The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V

The second volume of Hugh Thomas’s history of Spanish America reveals the triumphs, complexities and failings of Spain’s early rule. Jerry Brotton is impressed

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Reviewed by: Jerry Brotton
Author: Hugh Thomas
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30

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On the strength of The Golden Age, the second volume in historian Hugh Thomas’s monumental history of the Spanish empire in the Americas, there seems little doubt that when the trilogy is completed it will become the definitive study of its subject.

With the first volume, the critically acclaimed Rivers of Gold, republished to coincide with the launch of The Golden Age, the shape of Thomas’s view of the empire is beginning to take shape, and it is one sharply at odds with the book’s title.

Covering the period from the return of Magellan’s first voyage around the globe (1519–22), and ending with the emperor Charles V’s death in 1558, Thomas’s meticulous recreation of the establishment of Spain’s imperial administration in the Americas suggests anything but a ‘golden age’. Instead, this is a story of “the thunder and fury of all these conquests and battles, slaughters and sufferings, arguments and denunciations” that took place as the Spanish sought to establish their grip on the recently discovered continent.

But this is also an account of an epic achievement. Travelling on boats of less than 100 tons and in groups of a few hundred people, in the space of less than 40 years since its discovery, the Spanish relentlessly crisscrossed the Americas, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Cape Cod in the north to Cape Horn in the south, to leave the indelible mark of Spain’s language and religion forever imprinted upon the continent.

Thomas’s 50 pages of appendices alone provide compelling details: by 1570 there were 118,000 Spaniards in the Americas, as well as 230,000 black and mulatto slaves; by 1555, 2,500 ships had left Spain for the New World (750 of which were lost); and by the 1550s Spanish revenue from the Americas had shot up from under a million pesos in the 1520s to nearly ten million.

Despite such figures, Thomas is at pains to dismiss the myth that Charles V had little interest in his new American possessions. Charles sits at the centre of Thomas’s story, the astute, pious, increasingly gout-ridden spider at the heart of a complex web of dynastic politics, religion and imperial power that stretch all the way from the Low Countries to Spain and the New World.

The book begins with a tour de force description of Charles’s arrival in his temporary capital of Valladolid in north-west Spain, just as the survivors of Magellan’s voyage make their way home.

It is Charles, “the lanky, gangly, curiously featured youth with the ever open mouth” who faces the daunting prospect of juggling the reckless conquests in the New World with the more pressing problems of Lutheranism, the pope, the Ottoman Turks and his great rivalry with French king Francis I nearer to home.

One of Thomas’s achievements is an ability to situate the events in the Americas within the changing political and religious world of Europe. He is good on the administrative aspects of Spain’s emerging empire, but at the book’s heart are the extraordinary exploits of the individuals that follow in the wake of conquistador Hernán Cortés’s capture of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan in 1521.

Moving across Guatemala to Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and Chile, Thomas recounts the Spanish conquests, and their impact on both the native inhabitants and the Spaniards. He writes with a cool detachment, avoiding judgement and even extensive reflection, preferring to let his description of events speak for itself.

But he is always vivid in his writing, with a shrewd eye for the telling, even humorous detail: when Cortés’s advisers write for more friars, they beg the emperor “not to send us lawyers because by coming to this land they would put it in turmoil”.

At times, The Golden Age is heavy-going: the sheer amount of detail, not least the complicated web of personal and dynastic connections Thomas weaves between the Spaniards requires readers to keep their wits about them, and some will miss his reflections on the wider consequences of the impact of Spanish rule.

Discussing the debates between two contemporary Spanish scholars, Las Casas and Sepúlveda, on the status of the subjugated Indians towards the end of his book, Thomas concludes: “In Spain the benign friars won the intellectual argument, but in the Indies, ‘on the ground’, the settlers triumphed.” But he always resists the obvious statement or easy condemnation.

This is a book written by a master of his field, and it is unlikely to be bettered. The reader’s only frustration is the wait for the concluding volume in the trilogy. 

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Jerry Brotton is professor of Renaissance studies, Queen Mary, University of London