Trans-imperial Habsburg Dynamics in the Long 18th Century

AHA Session 99
American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 4
Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia 6 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Pernille Roege, University of Pittsburgh
Rita Krueger, Temple University

Session Abstract

The Habsburgs dominated European and global politics for more than five centuries. Although generally considered separate, the Spanish Habsburgs’ colonial empire and the Austrian Habsburgs’ East-Central European multiethnic polity are not antithetic entities, but part of a shared story: the quest to build strong states in Europe while cultivating global economic interests. This panel brings together the two Habsburg branches to explore the dynasty’s worldwide involvement from diplomatic, economic, cultural and political perspectives.

The panel engages with the theme of imperial dynamics moving beyond, or even rejecting, the “rise, decline, and fall” paradigm, which has been problematized by different historiographical traditions, but maintains its validity for historians. Rather than taking a teleological approach that underscores a narrative of the decline of the seventeenth-century Spanish Habsburg monarchy and the inevitable rise of the eighteenth-century Austrian Habsburg nation state, we examine these empires as fluid political entities, which successfully modified their policies and adapted to new circumstances. In the seventeenth century, for example, competition between Spain and Britain was greatly tempered by collaboration, which resulted in the introduction of lawful commerce and the criminalization of piracy; these small but not insignificant shifts consolidated Spain’s authority in the Indies and opened the door to British presence in the Caribbean, still as a junior but now lawful partner. In their desire to break free from a landlocked position, the eighteenth-century Viennese Habsburgs mobilized their trans-imperial diplomatic apparatus to claim factories and colonies in East Africa and the Nicobar Islands in the Pacific. Even though they never fully met their trans-oceanic ambitions, the Austrian Habsburgs used the lessons learned from European colonial enterprises in North America to develop colonial projects in Eastern Europe after 1699.

These papers take a trans-imperial approach to the study of power dynamics and uncover a complex picture of the relationships that Madrid and Vienna developed with other European centers. Rather than discussing Habsburg imperial interests in isolation from their competitors’ and allies’ agendas, we focus on episodes that reveal the importance of a trans-imperial approach to understanding historical development. The competition for the Caribbean underscored the entangled nature of the history of Spain and Great Britain in the seventeenth century. The Habsburg ambitions in East Africa and South-East Asia relied on the help and knowledge of foreigners who had worked for other colonial empires. Nevertheless, Vienna’s actions in the Pacific provoked hostile reactions in London, Lisbon and Copenhagen. Last but not least, the European experience in North America shaped German migration and colonialism in Habsburg provinces such as Transylvania and Banat. Clearly, no empire was an island.

The papers in this panel represent a broad geographic scope: Atlantic interactions between Spain and Britain in the Caribbean, Habsburg projects in East Africa and South-East Asia, and North American colonial approaches in Eastern Europe. Viewed through the common lens of a single political actor—the Habsburgs—we hope to open a conversation about the role of dynastic strategy and diplomacy in reshaping European and global history during the long eighteenth century.

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