Frontiers of a global empire

Threats in the Spanish colonial borderlands

Date: 31 August 2017, 02:30–05:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 336



The Spanish Empire constituted an entity with enormous dimensions reaching from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The extensions of its frontier lines were impressive and supposed a large number of neighbours. The border between the Spanish Empire and its surrounding was mostly not composed of clear lines but of blurry and fuzzy zones of contact not only between political entities but between languages, cultures, value systems, legal practices, and social habits. Frontier zones were areas of interchange between each side and breeding ground of hybrid ways of live. Yet, frontier zones were not always peaceful places of encounter between cultures but often spaces where political entities clashed, inflicting people from abroad and from the frontier zone. Military confrontations, however, were a rare exception in the history of frontiers. Every day live in hostile vis-à-vis conditions consisted mostly in minor skirmishes and the attempts of the people to live their live normally in a peculiar zone between states or empires. Within these zones the concept of threats was very powerful. While also the centre or metropolis did realize that there were threats menacing the periphery, it was the people of the frontier region that experienced some of these threats in a much harder way. Incursions, slave raids and depredations caused the abandonment of entire villages or even large scale demographic changes and left deep imprints in the mentality of the people. This panels focusses on these frontier zones of the Spanish Empire and addresses questions regarding different forms of threat, their repercussion for the inhabitants, their forms of representation in the frontier itself or in the metropolis, and possible consequences on all kind of levels. Inviting historians to focus on different frontier zones of the Empire, comparisons between these regions will be possible and similarities and differences might become evident.


Eberhard Crailsheim (Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales)


Eric Vanhaute (Ghent University)


Eberhard Crailsheim (Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales)

José Miguel Escribano Páez (European University Institute Florence)

Pablo Hernández Sau (European University Institute Florence)

Josef Köstlbauer (University of Bremen)



Eberhard Crailsheim: External threats in the configuration of Spanish power in the Philippines (1600-1800)

Challenging the traditional understanding of colonial rule in the early modern period, this paper investigates how the Spanish colonial systems of dominance operated, offering an innovative view on mechanisms of governance. It looks at political communication as key element in the creation and consolidation of a system of power. Focussing on the colonial Philippines as a transcontinental cultural contact zone, this paper analyses the concept of external threats as a fundamental element of political communication. Thereby, it advances simultaneously along two lines, investigating (1) forms of threat representation, and (2) their effects. Based on the sociological theory that external threats can foster the cohesion of a group, the hypothesis is that specific representations of “enemies” contributed to the success of the Spanish colonial system for a long period (1565-1898), by strengthening the unity within the Spanish system and helping to overcome internal problems. To prove this effect, the paper combines aspects of (1) system theory (N. Luhmann) and (2) the method of dispositif analysis (M. Foucault), which until now have only been applied separately. Based on system theory models, a concept of threat communication is defined as a first analytic step for the investigation. It is completed with the concept of a dispositif of threat, which includes not only discourses in texts, but also visual forms of representation, objects, and performative acts.

Jose Miguel Escribano Páez: Different Menaces, Different Frontiers. The Construction of the Spanish Imperial Frontiers in the Pyrenees and the Maghreb (1500-1530)

The history of the formation and expansion of the Spanish empire is, to a great extent, the history of the construction of its frontiers. Nevertheless, little attention has been paid to the configuration of these complex political spaces during the opening decades of the sixteenth century. This has led to a common understanding of the imperial frontiers as a space where policies coming from the royal court were implemented or contested by local actors. Rather than focusing on a single frontier from a top-down perspective, in this paper I will adopt an actor-based approach in order to shed new light on the agency of the internal and external agents who shaped these frontier societies. Drawing on a wide array of sources, I will focus on a set of actors who circulated between two frontiers that were being constructed at the beginning of the sixteenth century: The Maghreb and the Pyrenees. The comparative analysis of their activity serving the crown in the construction of both frontiers will allow us to understand how frontier societies took form out of the interactions of actors that adapted the defence of the empire to the different menaces threatening its frontiers. The objective of this paper is twofold: First, to show the crucial role of these “frontier builders” in the shaping of the societies resulting from the imperial expansion. Second, by focusing on the repercussion of the external threats, this work highlights the crucial role played by external actors in the configuration of these frontier societies.

Pablo Hernández Sau: ‘Living on threat’, serving the King: The Boulignys’ representation in the late 18th century Spanish limits

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Boulignys were a French merchant family who, based on Alicante, enrolled into the Mediterranean-Atlantic commerce. However at the end of the century, several male individuals of this family were placed in military and diplomatic ranks on multi-imperial frontiers as Louisiana, unknown cultural circumscriptions as Istanbul, or military frontiers such as America or the Spanish-French frontier. Living their daily life on those limits, the Boulignys developed a self-presentation discourse based on their service to the Spanish Empire as an empire with global frontier limits. For instance, Francisco Bouligny had to face the threat of a new colonization in Louisiana, while Juan de Bouligny was challenged with settling a diplomatic permanent practice on the asymmetrical court space of Istanbul. The ‘threat’ and the value of their service were underlined in the rhetoric present on their correspondence and applications to the Spanish administration. The Boulignys self-represented as a family of servants on the frontiers of a ‘global empire’. Their official documents highlight their role within the threats of those frontier spaces, showing us an individual and family concern about the service on frontier spaces. Their practices were presented as a help to face the threats of the Spanish Monarchy, and it shows a family consciousness about the use of the threats to improve their social possibilities. As a result, in this presentation, I will dig into the Boulignys’ self-representation as servants on an empire with multiple threats around the globe, pointing out the role of threats for families who serve empires in different points of the world, sharing a common discourse of living on ‘threat’, but serving their king.

Josef Köstlbauer: Lawless and precarious spaces: A comparative perspective on New Spain's northern frontiers in the 18th century

All European empires participating in New World conquest tried – with varying degrees of success – to strengthen central authority in order to exercise greater control within their realms and to achieve clearly defined boundaries and institutional uniformity. But they encountered hitherto unknown challenges: All imperial powers had to confront the problem of establishing control and dominion within and against the enormous expanses of space in the Americas. Especially American borderlands, while often being focal points of imperial expansion or defence, challenged metropolitan authority: populations were shifting and mobile, settlement was sparse, social conditions seemed unstable, government institutions weak or wholly impotent. Most disturbing to colonial and imperial elites was the spectre of cultural degeneration through unsupervised contact to indigenous populations outside of imperial control. It engendered visions of barbarization, violence and social turmoil. The vast, multiethnic borderlands in the northern parts of the viceroyalty of New Spain show these conditions of imperial border regimes in especially stark contrast. Attempts to enforce conformity to metropolitan ideals of colonial organization and social order generally proved unfeasible but could breed resentment and feelings of alienation.

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