions of the Venetian Republic — was not oppressive. Slavery, though certainly not unknown in the continent, was a mere shadow of what was shortly to come and had few vociferous advocates. Indeed, a distinguished humanist announced in 1521: We are now nearly all brothers in Christ and citizens of the kingdom of God. While we have servants in our houses they are not to be called slaves.’ And, ironically enough, just as the Italian peninsula was to he engulfed in decades of war between France and Spain, from Venice came the urbane utterance that it was shameful and dishonourable for men to keep weapons in their dwellings.
By the opening decades of the seventeenth century, it was a different story. European states or monarchs were claiming authority over huge tracts of the oceans of the world and had embarked on strategies which embraced most of the globe. The Iberian kings had the churches of their new colonial possessions under their thumbs while the Papacy, struggling to recover lost ground, was endeavouring to bring the Catholic overseas missions under its direct control. Slavery flourished in Europe and was the vital pillar of most of the new oceanic economies. The authority, not to say the tyranny, of the Bible, was firmly entrenched in much of the continent whose peoples, whatever they might think of one another, were at least united in the conviction of their superiority to non-Europeans.
Not all these developments are to be attributed to the opening of the wider world. Nevertheless, the finding of America, the Spanish overthrow of powerful native empires, and the western penetration of the ancient maritime economies of Asia not unnaturally gave Europeans an immense pride in their achievements. So at last could modern man stand comparison with the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome. “Thanks to the sublime merits”, wrote a panegyrist of the Portuguese royal house in 1490, “the times in which we live may be freely compared with the greatest days of Antiquity.” ‘Speak no more’, sang Camões in his Lusiads (1572), ‘of the Greeks and Romans, and the voyages that they made,’ all quite eclipsed by those of his compatriots. Moreover, it was now clear that much of the geographical lore of the ancients was wrong. ‘Had Ptolemy, Strabo, Pliny or Solinus here ... I would put them to shame and confusion,’ wrote a learned Portuguese in 1531, whilst an erudite contemporary was scathing on their ‘muitas ignorâncias’. And what Iberia had achieved by the mid-1500s was indeed staggering: ‘the greatest event since the making of the world apart from the incarnation and death of him who created it’, in the familiar words of the significantly entitled Hispania Victrix of Francisco López de Gómara.
Such confidence and ebullience slid easily into arrogance or worse. Already in 1515 Erasmus was alarmed that Europe was preparing to annihilate all Asia and Africa with the sword’. There was wild talk in Portugal of the conquest of Mecca, the subjugation of Africa and Asia, and of a divinely inspired Lusitanian mission to bring the whole world to Christ. Equally wild views were aired in Spain, with the conquest of China allegedly a matter of no great difficulty — mooted in the time of Philip II. Iberian self-esteem and pretensions became insufferable, particularly to less successful would-be imperialists. The English fulminated against the demands of Portuguese emissaries for precedence — ‘the chefest place with the Embassadores of the greatest kings of Christendome’. Nor was this idle gossip. When in 1608 an officer of the English East India Company expressed some grievance to his Portuguese equivalent in Asia, he was sent packing with the message that Portugal ‘gave not a fart’ for his commission, that James I was but a ‘King of Fishermen, and his realms ‘of no import’. The same sentiments were more elegantly enunciated by Camões in the famous lines ‘that had there been more to find’ in the world, his compatriots would have found it. Pride of this order is barely removed from lunatic messianism — the belief common to Iberians in the early modern centuries that they were in some special way charged with the defence and propagation of the Catholic Faith, that they were God’s chosen people for whom all things would be made possible and for whom the deity would provide. The good cause, the Cortes of Castile was told by one delegate in 1592. was not to be abandoned for lack of resources: God would look after his own and new riches would be forthcoming.
