AmWest Post #10: Comanche… World-System, Federation, Empire?

From the title of this week’s book, we can tell that Pekka Hämäläinen isn’t messing around. He intentionally provokes by calling his book the Comanche Empire. The book argues that the Comanches gained so much power in the 18th- and early 19th-century Southwest that they should be called not just a tribe, not just a nation, but an empire.

Them’s fightin’ words. So for this post, I’m going to discuss on a couple of alternate concepts before going into Hämäläinen’s definition of empire and why, ultimately, I concur with his use of that term to describe the Comanches of this era. (As with all blog posts, this is intended to share musings rather than fully-blown arguments.)

The first concept is “world-system.” As we discussed in relation to Robbins’s Colony and Empire, Immanuel Wallerstein gave us the concept of cores and peripheries to describe a region’s place in a particular economic order. This order can encompass most of the world, as Wallerstein argues has been the trend through the last several centuries, or it can encompass a much smaller space. Hämäläinen toys with this concept in his introduction, arguing that the Comanches built their own small world-system (p. 5). On what would be considered the periphery–or borderland–of the larger world-system, they created their own. The periphery of the Comanche world-system interacted (indeed, engaged in a relationship of mutual dependence) with the larger world-system of which Spanish North America was a part.

As I read this, I wondered if the book should perhaps be titled Comanche World-System. While surely a title that would turn off even an editor at a university press, this might encompass Hämäläinen’s argument in a less-provocative way. Wallerstein argues that a world-system tends to function best in a fragmented political situation, rather than a unified empire–and Hämäläinen also suggests that the Comanches, much less the peoples on their periphery, were intentionally not unified. He also points out that Comanches could have destroyed Spanish settlements, but didn’t. Instead, they successfully co-opted them economically but left them apart from Comanche political control, which made them more valuable, not less, to the Comanche world-system.

But this concept, in addition to not making for a good title, does not adequately explain what Hämäläinen is discussing. It largely focuses on economic dynamics, and Hämäläinen is going further than economics. So it’s out.

Another term could be “federation.” Hämäläinen never uses it, but throughout the book, and especially in the conclusion, he discusses the internal political workings of the Comanches. Specifically, he points to the lack of a strong, central governing authority. Rather, each Comanche group maintained a degree of autonomy, but within a shared framework.

Should the book be called Comanche Federation? Again, not the most provocative title, and also one that doesn’t adequately describe what Hämäläinen argues, as it leaves out the economic aspects, particularly the economic domination of areas under other political powers.

So, then, we have “empire.” In his conclusion (p. 349-50), Hämäläinen lays out six different characteristics that he argues made the Comanche Empire fit that term:

  1. “Staggering geographical range,”
  2. “Core-periphery hierarchies,”
  3. “Vast hinterlands of extraction,”
  4. “Systematic incorporation of foreign entities,”
  5. “Dynamic multiculturalism,”
  6. “Penetrating cultural influences.”

These characteristics go beyond both “world-system” and “federation.” But as Hämäläinen says throughout, the Comanche Empire is not often what we think of as an empire. In other parts of the book, Hämäläinen compares the Comanches with the Mongols, both for their pastoral lifestyle (p. 243), as well as their style of empire-building (p. 352). He even qualifies his definition, saying that of the Comanche “differed from full-blown empires.”

I’d like to take that notion a step further, and really query the term by bringing in another comparison. This empire shared a borderland (one should hesitate to call it a border) with the Comanche, and as Hämäläinen argues, the Comanche were dependent upon this empire for their own economic power. That empire is the Spanish Empire, and it was also the subject of a book that qualified, and further explored, the definition of that term: Henry Kamen’s brilliant 2004 work Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763.

Kamen’s definition of empire in the context of Spain’s bears some similarity to Hämäläinen’s, and bears exploration here. Kamen argues that the Spanish Empire was an empire, but not particularly Spanish; it “was always a joint enterprise” (p. xxv) of people from Spain, as well as others from Europe, Asia, Africa, and even the Americas.

Thus, for Kamen, empire does not just mean “conquest and the extension of national power,” but the “underlying structures,” “factors such as the ability  to supply finance and services” (p. xxiii). Most of the people who supplied finance and services–including, most importantly, military services–to the Spanish Empire were not actually from the Iberian Peninsula. Rather, they were people with a vested interest in building this “empire.”

Kamen points out that Spain itself, much less its empire, was not a single, uniform entity. Spain only became an entity from several kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula in the early 18th century, and many of its colonies were brought into the Spanish orbit on the power of local arrangements. In other words Spain’s empire was fragmented and held together by a “web of relationships” (p. 11), rather than a uniform central order. In fact, when administrators in the newly-consolidated Spain in the 18th century tried to impose a central order on all of the colonies, they largely failed.

Kamen’s vision of empire, while not an exact parallel, has a similar ring to that of Hämäläinen. Both argue against their empires as hegemons that simply project their power and will. Both argue that, rather, their empires were founded on unequal and often violent but often cooperative relationships. These relationships were largely based on mutual economic interests and involved a great deal of give-and-take.

The Spanish Empire and the Comanche Empire had a large number of fundamental differences, particularly in the degree of centralized internal control (while not a monolith, the Spanish Empire was much more centralized than Comanchería), but Kamen’s and Hämäläinen’s definitions are closer, and their empires bear greater resemblance, than one might otherwise expect.

Yet the Spanish system is universally regarded as an empire, while Hämäläinen threw down the gauntlet by calling the Comanche an empire. That gauntlet is rightfully thrown.


This week I commented (belatedly) on Doug’s blog post.

3 Thoughts to “AmWest Post #10: Comanche… World-System, Federation, Empire?”

  1. David- I knew reading your blog this week would be worthwhile. Great analysis and ideas for comparison. Two comparatives I intent to talk about in class are comparisons with other Native American powers. I kept thinking what the author’s opinion of whether the Iroquois Confederation prior to the Revolutionary War was an empire because they dominated other tribes in the Ohio River Valley and also competed with Britain and France for territory and influence. A second comparison is the economic strategies England used in a mercantilist system. Specifically, Comanche raiding horses seems very similar to English privateers raiding Spanish galleons. Needless to say, I am looking forward to this week’s discussion.

  2. Greg Campbell

    Interesting post. Got to wonder about the provocative title and how much it really matters whether one can classify the Comanches as an empire. It makes for interesting reading and a nice way to structure the book, which was a real eye-opener for me about the Comanches and prompted a re-evaluation of my thinking. At times, however, it seems like the author is stretching the evidence to make it fit the proposal of an empire–especially when attempting to demonstrate a rationale behind some pretty horrifying activities and to have this rationale indicate some sort of larger scale rational plan that some empire might pursue. I guess there was no shortage of savagery performed in the name of the empire in the region–i.e. Spaniards cutting off the hands of villagers who resisted them. That being said, I don’t know what a better title would be. Comanche Hegemons would not be a best-seller. In any event, it was enlightening to read this account of the rise and fall of the Comanches and the heavy influence they held on the edges of the other empires. Hamalainen makes a good case.

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