From the Archives: Versions of History in Two Collections: Assessing the Purpose and Conclusions of Compilers


There are few moments more satisfying, or tantalizing, for an historian than looking through the catalogue of an archive and discovering that it holds vast repositories of material relevant to one’s research. . Though catalogues give an idea of the material contained in a collection, with varying degrees of accuracy, it is always a toss up as to whether the documents will be of use, or simply another collection crossed off a list with the annotation ‘nothing of use’. In either case, often the most important questions that arise from working with a collection are concerned with its creation. Who compiled it and when? Why did they choose to include or exclude certain material? What was it’s original purpose?

Any given collection presents an edited version of historical events and, more importantly, tends to reflect a set of determining factors as to why events transpired as they did. If the material in a collection is to be used in new research, these questions must be asked in order to separate the collected documents from the meaning and purpose ascribed to them by the compiler.

I was recently fortunate enough to spend three weeks as a Price Fellow at the Clements Library, University of Michigan, and made a small side trip to the archives of the New York Public Library. Two collections yielded large amounts of useful material, the Hardwicke papers at the NYPL, and the Shelburne collection at the Clements. Both collections cover the events which led to the breakout of war between Spain and Britain in 1762 but the material they contained, and therefore what they can tell us about the factors which led to the outbreak of the war, were vastly different.

Phillip Yorke, the 1st Earl of Hardwicke (1690-1764), was instrumental to the formation of foreign policy during the Seven Years War. Having served as solicitor general, attorney general, lord chief justice, and lord chancellor, he was a trusted advisor and friend of several member of the Cabinet. Hardwicke’s interest and dedication to Anglo-Spanish affairs has left behind an extant wealth of material on British wartime foreign policy in the eighteenth century.

Most of Hardwicke’s papers and correspondence are found at the British Library and, to a lesser extent, at various other archives in Britain. However, one collection, consisting of 140 volumes, resides at the New York Public Library. Two volumes, 129 and 126, contain the documents relating to Anglo-Spanish relations during the Seven Years War. The collection was originally put together by Hardwicke, his first son Viscount Royston, and his second son Charles Yorke. Each volume focuses broadly on diplomacy and foreign policy. It is impossible to distinguish which of the brothers organized the collection in its final form or how much of the material was originally chosen by Hardiwcke. However, it is probable that the collection was put together as a historical sample of British foreign policy and that the selection of documents is representative of what Hardwicke, and his sons, believed were important factors in how policy was conducted.

What is striking about the Hardwicke collection, and volumes 129 and 126 specifically, is the focus on personality as the driving force of policy. There is an undated note in Hardwicke’s handwriting at the beginning of Volume 129:

Characters of the courts where foreign Ministers reside are usually the most interesting parts of their correspondence; It is a pity we have not more of them; …These characters drawn by the Earl of Bristol are not bad portraits, but they have not the sagacious and masterly strokes which distinguish the historick pen of Sr. Ben. Keene.

The Earl of Bristol and Sir Benjamin Keene were both ambassadors to the Court of Spain during the Seven Years War. Keene died at his post in 1757 and was replaced by Bristol, a man of lesser talents and lesser understanding of Anglo-Spanish affairs.

Hardwicke was clearly interested in the personalities of men in government, and it is possible that he collected the documents in these volumes as a historic record of the ‘characters’ responsible for implementing Britain’s wartime foreign policy. From the point of view of an historian using the collection as a source on the rupture between Britain and Spain, the selected correspondence of both ambassadors presents a unique version of events.

Almost every letter in the two volumes describes the unfolding Anglo-Spanish crisis in terms of the personal relations and merits of the ministers at Madrid and their counterparts in London. In a letter from Bristol in 1761, he describes a conversation he had with the exhausted and overworked Spanish Secretary of State, Don Ricardo Wall:

…he had been using his utmost endeavours for six years in England, and seven more in Spain to prevent a rupture between our courts…He told me, I was not ignorant how strong the French party was at this time and I must know how many of his private acquaintance were incessantly pleading him the absolute necessity of the declaring against the English at this juncture.

There is no discussion of the actual issues which plagued Anglo-Spanish affairs such as logwood cutting in Honduras, access to the Newfoundland fisheries, and the rights of neutral shipping, only the persistence of a worn out minister and the pressures exerted on him by French and Spanish factions. The Hardwicke collection leads a reader to conclude that the determining factors that led to war between Britain and France in 1762 were the personalities and the character failings of the ministers.

Unlike Hardwicke, William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805), was not personally involved in foreign policy during the war. He became Secretary of State for the Southern Department in 1766 under William Pitt and remained in the post until 1768. It is likely during this period when he became particularly interested in Anglo-Spanish relations as his position oversaw affairs with America and Spain. With the possibility of free trade opening up in some British American colonies, a command of the conflict history between Britain and Spain would have been a useful to the new Secretary of State.

The Shelburne collection at the Celments Library is vast. It contains 173 volumes and 12 boxes covering governmental, foreign, and personal affairs. Volume 22 covers Anglo-Spanish relations during the Seven Years and is labelled simply ‘Spanish Correspondence 1756-1757 and 1760-1765’. There is no helpful note left behind by Shelburne as to why he compiled the letters in this volume but it is possible that they meant to serve as a guide to the recent history of Anglo-Spanish disputes.

Where the Hardwicke collection focuses on ‘character’, the Shelburne collection focuses on facts and the substance of negotiations between the two countries. The majority of the letters in volume 22 concern the Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1667, logwood cutting in Honduras, and privateering. In the event that Britain entered a war and Spain declared neutrality, the conduct of both neutral and belligerent shipping was to be governed by the treaty of 1667. From the start of the Seven Years War, the interpretation of this treaty, and the rights of neutral Spanish shipping, became a major sticking point for Britain and Spain.

The letters which Shelburne included on the treaty of 1667 are full of legal minutiae and the varying interpretations by ministers of both Courts. Wording was dissected and the Grotian concept of ‘free ships, free goods’ emerged as an issue upon which the two countries could not agree. In a letter to Keene from 1756, the British Secretary of State wrote:

The Marine Treaty between Spain and the States General of 1650 and their treaty with France stiled the Pyrenean Treaty of 1659 do certainly contain, with regard to the Spaniards, the stipulation, that free ships make the whole cargo free…but the treaty of 1667, the present object of our consideration, made subsequent to those above mentioned, being expressed in very different terms, as by the said treaty Spain is thereby not entitled to the like liberty, with regard to the effects of French subjects.

There is no reference in the letters to the character of the ministers negotiating nor any mention of the internal fracturing of the Spanish and British Courts. The letters included in the Shelburne collection leave a reader with a version of events that revolves around the interpretation and analysis of legal documents. The determining factors which shattered Spanish neutrality in the Seven Years War were not the personalities and foibles of men like Ricardo Wall and Benjamin Keene, but rather the inability of two rational Courts to agree on the same legal definition of neutrality.

Both the Hardwicke and the Shelburne collections are invaluable resources for any historian of wartime foreign policy in the eighteenth century but, as with any collection, the historian is at the mercy of the compiler. Understanding why a collection was compiled, and for what purpose, can help isolate the conclusions of the compiler and ensure that they do not necessarily become those of the researcher.

Image: The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

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