Unhappily, the very triumphs that swelled the pride of Europeans and made plain to them their merits made equally plain to them the alleged shortcomings of their victims or opponents. Hence there was launched on its long and destructive career the conviction, forcibly expressed for example by Samuel Purchas, that only Europe had accomplished anything worthwhile and that the rest of mankind were a pretty sorry lot. That some peoples were better than others, that some had inherent defects, and that those with dark skins were inferior were tenets of lengthy ancestry in Europe. But with the discovery of the Americas and as the result of the ensuing developments there and in other parts of the world — conquest. colonization, exploitation — they acquired a new and ominous prominence. The ancient Greeks had been contemptuous of those neighbours they dismissed as ‘barbarians’. The many shortcomings of their assorted Germanic assailants were catalogued by the Romans. In a Europe highly conscious of local and regional differences, banal insults were bandied about as to the defects, moral and physical, of its various inhabitants — stories, plausible enough, that the Dutch, Germans, and English were always drunk, and, less plausible, that the latter had tails. Anti-Semitism was endemic in the continent, evidenced alike in massacres of Jews from at least the twelfth century or in the praises heaped by early Castilian authors on those of Gothic, as opposed to Jewish, ancestry. But by the mid-1500s, anti-Semitism had reached an unprecedented and hysterical intensity, not least as a result of the fulminations of Catholic and Protestant zealots. Martin Luther urged the destruction of Jewish schools, houses, and places of worship. Still greater excesses were advocated or perpetrated in Iberia where there emerged, in the course of the sixteenth century as bigotry and intolerance burgeoned, a fanatical concern with purity of blood and the belief, expressed for example in the writings of Diego de Simancas (1575), that the defects of Jews were biological, ‘hereditary in them’, and transmissible. Thus, a child of pure blood, suckled by a Jewess, would be irrevocably tainted. Such prejudices were intensified by the belief that Jews, or Jewish converts to Christianity, were dangerously ubiquitous and powerful in the Spanish and Portuguese Americas where, like their fellows at home, they were aiding and abetting the enemies of Iberia. Suspicions of this order were inevitably self-fulfilling. Already in the 1560s, according to the Spanish ambassador at the court of Elizabeth I of England, Jews were encouraging her subjects to attack ‘a very rich part of the Portuguese Indies’, just as later in the century those in England were said to he conspiring against Spain.
Other equally unpleasant convictions proliferated. Medieval Europe, influenced by the legacies of Antiquity and Islam, was conscious of colour and of the inferiority of those whose skins were darkest. In the vast and lucrative slave trade (chiefly in young women ) conducted for centuries by Genoa and Venice in the Mediterranean, pigmentation was carefully recorded — black, brown, olive, white — for the benefit of potential purchasers, with the best prices commanded by the blond and strikingly beautiful Circassians. Nevertheless, such prejudices were for long muted, if only because peoples of unfamiliar colour were comparatively rare. But all was changed when Europe encountered the wider world. True, there were Europeans who for safety, necessity, love, and similarly pressing reasons fled to live among Africans or Amerindians, or who sought the rich rewards of service with the Moguls or other oriental rulers. So, too, protagonists of ventures like the colonization of North America might urge the merits of the native peoples to further their schemes, just as their compatriots, obliged to seek indigenous assistance, might tacitly admit alien virtues, and such associations could develop into pragmatic tolerance and even genuine friendship and affection. And it is, of course, true that a handful of Europeans, by no means exclusively men of learning, endeavoured to reach some understanding of the diversity and diverse capabilities of human kind.’
However, the great majority of Europeans who penetrated to the wider world, or who knew anything of it, rapidly came to the view, expressed in a rich vocabulary of abuse and manifested in gratuitous insult and hostility, that to rest of the globe’s inhabitants were of little merit. By and large they traded deceitfully, fought treacherously, were cruel, cowardly, and sexually depraved. They commonly neither looked nor smelt like Europeans. They might be naked, pagan, or infidel, polygamous or cannibal, and their political organization could rarely he reconciled with those precepts of Antiquity which defined a civilized existence. Their modes of behaviour were not those of Europe and of a Europe, moreover, which, beset by daunting social and economic problems, was much concerned with the reformation of manners and the dissemination of civility. Native testimony, thought an officer of the English East India Company in the late seventeenth century, would never do in England’s courts.
Black Africans were to bear the worst brunt of this hostility. The Americas demanded them as slaves by the thousand from the mid- 1500s to sustain plantation economies producing eminently saleable crops — sugar and tobacco — for the cultivation of which other labour was either unsuitable or unavailable. So America sealed the African’s fate. True, slavery had been endemic in their continent for centuries, but Blacks were now shipped East anti West alike in what rapidly became the biggest oceanic migration known before the nineteenth century. That Africans acquiesced in their fate and that their fellow countrymen were so prominent in the trade only proved to Europeans their inferiority and depravity, just as their frequent rebellions demonstrated their treachery. Worse still, as they greatly outnumbered their masters in many places, it was accepted that, like animals, they were best kept in order by a violence and brutality which so blunted European sensibilities that no incongruity was seen in transporting slaves in vessels named Delight, Mercy, or Happy Return.
