‘A Spaniard and his Mexican Indian Wife and their Child’ by Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768) © Bridgeman Art Library

The Victorian Cambridge history professor JR Seeley, who wrote a bestseller about the British Empire (and after whom the library of the Cambridge history faculty is named), lambasted imperial Spain for its “cruelty and rapacity”. Many have echoed him since but Hugh Thomas believes that this assessment makes Seeley appear “an ignorant and parochial ideologue” – something that could hardly be said of Thomas, who has won honours and awards in France, Italy and Spain as well as in his native Britain.

World Without End is the third volume of Thomas’s trilogy about the Spanish Empire. The first, Rivers of Gold (2003), described the early 16th-century achievements of Spanish explorers and the conquest of Mexico; the second, The Golden Age (2010), continued with the expansion of Spain’s New World territories during the reign of Charles V, who, as Holy Roman emperor, was often preoccupied with conflicts in Europe.

The conquistadors built an empire that was relatively peaceful and stable for three centuries, presiding over a vast expansion of Christendom – “an astonishing innovation which articulated the good life for several hundred years”, writes Thomas. What is perhaps more welcome to modern sensibilities is that “the Spaniards went to great lengths to analyse the moral basis of their conquests”, recognising a duty to convert the naturales to Christianity, though not by force, and not to ill-treat them unless attacked. Of course, there were pockets of brutality beyond the initial military conquests – for instance, it was said of Alonso Pacheco, who had a fondness for garrotting Pueblo Indians in the Yucatán with his own hands, that “Nero was not more cruel than this man”.

Following Charles V, the 42-year reign of Philip II saw further expansion as well as consolidation of the empire. It encompassed various kingdoms within Europe, though Thomas is only concerned with these tangentially. At the heart of this book are the territories of the West Indies (including Florida), New Spain (Mexico and the Yucatán but also including some of modern California and reaching south to the isthmus of Panama), Peru (which included Bolivia), New Granada (Colombia and parts of Venezuela), Guiana, Chile, Paraguay and, towards the end of Philip’s reign, the Pacific archipelago of the Philippines, which was named after him.

Although a much-travelled monarch within Europe, Philip never visited the New World. Instead, he sat in his monastery-palace in the Spanish countryside, the Escorial, and pored over dispatches and reports from his officials. The empire was ruled through the Council of the Indies and was served by high-quality administrators (aristocratic viceroys and judges) and enlightened churchmen and friars, some of whom took the trouble to learn native languages and translated Christian texts into these exotic tongues. The empire even introduced forward-thinking methods of administration such as the residencia, a lawyer-led inquiry into a departing governor – the investigation into Hernán Cortés, leader of the Conquest of Mexico and first ruler of New Spain, for example, ran to nearly 6,000 pages.

The Spanish Empire was to a large extent a child of the printing press. Chivalrous novels, widely available for the first time, inspired conquistadors and settlers alike to embark in search of treasure. Probably about 250,000 Spaniards emigrated to the New World during the 16th century.

Spanish explorers and merchants found no shortage of backers for their expeditions. The importing of precious metals accounted for almost half of the surge in prices in Spain in the 16th century, and Potosí, the name of the vast silver mine in Bolivia, was a synonym for wealth in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. A new class of super-rich Spaniards was born. But although many made fortunes from mining, the family with the largest fortune derived from the empire was the Jorges, who exported prodigious quantities of wine and olive oil to the New World.

It was not rapacity and cruelty that were the undoing of the indigenous populations of the Spanish Empire but European diseases against which they had no immunity. Thomas puts the Indian population of New Spain at between 8m and 11m in 1531 and reckons it was around 2.5m by the end of the century. In Peru an Indian population of approximately 6m in 1531 was reduced by roughly two-thirds by 1600.

African slaves were brought in to man the sugar plantations of Cuba and Santo Domingo, and also to shepherd the flocks of sheep introduced to New Spain. Their treatment was cruel but no worse than that later accorded to African slaves by the British, French and Americans.

As already noted, the Indians were not forced to convert, though they were sometimes brutally punished, especially the Maya Indians of the Yucatán, for continuing practices of idolatry and remnants of the cult of human sacrifice. Otherwise, the Spaniards developed a less toxic perception of racial difference than Anglo-Saxon settlers further north. Three of the children of the Aztec king Montezuma “moved quite easily into the Spanish colonial nobility”, as did the sister of the Inca king Atahualpa, and miscegenation was not generally frowned upon. Indeed, Thomas considers the mestizo, the person of mixed European and Indian blood, to be the “most original creation of the Spaniards in the New World”.

While the Portuguese reached the East Indies by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, the Spaniards reached the Philippines across the Pacific Ocean, sailing from the northwest coast of New Spain. Towards the end of his reign Philip was even urged by his governor in the Philippines and by a Jesuit priest to invade China with a force of 10,000 Spaniards, supplemented by 6,000 Filipinos and another 6,000 Japanese mercenaries. Had the Spanish Armada not been sunk in 1588, something along such lines might have gone ahead but Philip’s natural caution prevailed.

Literary power is a vital part of a great historian’s armoury. As in his earlier books, Thomas demonstrates here that he has this in abundance. But equally important is a sense of perspective. In the balance sheet of Spanish imperialism, the violent military conquest and slaughter of indigenous peoples through disease stand on one side, while on the other are the introduction of the plough, pastoralism, candles and stringed instruments, as well as a tapestry of cathedrals, churches, monasteries and convents, schools for native girls and mestizas, and universities for the Spanish settlers. With all its flaws, Thomas argues, the Spanish Empire left an extraordinarily rich legacy.

Photograph: Bridgeman Art Library

Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section