Monday, March 4, 2013

The Rise of the Spanish Empire, From Columbus to Magellan

RIVERS OF GOLD: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, From Columbus to Magellan. By Hugh Thomas.

As reviewed in the UK Guardian, "Spanish ties: Miranda France enjoys Hugh Thomas's new look at the conquistadors, Rivers of Gold," by Miranda France, on 6 February 2004  --  In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first journey to the new world was celebrated with great fanfare in Spain, though across the Atlantic feelings were understandably more mixed. Not all Latin Americans cherish their continent's "discovery" by the conquistadors. Friends of mine even tried to boycott the date by calling the year 1991 + 1 - an effort that proved hard to sustain much beyond February.

Of course, Columbus never set out to find a new world. His plan was to sail west until he reached Asia, thus establishing a new trading route to the "Spice Islands" and conclusively proving the world to be round. He had to spend six years traipsing after the court of Fernando and Isabel, as it moved around Spain, before finally persuading the monarchs that this was a cause worth backing.


Rivers of Gold takes in the first 30 years of conquest, centered on the Caribbean, with incursions into the mainland, and finally Magellan's journey south to Patagonia. Hugh Thomas follows the conquistadors while tracking in Spain the evolution of a policy towards these new lands and peoples. Previous accounts have concentrated on the swashbuckling, but here the conquistadors are no more prominent than the bureaucrats, theologians, lawyers and philosophers who helped shape the new empire. This is not so much a blow-by-blow account, as one measured in committee meetings. It's a fascinating read, backed up by a meticulous index and notes.

There are some memorable portraits. Of Columbus, Thomas says he had "neither a sense of judgment nor of humour, and never joked about himself. He was pious and on Sundays did nothing except pray". He was also obsessed with the idea of liberating Jerusalem, and with the coming of the Anti-Christ.


His determination to reach Asia blinded Columbus to everything else. On his second voyage he even made his sailors sign a statement swearing they had seen the mainland of China - and they had to maintain that opinion or have their tongues cut off. Columbus believed it until he died, and it was left to a less experienced explorer to bestow his name on the continent. Amerigo Vespucci sailed down the coast of Brazil in 1501-2 and realized that it extended too far south to be India. He was the first to talk of a "new world".

Columbus apparently expected to be received by the shogun of Japan or the emperor of China, and was unprepared for the cheerful, semi-naked people who welcomed him and his men at the island he named La Española (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Regarding them as sinners, he was interested only in the ones who could lead him to gold, and it wasn't long before he was proposing shipping Indians back to Spain as slaves. But the Catholic kings had qualms - surprisingly, since there was a flourishing market in Spain for African slaves. They summoned a committee, which thought that, on the whole, it was not right. The monarchs ordered that, so long as the natives were "submissive", they should be treated well and educated. Each family should have its own house, and mixed marriages were to be encouraged.


That sounds laudable, but when gold was found, who was going to provide the back-breaking labor  It was expedient to find Indians who were not "submissive" - then you could argue that they were cannibals and deserved enslavement instead of protection.

Thomas is keen not to let compassion for the Indians obscure the accomplishments of the Spaniards, and much space is given to the defenders of the Indians' rights, notably Bartolomé de las Casas and the Dominican monk Fray Montesino, who so deplored the behavior of Spaniards on La Española that he refused to hear their confessions. But why did Las Casas, among others, think that the key to liberating the Indians was to enslave Africans and bring them to the Indies? Thomas does not really explain this paradox.


The conquistadors were instructed to read to any indigenous people they encountered a statement that briefly explained God, from the creation story to the pope's supremacy, before requiring listeners to opt for baptism and a civilized life under the Spanish crown. They could refuse, but "we emphasize that any deaths and losses that may arise from this are your fault" (Spanish bureaucrats again).

We can only imagine the bafflement of Indians who were read this document, sometimes without the benefit of translation, or from a ship moored out of earshot, or with nooses around their necks. In Cuba an Indian leader was offered a Christian death and burial if he converted. He is supposed to have said that if Christianity meant an eternity spent in the company of Spaniards, he would prefer not to be baptized. He was burned accordingly.


Thomas argues that the Spaniards were driven by a desire to spread Christianity, but it is hard to get beyond their lust for gold. One Indian leader described it to the conquistador Nuñez Balboa as "a thirst that torments you". This book's very title alludes to the greed of conquistadors who thought they would be able to fish for gold in rivers.

Even if he is not always persuasive, Thomas is very engaging. So many historians, even in print, seem to address the back of the lecture hall. Thomas speaks directly and doesn't make you feel stupid. His clear-eyed history of the Spanish civil war is now a standard text in Spain. Here, too, he writes clearly and enlivens the story with telling details. We hear about the books people were reading and what they ate, and of how Queen Isabel traveled around Spain, accompanied by 25 choristers and chests full of tapestries. We learn that the 80 men who sailed with Columbus on his first voyage took salted cod, bacon, flour, wine, olive oil and water to last a year. What is missing, presumably because they don't exist, are first-hand accounts from settlers. We know about the adventurers and the opportunists, but what of the men who married local women, raised families and put down roots in this new land?


Of all the advisers on policy in the Indies, one seems to have got to the heart of the matter. In 1518 Alonso Zuazo urged married couples to come to Spain "so that they could develop a real love of the land". It didn't really happen, and 500 years on the consequences are obvious. North America owes much to the vision of its early settlers, while Spain's legacy in Latin America is too many bureaucrats and not enough love.  (source: The Guardian; · Miranda France is author of Bad Times in Buenos Aires and Don Quixote's Delusions: Travels in Castilian Spain. )

CLICK HERE to watch Lord Thomas talk about his book Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan, on C-Span's BookTV.

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