Africans were thus speedily cast in the enduring stereotype of the natural slave and the embodiment of every form of sexual licence and indulgence. They were, wrote a Muslim convert to Christianity, ‘brutes without reason, without intelligence or knowledge. They have no notion of anything.’ From classical sources, luminaries like Bodin and Thevet knew that hot climates begat hot passions and so went on to identify Africans with lust and bestiality. Familiarity only intensified contempt. Pierre Bergeron, whose influential account of his travels went through three editions by 1658, considered them ‘peoples ... so savage that they hardly know how to speak; so dirty that they eat the intestines of animals full of ordure ... so brutal that they resemble hungry dogs rather than men who use reason’. From Iberia came the same message — the inhabitants of Mozambique were, for example, ‘like animals to be used for any kind of work’. English literature in its golden years presents a formidable gallery of unwholesome Blacks. The villain of Peele’s The Battle of A1cazar (?1588) is ‘an unbelieving Moore’ who amongst other abominable practices, feeds his wife on raw lion’s meat. Dekker’s Lust´s Dominion has sex-crazed and satanic Africans imperilling order and decency. Not even his military skills can make Shakespeare’s Othello fully human, and from the age of elegance there comes Chesterfield’s bleak assertion that Africans were ‘the most ignorant and unpolished peoples in the world, little better than lions, tigers, leopards and other wild beasts’.
But the final and fatal nail in the African’s coffin was colour. Europeans might admire the dancing, athletic prowess, fighting ability, or resonant voices of their men. Some enthused over the beauty of their women and more enjoyed their charms. But the stumbling block of blackness remained. As that seasoned connoisseur of such things, Francesco Carletti, observed, African females were gorgeous and had many admirable qualities ‘except for their colour’. Antiquity taught that black meant depravity and in early Christian tradition it stood for all that was ugly and revolting. It represented evil and corruption in medieval popular culture, and by the sixteenth century it was understood that Africans were black because of the enormity of the sins of their ancestors. In French literature of the age of Racine, the devil was ‘the great Negro’ and black the symbol and cause of depravity. Such was its stigma that Louis XIV refused to receive letters from Caribbean planters with mulatta wives and stripped several noblemen of their titles for marrying coloured women. And fatally for Africans, all those peoples who most successfully resisted, and often defeated Europeans — the Ottoman Turks, the Moguls, the Japanese — were white.
It thus became the divinely ordained destiny of Africans to labour as slaves for Europeans. Their servitude raised no qualms as this was already their lot — and that of Muslim Moors — in Iberia. It was justified on the grounds that they were supposedly of the race that carried the burden of Noah’s curse on the offspring of Ham, and were hence physically differentiated from the rest of humankind for eternity. Alternatively, they might stem from the equally unfortunate Cain, or from some separate pre-Adamic ancestor — but with no amelioration in their status. A few, moreover, were captured in wars designated as ‘just’ by some medieval thinkers because directed against peoples of evil behaviour who resisted the Christian message. That they could be used as slaves established their inferiority and their consequent need, as the followers of Aristotle knew, to be subjected to their natural superiors. Their well-found reluctance to work whole-heartedly in servitude was taken as further proof of their inadequacy, while their enslavement offered the added benefit of accustoming them to the virtues of regular toil, thereby preparing them to receive the True Faith. By the seventeenth century, even a converted African living in Holland could draw a simple distinction between his fellows, descended from Ham and doomed to servitude, and the Dutch, God’s ‘chosen people’, entitled to enslave them. The same logic carried the same message for the rest of non-European humankind. Amerindians were widely held to be, as an English sage phrased it, ‘the dregs and refuse of Adam’s lost posterity’. They were, thought Columbus on his first encounter with the Tainos, ideally suited for enslavement, and it was the initial intention of most Iberians to reduce to servitude those who, as the bishop of Darien proclaimed in 1519, were ‘hardly men’, and for whom such treatment was ‘the most effective and indeed the only means that can be used with them’. So, too, a common Portuguese view of the native inhabitants of Brazil was that they were ‘merely fit for labour and service’. There were, of course, those Europeans, particularly in France and Spain, who, under the influence of classical ideas of some past Golden Age, identified Amerindians as survivors from this era of pristine bliss who were to be cherished and brought by divine grace to their full potential. And the remarkable political organization of the Aztec and Inca states inspired in a handful of Europeans who accepted the essential rationality of all humankind the dream that ‘by reason ... love and industriousness’ their inhabitants would be led to live a well-ordered, Christian, and Europeanized existence. Such schemes were, however, largely abortive. There was no adequate machinery to implement them. Amerindians were in general subjected to ruthless exploitation and exposed to the lethal ravages of unfamiliar diseases. And almost everywhere it proved difficult to undermine tenacious indigenous adherence to traditional cultures. Already by the mid— 1500s, Sepúlveda, drawing on the lore of Antiquity, was arguing that Amerindians were irrational, notwithstanding the papal declaration of 1537 that they were true humans. Worse was to come. Military defeat revealed them to be ‘weak and imbecile’, overthrown, according to an early English visitor to Mexico, by their own ‘great and beastly cowardlinesse’. At best they were spineless and infantile, eventually identified as miserables who, as the Old Testament and Roman lawyers alike recognized, deserved compassion and succour, and who were so inadequate that their affairs needed to be supervised by ‘protectors’. Their enslavement was forbidden in the Spanish Caribbean in 1500, on the mainland in 1542, and in Brazil in 1570. But this was not the end of the matter. Cannibals, or those who rebelled or resisted, could be reduced to servitude, and large-scale slaving continued unabated on the frontiers of Spain’s empire and in Brazil.
