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International Socialism, Summer 1966


Terence R. Mandrell

Rocking the Cradle


From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, p.33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Cradle of Colonialism
George Maiselman
Yale, 72s

Imperial Spain 1469-1716
J.H. Elliott
Arnold, 30s

Both these books are written for the student of European history rather than the general reader but, as such, they are valuable contributions to the history of European colonialism.

The Cradle of Colonialism is a more or less chronological study of the development of Dutch colonialism from its early beginnings in the late middle ages, until its ‘demise’ in the late 17th century, at the hands of the British. The advantage of this method of approach is that it enables the reader to trace the development of the commercial theory of empire from its inception; once the Dutch had taken the first hesitant steps towards self determination and independence from Spanish rule, trade became an economic and a physical necessity for their survival. For without it, with their small population and small land area, they could not hope for long to withstand the overwhelming strength of Catholic Europe. An aggressive commercial policy in the Far East became inseparably linked with their own assertion of independence, their own Protestantism. So successful were the Dutch at beating the Spanish and Portuguese at their own game, that after the decisive sea battle of Gibraltar in 1607, when a Dutch fleet annihilated the might of Spain, Catholic Europe was astonished by the news that Spain was prepared to recognise the independence of the ‘heretic’ republic, providing they left their colonial empire alone. The Dutch, needless to say, had their cake and ate it.

What is particularly likable about this book, is the attempt by Masselman to show how commercial and colonial policy interacted with the internal politics of the young republic: in the battle for political power between the anti-Spanish pro-war party led by Maurice of Nassau, and the ageing but conservative and cautious Johan van Oldebarnvelt, who had been instrumental in the formation of the Dutch East India Company and had guided the early days of the Dutch republic.

My one criticism of the book, and I think it is an important one, is the chapter From Guilds to Capitalism. It is far too short – eight and a half pages out of 480. Apart from telling us that the Dutch pioneered the joint stock company, marine insurance, and the concept of limited liability, many of the important questions of this transition are left unanswered.

Imperial Spain is in a sense a misnomer – for the central theme of this book is not Spanish colonialism in Latin America but a history of Spain under the joint Crowns of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon and the later absorption of Spain into the Hapsburg Empire under the Crown of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. In fact, ‘colonial matters’ are only mentioned in so far as they affected the economy. The truth of the matter is that it was during this period of Spanish history that it became impossible to separate Spanish history from the history of colonialism. This fact is ably demonstrated by Dr Elliott, who is to be congratulated for making sense out of a period of European history, which I, personally, always found confusing. I found the sections dealing with the Economic and Social Foundations of the New Spain and (sect 4, Chap 4) the Government and Economy in the reign of Charles V, particularly interesting. The aggressive capitalism of the Dutch republic stands in sharp contrast to the highly regulated and centrally controlled economy of Spain, where the main gain from the influx of gold and silver from the New World seems to have accrued not to the Castilian bourgeois but to the powerful feudal landowners of Spain, and the foreign money lenders who financed so much of the early stages of Spanish colonialism. ‘If anything the reign of the Catholic kings was characterised by an increase in the economic and social power of these great nobles.’ It was the land owner during the price revolution of the late 16th century who benefited from the raging inflation at the expense of both the peasantry, struggling to produce food for a profit for the growing domestic and New World market, and the Crown desperately trying to make ends meet.

The new commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, part Genoese, part native Castilian, were but a skin grafted on to a society which was still basically feudal in character, in its attitude to land usage and ownership. Such a thin tissue withered and died under the impact of economic forces, which it had been partly responsible for, and which it did not understand and certainly did not control.

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