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Golden Empire—Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America

By Hugh Thomas

Random House | 2010

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

hugh thomas

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade (in Billings, Montana) I became excited when the teacher charted on a map of the world Columbus’s voyages to the New World beginning in 1492, Cortez’s defeat of Montezuma and conquest of Mexico, Pizarro’s of Peru, and Magellan’s voyage around the world. Ponce de Leon and Coronado were names that were music to my ears as I envisioned what it must have been like to be a Conquistador!

Many years later when I was in Spain it occurred to me that the Spanish have had a huge impact on the world—its customs, language, architecture, and religion spread throughout Mexico and South America. Its influence is rivaled only by that of the British.

My love of history is, I suppose, born out of a lifetime curiosity about the world, its peoples and their stories. But sometimes my knowledge is very simplistic—I only know the outline of what occurred. Such was the case with the Spanish conquest of the new world.

Hugh Thomas is a consummate British historian who specializes in this area. He wrote two previous volumes: Rivers of Gold—the Rise of the Spanish Empire and Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the fall of Old Mexico. The Golden Empire picks up where the previous two left off, in 1521 following Cortéz’s conquest and the rebuilding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (Mexico City today), and stretching until 1558 and the death of the Spanish Emperor, Charles V, (which, incidentally, was also the year when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England.)

Four books are listed in its contents. Book I is entitled “Valladolid and Rome,” Book II, “Peru,” Book III, “Counter Reformation, Counter Renaissance,” and Book IV, “The Indian Soul.” Of these four books I found Book II on the conquest of Peru of the greatest interest.

I think it worth commenting on the character of the Spanish conquistadors, for they were intrepid adventurers and stalwart explorers who occupied a male-dominated world, as few women accompanied them on their conquests. A resilient, hardy, and courageous breed, they were also intensely pious men, who as much as conquering were intent on evangelizing the Indians and converting them to Christianity.

During the 16th Century the Inquisition was in full throttle and anyone suspected of secretly practicing Judaism or Islam was hideously tortured. (Jews and Moors were restricted from going to the New World.)

They, the conquistadores, were unwaveringly loyal to the Spanish crown, which received 20% of whatever riches they seized. The galleons, which returned to Spain, were heavy-laden with gold and silver, riches that Charles used to finance his wars against Turkey, France, and the forces of the Reformation.

The conquistadors were ruthless and at times brutal to their Indian subjects. Having conquered it was incumbent for them to govern, and in this they proved to be able administrators. They imported their love of pageantry from Spain. In contrast to the British, who rarely married Indians, the Spanish intermarried to such a high degree as to create a new race of people—the Mexicans, Hispanic Americans or Latinos.

This book constantly amazed me.

For example, there were a lot more Indians and tribes in the New World than I previously thought. The Aztecs and Incas were but two tribes of hundreds that lived in the Americas. My ignorance here is partly justified because so much of the native Indian culture in North America has been all but erased.

The Spanish conquests were much more extensive than I realized, and took place throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and into what is now the southern United States. These conquests continued throughout the first half of the 16th Century.

One of the most remarkable battles ever fought was fought by Pizarro: On November 15, 1532, having travelled along the west coast from Panama to Peru, the Pizarros (there were four brothers) with 168 men, of whom 62 were horsemen, defeated the Atahualpa, the Inca king’s army of 40,000 soldiers.

In Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs & Steel, he argues that advanced weaponry was responsible for the victories the European forces achieved during these times. Pizarro’s men carried harquebuses, heavy portable matchlock guns we now consider primitive, but then they were lethal against Indian fighters using mostly bows and arrows.

Nevertheless, the Indians would not have lost this important battle had it not been for a loss of faith on their part. As was the case with Cortez and the Aztecs, the Incas readily capitulated to the culture imposed upon them by the Spaniards. In a subsequent battle, the Spaniards conquered Cuzco, the Incan capital, and seized enormous amounts of gold and silver that had been used to build their temples. Soon this bounty was on its way back to Spain, and Christian cathedrals were built atop the temples.

Included in this book is Valdivia’s conquest of Chili. So many stories were told that I can only skim the surface of this dense account, in which some of the battles fought were with Spanish rivals. I often marveled at the hardiness and resolve of these men, so far away from the motherland and yet determined to civilize the natives and bring honor to the crown. Had it not been so, the course of history would have been very different.

Fortunately, some of these men left records of their adventures, and in doing so preserved the memory of such adventures as Orellana’s trip down the Amazon River.

In late 1540, Francisco Pizarro named his young brother, the charming and valiant Gonzalo, governor of Quito (in Peru). He devoted himself to arranging an expedition whose aim was the search for cinnamon on the eastern side of the great Andes. His forces were joined by those of Francisco de Orellana’s.

High in the Andes, Orellana took a group of men and went in search of food, but he never returned, much to Pizarro’s chagrin. Orellana and his men unknowingly found the headwaters of the Amazon and before they knew it their canoes were being carried rapidly downstream, where they were assaulted again and again by hostile Indians who shot poisonous darts at them. (Here the text reads like something out of Indiana Jones.) Eventually they reached the mouth of the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean, having survived one the most harrowing adventures of any of the conquistadores.

Another ill-fated adventure recounted was that of Coronado into what is now New Mexico and Arizona. Imagine these men’s amazement as they peered into the Grand Canyon, the first white men ever to see it. The year was 1541.

Back in Spain at the court of Charles V and in the Council of Indies, how Indian subjects should be treated was argued. One Dominican monk wrote, “Indians are not stable persons to whom one can entrust the preaching of the Holy Gospel. They do have the ability to understand correctly and fully the Christian faith nor is their language sufficient and copious enough to be able to express our faith without great improprieties, which can easily result in great errors.” Of course, history proved this chauvinistic monk quite wrong.

The last several chapters deal with the death of the Emperor Charles in 1558, who for forty years had overseen with diligence and fastidiousness the affairs attenuating the conquest and development of the Indies.

Great sums of silver and gold from Mexico and Peru had come to Spain aboard galleons. “Between 1551 and 1555, the Spanish Crown imported from the Indies more than three and a half million pesos and private people imported more than 6 million. Charles, the mirror of chivalry and the inheritor of the great Burgundian traditions, spent hours puzzling over these figures and sums.”

Charles never visited New Spain and his other American protectorates. At his death he left his empire in Europe restored. In 1559 an elaborate funeral was held for him in the new cathedral in Mexico. An empty sarcophagus covered in black cloth and a cushion on which a crown rested was placed before a procession of all the Spanish dignitaries, monks, and members of the indigenous population, all of whom prayed for the soul of the conquering emperor Charles.

Now, here we are nearly four hundred years later. Spain is one of the least important of European countries, with a high rate of unemployment, Mexico is a populous, poor country with a high homicide rate due to the infighting among drug cartels, the lands conquered by Spain in the 16th Century are still very much Catholic, Peru, Chili and Argentina struggle economically, and the mighty United States is faltering with high unemployment and a middle class that is rapidly losing ground.

The descendants of the conquistadors and Indians have so multiplied that they are the most rapidly growing ethnic group in North America today, a poetic justice of sorts. The machismo of Spanish American men is a remnant from their conquistador forbearers.

This ambitious book is a treasure house of information. We owe Hugh Thomas a debt of gratitude for having written it and for his other books on the history of Spanish America.

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