From one of the greatest historians of the Spanish world, here is a fresh and fascinating account of Spain’s early conquests in the Americas. Hugh Thomas’s magisterial narrative of Spain in the New World has all the characteristics of great historical literature: amazing discoveries, ambition, greed, religious fanaticism, court intrigue, and a battle for the soul of humankind.
Hugh Thomas shows Spain at the dawn of the sixteenth century as a world power on the brink of greatness. Her monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, had retaken Granada from Islam, thereby completing restoration of the entire Iberian peninsula to Catholic rule. Flush with success, they agreed to sponsor an obscure Genoese sailor’s plan to sail west to the Indies, where, legend purported, gold and spices flowed as if they were rivers. For Spain and for the world, this decision to send Christopher Columbus west was epochal—the dividing line between the medieval and the modern.
Spain’s colonial adventures began inauspiciously: Columbus’s meagerly funded expedition cost less than a Spanish princess’s recent wedding. In spite of its small scale, it was a mission of astounding scope: to claim for Spain all the wealth of the Indies. The gold alone, thought Columbus, would fund a grand Crusade to reunite Christendom with its holy city, Jerusalem.
The lofty aspirations of the first explorers died hard, as the pursuit of wealth and glory competed with the pursuit of pious impulses. The adventurers from Spain were also, of course, curious about geographical mysteries, and they had a remarkable loyalty to their country. But rather than bridging earth and heaven, Spain’s many conquests bore a bitter fruit. In their search for gold, Spaniards enslaved “Indians” from the Bahamas and the South American mainland. The eloquent protests of Bartolomé de las Casas, here much discussed, began almost immediately. Columbus and other Spanish explorers—Cortés, Ponce de León, and Magellan among them—created an empire for Spain of unsurpassed size and scope. But the door was soon open for other powers, enemies of Spain, to stake their claims.
Great men and women dominate these pages: cardinals and bishops, priors and sailors, landowners and warriors, princes and priests, noblemen and their determined wives.
Rivers of Gold is a great story brilliantly told. More significant, it is an engrossing history with many profound—often disturbing—echoes in the present.
Thomas has long belonged to the elite of Spanish studies. His popular reputation was made in 1961 by a sweeping history of the Spanish Civil War, strongly sympathetic to the Second Republic and smuggled across the Pyrenees during Franco's dictatorship. But by the '80s he was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher (who made him a lord), and over time unfolded an increasingly conservative vision of the Spanish past. In his new book, Thomas returns to the conquest of the Caribbean islands and Mexico in the first two generations after Columbus, relating a sequence of events he has described as the most important phase of world history. He does so with narrative vigor, informed by personal familiarity with two continents. In his insistence on accidental imperialism and on the multinational dimensions of the enterprise of conquest, his interpretation bears some similarity to recent work by Henry Kamen (Empire). However, the ideological underpinnings will be controversial. Indigenous cultures less concerned with street-cleaning than the Aztecs are described as "savages" who would have destroyed each other had the Spanish not shown up. The demographic catastrophes resulting from conquest are treated as minor details in the chivalric adventure that helped ensure Spanish greatness, a tale in which the "savages" are mere backdrop. Indeed, readers free from colonial prejudice will be surprised to find themselves also written out of history: "Who can doubt now," Thomas asks rhetorically, "that were right to denounce the idea of religion based on human sacrifice or the simple worship of the sun or the rain?"). 32 pages of illus., maps.