The Old World and the New, 1492 – 1650 by J. H. Elliott

The English historian J. H. Elliott is an expert on the history of Spain. His subject in this short book is the effect of the discovery of the New World on Europe, especially the Spanish. Yet he is hesitant to identify causal relationships, tending to identify historical correlations instead, e.g. between the amount of gold and silver taken from the Western Hemisphere to Spain and rising prices in Europe.

The book begins with Columbus discovering North America and ends with the collapse of the Spanish Empire. Between those events, the Spanish viewed the New World as a source of gold and silver and as an opportunity to spread civilization, especially Catholicism. There were  intellectual consequences, but most of the impact was economic and political. Harvesting 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver (plus any that wasn’t officially reported) helped Spain become the most powerful nation in the world.

This development wasn’t lost on the other European powers. In Elliott’s words: “Overseas possessions came to be seen as essential adjuncts of Europe, enhancing the military and economic power of its rival nation-states”.

Considering that Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, was founded in 1607, and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, it isn’t surprising that the English play a small role in this story. What surprised me was how much history was being made in the New World by the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch before the English began to colonize North America.

Not everyone in Europe thought the discovery of the New World was a blessing. There were Spaniards who criticized the treatment of Spain’s new subjects and believed Spain would be better off economically and morally without importing all that precious metal.

The French essayist Montaigne also had something to say: “So many goodly cities ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so many infinite millions of harmless people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best part of the world turned topsy-turvy, ruined and defaced for the traffic of pearls and pepper”.

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