Written in blood: the history of the Spanish conquistad

The Golden Age chronicles the extreme brutality of the Spanish conquistadors - and that of their victims.

Powered by automated translation

Hugh Thomas made his mark as one of the leading historians of the Hispanic world with 1961's The Spanish Civil War, a still-classic military account that was banned in Franco's Spain. The book circulated in contraband copies, though it must have posed a formidable challenge to smugglers: in its most recent edition it weighed in at over 1,100 pages. Thomas, who served as an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and received a life peerage as Baron Thomas of Swynnerton, is not a miniaturist; his books are vast in scope and pagination. In subsequent years he has written expansively on Cuba, the origins of the Cold War, the slave trade, and the conquest of Mexico.

As a historian, Thomas is something of a throwback to another age. He prefers grand narration to theory. Though his work concerns large forces that have shaped the modern world - slavery, imperialism - he keeps human agency at the forefront. He savours the tics of personality, the evocation of events, and carefully wrought sketches of character and place. For the past decade, he has been at work on a trilogy about the rise of Spain's empire in the Americas, which showcases all of these qualities.

In Rivers of Gold (2003), his first volume, Thomas surveyed the beginnings of Spain's empire in the 16th century. It is a remarkable story. In the late 15th century, Spain was barely a state, let alone a world power. By 1530, it had emerged a unified kingdom with a burgeoning overseas empire. Columbus had established a base at Hispaniola in the Indies; Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico (dubbed New Spain); and Spanish conquistadors began trekking southward, towards Peru and beyond.

As Marlowe remarked in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the conquest of the earth is not a very pretty thing when you look into it. The conquistadors operated under the banner of Christianity but they were also driven by greed and glory. They brought African slaves to work on plantations and in mines. Their encounters with indigenous peoples were violent and bloody. Indians were enslaved or killed.

At the end of his first volume, Thomas wrote "[conquistadors] made their conquests with a clear conscience, certain that they were taking with them civilisation, believing that they would in the end permit these new people to leave behind their backward conditions. Who can doubt now that they were right to denounce the idea of religion based on human sacrifice or the simple worship of the sun or the rain?" Thomas will not win favour in certain seminar rooms, but it would be crude to call him an apologist for Spanish imperialism. He doesn't disguise the conquistadors' brutality; he just views it unsentimentally.

The Golden Age, the second instalment of Thomas's trilogy, covers the expansion of Spanish rule in the New World under the rule of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman emperor. Moving between the court of Charles, and Spain's possessions abroad, Thomas describes, with typical power, the exploits of the conquistadors as they explored the Yucatan peninsula, Guatemala, and points south from 1516 onwards. These years would be the height of Spain's Siglo de Oro, or "Golden Century."

While he pays sufficient attention to Cortes and Mexico, Thomas also recounts the journeys of legions of lesser-known conquistadors. At times, the dramatis personae can be bewildering - Thomas is fascinated by genealogical details - but one is struck by the sheer audacity of these journeys. Over unforgiving terrain that even in the 21st century would present difficulties, conquistadors hacked through mosquito-infested swamps and jungles. "The brilliant, brutal, unpredictable, fascinating and brave" Pedro de Alvarado entered Guatemala in the 1520s, demanding that various tribes submit to him. (He earned the sobriquet "Tonatiuh", Son of the Sun). His savagery caused disquiet in Spain, but Alvarado nonetheless proceeded with his conquests.

Other conquistadors found themselves on the receiving end of native reprisals. Pedro de Valdivia, royal governor of Chile and founder of Santiago, met a grim end at the hands of the Araucanian Indians, who had suffered greatly at his hand. He was captured in battle on Christmas Day, 1553. Thomas describes his fate coolly: according to one witness, "Valdivia was disarmed and undressed and then tied up by the Indians. They built a fire in which they roasted slices of his arms cut off with mussel shells and ate them. Other tortures followed till they finally cut off his head."

Valdivia got his start as a lieutenant to perhaps the most illustrious (and infamous) figure on Thomas's pages: Francisco Pizarro. Along with his brothers, Pizarro defeated the Incas in the 1830s, and established Peru as a major component of the Spanish empire. "Like most conquistadors he was quite prepared to be cruel to enemies," Thomas writes of Pizzaro, "and to kill Indians in a ruthless manner to achieve a psychological advantage." With only 200 or so men, Pizarro massacred a numerically superior group of Incas in 1532, capturing Atahualpa, the Incan emperor. Holding him hostage, Pizarro and his men began to loot Peru's gold and silver. Their haul was astonishing: over 13,000 pounds of 22.5 carat gold and 26,000 pounds of silver. Incan jewellery, and other priceless objects, was melted in forges, as Pizarro divided up the spoils among his men.

Pizarro's renown spread in his home country: "Henceforward the magic glint of Peruvian treasure lit the imagination of king, courtiers and the common people." But if Charles filled his coffers with New World gold, we should not assume there was unanimous approval for how the conquistadors went about their business. There was debate about the propriety of killing Indians - or Christianising them. Pope Paul III issued a bull in 1537, "proclaiming Indians should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by their example of good and holy living".

Thomas exactingly (if at times tediously) considers the variety of opinion on these theological matters. The leading figure in the debate about how Indians should be treated was Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican friar and prolific pamphleteer, and an impassioned advocate for indigenous peoples. In A Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542), which was presented to Charles, Las Casas claimed that 15 or 20 million Indians had been killed ("a vast exaggeration," says Thomas). He also fulminated against Spanish policy: "All wars which are called conquests are and were very unjust, and are characteristic of tyrannies, not wise monarchies. All the lordships of the Indies we have usurped. For our kings to achieve their principality in the Indies validly and correctly, that is without injustice, would necessarily require the consent of the kings and people concerned."

Charles issued a series of humane reforms - banning the enslavement of Indians and giving them very nominal rights - which, Thomas writes, caused "desasosiego" (disquiet) in New Spain and other colonies. There was resistance from the settlers. Thomas's book ends with Charles trying to bring order to his colonies, struggling against the Reformation in Europe. Whatever the good intentions of Las Casas and his sympathisers, Pizarro and his kind unleashed a kind of rule that could not be contained.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The Review.