In French and English America, where Europeans were unable to emulate the military successes of the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru, views of the indigenous population were on the whole even more uncompromising. They were headstrong and ‘inconstant’ savages, brutish and irrational and in general ‘lazy, liars, thieves, and beggars’. With some honourable but insignificant exceptions, the English carne to see the Amerindians of the lands they penetrated as, at the most charitable, ‘our younger brethren’, who were to be Christianized and Anglicized, if need be by the well-tried recipe of force. For the rest they were ‘wild men’ whose ungentlemanly methods of fighting justified the use of dogs against such ‘thieves and murderers’. As in the Iberian Americas, they could and should be enslaved, which was the fate of the survivors of the Pequot war in Massachusetts and of the tribes who rose against New England in 1675, whilst in English Carolina and Belize, just as in French Louisiana, slaving was soon a boom industry.
Underlying this treatment of fellow humans were attitudes long- established in Europe, even though they never had been, or ever were to be, obstacles to alliances, physical or political, with them when necessity dictated. But in the early modern centuries, and primarily from the sheer scale of the encounter with the unfamiliar, these antipathies intensified and spread. Colour was all too often synonymous with poverty, the acknowledged root of disorder and worse. European defeat and exploitation of non-Europeans showed them to be of little con sequence. Where victory was not forthcoming, or where Europeans were unable to direct native peoples into such ways as seemed right and proper to them, they felt themselves to be confronted by creatures who were stubborn, irrational, or both. Where they lived as minorities among large, imperfectly subjugated indigenous populations, fear for their own safety, or disgust at the frustration of their ambitions — usually the acquisition of land — encouraged distaste for, or hatred of, their neighbours. And where they found themselves among numerically overwhelming concentrations of African slaves, fear again dictated that these must be overawed by force and brutality.
Such sentiments had other unhappy consequences. To some English colonists, as to some men of taste in Europe, it seemed that the presence of indigenous populations in America was the continent’s most serious shortcoming, and consequently the best strategy was ‘to root them out’. Hence, too, advocates of the colonization of the otherwise unpromising Newfoundland could urge that it was at least free from tiresome Indians. But where such policies were impracticable, or where the labour of indigenous inhabitants might be necessary, not to say indispensable, then Europeans were to avoid the contaminator that would inescapably arise from association with them. In a continent much exercised to improve manners and disseminate civility, the privileged minority was clear that nobility of character was conferred by birth — the converse speaks for itself. In the mid-1500s, it was argued that the superiority of the French aristocracy stemmed from its descent from the original Germanic conquerors of Gaul. Others, who knew their Juvenal, urged that the essence of nobility was virtue, not blood. But in vain. The virtue of a well-born person’, Richelieu subsequently observed, ‘has something nobler in it than that found in a man of lesser extraction.’ To early modern Iberia, and particularly in Castile, there was an even more frenetic obsession with the extent to which blood was tainted by, or free of infection from Jewish or Moorish ancestry. That pure stock was debased by the evil influence of lesser breeds had long been understood. In medieval Castile, those of Gothic origins were supposedly endowed with martial virtues, not found in compatriots of Jewish antecedents. The English were alarmed that their fellow countrymen settled in Ireland since the early Middle Ages were losing their pristine qualities through association with the natives. Legislation was introduced as early as the fourteenth century to ensure these ‘degenerate English’, as they were known, would henceforth eschew the dress, behaviour, and language of the barbarous locals.
Given the widespread European acceptance by the mid— 1500s of the inherent shortcomings of most of the inhabitants of the rest of the world, it was all too plain that any infusion of their blood and especially that of Africans and Amerindians — spelt disaster. Hence in 1681 a French official wrote with more force than elegance, and in terms long to be familiar: ‘It is true that the debauchery of the Spaniards and Portuguese has brought them to alliances with such au impure stock; but I can also say that their colonies are abodes of abomination, vice, and filth, and that from these unions there has sprung a people so wretched and so weak that a hundred of our buccaneers can put to flight a thousand of that rabble. Alternatively, and foreshadowing even more fearsome racial theories, it could be proposed that from an admixture of the best there would spring a race of super mortals, as would happen, thought an Iberian Jesuit, if Castilian males were mated with Chinese women.
