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THE GOLDEN AGE, The Spanish Empire of Charles V
by Hugh Thomas
published by Allen Lane, ISBN 978-1-846-14084-6, £35.00

This is not a book for the faint hearted. It flatters the intelligence of the reader and Hugh Thomas takes no prisoners. It treats the reader like an equal, as if you were able to keep up with the flow of erudite conversation at a Renaissance - and Erasmus-loving High Table, awake to the resonance of what it meant to be a Mendoza, or a Borgia or to trail the embarrassment of conversos blood. You should also, like the Conquistadors of old, be prepared to plunge off at a moments notice into an alien American landscape, peopled by villainous commanders, murderous soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.. There can be no better guide to this dense interconnected human and geographical landscape than Hugh Thomas. He is always aware of the cruelties inflicted, but is too in love with the heroic grandeur of Spanish history, not to admire the successful opportunism of a conquistador, or list the many tools of civilization that the Spanish brought in their wake, be it the wheel, the wagon, the printing press, romantic novels, wine or a sense of humour.

The Golden Age is focused on the events of a generation, framed by the 36-year reign of the Emperor Charles V. It is the second volume (at a mere 690 pages) of an envisaged trilogy, devoted to the early history of the Spanish Empire. We enter this historical stage just after the great discoveries of Columbus, Magellan and Cortes had opened up the globe and sent a river of gold to Spain. The geographical range of the period is, centred on Mexico but ranging out from Canada to the Grand Canyon, from the banks of the Orinocco to Argentina. Although there are twenty-six maps in the book, I soon realized that it should ideally be read against a large chart of the Americas unfolded over a table. The critically successful venture of this period is of course the conquest of the Inca Empire by Francisco Pizarro, the subsequent plundering of Peru and the assassinations, civil wars and rebellions that subsequently broke out amongst the victors.

All these tumultous adventures in America are set against the evolving background of the court of the Emperor Charles V, his succession of wars against the King of France, his rows with the Papacy, his domination of Italy, his attempts to stifle Protestantism in Germany and his confrontation with the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean. Hugh Thomas is emphatic that for all the distractions of these multiple responsibilities, Charles V remained in impressive control of the evolution of the Spanish Empire through the all-powerful Council of the Indies. In separate chapters we see for ourselves the working cogs of the Spanish Empire: the monopoly of the riverine port of Seville and its outer harbour of Sanlucar, the size and nature of the ships, their disparate, poorly paid crews and the worm-vulnerable ship bottoms that tied Spain to its Empire. We look over the composition of the ruling Council, and the linked cousinage and recruiting grounds of the Conquistadors – overwhelmingly from the poor gentry of Estramadura and Andalucia whose fathers and grandfathers had fought in the last war against Muslim Granada. We see how even the most successful Conquistadors were forced to surrender their bullion hoarde the moment they landed back in Spain, in return for being paid a government annuity, how they petitioned the court for formal commissions, how they sued each other in the law courts, how they wrote letters and notarised their decisions even whilst lost in the interior and how they were, in practice, forced to work in tandem with the great banking dynasties - Flemish, Florentine, Genoese or German - to equip their modest armadas (typically no more than half a dozen ships and a couple of hundred men) with food, soldiers, animals and weaponry.

It also becomes clear that the easy assumptions of Spanish military superiority over the American Indians, in terms of cavalry and cannon, were in practice less important than their simple iron-age superiority in armour, pike and sword. The small numbers of recorded Spanish tended to act as an elite corps within armies that were numerically dominated by thousands of Indian allies and machete -bodyguards of black slaves. A key Spanish tactic was violent kidnap during a diplomatic meeting, be it an Inca Emperor or tribal chieftain, who was then turned into a compliant mouth-piece. A handful of these chiefs survived to become trusted Spanish allies, though most were garrotted or thrown to the packs of war-dogs after they had fed, bedded and guided the armies of conquest through their homeland.

But the process of conquest (savage and violent though it was) was often milder than the subsequent period of settlement, dominated by slave raiding, rape, the sacking of villages and burning of crops, leading to famine and wholescale depopulation. The exact figures are much disputed but it appears that the process of Spanish settlement was at least as violent as the Black Death, with population dropping by a third. Forced labour, either in the mines or on plantations completed the devastation, which was given a further twist by the importation of negro slaves. The culmination of the process was the arrival of the Royal Official, typically a university trained judge or scion of an aristocratic dynasty, who would check the account books, preside over commissions of inquiry and oversee the establishment of self-governing municipalities. The true heroes of the story flit in and out of all its stages, for small companies of Dominican and Franciscan friars accompanied the armies of conquest, and subsequently set up colleges, artisan schools and chapels. They took the horror stories home, wrote pamphlets, preached, composed music and were not afraid to emphatically tell the Emperor and his Queen (such as Las Casas did in both 1517 and 1541) what was being committed in their name, and so eventually helped push through an impressive body of legal and spiritual reforms - called the New Laws - whose 40 humane and liberal decrees- were officially published in 1543. They were proclaimed but not applied. Those Royal officials who did try to impose the New Laws were either assassinated, poisoned, sued in the law courts (by a united body of settlers) or recalled for formenting rebellion. But the Mestizo culture, that fascinating fusion of Hispanic and American, that still prevails over all of Central and Southern America was firmly established in this period, even if neither settlers nor reforming friars always follow the sage and pragmatic advice of Viceroy Mendoza, which was to “Do little, and do that slowly.”

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