The Rise of the Spanish Empire, From Columbus to Magellan

By Hugh Thomas. Random House. 696 pp. $35

This sweeping narrative of the early years of the Spanish main is quintessential Hugh Thomas: big, bold, informative and meticulously researched. It is the kind of "history in the grand manner" for which Thomas, a k a Lord Thomas of Swynnerton (he received his peerage while serving as a political adviser to Margaret Thatcher), is famous.

Many of Thomas's previous books deal with the 20th century. Other Thomas publications focus on earlier epochs, among them his authoritative and much-acclaimed examination of the Atlantic slave trade from its 15th-century origins until its abolition in the 1870s. Then there is the Spanish conquest of Mexico, an event that has captured Thomas's attention in his Cortes, Montezuma, and the Conquest of Old Mexico (1997) and Who's Who of the Conquistadors (2000) in much the same way that it fascinated the great U.S. historian William Hickling Prescott in the 19th century.

In keeping with Thomas's interest in Cortes, Rivers of Gold also devotes a chapter to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The book's emphasis, however, is with the period leading up to this pivotal event. It opens, as it should, with the Christian conquest of the Muslim city of Granada in 1492, which marked the symbolic end of the Reconquista, the centuries-long crusade that aimed at the creation of a united and, equally important, a wholly Christian Spain. Granada's fall also served as a catalyst for the infamous royal decree, formulated at the end of March 1492, that compelled Spain's Jews to choose between exile and baptism. Heinous as this act of forced conversion appears today, Thomas reminds us that it was predicated less on ethnic than on religious grounds. He also insists that when Spain's rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, soon to be known as the Catholic Monarchs, published this decree at the end of April -- pointedly during the middle of Holy Week -- they did so in the mistaken belief that most of the kingdom's Jews would opt for conversion.

In a not unrelated action, the monarchs agreed to sponsor Columbus's audacious and hitherto unprecedented plan to journey to India by sailing westward across the Ocean Sea, as the Atlantic was then known, rather than southward around Africa, as the Portuguese monarchs were attempting to do. They also granted Columbus, in an action comparable to subcontracting today, total administrative control over any "islands and lands" he might discover. In return, Columbus promised the monarchs great riches, part of which they hoped to use to launch a crusade against Jerusalem, then under Ottoman Turkish (hence Muslim) rule. In short, the beginnings of Spain's empire had its roots in the not unfamiliar combination of lofty ambition and crass cravings for wealth.

What follows is the oft-told story of "Columbus and all that." Like others before him, notably the famous Harvard scholar Samuel Eliot Morrison, Thomas follows Columbus along the track of his four voyages to "India," chronicling both his successes as a mariner and his failures as governor of Hispaniola, Spain's first settlement in the Americas. Whereas other historians are simply content with documenting Columbus's achievements, Thomas analyzes the explorer's changing fortunes in relation to complex political machinations at the Spanish royal court. He also explains that at a time when slavery was common throughout Western Europe, the Catholic Monarchs, with their hearts set on the conversion of Hispaniola's native population to Christianity, embarked on an unprecedented campaign to limit the wanton enslavement and exploitation of "Indians" by Columbus and his followers. Yet the monarchs' efforts to limit such practices failed, largely because the Caribbean was far away and royal influence in the region practically nil.

The battle over the morality of enslaving Indians -- note that there was no debate over the enslavement of blacks -- highlights the underlying but generally understated theme of Thomas's book. Starting with Columbus, and in sharp contrast to Portuguese practice, Spain's nascent empire in the New World -- the phrase was already current by around 1500 -- was essentially a private affair, financed independently of the monarchy and generally initiated by investors, Genoese in particular, for whom profit was the primary goal. Empire-building, moreover, was essentially the work of private individuals, the notorious conquistadors, who were far more interested in discovering rivers of gold than in the peaceful conversion of natives. In a sense, Ferdinand and Isabella, in an effort to limit their own investment in a project whose outcome appeared uncertain, elected to "outsource" their empire to the private sector. In the short term, this policy paid off as, starting around 1512, gold began to arrive in considerable quantities, but in the long term it allowed the abuses committed by the conquistadors to go unchecked, to the point that it fed directly into the Black Legend: the negative image of Spaniards as a cruel and rapacious people interested only in wealth.

The book's later chapters deal with Columbus's immediate successors in Hispaniola, notably Nicolas de Ovando, whose arrival on the island in 1502 marked the first real attempt by the monarchy to discipline the early Spanish settlers in the New World, and Columbus's son, Diego, whose record as administrator, despite his activities as a slave trader, was still somewhat better than his father's. Thomas next examines a series of largely abortive Spanish efforts to establish a foothold on tierra firme, the American mainland. Here, and in keeping with the book's underlying theme, he pits the ruthless freebooter Vasco Nunez de Balboa, best known to American schoolchildren as the "discoverer" of the Pacific, against Pedrarias Avila, the aging and equally ruthless royal governor sent especially to Panama to bring Balboa and other conquistadors to heel. Later chapters examine the activities of Bartolome de Las Casas, America's first champion of Amerindian rights; Ponce de Leon; Diego de Velazquez, the first Spanish governor in Cuba; and finally the more familiar exploits of Cortes and Magellan. The book ends, somewhat abruptly, with a paean to Seville, a city that acquired both wealth and prominence from the trading monopoly with the Americas that its merchants obtained from the monarchy in 1503.

Handsomely illustrated and written with verve -- I especially like Thomas's firsthand descriptions of virtually all the many places mentioned in the book -- Rivers of Gold is not without flaws, particularly in its lack of a clearly articulated perspective on events that are fairly well known. Then, too, Thomas is heavy-handed in the way he bombards the reader with names, many of which he fails to identify, whereas he regularly provides background information for the events he narrates. In general the book suffers from an excess of detail. Easy summer reading it is not, and, given its length, not even specialists are likely to tote it to the beach. Yet for those keen to read about an early example of the ways private interests can subvert even the most ambitious imperial dreams, Rivers of Gold will prove both reliable and rewarding history. *

Richard L. Kagan is professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. His "Inquisitorial Inquiries: Brief Lives of Secret Jews and other Heretics," co-edited with Abigail Dyer, was recently published.