But to most Europeans it was clear, and became clearer as time went by, that the offspring of Whites by non-Whites were natural inferiors. Miscegenation was of course widespread for self-evident reasons in colonial societies which, outside North America, were predominantly male: necessity, as the old adage pithily has it, been~ the mother of invention and the father of Eurasians. But it had few defenders, and where it was regularized in formal matrimony it was generally understood that the whiter the bride the better the match, and even then it was almost invariably urged that such unions were entered into for some especial reason — with the obvious implication that the breached normality. In the early 1500s, the Portuguese lower orders in Asia were married off to indigenous converts to Christianity. The empire, it was argued, had to be populated and the brides were in any case more or less white. In the late seventeenth century, the English East India Company grudgingly conceded that some of its soldiers and servants might marry local women, ‘for the preventing’, as was said, ‘of sin and God’s judgement thereon’. But the general view was that sexual relations — let alone matrimony — with indigenous women, especially Amerindians and Africans, were undesirable and unacceptable. Those between white women and Amerindian or African males, though rarer, were similarly condemned by the English as ‘a Disgrace to our Nation’. Colonists who fled from English settlements to live among the Indians were, if recaptured, brutally punished — ‘some ... hanged, some burned, some broken upon wheels, others staked and some ... shott to death’.
Protestant extremists could justify keeping the natives at a distance from the Old Testament injunction to the faithful to live separate from the people of the land and from strange wives’. Elsewhere, there was little point in taking a wife when mistresses were freely available in societies in which there were commonly no sanctions against concubinage. Outside the tiny English settlements in America, the machinery to enforce matrimony was feeble or non-existent. And in any case indigenous women and those of mixed blood were considered unworthy of any such relationship except with members of the very lowest strata of European colonial society. In British Asia, for example, the discarded mistresses of men of standing in the service of the East India Company commonly became the spouses of its troops. Hence miscegenation brought the added stigma of illegitimacy, and throughout much of the new imperial world — particularly in the Iberian Americas — there came into being a class condemned to remain at best near the bottom of the social pyramid and whose poverty further emphasized the inferiority of its members. The alleged degree of non-European blood in their veins was codified in a bizarre and complex vocabulary of prejudice. In Spanish America Africans, or those of some degree of African ancestry, legally free though they might be, were excluded from the clergy, the universities, and the professions. Those with Indian blood were barred from the religious orders and public office and long banned from the priesthood. In English North America, white fathers commonly abandoned their offspring by Amerindian women ‘to be provided for at random by their mothers’, making them amongst the colonists’ most determined opponents and strengthening European prejudices as to the unreliability or worse of the natives.
Nor did Europeans see their compatriots settled in the wider world in a much better light. They might be social outcasts living among indigenous peoples in that lush immorality which both fascinated and repelled fellow Whites. They might wel1 be tainted with native blood. Moreover, since many colonies were in tropical or semi-tropical regions, this meant, as the protagonists of classical wisdom knew, that the characters of those who emigrated there were subject to adverse climatic influences. Worse still, it was widely assumed in Europe that colonies attracted undesirables — whether devotees of easy affluence or refugees from creditors or spouses. And there was also an influential school of thought, especially in Portugal and England, that considered colonies particularly suitable receptacles for the unemployed and unemployable of the mother country. Such settlements would, in particular, absorb the ‘dangerous’ poor who, it was widely believed in the sixteenth century, spread illness, disorder, and moral corruption, infected as they were with new, or newly virulent diseases like syphilis. Such ‘filth and vermin’ must therefore be purged or amputated, in a favourite contemporary figure of speech, from the body politic. And where better to deposit them than in distant lands, well away from ‘the better sort’?
European prejudice hardened as colonial populations were reinforced with those recruited through various forms of impressment — convicts and vagabonds dispatched to Portuguese Brazil, lepers to the Cape Verde — and, as in the English Caribbean, by those unfortunates freely condemned to deportation as thieves, rebels, and the like. Virginians were thus dismissed as the ‘very scum of the land’. English Barbados was described in 1654 as a dunghill ‘whereon [the country] doth cast forth its rubbish’ and where ‘a whore, if handsome, makes a wife for some rich planter’. The great and powerful of Jamaica were thought to be all ‘formerly rude and of mean birth’. The short-lived Dutch colony in Brazil was dismissed with similar demotic vigour as a ‘dose stool for voiding the dregs of society’, and those in the service of the East and West India companies as ‘the scum of the United Provinces.
