Workshop Wrap Up: “News Then and News Now”

The entanglements of the British and Spanish empires from the 17th to the 19th centuries spanned most littoral areas of the globe and touched on all aspects of society. From the abhorrent supply of African slaves by British citizens to Cuba, to the less well known feud over tea and fur trading monopolies in the North Pacific, no scholar of Anglo-Spanish subjects can completely cover the vast and rich history of the intertwined Spanish and British empires. How then, do we keep ourselves abreast of all of the research being done on Anglo-Spanish encounters? How much of the research outside of our own micro-fields do we need to command? How can we achieve it? There is, of course, no single, correct, answer to any of these questions.

At the beginning of July, the Imperial Entanglements project at the University of Warwick put on a one-day workshop in an attempt to give a semblance of an answer to some of the above questions. The workshop was organized around the very broad theme of ‘News Then and News Now: Imperial Entanglements and Transoceanic Networks in Anglo-Spanish Colonialism and Their Legacy’. The six speakers all came from different areas of Anglo-Iberian history. Most of the speakers did not know each other and were not aware of each other’s work. The point of bringing this disparate group of scholars together was to provide a small forum where we could all be introduced to ideas and people who we would likely not encounter in any other academic contexts but whose papers were all linked by either by the concept of how ‘news’ travelled in the Anglo-Spanish world or how researchers address the problems posed by research on Anglo-Spanish topics.

The workshop opened with a panel entitled ‘Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic News Networks’ and Xabier Lamikiz of the University of the Basque Country presented the first paper ‘Merchant correspondence between the South American coast, Spain and Britain, 1750-1830: Sources, problems, and questions’ in which he discussed his research on Spanish business correspondence mined largely from the High Court of Admiralty records at the UK National Archives. This business correspondence, argued Lamikiz, is crucial to understanding and studying the concept of ‘trust’ in trans-oceanic trade networks as it was the only means of managing imperial trade over such vast distances. Without deep trust in agents on both sides of the Atlantic and the far reaches of the empire, businesses could not have flourished. [Read Lamikiz’s own post about his paper here]

Lamikiz was followed by Maxine Berg, of Warwick University, presenting her paper ‘Redefining the Pacific: The Nootka crisis and the Pacific northwest 1778-1798’ in which she discussed how the North Pacific is largely left out of the historiography of Anglo-Spanish relations and how historians of the Pacific do not talk enough to historians of East Asia. This is problematic in an Anglo-Spanish context because the sea otter fur trade between the North Pacific and the Chinese Empire was lucrative and provoked entanglements between the British, Spanish, Chinese, and First Nations. These interactions, along with how they were discussed in correspondence and publications in Britain and Spain, are woefully under-studied.

Panel Two of the workshop focused more directly on archival challenges and was entitled ‘Who Kept What and Why? Archival Context and the Problem Faced by Researchers’. Huw Davies of King’s College London opened this panel with his paper ‘Reconstructing eighteenth century military knowledge networks: The use and abuse of archival sources’ in which he challenged the assumption that 18th and early 19th century militaries did not learn or innovate. By bringing together his varied research on how officers in the British army discussed the diverse campaigns of the period he makes it clear that armies did indeed learn and that the learning was in part due to the entanglements of empires. [Read Davies’s own post about his paper here]

Valentina Caldari of Oxford University spoke next. Her paper ‘What can dowry provisions tell us about evolving patterns of empire?’ discussed marriages between English and Spanish monarchs in the 17th century and the importance, to both empires, of acquiring overseas territory through dowries. Caldari argued that the use of dowries as a tool of early modern foreign policy counters the conception of a linear progress toward modernity and realpolitik.

The third and last panel of the workshop was ‘The Empire Writes Back: Trans-Oceanic and Imperial Correspondence’ which was led by Anthony McFarlane of the University of Warwick with the paper ‘Breaking bad news: Letters from Montevideo, 1810-11’. In his paper, McFarlane studied the correspondence between an officer in the Spanish Navy posted to Montevideo and the government in Spain. The letters span a time of imperial crisis in the River Plate after a brief British occupation and during the beginning of an independence movement. McFarlane made the point that these letters provide a royalist reading of the crisis, and their content contradicts the accepted historiography of external pressures causing the independence movement.

The last paper of the day was given by Joseba Gabilondo of Michigan State University and was entitled ‘The Basque Enlightenment, Cuba, and slavery: For a genealogy of imperial entanglement’. Gabilondo laid out the early stages of his research into the Zulueta family and their connection with the Cuban slave trade across many generations, challenging the accepted knowledge on the Zuluetas and their correspondents on both sides of the Atlantic.

All of the papers, and indeed all of the scholars, at the workshop are united by their reliance on the correspondence of imperial actors for their research. Whether it is unravelling 17th century letters discussing dowries or tracking down19th century marginalia left behind by officers, our analyses of imperial entanglements are based on how people wrote about them and how much of that writing has survived. It is unlikely that our speakers gained much knowledge that will contribute directly to their specialized areas of research. However, it is hoped that each speaker has widened their understanding of Anglo-Spanish imperial entanglements and widened their understanding of how scholars of different areas and periods deal with the problems presented by having to rely on trans-oceanic and trans-imperial correspondence as a source base. At the very least, the workshop introduced military historians, cultural historians, maritime historians, 18th centuryists, 19th centuryists, and early modernists to fellow researchers of the Anglo-Spanish world who are now only an email or a phone call away as colleagues and potential collaborators.

-Anna Brinkman


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