Adrian Finucane. The Temptations of Trade: Britain, Spain, and the Struggle for Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 224 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4812-8.
Reviewed by Adrian Pearce (University College London)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
In all the history of British commercial relations with the Spanish colonies, the era of the British Asiento de Negros--the exclusive contract to supply Spanish America with enslaved people from Africa--is the best known. The Asiento was awarded to Britain as one of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, and after a somewhat checkered existence was finally terminated in 1750. It was exploited by the South Sea Company, which had already been awarded a formal monopoly of British trade with Spanish America. Despite its generic title, Adrian Finucane’s highly readable study is devoted to the British Asiento and to the South Sea Company’s operations in the Americas. She notes that the impact of the Company’s activities in Britain--and above all the speculative “South Sea Bubble” and its spectacular collapse in 1720--have been studied in far greater detail than has the operation of the Asiento in the Americas, which is doubtless true. But it is also true that the quite unique nature of the British Asiento and the conditions that surrounded it have made it the focus of more abundant research, over many years, than any other aspect of British relations with colonial Spanish America. These conditions included the fact that, in addition to the trade in slaves itself, the Asiento permitted the British to send ships to the great trade fairs that supplied the major Spanish colonies with goods from Europe (held at Portobelo for the Viceroyalty of Peru and at Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico for that of New Spain)--a feature with no precedent in previous Asientos.
From the very period of its operation, and on into the modern historiography, then, the British Asiento has generated a large and often polemical literature. Still, Finucane adds to this historiography with her broad-based study of trade, diplomatic relations, and warfare between Britain and Spain in the Americas across the first half of the eighteenth century. In that sense, this book reads as a modern version of Richard Pares’s classic War and Trade in the West Indies, first published in 1936 and covering the period 1739-63. The full range of relevant economic and diplomatic issues is discussed lucidly and accessibly, from the role of piracy, the wars that punctuated this period, and the rising tensions that eventually gave rise to the War of Jenkins’s Ear in 1739, leading into the War of the Austrian Succession and providing the context in which the British Asiento was finally cancelled. (We meet the notorious Spanish coast guard commander, Juan de León Fandiño, who cut off the ear that the British seaman Robert Jenkins later took to Parliament to help make the case for war against Spain.) Finucane’s book even discusses the fugitive slave communities of Jamaica, the maroons, and the impact their wars against the British had on Anglo-Spanish relations in the Caribbean. The book is to be recommended to scholars of trade and war in the Americas in the early eighteenth century more generally, then, and not only to those of the Asiento.
So far as the British Asiento is concerned, the book provides a fresh and wide-ranging English-language account that makes significant original contributions. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these lies in the biographical (or prosopographical) dimension, based on a detailed and carefully researched study of the activities and operations of the South Sea Company’s representatives in the Spanish colonies. Focusing above all on the cases of Thomas Dover, John Burnet, Jonathan Dennis, and James Houston, Finucane argues that “the real importance of the South Sea Company’s presence in the Americas lay in its bringing together of the Spanish and British imperial projects at the level of individual actors”; or again, that her study makes possible “the reconstruction of the history of the British and Spanish empires at the level of the people building it” (pp. 17-18). These men lived as foreigners (and generally Protestants) in the previously inaccessible Spanish colonies, often for years and with unusual scope for travel and to make observations of all kinds. The most striking case was perhaps that of John Burnet, who dabbled in natural philosophy, and from his base in Cartagena de Indias sent specimens (including a stuffed sloth) to such London luminaries as Hans Sloane and Sir Edmond Halley. Burnet, and the highly literate James Houston, may have been exceptional, however, since most South Sea Company agents were described far less flatteringly, as “uncouth and embarrassing” (p. 117). In any case, the passages of the book devoted to these men are highly revealing of their activities and of the dilemmas that moving between empires could pose on a personal level (Burnet eventually sold out the secrets of his employers and “defected” permanently to Spain).
Further original contributions on the history of the Asiento include much fine detail on the contraband activities that accompanied its legitimate trade, discussion of the debates held in Spain as well as in Britain on its usefulness or otherwise, and the strong opposition the contract provoked in Jamaica, whose merchants now faced powerful rivals in the smuggling trade to Spanish America, and also feared the impact of the Asiento on the supply of slaves to the British sugar colonies in the West Indies. The traditional historiography of the Asiento, both in Britain and in Spain, has taken very much a metropolitan stance towards it, in which the contract and its development have been seen strongly from the perspective of London or Madrid. A novel turn in recent writing on this topic, evident notably in the work of the Mexican scholar Matilde Souto Mantecón, is to study the Asiento from the perspective of the colonial territories in which it operated and where its impact was felt. At heart, the originality in Finucane’s study arguably lies chiefly in the fact that it stands somewhere between the imperial and colonial perspectives, to the degree that by focusing on the activities of the Asiento agents, it foregrounds the very zone of interaction itself between the British and Spanish Empires in the Americas.
The book does not present a fully rounded account of the British Asiento, nor does it aspire to. For example, it does not attempt to give a detailed analysis of the context and motivations behind Spanish policy towards the Asiento, a feature symbolized by the fact that Julio Alberoni and José Patiño, the powerful Spanish political figures most closely concerned with the contract, amass a total of three textual references between them. Arguably more seriously, Finucane sidesteps almost entirely the vexed and often thorny question of the specific value of the Asiento to the British: of what its sales were worth, and how high were its profits. This might be regarded as more serious because at times, it seems to lead her into the same trap that the more traditional historiography of the Asiento often fell into, of following the boosting pamphleteers of the Asiento era in portraying this as a uniquely prosperous or intense period for Anglo-Spanish relations in the Americas—not only in relation to the value of mutual trade, but also the personal interactions between British and Spanish subjects in the Americas that Finucane makes such a distinctive element of her story. The modern historiography of Anglo-Spanish trade and relations in the Americas in the second half of the eighteenth century suggests that the value of British trade with Spanish America came to far surpass that of trade under the Asiento, and this trade must surely have implied intense interaction between the British and Spanish (particularly in the free ports in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Trinidad and elsewhere), of the kind of interest to Finucane--even when it was not based on a fully legal and overt trade.
A further gripe that has nothing to do with the author, but rather with her publisher, and reflects a much broader problem and trend, is that the book has no separate bibliography: all the references are included only in the endnotes. What seems to be a growing move among publishers to dispense with separate bibliographies, presumably simply on the grounds of cost (or perhaps because the scholarly apparatus itself is seen as either tiresome or in some way inelegant, an approach that might also lie behind the increasing preference for endnotes over the far more practical footnotes) is to be lamented and opposed. It makes it much harder to track down specific references if they are missed at first citation (something that is itself more likely to occur when endnotes are used), and it deprives readers of the ability to review the historiographical underpinning of the study at a glance.
This carefully researched and well-written book is to be recommended for scholars and students of the Spanish Empire during the early Bourbon era, of Anglo-Spanish relations in the colonial Americas, of colonial merchants and agents, and of trade and warfare in the eighteenth-century Atlantic.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Adrian Pearce. Review of Finucane, Adrian, The Temptations of Trade: Britain, Spain, and the Struggle for Empire.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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