Such intemperate language was a stock-in-trade of the age, but Europeans needed little encouragement to see the world called into being by Columbus and his successors as one whose white inhabitants. debased by contact with indigenous populations and succumbing, as it was put, to ‘clirnate and constellations’, were degenerate and degenerating. In Portuguese Asia, primacy was accorded to those out from the mother country married to Europeans. To many Spaniards, it was incredible that the descendants of the conquistadores, offspring of Amerindian women, could he the true heirs of Cortes, whilst in 1703 an English admiral dismissed the Jamaican élite as ‘brutes’, unfit to be entrusted with office. And there was much else to fuel these crude racial antipathies. As colonies developed, they commonly aspired to pursue policies opposed to those of the parent society. Hence, in the late seventeenth century, much English effort was expended on endeavouring to stifle, or at least control, the maritime economy which sprang in New England, while the spectacular upsurge of piracy on the North American seaboard was clear evidence of the chronic addiction of the colonists to disorder, if not anarchy. Metropolitan states doubted the political loyalty of colonies much addicted to trading with the enemies of the mother country. European men of taste professed themselves amazed at the antique modes of transatlantic speech and behaviour, and clashed with their colonial-born fellows in over secular and ecclesiastical preferment overseas. Already in the sixteenth century, Spanish officials were alarmed at the attitude and behaviour of those creoles who, they reported, neither knew their king nor wished to know him. The American colonies, it was thought in Stuart England, ‘took more power than was ever given or intended them’ and needed reducing to ‘a more certaine civill and uniforme way of government’, as James II attempted to do.
Such opinions and behaviour reflected an intolerance which sprang in part from experience of empire. True, toleration was hardly the hallmark of the furor theologicus of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe. But from the mid-I500s, intolerance grew apace in the continent’s two leading imperial powers — Spain and Portugal — and did not diminish with the passage of time — as was to happen in at least some other parts of Europe. Spain and Portugal were globally embattled with pagans, infidels, and those European heretics who poached on their supposed preserves, threatened Iberian safety, and obstructed Iberian ambitions. Such conflict aggravated that bigotry, messianic religiosity, and introspective intolerance which characterized the peninsula from the late 1500s. So, too, that chronic xenophobia, which stemmed from the survival of large and unassimilated Moorish and Jewish minorities, was intensified. And paradoxically there was a similar narrowing of intellectual horizons in those European states either excluded from or unsuccessful in exploiting the new imperial opportunities. Seventeenth-century publicists urged the folly of such ambitions — witness bankrupt Spain staggering under all the burdens whilst others drew all the profits — and revealed how much better off were those kings who had no colonies, but possessed within their own realms the ‘true mines of the Indies’. Venetians carne to see oceanic endeavour as futile and their own city as the sole seat of virtue, the real ‘New World’, and a very paradise on earth. The North American colonies were no more than nests of heretics set in lands whose natural features violated all true criteria of good taste and whose native inhabitants were idle and undesirable. Far from being the heralds of a new age, Columbus and his crews were merely the ‘argonauts of syphilis’.
Other old prejudices were meanwhile reinforced and new ones encouraged. Since the 1530s, English seamen had been carrying on a vigorous war against the maritime commerce of Iberia and the Habsburg Netherlands in European waters. The campaign intensified and spread to more distant seas as ardent Protestant spirits became convinced that the silver of the Indies underlay the power and ambitions of Spain. One of the objectives of the founders of the Dutch West India Company was ‘to take away from the Spaniard the American treasures ... with which he has so long battered the whole of Christianity’. The mutual loathing of Protestants and Catholics was exacerbated and in Holland, and above all in Huguenot Atlantic France and in Elizabethan England, anti-Catholicism fused with aggressive nationalism into that psalm-singing, image-breaking buccaneering so notably espoused by Francis Drake.
Yet even as European mariners accomplished some of the greatest voyages ever made under sail, their reputation at home, admittedly never very high, plummeted. Oceanic crossing meant ships were now at sea for longer periods than ever before. The likelihood of mutiny, or at least friction, amongst their complements was accordingly greater, especially since the authority of commanders was radically strengthened, allowing them almost limitless opportunity for imperious behaviour. More ships, often sailing to dangerous waters and hostile climates, meant an insatiable demand for manpower and hence a less critical selection of crews. And to these there now opened up pleasing vistas of world-wide piracy and the prospect of riches beyond measure. Hence denunciations of sailors proliferated in early modern Europe: they were, in a favourite witticism of humanists — who knew from the classics the importance of discipline in military undertakings — ‘the ordure of the sea.’ Throughout the continent, men of letters, publicists, and that growing band of disgruntled or unsuccessful commanders vied with one another iii vituperative condemnation. The unruly conduct of seamen terrified honest persons ashore and invited disaster afloat. They were ‘so unruly ... that ... no merchantman dare enterprise to take upon him the ordering and governing of ships’. They were ‘as well voyde of reason as of obedyence’, no better than ‘baptized beasts’ who stank of fish and spoke an incomprehensible ‘thick, imperfect language’.
