The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V

January 13, 2011

The economist Adam Smith described the European discovery of the Americas as the "greatest and most important event recorded in the history of mankind". Despite what we know about the brutality and savagery of the conquistadors' methods, it is still hard to resist the seductive romanticism of the stories of their subjugation of a hitherto unknown continent.

The Golden Age is the second of three volumes in a planned trilogy by Hugh Thomas that will take the story of Spanish colonialism in the Americas up to 1580. It follows Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire.

His latest volume deals with the Empire under Charles V from the time of his return to Spain as Holy Roman Emperor in 1522, just as Hernán Cortés completed his final victory over the Mexica, to the Emperor's death in 1558.

It covers the most important period of imperial expansion, from the foothold of New Spain (modern-day Mexico) to the establishment of outposts in Venezuela and Colombia, the settlement and conquest of Central America, the repetition of Cortés' glittering achievements by Francisco Pizarro in Peru in 1533, Pedro de Valdivia's crossing of the Atacama Desert to found Chile, the discovery of the Amazon and the exploration of the southern US, including Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca's epic walk across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In the immediate aftermath of Cortés' victory, his captains fanned out across the continent in search of conquests of their own, from Pánfilo de Narváez's disastrous expedition to Florida in 1529 to those of the Alvarado brothers in Guatemala, Pedro Montejo in the Yucatan peninsula, Pedrarias Davila in Panama and Nicaragua, Hernando de Soto in Georgia and South Carolina, and of course Pizarro himself.

Their fortunes were mixed and their reputations have risen and fallen over the intervening centuries.

This monumental history is an extraordinary achievement, dealing with an epic cast of characters and weaving together their life stories as they intersect and diverge, disappear into obscurity or find immortality in the annals of contemporary chroniclers.

The focus on personalities, the exceptional, cruel and determined men and women who brought about the fall of indigenous empires, sweeps us along at the cutting edge of military expansion.

Character sketches, vignettes about personalities, the origins and behaviour of the conquistadors, often with quotes from telling summaries in classic accounts - including those by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Francisco López de Gómara and Cortés himself - bring the narrative vividly to life and is one of the book's great strengths.

Even though the book's primary focus is military, there is also space to focus on the cultural achievements of pre-Colombian civilisations, from the poetry of the Guatemalan Popul Vuh to the architectural marvel of the stone-block walls in Cuzco into whose interstices it was impossible to thrust a knife-blade. Regular attention is also paid to the invisible forces that made the conquest possible; the countless Indian allies and black slaves who were the constant companions of any Spanish entrada or expedition.

Broader themes about the economics of the migration to the Americas are also touched on. The soul-searching that was an ever-present feature of Spain's imperialism in the New World rightly sees the 1552 debate in Valladolid between Juan Ginés de Sepulveda and Bartolomé de las Casas, known for his ceaseless campaigning for Indian rights as the "Apostle of the Indies", given a section of its own.

Readers will await eagerly the publication of the final instalment as they turn the last page of this comprehensive, balanced and detailed work; a beguilingly written account of a fascinating subject.

The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V

By Hugh Thomas. Allen Lane, 720pp, £35.00. ISBN 9781846140846. Published 25 November 2010

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