Such was the voice of an age that saw slavery re-integrated into European culture and re-introduced to whole areas of the economy of a continent from which — notably the North - it had long been absent. Black and other slaves had been employed in southern Iberia and along Europe’s Mediterranean littoral for centuries before 1492. But then, as the direct outcome of the establishment of the oceanic empires, they appeared, the lowest of the low, in England, France, Holland, and elsewhere. Slavery, the Parliament of Guienne grandly proclaimed in the mid-sixteenth century, was forbidden in France, ‘the mother of liberty’, and even as late as 1691 slavers entering the country’s ports were obliged to free their Africans. But once the importance of the slave-based West Indian colonies in the French economy was clear, the importation of slaves into the mother country was legalized (1716). Much the same happened in England where, by the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, the status of slave — though known to the common law — was to all intents defunct. Soon, however, large numbers of slaves, chiefly Africans, began to reach the country. There were some in Lord Derby’s household in 1569 and George I subsequently arrived to enter into his inheritance accompanied by others. In 1677, lawyers accepted, on the starkest racist grounds, that since Blacks were bought and sold, and since they were infidels, their enslavement was perfectly valid. Following a period of legal uncertainty, it was eventually agreed in 1729, under pressure from the influential West Indies sugar lobby, that slaves were not freed by coming to England, or by baptism which, as the bishop of London opportunely explained, ‘made no sort of change in their political estate’.
Indeed slavery came to be seen as something of a panacea for the ills of the early modern centuries. Humanist admirers of the Civil Law, now restored to its Roman purity, were familiar with its texts prescribing enslavement for the congenitally idle. An English Act of 1547 proposed it as a suitable punishment for vagrants, whilst there were subsequent thoughts of its more general and beneficial employment. At much the same date, and in much the same vein the imperial ambassador to Constantinople, commenting on, as was the fashion, the degeneracy of the times, regretted that slavery was not more widespread. A learned Spaniard argued that in a ‘just war’ even the innocent members of an enemy population might legitimately be enslaved to punish the state, and children similarly treated for the misdeeds of their parents.
Such views were not the direct outcome of the creation of overseas empires but found a congenial atmosphere in the authoritarianism and intolerance this generated. When, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the philosophical debate on title to sovereignty over alien lands was in full swing, the king of Portugal simply asserted the primacy of possession and the early rulers of Spain admitted nothing more than their own will as authority for their actions. Mexico, thought some advisers of the Spanish crown in 1554, should be governed absolutely by direct military rule, Turkish style. Restive Indians on the imperial frontiers were to be subdued ‘by fire and blood’, a policy arcade tried by the Portuguese in southern Persia. Conversion by force was freely employed by Catholic missions in the Americas and urged for the intended English settlements by Richard Hakluyt, where ‘our old soldiours trained up in the Netherlands’ were t knock recalcitrant Indians into godly ways. Iberian theorists talked of empires founded and upheld by ‘the two swords of the civil and the ecclesiastical power’ whilst, where imperial beginnings were s1ow or unsatisfactory, it was urged that only bold state action could retrieve the situation. ‘Trade without war or war without trade cannot be maintained’, concluded that formidable Dutchman Jan Coen after surveying the Asian scene.
What would do abroad would do equally well at home. Destructive theological debate in England could he stifled, thought Hakluyt, by shipping the tiresome disputants to America, just as he and many others knew that the happiness, prosperity, and security of the ‘better sort’ would be enhanced by deporting the ‘offals of our people’ to the colonies. Castilian experience of the Americas convinced a Spaniard holding high office under Philip II in the Habsburg possessions in Italy that his unruly charges would be best brought to order by a whiff of true imperial government, and that ‘although they are not Indians [they] have to be treated as such so that they will know we are in charge’. In seventeenth-century England, Blacks were forcibly restrained from becoming Christians and tortured if they did so.
Not only did empire foster an atmosphere conducive to the growth of state power, but also added, sometimes momentarily, sometimes permanently, to the authority of metropolitan governments. True, this was already increasing in the early 1500s, but the whole process was now significantly advanced. In Spanish America, it was remarked, the king was supreme by virtue of conquest, and untrammelled by these restraints to which he was subject in the peninsula. The rulers of Portugal took to referring to their overseas possessions, however acquired, as ‘the Conquests’. In Spain, as in Portugal, the crown secured a massive extension of its authority by obtaining complete control over the new imperial church, into whose affairs, ruled Philip II in 1574, ‘none should dare to intrude’. In both Spain and Portugal, but more effectively in the former, every aspect of the government and exploitation of the empire became matters for the crown. And in both Portugal and Spain, new offices were created for the discharge of these functions, generating in turn a new bureaucracy which was itself a further manifestation of roya1 power. Such developments were subsequently echoed in varying degrees in Holland, England, and especially France, where Louis XIV laid it down that colonies were to be ruled firmly and with no nonsense ‘like a good father would his children’.
More remarkably still, European states now claimed authority over the oceans of the world and the right to conduct and regulate maritime commerce as they saw fit: The Sea was given by God for the use of Men’, ruled an English Admiralty judge in 1718, ‘and is subject to Dominion and Property as well as the Land’. Already in 1479 the Iberians, well aware that this was so, had carved up the eastern Atlantic between them. In their commission for Columbus, the rulers of Spain made assertions of suzerainty over the ocean of the same ambitious order as those advanced by Portugal, whose king even went as far as arrogating to himself in 1499 the preposterous title of ‘Lord of Guinea and of the conquest of the navigation and commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India’. The Portuguese crown claimed the exclusive right to trade with Asia and Africa, just as Spain maintained that her American possessions must deal only with specified ports and individuals in the mother country. This was the doctrine of mare clausum, once enforced in limited areas in the medieval centuries — as by the Hanseatic League in the Baltic — now spread as far as the power of the Iberians could reach and for as long as they could sustain it.
Similar claims, notably the right to exclude all others, were made and similar expedients tried by the rivals of Spain and Portugal. The English, Dutch, and French all set up vast monopoly corporations to handle their respective trades with Asia — and the Far Eastern commerce of the rest of Europe if they could manage it. In the Atlantic, England, France, and some Netherlanders endeavoured to establish monopoly companies of varying degrees of grandeur to regulate the whole, or particular, areas of colonial trade. Whatever Grotius might have to say about the freedom of the seas, the Dutch East India Company was satisfied that its military annexation of Portugal’s onetime Asian empire conferred on it lordship of the sea and that right to control indigenous shipping the Portuguese had formerly claimed. In the French West Indies, so Colbert declared, trade was restricted to agents of the mother country’s monopoly company and that ‘the exclusion of all commerce with foreigners is to be ensured everywhere’. In a series of Navigation Acts, the English sought to define and regulate the trade of their overseas possessions, so infringing, the Dutch somewhat inappositely alleged, ‘the ownership of the sea’. Such pretensions reflected and reinforced state authority. The control and defence of oceanic commerce, particularly that with the Americas, was a stimulus to the growth of naval power and hence of that monopolization of armed force which is one of the hallmarks of the modern state. The upsurge of piracy and buccaneering feeding on the new ‘rich trades’ brought the eventual suppression of such an affront to the rights of property by metropolitan authority.
Empire thus enhanced the power and encouraged the absolutist ambitions of European states. Rule over distant lands, the revenues they provided or were alleged to provide, the homage of their princes, and the well-publicized stories of the conversion of their inhabitants to Christianity added lustre to the reputation of a ruling house. Colonies, said Louis XIV, chiefly existed to advance ‘the greatness of the mother country’. The Iberian monarchs claimed virtually untrammelled authority over great tracts of the lands and seas of the world, together with the right to monopolize and control trade with, and within, such regions, just as they could legitimately dispossess and enslave the luckless inhabitants of huge and vaguely defined territories. The two great Dutch chartered trading companies, branches in effect of the Netherlands state, aimed at commercial monopoly on a scale previously unknown, and when, on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, shareholders demanded some say in the running of the organization, the Republic declared the more radical proposals treasonable. The French monarchy eventually kept its colonies on the tightest of reins, whilst Charles II of England, and even more so James II, whose dependence on the uncertain financial generosity of parliament was lessened by increased revenues accruing from the country’s Atlantic settlements, entertained large plans for extending their authority over them. Imperial government entailed more offices, more officials, and accordingly more scope for patronage. Colonies absorbed ambitious and unruly citizens, allowing imperial powers — so it was argued in the sixteenth century — to enjoy domestic peace. As a Spanish agent in Elizabethan England perceptively observed, if the queen’s subjects were denied the opportunity of trade and plunder in the Iberian Atlantic, they would soon be killing one another. And indeed the country’s troubles were to grow apace after the peace of 1604, whereas Britain in the heyday of imperial expansion in the eighteenth century enjoyed a far more stable existence.
Europe’s first encounters with the wider world did not set in train some revolution n the continent’s culture and political organization. Ancient civilizations have an almost infinite capacity for absorbing, adapting, or ignoring such experiences. Nevertheless, the breath-taking achievements of explorers and conquerors, the acquisition by an enterprising or unscrupulous minority of riches of an astonishing order, and the emigration, willingly or unwillingly, of thousands of Europeans to the Atlantic settlements left their mark in the continent, intensifying existing prejudices, exposing latent beliefs. Much of the rest of humankind was dismissed as inferior on grounds of their race, colour, unfamiliar modes of behaviour, or other unpalatable characteristics. Europeans felt themselves able to accomplish anything they might envisage, whether the conquest of China (by Spain), a sea passage over the North Pole (by the English), or the invasion of Peru across the Andes from Brazil (by the Dutch). Almost globally there were endeavours to enforce authority more vigorously, whether that claimed by European states and their representatives, or that now allowed to, or assumed by, commanders of expeditions to distant parts. As the author of a memorandum for Walter Raleigh wrote in the eternal language of empire, ‘the general to Commaund absolutly’.